Online Asynchronous Seminar on Social-Symbolic Work

Feel free to use, re-use, repurpose any and all of this course. Just cite appropriately. Enjoy.


Professor Thomas B. Lawrence, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford (contact:

Professor Nelson Phillips, UC Santa Barbara


Across the social sciences, scholars are increasingly showing how people ‘work’ to construct organizational life, including the rules and routines that shape and enable organizational activity, the identities of people who occupy organizations, and the societal norms and assumptions that provide the context for organizational action. The idea of work emphasizes the ways in which people and groups engage in purposeful, reflexive efforts rooted in an awareness of organizational life as constructed in human interaction and changeable through human effort. Studies of these efforts have identified new forms of work including emotion work, identity work, boundary work, strategy work, institutional work, and a host of others. Missing in these conversations, however, is a recognition that these forms of work are all part of a broader phenomenon driven by historical shifts that began with modernity and dramatically accelerated through the twentieth century.

In this seminar, we will explore the social-symbolic work perspective, which addresses this broader phenomenon. The social-symbolic work perspective integrates diverse streams of research to examine how people purposefully and reflexively work to construct organizational life, including the identities, technologies, boundaries, and strategies that constitute their organizations. The social-symbolic work perspective revolves around three broad categories: self work, organization work, and institutional work.

Social-symbolic work highlights people’s efforts to construct the social world, and focuses attention on the motivations, practices, resources, and effects of those efforts. The seminar will explore eight distinct streams of social-symbolic work research. It will provide participants with an integrative theoretical framework useful in understanding social-symbolic work, a survey of the main forms of social-symbolic work, a rich set of theoretical opportunities to inspire new studies, and practical methodological guidance for empirical research on social-symbolic work.

Seminar Elements and Structure

Discussions of key social-symbolic work literatures. Seminar participants will leave with an understanding of the key ideas and issues in the study of emotion work, identity work, career work, strategy work, boundary work, technology work, practice work, and category work.

Discussion of theoretical and methodological opportunities. Seminar participants will explore new issues, topics, and research questions, as well as novel research methods, that are opened up in the study of social-symbolic work.

Required text:

Constructing organizational life: How social-symbolic work shapes selves, organizations, and institutions. Lawrence, T. B., & Phillips, N. 2019. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Oxford Scholarship Online (use the “Sign in via your institution” link)
Oxford University Press (use the code ASFLYQ6 for a 30% discount)

The Course:

Session 1: Introduction to social-symbolic work

In this session we will introduce the course and the idea of social-symbolic work. Our intention in this session is to get to know the group and set the stage for the rest of the seminar.

Required readings: (Chapter references are from Constructing Organizational Life)

    1. Chapter 1
    2. Chapter 2

Lecture video: Introduction to social-symbolic work

PowerPoint Slides: Social-symbolic work seminar – Introduction to social-symbolic work

Additional readings: Social-symbolic work

Emirbayer, M., and Mische, A. 1998. What is agency? American Journal of Sociology, 103(4): 962-1023.

Sewell, W. H. 1992. A theory of structure: Duality, agency, and transformation. American Journal of Sociology, 98(1): 1-29.

Berger, P. L., and Luckmann, T. 1966. The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Anchor.

Gergen, K. J. 2009. An invitation to social construction (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

Cooper, R., and Burrell, G. 1988. Modernism, postmodernism and organizational analysis: An introduction, Organization Studies, 9(1) 91-112.

Spottiswoode, R. 1993. And the band played on. uaSRrxvfVJU

Session 2: Self Work

 In this session we will discuss self work and apply the concept to a real-life situation.

Required readings:

  1. Chapter 3
  2. Chapter 4
  3. “A white scholar pretended to be black and Latina for years. This is modern minstrelsy.”

Lecture video Introduction to Self Work

PowerPoint Slides: Social-symbolic work seminar – Introduction to self work

Additional readings: Self work

Tizon, A. 2017. My family’s slave. The Atlantic. June. magazine/archive/2017 /06/lolas-story/524490/

Hochschild, A. R. 1979. Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure. American Journal of Sociology, 85(3): 551-75.

Snow, D. A., and Anderson, L. 1987. Identity work among the homeless: The verbal construction and avowal of personal identities. American Journal of Sociology, 92(6): 1336-71.

Curtis, A. 2002. The century of the self. London: BBC Two. https://freedocumentaries. org/documentary /bbc-the-century-of-the-self-happiness-machines-season-1-epi sode-1

Heehs, P. 2013. Writing the self: Diaries, memoirs, and the history of the self. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

McCloskey, D. N. 2000. Crossing: A memoir. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Schrag, C. 0. 1999. The self after postmodernity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Storr, W. 2018.

Session 3: Organization work

In this session we will discuss organization work and apply the concept to a real-life example.

Required readings:

    1. Chapter 5
    2. Chapter 6

Lecture video: Introduction to Organization Work

PowerPoint Slides: Social-symbolic work seminar – Introduction to organization work

Additional readings: Organization work

Vaara, E., and Whittington, R. 2012. Strategy-as-practice: Taking social practices seriously. Academy of Management Annals, 6(1): 285-336.

Gieryn, T. F. 1983. Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American Sociological Review, 48(6): 781-95.

Orlikowski, W. J., and Scott, S. V. 2008. Sociomateriality: Challenging the separation of technology, work and organization. Academy of Management Annals, 2(1): 433-74.

Leonardi, P. M., Nardi, B. A., and Kallinikos, J. 2012. Materiality and organizing: Social interaction in a technological world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bijker, W. E., Hughes, T. P., and Pinch, T. J. 2012. The social construction of technological systems: New directions in the sociology and history of technology (Anniversary). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Session 4: Institutional work

In this session, we will review the concept of institutional work, explore how it occurs in contemporary social life, and discuss the opportunity for connecting research on institutional work to other forms fo work.

Required readings

    1. Chapter7
    2. Chapter 8

Lecture video: Introduction to Institutional Work

PowerPoint Slides: Social-symbolic work seminar – Introduction to institutional work

Additional readings: Institutional work

Hardy, C., and Maguire, S. 2010. Discourse, field-configuring events, and change in organizations and institutional fields: Narratives of DDT and the Stockholm Convention. Academy of Management Journal, 53(6): 1365-92.

Zietsma, C., and Lawrence, T. B. 2010. Institutional work in the transformation of an organizational field: The interplay of boundary work and practice work. Administrative Science Quarterly, 55(2): 189-221.

Schatzki, T. R. 2001. Introduction: Practice theory. In T. R. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina, and E. Von Savigny (Eds.), The practice tum in contemporary theory: 1-14. London: Routledge.

Khaire, M., and Wadhwani, R. D. 2010. Changing landscapes: The construction of meaning and value in a new market category-modern Indian art. Academy of Management Journal, 53(6): 1281-304.

Geertz, C. 1973. The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books. (Chapter X).

Douglas, M. 1986. How institutions think. New York: Syracuse University Press. (Chapter X).

Loach, K. 1994. Bread and Roses.

Lawrence, T. B., and Suddaby, R. 2006. Institutions and institutional work. In S. R. Clegg, C. Hardy, T. B. Lawrence, and W. R. Nord (Eds.), Handbook of organization studies (2nd ed.): 215-54. London: Sage.

Munir, K. A., and Phillips, N. 2005. The birth of the “Kodak Moment”: Institutional entrepreneurship and the adoption of new technologies. Organization Studies, 26(11): 1665-87.

Nicolini, D. 2013. Practice theory, work, and organization: An introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Bowker, G. C., and Star, S. L. 1999. Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Session 5: Theoretical opportunities in the study of social-symbolic work

In this session, we will explore theoretical opportunities issues in the study of social-symbolic work. This discussion will draw on the opportunities discussed in the book as well as suggesting broader possibilities.

Required readings:

1. Chapter 9

Lecture video: Theoretical opportunities in the study of social-symbolic work

PowerPoint Slides: Social-symbolic work seminar – Theoretical Opportunities

Session 5: Methodological challenges in the study of social-symbolic work

In this session, we will explore methodological issues in the study of social-symbolic work. This discussion focuses on the study of social-symbolic work but is more broadly relevant to organizational research.

Required readings:

  1. Chapter 10

Lecture video: Methodological issues in the study of social-symbolic work

PowerPoint Slides: Social-symbolic work seminar – Framing a research project

Additional readings: Studying social-symbolic work

Hardy, C., & Phillips, N. 1999. No joking matter: Discursive struggle in the Canadian refugee system. Organization Studies, 20(1): 1–24.

Callon, M. 1986. Some elements of a sociology of translation: Domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay. Power, Action, and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge, 32: 196–223.

Lawrence, T. B. 2017. High-stakes institutional translation: Establishing North America’s first government-sanctioned supervised injection site. Academy of Management Journal, 60(5): 1771–1800.

Locke, L. F., & Silverman, S. J. 2007. Proposals that work: A guide for planning dissertations and grant proposals. SAGE.

Gergen, K. J. 2009. An invitation to social construction (2nd ed.). London, UK: Sage.

Lawrence, T. B., & Phillips, N. 2004. From Moby Dick to Free Willy: Macro-cultural discourse and institutional entrepreneurship in emerging institutional fields. Organization, 11(5): 689–711.

Davis, M. 1971. That’s interesting: Towards a phenomenology of sociology and a sociology of phenomenology. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 1(4): 309–344.