Academic journal article Journal of Management and Organization

Shared Fate and Social Comparison: Identity Work in the Context of a Stigmatized Occupation

Academic journal article Journal of Management and Organization

Shared Fate and Social Comparison: Identity Work in the Context of a Stigmatized Occupation

Article excerpt


Purpose: People working in mines face the challenge to construct a positive self-image as society views their occupation as dirty and dangerous. The question was how these dirty workers used different normalizing strategies when specific contexts made a range of categories salient. Methodology: We used data from 32 semi-structured interviews with employees of South African gold mines, in which the participants told about the ways they dealt with taint. Findings: Miners were aware of stigmas. On the one hand, there was an awareness of the group's shared fate, in line with normalizing strategies found in other stigmatized occupations. On the other hand, we found several examples of social comparison within the group that challenged the expected strong group culture, i.e., supervisors distancing themselves from subordinates and men disparaging female miners. Practical and research implications: The nuances in our findings show the complexities of the ways people in stigmatized occupations deal with taint. Originality/value: In contrast to previous research, the miners did not only stress the group as a unity. It seems that the opposite processes of shared fate and downward comparison can emerge both, depending on self-categorization dynamics.

Keywords: dirty work, identity work, social comparison, mining, stigma

Confronted with the important question of identity, 'who am I?', people often turn to their work searching for the answers. Indeed, one of the primary ways for defining who you are is to look at what you do all day. A hard look at the content and significance of one's work provides a sense of meaning (Wrzesniewski, Dutton, & Debebe, 2003), thereby providing clues for one's identity. From a constructionist perspective, however, an identity always remains a dynamic process of 'people being engaged in forming, repairing, maintaining, strengthening or revising the constructions that are productive of a sense of coherence and distinctiveness' (Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003, p. 1165). Arriving at a sense of meaning in working life is hard work, because the dynamic nature of work thwarts finding a definite answer to this identity question. So, precisely because work matters for people's identities, people will always engage in constructing their identities at work. This identity construction process is generally referred to as identity work (Pratt, Rockmann, & Kaufmann, 2006).

In this study, we aim for a better understanding of the dynamic processes of identity work. We will address these processes in two steps. First, we will review the literature on stigmatized occupations, in which identity work is especially manifest (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999). Stigmas are threatening for one's identity, thereby confronting those engaged in stigmatized occupations, the 'dirty workers', with an extremely challenging case of identity work. Inspired by the social identity approach, which suggests that a positive sense of self is extremely important, research has identified a broad range of normalization strategies to cope with stigmas towards one's work. On the one hand, these strategies show the richness and elegance of identity work among dirty workers. On the other hand, these strategies may be treated as a panacea, reducing the dynamics of ongoing identity work to a rather static problem, awaiting a definite solution. This seems to neglect the inherent complexities of identity work in real life. Using the concept of category salience, we will propose a way to combine the insightful prestructured normalization strategies with the chaotic dynamics of contextual salience.

Second, we will illustrate both the normalization strategies and the importance of category salience for identity work in the case of a particular stigmatized occupation, i.e., gold miners.


Dirty work and social identities

Some jobs are prestigious and provide status for those who perform them. …

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