Book Suggestion: Understanding Identity & Organizations

Today I would like to suggest a book to you; A book that you could use for teaching the subject ‘identity in organizations’. Since I work with the identity concept I am looking for a book that I could use as the basic text for a course on identity. Do not get me wrong, there is plenty of material available. However, I mostly see articles, anthologies and scholarly books and I miss something that comes closer to a textbook. Understanding Identity & Organizations, written by Kate Kenny, Andrea Whittle, and Hugh Willmott, and published by Sage in 2012 is one of a few exceptions.

I believe that this book could serve as a primary text for a course on identity in organizations, either as stand-alone textbook or supplemented by other texts. It covers all relevant topics of the field and presents them in a reader-friendly way, I think. Here is the list of contents:

Introduction to Understanding Identity

  • Introduction
  • Identity vs Personality
  • Identity on the Management Agenda: A Brief History
  • How Do Individual and Organizational Identities Interact?
  • Introducing the Book
  • Suggested Reading

Theoretical Perspectives on Identity

  • Introduction
  • Social Identity Theory (SIT)
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Foucauldian Perspective
  • Symbolic Interactionism
  • Narrative Approaches
  • Micro-Interactional Approaches
  • Application Exercise – The Case of Frances
  • Conclusion
  • Suggested Reading
  • Sample Exam/Assignment Questions

Diversity and Identity

  • Introduction
  • Identity as a Social Category
  • Identity as a Process of Social Construction
  • Conclusion
  • Suggested Reading
  • Sample Exam/Assignment Questions

Occupational Identities

  • Introduction
  • The Meaning of Work
  • Occupational Cultures and Boundaries
  • Managerial Identities
  • Professional Identities
  • The Dirty, the Deviant and the Degrading
  • Unpaid Work and Unemployment
  • When I Grow Up I Want To Be …
  • Conclusion
  • Suggested Reading
  • Sample Exam/Assignment Questions

Identity and Organizational Control

  • Overview and Introduction
  • Bringing Identity to Work
  • Managing Culture
  • Managing Identities
  • Identification and Dis-identification
  • Conclusion
  • Suggested Reading
  • Sample Exam/Assignment Questions

Organizational Identity

  • Introduction
  • Organizational Identity: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?
  • Organizational Identity – Properties or Beliefs?
  • Types of Organizational Identity
  • Power in (and of) Organizational Identity
  • Conclusion
  • Suggested Reading
  • Sample Exam/Assignment Questions

Virtual Identity

  • Overview and Introduction
  • Competing Perspectives: Technological Determinism and Social Constructionism
  • New Connections and Identity: Online Communities
  • Virtual Identity, Power and Control
  • Teleworking and Identity
  • Conclusion
  • Suggested Reading
  • Sample Exam/Assignment Questions

The Future of Identity

  • Introduction
  • Strong Attachments and Totalizing Workplaces?
  • Weak Attachments and the ‘Flexible’ Firm
  • New Public Management
  • Identity and the Global, Virtual Firm
  • The Future of Diversity
  • Conclusion
  • Suggested Reading

Glossary of Terms


Give it a go!



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An Exercise on Identity in Organizations

Here is a sketch of a little exercise on identity in organizations, which could help to familiarize students with the identity concept.

Ask each of your students to spend one or two minutes to introduce themselves to the other students in the class. If you have a big class divide students into smaller groups.

After this introduction let them discuss the sources of identification they drew on while they communicated, who they are? Sources are e.g.:

  • Name (and what their name ‘communicates’ in terms of their belonging to a group/social category, nation etc.)
  • Membership of organizations (e.g. student at a university, member of sports club)
  • Social categories (e.g. age, gender, sex, sexuality, class)
  • Nationality / regional belonging
  • Social role / social status
  • Education (e.g. former education, current study program)

Students should understand that people use various sources to constitute an understanding of who they are. However, these sources do not determine, who we are, but we actively select and use these sources to construct our identities. Just let your students imagine how they would introduce themselves in a job interview and how this would differ from the little in-class exercise. Hence, in different situations we draw on different sources and thereby we construe various context-specific identities.

Next, lure your students into conducting a little research: What sources of identification do people use when they talk about their membership in an organization (particularly a work organization)? Perhaps let students find someone outside the classroom and ask this person to tell them something about the job / the work and closely listen to the sources of identification that people use, be it the organization, a profession or a professional group, a position within the organization, membership in a department, a team, association to a specific age group, gender etc. Discuss the results!

Afterwards, provide students some input from identity research. For example, use the definition provided by Andrew Brown (2015, p. 21): “Unless otherwise stated, I use the term ‘identity’ to refer to the meanings that individuals attach reflexively to their selves as they seek to answer questions such as: ‘How shall I relate to others?’ ‘What shall I strive to become?’ and ‘How will I make the basic decisions required to guide my life?’”. (Brown, A. D. (2015). Identities and Identity Work in Organizations. International Journal of Management Reviews, 17(1), 20-40. doi:10.1111/ijmr.12035)

You could also refer to the social nature of identity by referring to Tony Watson (2008, p. 131):

“We can formalize the self-identity/social-identity analytical distinction by defining self-identity as the individual’s own notion of who and what they are and social-identities as cultural, discursive or institutional notions of who or what any individual might be. And, to help us analyse any particular setting in which individuals engage with social-identities in framing their self-identities, we can distinguish between five types of social-identity:

  1. Social-category social-identities: class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, etc. (upper class, female, Asian, Hindu, Scottish);
  2. Formal-role social-identities: occupation, rank, citizenship etc. (manager, cleaner, captain, an Italian citizen);
  3. Local -organizational social-identities: an old-style Nottingham professor, a Boots pharmacist, a GPT operations manager (there will be other versions of this: a local-community social-identity, for example: Ryland estate youths);
  4. Local-personal social identities: characterizations which various others make of an individual, in the context of specific situations or events (life and soul of the purchasing office, a good Co-op customer, the Beeston branch clown …);
  5. Cultural-stereotype social-identities: a garrulous Frenchman, a boring accountant, a devoted mother.” (Watson, T. J. (2008). Managing identity: Identity work, personal predicaments and structural circumstances. Organization, 15(1), 121-143.)

This latter quote could also be helpful reminding students that people draw on different social sources in the process of identification.

If there is still time, you could move on addressing the question “How do we construct our identities?”. Refer to students’ introductions and address for instance:

  • Talk / language use
  • Certain behavior / acts
  • Cognition
  • Emotions (e.g. showing vs. managing them)
  • Our body
  • The use of symbols (e.g. the brands of our t-shirts, shoes)

Let students discuss how they constructed their identity while presenting themselves to the others in the class. You could also draw on the little research, asking them to reflect on how their interview partners construed their work-related identity.

Finally, you could continue introducing students to some examples from identity research to familiarize them with the manifold aspects that this research addresses. Some examples could be:

Clarke C., Brown A.D. & Hope-Hailey V. 2009. Working identities? Antagonistic discursive resources and managerial identity. Human Relations. 62(3):323-352

Coupland, C., Brown, A. D., Daniels, K., & Humphreys, M. (2008). Saying it with feeling: Analysing speakable emotions. Human Relations, 61(3), 327-353.

Davies, A., & Thomas, R. (2008). Dixon of Dock Green Got Shot! Policing identity work and organizational change Public Administration, 86(3), 627—642

D’Cruz, P., & Noronha, E. (2012). Clarifying My World: Identity Work in the Context of Workplace Bullying. The Qualitative Report, 17(Article 16), 1-29.

Ezzell, M. B. (2009). Barbie dolls on the pitch: Identity work, defensive othering, and inequality in women’s rugby. Social Problems, 56(1), 111-131.

Lemmergaard, J., & Muhr, S. L. (2012). Golfing with a murderer—Professional indifference and identity work in a Danish prison. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 28(2), 185-195.

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Research Highlights – Managing emotional labour

In this short three minutes video, Anya Johnson and Helena Nguyen introduce us to the concept of emotional labour and its implication for work. A nice one, I believe, to make your students familiar with the concept, which could in turn be used to start a discussion in class.

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Squeezing Identity In

Do you also wonder, why the topic of identity, which gained a lot of prominence in Organization Studies, has not yet found its entry into OB teaching? At least this question appears when one has a look into the numerous OB textbooks that follow the traditional OB perspective of unchallenged managerialism and organizations as driven by economic effectiveness. Even the so-called critical OB textbooks, who call into question such a perspective, remain rather silent with regard to individual, group, and organizational identity and continue to address the established set of topics that one finds in almost every OB textbook.

Turning towards the understanding of behavior in organizations on a more individual level (actually the distinction between individual/group/organizational level is not very helpful, since they are mutually related to each other) textbooks continue to connect to the personality concept and the extensive psychological literature on personality and organizational behavior. Teaching the personality chapter, I observed that this session (or these sessions) constitute a perfect opportunity to squeeze into the course some extra-curricular knowledge on identity. Even though my students, at least in the beginning, seem to swallow the definition of personality as ‘the enduring characteristics that describe an individual’s behaviour’ (e.g. Robbins et al., 2010), they soon become suspicious when we turn towards the nature vs. nurture debate (i.e. whether personality is inscribed into our DNA or shaped through socialization in early childhood, adolescence, and perhaps even later on) and even more critical when I ask them: “Is your personality stable over time? Are you the same person talking to friends over a beer as you are talking to your lecturer or the minister / priest / mullah / rabbi…? (These questions are from Fiona Wilson’s OB textbook.). Discussing these questions students are usually quick to abandon the idea of stable and enduring characteristics defining who they are and therefore predicting their future behaviour. Reminding them that the personality concept builds on these assumptions and therefore enables us to see some things, yet, not others, I use a couple of minutes introducing the students to the concept of identity and thereby to the sociological understanding of people as being actively engaged in the reflexive project to shape their identity in organizations (usually I refer to work organizations). One relatively easy way to do this is to refer to Antoni Gidden’s quotation: “Self-identity, then, is not a set of traits or observable characteristics. It is a person’s own reflexive understanding of their biography. Self-identity has continuity—that is, it cannot easily be completely changed at will—but that continuity is only a product of the person’s reflexive beliefs about their own biography” (1991, p. 53). Departing from this quotation I address the relationship between the self and identity and the distinction between personal and social identity, and the importance of individuals biography (e.g. their upbringing, past work experiences, relationships to other people, and the turning points in their life) for their identity. Explaining these aspects to my students they get at least a bit of an understanding of the notion of identity and that this concept, although not core of the OB course, enables them to see and understand more aspects of organizational behavior.

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Article – A Mosquito in the Classroom

Audebrand, Luc K., Annie Camus, und Valérie Michaud. 2017. A Mosquito in the Classroom: Using the Cooperative Business Model to Foster Paradoxical Thinking in Management Education. Journal of Management Education 41 (2): 216–248. doi: 10.1177/1052562916682552. []

Although the paradox perspective is gaining increasing attention among management scholars, most of us continue to struggle with addressing this challenging topic in the classroom, as it seems out of reach for many students. In this article, we describe a potentially beneficial way to approach paradoxical thinking in management education: teaching the cooperative business model. Cooperatives are user-owned, user-controlled, and user-benefitting enterprises that operate in the world’s most competitive economies and sectors of activity, demonstrating strong resilience in periods of turbulence and crisis. We argue that, despite the absence of the cooperative business model in mainstream management textbooks and curricula, this model can offer a high pedagogical value for management education in that it can foster paradoxical thinking. To support this claim, we first demonstrate how the cooperative business model is characterized by inherent paradoxes that are more salient and inescapable than they might be in conventional corporations, thus generating tension-filled material for student engagement. Second, we share experiential pedagogical tools and suggest potential learning outcomes. Finally, we discuss some practical implications for integrating cooperatives and other alternative organizations in mainstream management education curricula to help develop paradoxical thinking.

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Who determines the regime of working-time flexibility in Germany?

Offering employees a certain degree of flexibility to self-determine their working time is often seen a one way of enhancing motivation levels among the workforce. According to the classical OB understanding this will subsequently enhance performance levels, raise degrees of organizational commitment, lower absence rates etc. However, in case employers decide to introduce a flexible working-time schema, guess who defines the conditions of such a schema and therefore defines how the employees and the employer will benefit from it? Well, I guess it is not difficult to find the right answer.

The following discussion paper from the Institute of Employment Research in Germany illuminates the conditions of overtime work and flexible working hours’ arrangements in Germany.


Modern working societies face the challenge to combine the establishments’ with the employees’ needs for working-time flexibility. The authors investigate the determinants of overtime and different working hours’ arrangements using the German Linked Employer-Employee Study of the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP-LEE) and logistic regression models. The results show that employer and job characteristics are most important for determining overtime and the different working hours’ arrangements, underlining the power of employers with regard to working-time flexibility. Employee characteristics play the least important role, although employees can flexibly organize their working times and can benefit from certain arrangements, such as self-determined working hours and flexitime within a working hours account. The study provides evidence that working-time flexibility in Germany is mainly employer-oriented. However, through demographic changes and a possible lack of qualified personnel, employee-friendly arrangements are likely to gain importance.

Link to the discussion paper:

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Systems change – Big or Small?

I believe that many university teachers, who decide to teach OB in a non-functionalist way –  hence, a way that emphasizes the contested nature of organizations and that associates agency (thus, significance) to all actors in an organization – do so because they sense a need to see and probably do things differently. This does not mean that all of them have a political agenda. However, I assume that quite a few like the idea of changing the way we understand and govern work organizations. Some may be more explicit about this change and in their mind we should probably think about revolution. Others may instead work towards small-scale change, perhaps hoping that if we continue to equip our students with a critical stance and alternative perspectives this will eventually change the way they will act upon the world.

However, what is better a big bang, i.e. revolutionary transformation, or a continuous transition into a better world? The article “Systems Change—Big or Small?”, which I received from the social entrepreneurship community, argues about the value of smaller, more targeted changes that may be easier to implement yet still carry the capacity for transformation. The article is about social entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurs’ endeavour to change the world. However, the discussion of big vs. small change is also relevant for the field of critical OB, I believe.

You can read the article by following this link:

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