Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

Identity at Work: Exploring Strategies for Identity Work

Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

Identity at Work: Exploring Strategies for Identity Work

Article excerpt

Introduction

People are constantly in the process of defining themselves by drawing on and engaging with various environments and contexts, such as, family, work, friends, religious groups and leisure activities. During this process of self-definition people consciously make decisions that allow them to function effectively between and within different and often contradictory contexts, as identity is informed by both personal and social aspects (Ashmore, Deaux & McLaughlin-Volpe, 2004; Hogg, Terry & White, 1995; Verkuyten, 2005). For example, an Islamic mother who is an accountant by profession is influenced by several distinct contexts that require her to manage various expectations and demands. These include being the mother of a family, a member of a particular religious group, a member of a profession, and an employee of an organisation. The purpose of this article is to explore the strategies people follow in identity work in order to regulate and negotiate their identities at work. The study views identity as being negotiated in relation to multiple contexts that inform and influence identity.

Three concepts are core to the understanding of how people manage the demands made by both the personal and social aspects of their identities. These three concepts are work identity, identity work and strategies for identity work. The term work identity refers to identity at work, and focuses on who a person is at work and how he or she is defined within the context of work (Alvesson, 2001; Brown, 2004; Buche, 2006; Kirpal, 2004; O'Conner, 2007; Sluss & Ashforth, 2007; Svenningson & Alvesson, 2003; Swann, Johnson& Bosson, 2009; Walsh & Gordon, 2008). The term identity work refers to the process of negotiating and regulating identity (Ainsworth, 2001; Alvesson & Willmott, 2002; Beech, 2008; Rounds, 2006; Svenningson & Alvesson, 2003; Watson, 2008). In this article this process is discussed within the context of work. Finally, the term strategies for identity work refers to the actual decisions and actions taken for regulating identity (Iedema & Scheeres, 2003; Kornberger & Brown, 2007; Kreiner, Hollensbe & Sheep, 2006; Rothbard & Edwards, 2003). Much of the research on work identity, identity work and strategies for identity work has been conducted in America and Europe, and this study is therefore novel in that it provides insight into how these aspects may relate to the African and, in particular, the South African contexts. South Africa contains some unique dynamics, including unique labour legislation, a diverse work force and a history of transformation particularly within the work environment (Eaton & Louw, 2000; Jackson, 1998; Van de Vijver & Rothman, 2004), which may provide different challenges as employees negotiate and regulate their identities at work.

Identity, work and work identity

Personal identity is the outcome of a dynamic, conscious and on-going struggle to establish an answer to the question 'who am I' (Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003). Identity is inherently social, as people are and need to be a part of something greater than themselves (Kreiner et al., 2006). In the example cited above the mother is simultaneously a woman of a particular age and ethnicity and also part of a family, religious group, profession and organisation. Whilst some of these characteristics, such as age or gender, are fairly stable other characteristics such as profession and dress are fluid and open to choice (Adams, Van de Vijver & De Bruin, in press; Giddens, 1990). People tend to place emphasis on the roles that they consider are representative of themselves (Rothbard & Edwards, 2003). Work is an important social context and thus provides much material for the development of identity. Gini (1998) emphasises the importance of work by referring to the growing impact it exerts by consuming the time and energy of an individual. Work not only allows people to meet their basic needs, it also provides one of the most critical social contexts in which people negotiate identity (Gini, 1998; Philipson, 2001). …

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