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Identity work in ENG: coherence and conflict in a time of change

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To explain conflicts over organizational identity, we need to understand why members of organizations find it useful to make claims about identity. Seldom in organizations do people debate questions of identity for purely philosophical reasons. Previous work has argued that the issue of identity is profound and consequential, and so difficult that organizations prefer to avoid it under ordinary circumstances. If this is true, the absence of such debate leaves the question of identity most often unresolved at the organization level. This allows conflicting views of the organization's identity to persist at the individual and group level. It suggests that it may be at these lower levels, and over issues of more minor significance, that organizational identity gets worked out day-to-day. In a study of a large, state-owned, European engineering organization, we found that the identity of the organization was invoked often and that different people talked about identity in conflicting ways and put forward a variety of claims about it at different times for different reasons. We argue that this was the result of various types of identity work being used in different situations not only to influence decision making, but also day-to-day sense making and even when introducing the organization to outsiders and newcomers. In this paper, we examine the patterns of identity work that we observed in the organization: the occasions that prompted it; the ends it was put to; and the structures of belief that supported it.

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