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Constructing organizational life: How social-symbolic work shapes selves

The godfather, Obamacare and the rise of social-symbolic work

A recently published academic book uses some unconventional examples to examine a new theory on the way we work.

Once upon a time we viewed work as something we did to earn a living. We turned up, clocked in, clocked out and switched off.

But in the 1970s, we saw the emergence of what is known as emotional work. We also started to consider concepts such as identity, product or boundary work. And we’ve become more focused on the software, rather than the hardware, literally and figuratively.

Tom Lawrence and Nelson Phillips are the first authors to examine how these different types of work can overlap, and how they affect organisational structure. Their research provides the basis for theirnew book Constructing Organizational Life: How Social-Symbolic Work Shapes Selves.

Constructing Organizational Life: How Social-Symbolic Work Shapes Selves By Tom Lawrence and Nelson Phillips – book cover

As Lawrence, Professor of Strategy at Oxford Saïd, explains, 'When you look at life around organisations you see it’s made up of things like categories, technologies, systems. On the one hand, all these things are different and examined separately. What the book is trying to say is that although they’re very different and have their own characteristics, they also share some commonalities. What we’re most interested in is that people and groups and organisations engage in forms of work to construct and manage and disrupt and reshape these objects, and that kind of work is social-symbolic work.'

He adds, 'Even though it’s a very academic book with quite a lot of abstract language, there was an effort to ground a lot of it in stories that were accessible.'

Indeed, the opening pages include a breakdown of Michael Corleone’s career progression through the Godfather trilogy from Ivy League student to Mafia boss.

'Starting the book early on with the example of The Godfather gave us a way in, to try and illustrate what we are trying to talk about. I guess it also reflects our age because we’re in our mid-50s. For people in their 20s, we got reactions like "We’ve never seen The Godfather...” If it introduces a new audience to parts I and II (don’t bother with the third) that can only be a good thing.'

They explore the topic through subjects as disparate as Obamacare and the vintage clothing industry. Lawrence hopes the book will introduce new ways of thinking that could filter through to a wider audience.

'When people are interested in making change happen, whether as entrepreneurs through creating new industries or as activists trying to change social problems, they are facilitated by having some theory of change. Our book is intended to provide the foundations of a theory.'


Read: Constructing Organizational Life: How Social-Symbolic Work Shapes Selves by Tom Lawrence and Nelson Phillips (Oxford University Press, £40)