Identity and identity work are central concepts in contemporary studies of work and in organisational research (Alvesson, Ashcraft, & Thomas, 2008; Alvesson, Kärreman, & Sullivan, 2015; Alvesson and Robertson, 2016; Brown, 2015; Kenny, Whittle, & Willmott, 2016; Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003; Watson, 2016). This literature has demonstrated how people actively construct a sense of self in and through their work, thereby expanding the understanding of human conduct within organisations (Alvesson, 2001; Buch & Andersen, 2013; Down & Reveley, 2009; Kira & Balkin, 2014; Mallett & Wapshott, 2012; Musson & Duberley, 2007; Watson, 2008; 2009; Ybema, Keenoy, Oswick, Beverungen, Ellis, & Sabelis, 2009). Further, this body of research has illustrated identity as an intersubjective phenomenon, underlining the reciprocal processes between individuals and the contexts in which they engage.
The interplay between work and identity has been explored at length in work and organisational studies (Alvesson et al., 2008; Brown, 2015), starting with the early motivation theories that addressed work-related meaning and examined how such meaning affects an organisation’s productivity (Kamp, 2012). In work and organisational studies, identity is a multi-layered concept used to investigate a wide variety of phenomena. Such phenomena range from organisational identity to the processes of negotiation crucial to identity construction to the results of identity on organisational engagement and efficiency, just to name a few.
The agency-structure debate, as understood in the social sciences, has offered an avenue to explore the interplay between work and identity. That is because this debate addresses the relationships between social structures and human conduct (Brown, 2015; Hitlin & Elder, 2007). In particular, two issues have faced continuing examination: first, the possibility of distinguishing between social structures and human conduct – whether the two can be analytically separated or must be understood as mutually constitutive – and second, whether analytical primacy should be given to individuals or social structures. (For a critical review, see Eteläpelto, Vähäsantanen, Hökkä, & Paloniemi, 2013). This body of scholarship features contradictory findings on both of these issues. For instance, post-structuralist researchers focus primarily on structures of discourse, exploring hegemonic discourses and the subject positions made available in them. Through this lens, agency is understood as a discursive and social phenomenon while social structures and human conduct are viewed as inseparable (Eteläpelto et al., 2013). Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, primacy is given to human action, and relationships are analysed first and foremost as social consequences of individual actions. Within this frame of reference, agency is perceived as intentional, emphasising the potential of individuals to do things according to their desire (Billett, 2006) given that they have both the capacity and the power to cause an event or to intervene in one (Eteläpelto et al., 2013; Giddens, 1984). Thus, the term agency is reserved for events with respect to which individuals could have acted differently and where individuals could react only to external events.
Recently, the concept of identity work has been invoked as a conceptual bridge between agency and social structures (Brown, 2015; Watson, 2008; Ybema et al., 2009) where its ‘mediating quality lies in its dual character’ (Ybema et al., 2009, p. 300). In this article, identity work will be used as an analytical point of departure to examine the relationships between human conduct and social structures. In so doing, the intersubjective and reciprocal processes active in this context will be highlighted. Previous scholarship has demonstrated that discursively constructed social identities are made available through work (e.g., Watson, 2008). However, in some cases the available social identities are perceived as neither relevant nor attractive to the individual worker (i.e., the shoe does not fit). In this article, I analyse identity work in a context where a perceived mismatch exists between the social identities made available to the individual and that individual’s self-identity. I then explore actions taken to resolve this challenge. The analysis relies on a detailed case study of one worker, a system developer, examining his conscious and strategic actions undertaken to expand the repertoire of social identities available in the work context. His conscious and strategic choices are interpreted as reflexive positioning (Harré & van Langenhove, 1999) in identity work. Reflexive positioning is a concept that addresses the active and conscious actions individuals undertake in order to question or negotiate identity positions available in a given context. The concept will be further described below.
This article begins with a description of the theoretical framework used in the analysis before offering an account of the methods and qualitative research material. The empirical analysis then follows, describing the system developer’s identity work in detail and the reciprocal processes involved. The article concludes with the notion that while the range of social identities available in this context could be expanded through individual action, such expansion would be difficult to maintain over time.
Research on the interplay between work and identity has been dominated by three conceptual lenses: social identity; identity regulation and control; and identity work (Alvesson et al., 2008). Although not an exhaustive list, these three theoretical lenses highlight different pathways for exploring the intricate and complex interplay between work and identity. They differ in their conceptualisation of identity, but despite this distinction, they all reference the dual presence of personal and social (work) identity (Alvesson et al., 2008; Brown, 2015; Watson, 2008; Ybema et al., 2009).
One theoretical lens through which the interplay between work and identity has been explored is that of social identity (Alvesson et al., 2008; Ulfsdotter, Eriksson, & Linde, 2014). Social identity approaches have been rooted within well-established social psychological theories like social identity theory and self-categorisation theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). These theories were introduced to organisational studies by Ashforth and Mael (1989) and their approaches typically address identification processes in which people understand themselves in terms of group memberships (e.g., occupation, organisations, gender, or age). In this sense, group memberships are perceived as central sources for identity (Alvesson et al., 2008; Breit, 2014; Pratt, Schultz, Ashforth, & Ravasi, 2016; Ulfsdotter et al., 2014). Although some also analyse processes of identity construction (e.g., Breit, 2014), primacy is given to the more collective identifications used by individuals to construct a sense of self. For instance, Ulfsdotter Eriksson and Linde (2014) demonstrated in their research how occupation still serves as an important source of identification in working life. Hence, research using this theoretical lens has demonstrated the aspect of identity construction as being rather than becoming. In other words, research focuses on which categories or group memberships people draw on when they define themselves rather than examining the processes by which people construct their sense of self.
A second important lens used to investigate the interplay between work and identity has been labelled as identity regulation and control (Alvesson et al., 2008; see also Alvesson & Willmott, 2002; Fleming, 2014; Fleming & Sturdy, 2008; Kenny et al., 2016; Land & Taylor, 2010). This label embraces research exposing managerial attempts to manage meaning and instil values and feeling in members of an organisation (Alvesson & Willmott, 2002; Costas & Kärreman, 2016; Nair, 2010). These studies have demonstrated ways in which individuals adapt themselves to organisational values and ideas, whether this adaptation results in people identifying with (Costas & Kärreman, 2013) or rejecting (Elsbach & Bhattacharya, 2001) the identities promoted by management discourse. These perspectives have particularly problematised identity, promoting new ways of exercising control (e.g., normative or more recently neo-normative control) in a work life where flexibility and autonomy are salient working conditions (Alvesson & Willmott, 2002; Fleming, 2014; Fleming & Sturdy, 2008; Land & Taylor, 2010).
The third lens, identity work, serves as the theoretical point of departure for this article. This concept was introduced by Sveningsson and Alvesson (2003) to understand identity as processes of engagement rather than possessions people own (Alvesson et al., 2008; Brown, 2015; Brown & Lewis, 2011; Coupland & Brown, 2012; McInnes & Corlett, 2012; van Zoonen, 2013). From this perspective, identity is regarded as temporary and constantly evolving rather than a fixed essence, and identity work is focused on ‘becoming rather than on being’ (Alvesson et al., 2008, p. 15). Thus, identity work involves constitutive processes that construct a sense of self that is relatively coherent and distinct (Watson, 2008). Such construction is prompted by social interaction that raises the question, who am I? Identity and identity work are thus perceived as relative and relational processes (Davies & Harré, 1999), crafted in and within the contexts in which people live their lives. As such, identity work is described as a bridging concept between agency and structure, and this concept will serve as a point of departure in this article.
To explore identity work, positioning theory (Davies & Harré, 1999; Harré & van Langenhove, 1999; Hollway, 1984; Wetherell, 1998) is used as an analytical frame of reference. Here, positioning theory refers to the discursive practices by which individuals position themselves, position others, and are positioned by others in social encounters. Positioning is thus both relational and relative. Further, processes of positioning can be divided into two sub-processes, referred to as first- and second-order positioning. First-order positioning refers to how people locate themselves and others in face-to-face interaction. In social encounters, people position themselves and others within the discourses understood to be relevant to the context in which they are engaging. At the same time, people are positioned by others involved in the same social encounters. Second-order positioning, on the other hand, occurs when the first-order positioning is questioned or negotiated. Second-order positioning is also referred to as ‘reflexive positioning’ (Harré & van Langenhove, 1999, p. 21) and occurs when the first-order positioning is not taken for granted but rather becomes a target or a topic of concern in the encounter. Alvesson et al. (2008) make a similar distinction within identity work, describing it in terms of ongoing identity work and conscious identity work. The former of these terms emphasises everyday practices while the latter emphasises identity work reflexive processes.
In this article, positioning theory is used as an analytical frame of reference to examine the conscious and strategic actions of the system developer in his attempts to handle the perceived mismatch between available social identities and his self-identity.
Work as discursive resources and social identities
Work and working life are important contexts within which people live their lives and do identity work (Dutton, Roberts, & Bednar, 2010; Watson, 2008). A growing body of empirical research has demonstrated that people construct identities by drawing on the discursive resources that surround them (Augoustinos, 2017; Burr & Dick, 2017; Clarke, Brown, & Hailey, 2009; Dutton et al., 2010; LaPointe, 2013; Musson & Duberley, 2006; Storey, 2005; Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2002; Watson, 2008; Ybema, Vroemisse, & Marrewijk, 2012). In work and organisational research, these resources may include (Alvesson et al., 2008): embodied practices (e.g., what people actually do at work)’ material and institutional arrangements such as divisions and hierarchies of labour; discursive formations that construct particular versions of self, work, and organisations; and anti-identities which constitute the self around what it is not. According to Alvesson et al. (2008), while this list is not exhaustive, it illustrates discursive resources that identity work may use; the analysis in this article will demonstrate how these discursive resources are applied to a specific case of identity work.
Research to date has also demonstrated ways in which discourses position individuals (workers). For instance, Storey et al. (2005) illustrate how discourses of ‘enterprise’ have positioned freelance and contract workers as responsible for their own success and failure, whereas Reissner’s study on organisational change and identity work (2010) illustrates how workplace restructuring can result in major revisions to workers’ construction of self. However, Watson (2008) argues that a greater emphasis on discursive notions of publicly available subject positions, or social identities, adds strength to the exploration of identity work. According to Watson, discourses become personified in the form of social identities. He further argues that the standard two-step process (discourse -> self-identity) should be expanded into a three-step process that ‘recognises social identities as focal elements within the discourses to which people make reference in their identity work’ (p. 128). Watson defines social identities as cultural, discursive, and institutional notions of who and what any individual may be. In contrast, self-identity is defined as the individual’s own notion of who and what s/he is (p.131). Of particular importance in my analysis is the connections between social identities and self-identity. These connections illustrate the reciprocal qualities in the interplay between work and identity. They also illustrate how discursive resources are made available for individuals to use in their identity work.
Overall, contemporary research on identity work has mainly focused on the constitutive processes (i.e., how individuals construct a sense of self that is relatively coherent and distinct) (Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003; Watson, 2008). It has demonstrated how people draw on discursive resources and socially available social identities. It has further demonstrated how people struggle with these sense-making processes. The aim of this paper is to add to this body of research by exploring the reciprocal processes in identity work rather than the constitutive ones. The struggle explored in this paper is not a struggle of constructing a sense of self. As the analysis will show, the research participant was fairly content with his own sense of self. His struggle was more directed at convincing the context that his sense of self was a valid self-identity. In this article, positioning theory, and in particular reflexive positioning, is used as a frame of reference to examine the conscious and strategic actions of one system developer in his attempts to convince his context of the validity of his self-identity and explore how he handles the perceived mismatch between available social identities and his self-identity. Hence, the analysis has, as its point of departure, the constitutive processes in identity work. It contributes to the research field by further exploring the reciprocal processes in identity work. In the next section, I will elaborate on the data on which the analysis is based.
Methods and material
In the early 2000s, I conducted a larger research project on knowledge-intensive work based on a sample of architects, freelance workers, and system developers (Iversen, 2006, 2009). I used a research design consisting of qualitative work diaries in conjunction with in-depth interviews. Included in this sample was Simon, a system developer. This article examines Simon’s story in detail to explore reflexive positioning in identity work.
In the recruitment process, Simon was informed that participation in the research project was voluntary and that he had the right to withdraw from participation at any time. Further, the research project was reported to Norwegian Centre for research data, and subsequently, his data was stored in accordance to the ethical standards.
The material analysed draws on two interconnected sources: qualitative research diaries and in-depth qualitative interviews. Simon participated in the research project by first completing a work diary over 14 consecutive days, which he sent by email. The work diary offers qualitative data (Radcliffe, 2013; Symon, 2004). Simon reported on his everyday work activities, as they occurred, in his own words. The relevance of qualitative work diaries for this research project was twofold. First, the work diary could provide insights into how a particular person (i.e., Simon) actually did his work. It also gave the research participant an opportunity to describe his own work experiences as they occurred. As such, the descriptions offered valuable insight into how work is done in contemporary working life. Second, the work diary provided the participants with an opportunity to describe their work in their own words, highlighting what they viewed as worthy of mention. In addition, the work diary also provided a common frame of reference for the subsequent in-depth interview.
After completing the work diary, Simon participated in an in-depth interview exploring his work experiences, his work history, his present working conditions, and his working life in general. The interview lasted for about an hour and a half. The interview was conducted at Simon’s workplace late one afternoon. Before the interview, he gave me a tour of his work facilities; he showed me his work station, his immediate surroundings, and the workplace in general. The workplace can be described as an open-office landscape. No walls or doors and no barriers within the open landscape existed, just work desks spread around in clusters. His work desk was dominated by two large computer monitors, and he sat with his back to the window, facing other workers on the floor.
Simon’s story was illustrative on two levels. First, his everyday practices and experiences were, in themselves, relevant for research questions that highlight the interplay between work and identity. Second, as the analysis will show, Simon’s and my mutual positioning abruptly shifted at one point in the interview. We were then both somewhat forced to engage in reflexive positioning in order to complete the interview. Uncomfortable as the shift was at that particular moment, it did provide us with a mutual frame of reference in reflexive positioning and, as such, a frame of reference we could explore in depth in the remainder of the interview. Hence, Simon’s story and his reflections on everyday practices were particularly illustrative of the reciprocal processes in identity work, as the following analysis will show.
This analysis was inspired by narrative perspectives, in particular ‘holistic content’ narrative analysis (Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach, & Zilber, 1998) in combination with thematic narrative analysis (Reissman, 2008). Simon’s story was therefore analysed as whole, while sections of the text were interpreted in the context of other parts of the narrative. Further, both the explicit content in the accounts – what happened, who participated, what they did, and so on – and the implicit content – the meaning the story conveys – were analysed in depth. Using a singular case enables an in-depth analysis of the processes involved in the interplay between work and identity (Down & Reveley, 2009; Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003; Watson, 2008; 2009).
Simon’s story and identity work
This section presents and analyses Simon’s story, paying special attention to his working conditions and the social identities made discursively available. However, the sections start by recounting a situation that turned out to be a defining moment in our research encounter, an exchange in which Simon’s affect became the defining aspect.
In the work diary, Simon came across as a social and outgoing man, and this impression was sustained in the interview. He was willing to share his experiences and reflect with considerable openness on the pros and cons of his work, his workplace, and his working conditions. He exhibited no reluctance to correct me, the interviewer, when I misunderstood his remarks or exaggerated or understated his experiences. The interview emerged as the context for a mutual effort towards understanding.
However, at one point in the interview, something changed. Simon became agitated, almost angry, and stated quite firmly, ‘I’m not a nerd, you know’. The change came about when I asked him about a particular diary entry, where he had ended his daily account by writing:
I’ve been on the phone all day. In between calls I’ve started collecting data regarding a server in the network; I’ll use this as the foundation for the patching, which is starting to get critical. I should really focus more on this, but I don’t feel motivated … outside, the sun is shining … going for a beer with the guys later … perhaps I’ll look at this from home … perhaps ?
However, the next day his diary entry showed that he had not done what he had planned. He wrote:
I didn’t finish until 2:00 am, so I set the alarm for 7:00 am. Called in to let them know I was sleeping in. Got up at 9:00 am and got to work at 10:00. Not too bad ?
In the interview I asked him what happened that day, and at that point he became agitated and stated: I am not a nerd, you know. The exchange in the interview went as follows:
Simon: I am not a nerd, you know.
Simon: Just because I do the work that I do, does not mean I am a nerd. I have found a balance, you know.
Interviewer: What do you mean?
Up to that point, the interview had taken place in a friendly atmosphere, and the defensive remark ‘I’m not a nerd, you know’ caught me by surprise. As it turned out, this moment in the interview opened up an in-depth discussion of the concept of the label ‘nerd’. The discussion made it possible to analyse Simon’s reflexive positioning in relation to this notion, what he understood to be his co-workers’ positioning of him, and the means he used in an effort to expand the social identities available to him in that context. These processes of reflexive positioning are further elaborated below.
Simon at work
At the time of his research participation, Simon was a young man working as a system developer in a large telecommunications company. Like many other system developers at that time (Håpnes & Rasmussen, 2011; Stuedahl, 1998), Simon was a self-taught professional. He had developed his skills at a time when the cutting edge of computer technology was driven forward by boys and young men (Himanen, 2001) who often were referred to as hackers or nerds. Like his peers, Simon had no formal education or training within his professional field. The knowledge and skills he possessed had been developed through countless hours in front of the computer in close interaction with virtual friends. Consequently, Simon had started his professional career at a young age, and at the time of the interview he was still a young man (early thirties). Nevertheless, he had more than a decade of professional work experience.
As mentioned, Simon worked at a large telecommunications company in a department providing computer and technical support to customers both within the company and outside it. The computer support department was organised into two main groups: the front and back areas. The front area was the immediate service provider, answering computer inquiries and solving simple problems by phone, email, or intranet. The front area also included an ‘onsite’ division: a small number of workers who would visit customers at their workplaces when necessary to fix computer problems using more ‘hands-on’ techniques (rebooting servers, checking power connections, and so on). When the front area could not meet client requirements, inquiries were passed on to the back area. Simon described the back area as the place where challenging and interesting computer problems were handled. Workers in the front area functioned as a customer filter for the workers in the back area, sheltering them from the constant ringing of phones and the endless beeping from emails. In other words, workers in the front area were accessible, while workers in the back area were more secluded. According to Simon, working in the back area was a step up from working in the front area, confirming research findings that moving away from the customer is often considered career progress (Forseth, 2000).
Simon had been recruited into the company through a friend, and while he started in the onsite division, he was quickly promoted to a position in the back area. At first, his main tasks involved responding to inquiries passed on by front-area workers. However, he did not work at these tasks for long; at the time of the interview, more and more of his working hours were devoted to improving the company’s electronic security system, mainly detecting and intersecting virus attacks or other hostile actions that could potentially ruin the company’s computer system or tap the company for vital information (e.g., industrial espionage). He explained:
Security has become such a big and convoluted field that you have to find a niche to specialise in … especially when you start dealing with such things as uncovering security leaks, where you really have to dig deep. The hackers of the world have been digging through this for a long time and have a big head start. Within security, it is imperative that you are able to research and experiment.
Simon described working on the company’s security system as a highly recognised responsibility within the organisation. For instance, funds needed to develop his expertise and skills further were easily accessible, whether such training involved prioritising the completion of tasks, network development, or simply attending a course provided by an educational institution. Ordinarily, Simon would need only to inform his manager to receive action on the priorities he identified. He explained:
We have been authorised to sign up for courses no matter the cost (…) As long as it is work-related and we are interested, all we have to do is send an email to our manager (…) Now we just have to rummage through the minefield and find what’s of interest.
In addition, the company’s policies stated that work beyond normal working hours was to be noted and subsequently honoured either by extra pay or paid leave of absence.
Contemporary work life is undergoing profound changes. It is transforming the very nature of work (Allvin, 2008; Barley & Kunda, 2001), establishing new organisational orders (Lundin et al., 2015), creating conditions for the emergence of new employment relationships (Cappelli, 1999; Rasmussen & Håpnes, 2012), and rearranging time as an organising principle of work (Kamp, Lund, & Hvid, 2011). A substantial body of research has been devoted to exploring and explaining the transformation of work, and flexible work and self-regulation are concepts that have gained increasing currency. In the case of Simon, flexibility and subsequently self-regulation were highlighted as the most attractive aspects of his work. Further, in research addressing new rules of work, Allvin (2008) points to work objectives as the most salient criterion for structuring performance in time and space. The work objective, defined in terms of workers’ own perspectives on the purposes of their work, is characterised in two ways: as constant demands for initiatives (e.g., setting goals, keeping up, being on the edge) and as an increased demand for personal responsibility to plan, structure, and discipline their work. These descriptions of new rules of work resonate with Simon’s perception of his working conditions. He initiated and took responsibility for being updated on developments within his field of expertise, and he organised his work day according to these initiatives. As in the case of other knowledge workers (Allvin, 2008), there were no clearly defined objectives guiding Simon’s performance, no assignments stating what he should or should not do, and no specifications directing the conduct of his work in terms of time or space. According to Alvesson (2004), self-organisation is typically salient in knowledge-intensive firms, and Simon’s working conditions fit this expectation. He was expected to organise his workday in ways that made sure the work was done and that his technical skills and know-how were up to date and preferably cutting edge. In return, he was trusted with a high degree of individual autonomy. Hence, Simon’s working conditions resonated with empirical research on knowledge workers in general and other system developers in particular (Allvin, 2008; Allvin, Aronsson, Hagström, Johansson, & Lundberg, 2011; Rasmussen & Håpnes, 2012), demonstrating time-space flexibility and self-regulation as salient working conditions.
The nerd as an available social identity
Computer work has been associated with many labels (Himanen, 2001), and in Simon’s work context, the concept of the nerd was a common frame of reference. This notion incorporated a description of a smart but socially inadequate young man, further emphasising self-taught skills and expertise. The nerd is often perceived as a loner who spends every waking hour in front of the computer and willingly sacrifices face-to-face interactions. In this context, the notion of the nerd served as a frame of reference that enabled a specific version of the self in terms of age and sociality.
In addition, the division of labour at Simon’s workplace further supported this conception. That is to say, work done in the back area was done by system developers who embodied the notion of the nerd. They were smart young men, and the assumption of their social inadequacy resulted in structures that promoted a lack of participation in social activity. As a group, their work stations were physically separated from the rest of the unit, and their expertise was called upon for problems others had failed to solve. They were not constrained by expectations in terms of time and space, nor were they dependent on preapproval for priority setting. They also had, according to Simon, an ‘extremely high propensity for overtime’. These working conditions set the back-area workers apart from others, establishing an organisational division between this particular group and the rest of the department. Hence, both embodied practices and institutional arrangements (cf. Alvesson et al., 2008) seemed to reinforce the notion of the nerd as a social identity in this context. Based on Simon’s description, there seemed to be a strong association between the concept of the nerd and the work content, working conditions, and work conduct in the back area. It seemed to be almost established as social fact that highly specialised system development was work done by nerds and that nerds were a specialised group doing specialised work.
For Simon, the notion of the nerd posed a challenge. He acknowledged that he shared some features attributed to nerds, in particular, gender, age, and work content. Further, his devotion to the content of his work was also reflected in this identity. He said:
I’ve had this interest since I was about 10–11 years old, so it is not just a job – I wouldn’t call it a lifestyle either – but I’m always doing computer-related stuff even when [I am] at home and have time off. Perhaps [it is] not directly work-related, but [it is] concentrated around the same topics. The aspect of keeping up-to-date is not only for the job – it is also based on a personal interest …
In this passage, Simon acknowledges his lasting personal interest in computer programming and that enhancing his skills and expertise was ‘not just a job’ for him. Devotion to this kind of work was, however, one of the features included in the notion of the nerd, and Simon struggled to develop strategies to handle the close associative link between the nerd concept and the work content. He explained further:
There will always be gaps in security. Finding these flaws has turned into a sport of sorts for me … not many have an interest in gaining this knowledge, probably due to it being such a specific and nerdy field. They have tried branding me a nerd on several occasions, but at least I’m not totally socially handicapped. I’ve found a balance … I’d rather go out with my friends. However, this puts a slight damper on the development of my knowledge and know-how, because if I had stayed at home hacking in the evenings, I would have progressed a lot quicker. But I don’t want to totally engross myself in the topic … I need to find a balance.
This quote illustrates several interesting aspects of Simon’s reflexive positioning. He described his field of expertise as a ‘nerdy field’, thus using and acknowledging the notion of the nerd as a relevant frame of reference. However, Simon’s reference to the concept can be interpreted as an anti-identity (cf. Alvesson et al., 2008), a version whereby ‘others’ had constituted what he was not. In opposition to such beliefs, he outlined that he was not socially handicapped, had found a balance in life, and would rather go out with friends than work constantly. Throughout his work diary and interview, Simon held the notion of the nerd as an illustrative contrast to who he saw himself to be. He wrote and talked about avoiding being single-minded, finding balance in life, and making friends a priority. These were topics Simon readily referenced.
Adding fuel to this pattern of actions were Simon’s experiences of when his colleagues used the nerd notion as a frame of reference for the evaluation of his work conduct. As the last quotation indicated, his colleagues had ‘tried branding’ him a nerd on different occasions, and I asked him to elaborate on this branding issue, producing the following exchange:
Interviewer: When you say ‘branding you a nerd’, what do you mean?
Simon: I’ve received a few hints.
Interviewer: In what way?
Simon: Firstly, from colleagues – if they notice you’d rather sit at home, tinkering with computers instead of going out, you will get a few reactions. It is those guys sitting in there; we never get them to join us no matter what.
There are two interesting aspects to these exchanges. First, the quotation illustrates Simon’s use of pronouns. First, he talked about ‘them’ and ‘I’ in relation to his colleagues in general in opposition to himself. He said ‘they’ had tried branding him and ‘they’ had given him hints and reactions. This use of pronouns indicates that he did not view himself as one of them; he did not belong to their group. At the end of the passage, however, he shifted to in-group references and referred to himself as a part of the general ‘we-group’ – the socially adapted group of workers who participated in social activity. This was in opposition to ‘those guys sitting in there’; that is, the other workers in the back area who never participated in social activities. His in-group identification shifted, illustrating identity as a process, continually constructed and reconstructed in interaction.
Second, the exchange also illustrated that when Simon acted ‘nerdy’, his colleagues would notice and comment on it. The notion of the nerd was a frame of reference Simon constantly had to prove himself different from. His colleagues were always ready to position him as a nerd, and he had to engage in reflexive positioning aimed at expanding the repertoire of socially available social identities. Hence, his positioning was relational, relative, and reflexive.
Reflexive positioning in identity work
To expand the repertoire of social identities available to him within this context, Simon made use of two main strategies. First, he continuously exhibited self-presentation by supporting his position as being different from a nerd. Second, he carefully managed his work practices and work conduct.
Simon exhibited self-presentation by portraying himself as an outgoing, socially adept young man. The work diary is illustrative as such. His first diary entry was as follows:
Got back to work after a two-day seminar, a long weekend in [the north], a four-day course with [a computer company located in the South], and a boy’s trip in [the west of the country]. I have only spent a few hours at home in the last week and a halfJ. My mailbox contains just over 200 emails – a surprisingly low number!!! – after a first sorting only 112 remainL. A friend calls, I take the time to play psychologist, and in the meantime, I flip through the least important emails. Service Desk (our issue management system) has a fairly slow turnover rate of new cases for the first few hours, then I get a case regarding an installation issue.
This specific diary entry was significant in revealing several aspects of Simon’s self-presentation throughout his entire work diary. Work activities were intertwined with social and leisure activity. He wrote about technical aspects of his work, his constant efforts to develop and enhance his professional skills, and joining colleagues for lunch or going for a drink with friends. As previously mentioned, the work diary as a method represented a qualitative design gave Simon sovereignty in deciding what to include and exclude in its entries. In the work diary and the in-depth interview, Simon presented himself as a man who worked hard and made friends a priority in his (work) life. Further, in the interview he emphasised the same aspects when he described his work practices and patterns of interaction at work. He highlighted his participatory activity and other work activities which set him apart from ‘those guys in there’. His descriptions supported his self-presentation as a socially adept young man.
The other strategy Simon used to expand the socially available social identities was managing his work practices and work conduct. According to Simon, he did not work as much as he could (cf. the passage quoted on page 14). In flexible working conditions, where office hours are less important, he set his own limits for his work involvement. At the same time, he recognised that setting boundaries for his involvement at work was at the expense of his own professional development. It seemed to be a calculated risk that he undertook to find the balance he so often talked about.
However, when he did work a lot, thereby acting in accordance with the notion of the nerd, he took active steps to downplay this pattern. He explained:
It is merely a question of which registration systems to use – flexible hours and paid leave of absence instead of overtime – then it will not show in the statistics anywhere.
Sometimes he used the strategy of not registering the actual time he spent working. He explained that he preferred flexibility and time off rather than extra pay, although registering overtime would increase his pay check. Within Simon’s mode of self-presentation, it seemed that the registration of overtime would be equivalent to accepting the nerd notion as an appropriate description of his identity, so he did what he could to avoid it. Thus, Simon’s identity effort was directed at continuously challenging the social identities made available to him. Without these active steps on Simon’s part, his work context would, almost without hesitation or reflection, have positioned him as a nerd. The assumed connection between work content and available social identities seemed somehow to spill over and drag him into its undertow. Simon took it upon himself to keep the discussion open by conducting himself in ways that made the first order positioning of the nerd a target or topic in the encounters. He also revealed that he had, to some extent, presented his work conduct selectively to affect the processes by which he was positioned. Hence, his identity work was directed at expanding the available social identities and breaking the associative link between the notion of the nerd and the content of his work.
The aim of this article was to analyse identity work through the concept of reflexive positioning in order to further explore such effort as a bridging concept between agency and social structures. As the literature review demonstrated, the majority of the research on identity work has explored the constitutive processes at play, that is, how individuals construct a sense of self and respond to the question of who am I? The research has shown identity work as an ongoing struggle wherein individuals constantly construct and reconstruct their sense of self, drawing on and interacting with discursive resources made available to them in their everyday context. Less attention has been given to reciprocal processes in relation to context and, in particular, how identity work is done when the struggle revolves around convincing the validity context of the constructed self-identity. As my analysis has shown, Simon was fairly content with his constructed sense of self and did not necessarily struggle with providing an answer to the question of who he was. He did, however, struggle with a perceived mismatch between the socially available social identities on one hand and his self-identity on the other. The notion of the nerd was neither an attractive nor relevant social identity for Simon, and he challenged the imposition of this identity using self-presentation and careful management of his work conduct in order to trigger reflexive positioning within the context. The analysis, therefore, adds to the existing research by further exploring the reciprocal processes between individuals and context, underlining identity work not only as meaning-making processes but also processes of negotiation aimed at expanding the repertoire of socially available social identities in any given context.
Based on Simon’s story, expanding the repertoire of socially available social identities can be described as a process with two components. First, it seems necessary to engage in second-order positioning processes (i.e., making the socially available social identities themselves targets or topics for discussion). In the work context analysed here, both embodied practices and the institutional arrangements supported an associative link between the work content and the nerd notion, making the available social identity almost self-explanatory. Without active measures, the taken-for-grantedness of the social identities would likely have prevailed. Second, Simon’s story seems to indicate that constructing a space where a minority can be positioned as an exception from the rule seems to be necessary for the socially available social identities to expand. According to Simon’s own account, the notion of the nerd was an appropriate social identity for his colleagues, for ‘those guys in there’. To reject the notion altogether would not have been credible. Therefore, an intermediate position seems to be necessary within the enlargement process.
Simon’s story is illustrative of the complex phenomenon of reciprocity in identity work.
Using a singular case as the foundation for analysis is not common in either working life studies or research on identity – even though it is more common in research on identity work (e.g., Brown & Reveley, 2009; Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003; Watson, 2008, 2009). A singular case may not necessarily render itself to generalization, but it does enable in-depth analysis of complex phenomena. Simon’s story and reflections are illustrative of the complex phenomenon of reciprocity in identity work. As such, this case analysis can add to the growing body of research on identity work.
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