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Critical Management Studies on Identity: Mapping the Terrain

Abstract and Keywords

This article aims to present some of the key debates on, and contributions of, critical work on identities. Before doing so, it is necessary to clarify that, in focusing on CMS, other bodies of work on identity in, and of, organizations are excluded. Notable exclusions include, first, work based largely on social-identity theory. This has inspired many of the functionalist studies into organizational identity, focusing on the degree to which individuals define themselves in relation to the organization, with the assumption that greater congruence between the two leads to enhanced commitment, loyalty, and motivation. The article discusses studies that have sought to analyse the interrelation of power and subjectivity in identity formation, and which are oriented towards challenge and change. It sets out some of the key tensions underpinning critical studies on identity, considering fundamental debates over the ontology of identity and of agency. These are then developed and discussed in the main body of the article, focusing firstly on issues of subjectification, identification, and identity regulation; secondly on identity resistance and dis-identification; and thirdly on crafting identities.

Keywords: interrelation of power, management studies, subjectivity, identity formation, identity regulation, organizational identity


“identity” is “the loudest talk in town,” the burning issue on everybody's mind and tongue.

(Bauman 2004:17)

Identity, identity work, identification, subjectivity, and the subject: interest in identity seems to have reached a level not previously known in critical management studies (CMS). Concepts of the self are not new to the study of management and organization. From Durkheim's anomy and Marx's alienation, to the socially constructed self of Cooley (1983); first published 1902) and Mead (1934), and the dramaturgical self of Goffman (1990; first published 1959), through to the social identity theory of Tajfel and Turner (1979), identity has underpinned many ideas in sociological and psychological studies on individuals and organizations. In contemporary theorizing, one might also point to the influence of a disparate range (p. 167) of theorists, including: Barth, Bruner, Ricoeur, Elias, Butler, Lacan, Laclau, Žižek, and, probably the most influential in critical management studies on identities, Foucault. It is perhaps because of the appeal to both the individual and the collective that identity has proven to be a particularly attractive area for research (Hardy 2004).

Notwithstanding the analytical appeal offered by the concept there is no denying the current interest, which begs the question: “why this obsession with identity?” Is there something peculiarly prescient about contemporary society that makes identity issues more salient (Giddens 1991; Žižek 1999; Bauman 2004)? Have we become more questioning and anxious about our selves in these “liquid modern” times (Bauman 2004)? Have current configurations of capitalist relations and neoliberalism, resulting in increased employment insecurity, heightened mobility, and a corrosion of many of the traditional identity anchors such as family, work, and neighborhood, created an identity crisis, fuelling the search for alternative forms of belonging and attachment (Jackall 1998; Sennett 1998; Collinson 2003; Kallinikos 2003; Webb 2006)? Has the rise of consumerism in contemporary societies, together with the decline in craft-based industries and worker solidarity, presented an individualized identity increasingly defined by consumption rather than production? And, in turn, does this speculation then fuel our academic concern? Or, might an explanation be found in the introduction of poststructuralist philosophies to organization studies, with their concerns over subjectivity, 1 power, and knowledge? Of course, identity might merely be the latest academic fashion (Jenkins 2005), and one that is already passing (du Gay 2007), no doubt, to the delight of some radical structuralist critics (Thompson 2005). Nonetheless, issues of identity form a core concern within CMS.

The aim of this chapter is to present some of the key debates on, and contributions of, critical work on identities. Before doing so, it is necessary to clarify that, in focusing on CMS, other bodies of work on identity in, and of, organizations are excluded. Notable exclusions include, first, work based largely on social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner 1979). This has inspired many of the functionalist studies into organizational identity, focusing on the degree to which individuals define themselves in relation the organization, with the assumption that greater congruence between the two leads to enhanced commitment, loyalty and motivation (Ashforth and Mael 1989; Elsbach 1999). Also excluded are interpretivist studies on identities in organizations which, building on the concept of narrative identities (Bakhtin 1981; Ricoeur 1983), have sought to produce meaning-centred and descriptive accounts of the processes that individuals undergo in constructing a coherent story of self, and to document the organizational sources that influence the crafting of a self narrative (Davies and Harré 1990; Gergen 1994; Czarniawska-Joerges 1997). Rather, the chapter will discuss studies that have sought to analyze the interrelation of power and subjectivity in identity formation, and that are oriented towards challenge and change. The following section sets out some of the key tensions (p. 168) underpinning critical studies on identity, considering fundamental debates over the ontology of identity and of agency. These are then developed and discussed in the main body of the chapter, focusing first on issues of subjectification, identification, and identity regulation; secondly on identity resistance and dis-identification; and thirdly on crafting identities. The chapter then moves on to examine some of the new directions in critical studies on identity before concluding by highlighting aspects of current research which remain underdeveloped.

Mapping the Terrain of Critical Studies On Identities: Key Tensions and Debates

CMS is a term applied to a loosely coupled range of theoretical influences drawn from radical humanism and poststructuralism (Alvesson and Deetz 2006), together with some feminist and postcolonial theories. While reflecting diverse interests, the common concern is to document and challenge asymmetrical power relations: to “ferret out” (Alvesson and Deetz 2006) forms of domination and oppression in organizations, with the goal of emancipation (variously defined and envisaged). The attraction for CMS scholars to the concept of identity is its ability to offer powerful ways to interrogate the exclusionary practices by which subjects are constituted in organizations. Without wishing to underplay the tensions and debates among the different approaches, a broad terrain may be mapped out with regard to how identity is conceptualized, and the key influences on its construction2 concerning, first, the ontological status of identity (and the extent to which it is understood as an ongoing process); and secondly, agential issues (and the dynamic relationship between self and other in the constitution of identity). Before considering in detail critical studies on identities, therefore, it is useful first to map out the debates and tensions underpinning the topic. These debates are then returned to in the subsequent sections of the chapter.

The Ontology of Identity

CMS on identities have challenged the notion of the fixed and unified essential self.3 Instead, studies have sought to understand the dynamics of identity regulation and resistance in contexts of power and knowledge, thus working with a conceptualization of identity that is fluid, fractured, and reflexive.4 Identity can be understood, therefore, as a reflexively ordered narrative (Giddens 1991), its (p. 169) construction being stimulated by social interaction and ordered by institutionalized patterns of being and knowing. Conceptualizing identity in this manner facilitates a focus on the operation of power relations in context, as well as opportunities for micro-political resistance (Deetz 1992; Alvesson and Willmott 2002).

The individual as “identity worker” is a popular metaphor in conceptualizing the processes of identity constitution and contestation within work organizations. Identity work describes the ongoing activity that an individual undertakes in constructing an understanding of self that is coherent, distinctive, and (in the main) positively valued. Identity work is defined as “forming, repairing, maintaining, strengthening or revising constructions that are productive of a precarious sense of coherence and distinctiveness” (Alvesson and Willmott 2002: 626). Identity work is prompted by social interaction that raises questions of “who am I?” and “who are we?” In attempting to answer these questions, an individual crafts a self-narrative by drawing on cultural resources as well as memories and desires to reproduce or transform their sense of self. People engage in identity work when the routinised production of a self-identity is challenged, through, for example, uncertainty and anxiety. For Alvesson and Willmott (2002), self-identity is constructed from a range of identity resources, such as language, symbols, and values, to which individuals are exposed in their day-to-day experiences: “It forms a complex mixture of conscious and unconscious elements, an interpretive and reflexive grid gradually shaped by processes of identity regulation and identity work” (Alvesson and Willmott 2002: 626).

Identity work involves, therefore, an element of choice and intentionality in making up the self. For example, Musson and Duberley (2007: 147) observe: “Appropriating certain discourses and rejecting others is thus central to identity construction.” However there remains a black box surrounding how individuals might “choose” one identity rather than another and the motivation for this. This draws attention to the second key concern, that of agency.

Agency and Identity

Issues of agency lie at the core of theorizing on identity, as will be seen in the rest of the chapter. Agency refers to the thinking subject possessive of intentional actions. The extent to which the individual is viewed as someone who is active and/or acted upon in the crafting of self is an enduring tension in the study of identities (Thompson and McHugh 2002). Socio-psychological studies in organizations, for example in the study of motivation, take a relatively naive humanist stance, where a unified and essential self has unimpeded access to the realisation of their self-actualisation. Conversely, neo-Marxist analysis has traditionally viewed the individual as the “personification of economic categories” (Marx 1976: 92), where agency is structurally determined by the location in the sphere of production. (p. 170) Appropriations of Foucault in the study of workplace relations have been criticized for suggesting overly deterministic portrayals of discourses exercising their iron grip over the fragile individual. This has led some to reject the dualistic thinking of the autonomous individual, separate from but located within social structures, arguing that identity can be understood as the outcome of the interaction between discourse and human agency, rather than determined by one or other (Bergström and Knights 2006). Discourses provide the resource by which identities may be constructed yet at the same time, discourses can constrain because their normalizing effect bears down on the individual attempting to inscribe what can be said and who can “be.” However, discourses can never fully constrain given that they operate within discursive fields where their polyvalence and saturated meaning means that there is always indeterminacy: “while discourses endeavour to impose order and necessity on a field of meaning, the ultimate contingency of meaning precludes this possibility from being actualised” (Howarth 2000:103). Thus, individuals are located in social contexts that both constrain and sustain identity construction. Nonetheless, the tensions around agency as for ontology, previously discussed, remains an enduring theme in the CMS of identities, as will become clear in the remains of this chapter.

Critical Management Studies and Identities

Critical management studies on identities have been concerned broadly with forms of, and the dynamic interconnections between (a) identity regulation at work; (b) resistant and resisting identities; and (c) the crafting of identities in contexts of power/knowledge.5 Common to these studies has been the concern not so much with understanding how individuals construct identities, or what forms of identification they take but to expose to critical scrutiny how power operates to construct and stabilize identities in organizational contexts, themselves located within particular configurations of culture and history.

This section presents some of the more influential theoretical and empirical studies on identities within CMS. It commences with an overview of the “manufacturing subjectivity” thesis, derived from the introduction of Foucault's work on disciplinary power and the subject into organizational analysis. Following these early appropriations of Foucault's ideas, the debate widens to consider the relationship between discursive and reflexive processes of identity constitution and contestation in the workplace. The final part of this section considers studies that have sought to understand identities within a multidimensional and fluid understanding of power and agency.

(p. 171) Subjectification and Identity Regulation

Concerns with remedying inadequate theorizing of subjectivity within labour process studies—the so-called “missing subject” (Thompson 1990: 114)—together with the appropriation of Foucault's ideas on disciplinary power, marks out a number of contributions as playing a pivotal role in developing and directing the interest in CMS of identities. Here, studies have been concerned with highlighting the ways in which the exercise of managerial power, through individualization, fragmentation, and intensification of work in contemporary capitalist relations, works to commodify the individual's identity, transforming them into subjects, by which they come to know themselves, while at the same time reducing the opportunities to seek alternative sources of sustainable identities from outside the workplace. Arguably, the starting point in exploring CMS of identities is a number of influential articles concerned with the “manufacturing of subjectivity” in organizations (Knights and Willmott 1989).

Manufacturing Subjectivities

Inspired by the (albeit selective) ideas of Foucault on disciplinary power, the subject and panoptic surveillance (Foucault 1977), studies have drawn attention to new forms of surveillance and the self disciplining subject in modern organizations (Sewell and Wilkinson 1992; Townley 1993, 1994; Willmott 1993; Grey 1994; du Gay 1996; Casey 1999). These studies have illustrated the many ways in which organizations attempt to produce certain identities, or “subject positions.” Through a range of techniques of discipline, for example, performance appraisal (Townley 1993), career structures (Grey 1994), mentoring (Kosmala and Herrbach 2006), strategy (Knights and Morgan 1991), Total Quality Management (TQM) (Sewell and Wilkinson 1992), and Management by Objectives (MBO) (Covaleski et al. 1998), individuals are subjugated to these subjectivities through forms of control and dependence, and by which they come to know themselves (Foucault 1982). Thus disciplinary technologies work to conjoin an individual's notion of self with the organization's values and goals such that the individual participates in their own subjugation, removing the potential for opposition (Sewell and Wilkinson 1992). Furthermore, as these disciplinary technologies operate in a climate of heightened insecurity and vulnerability, often stimulated by the organization, this presents a heady mixture of anxiety and a hunger for existential security to which an organizationally manufactured identity is served ready on a plate.

While presenting a welcome counterbalance to the naive unitarist accounts of culture management, the “manufacturing of subjectivity” thesis has been vilified for presenting an overly deterministic and totalising view of subjectification as subjection, leaving little room for individual agency. This seems to be the portrayal of an utterly passive subject, a discursively constructed “docile body” upon which power (p. 172) relations and institutions impose their impression (Thompson and Ackroyd 1995). What seems to be missing from these accounts is an active agential subject who is capable of manoeuvring between different subject positions. As Newton (1998:428) observes, “the subject is ‘done to,’ she does not appear to do much ‘doing.’”6 Part of the limitation with some of the applications of Foucault to CMS arise from the fact that a repressive view of power still underpins the research agenda and, despite claiming to take a Foucauldian approach to power and the subject, the ghost of radical structuralism is ever present in the research framing.

Identification and Identity Regulation

Unlike the totalizing thesis on manufactured subjectivity, more recent theorizing on identity regulation within organizations has incorporated a stronger reflexive element to identity construction. Individuals are not merely the throughput for management inspired discourses. Rather they are thinking creatures with the capacity to draw on a range of identity resources, which, together with a life history and desires and aspirations, make up an individual's identity.

Identity regulation involves “the more or less intentional effects of social practices upon processes of identity construction and reconstruction” (Alvesson and Willmott 2002: 625). Alvesson and Willmott (2002) set out the processes by which both the individual and the organization are active in the constitution of identities in ways that result in the “self positioning of employees within managerially inspired discourses” (ibid.: 629), and with the belief that this attachment will secure commitment, motivation, and loyalty to the organization's goals and values. Furthermore, this identity regulation applies to managers as well, given their equivocal position as both recipients and bearers of control (Willmott 1997). Identity control is likely to be effective, they suggest, if the management discourses are compatible with other salient sources of identity formation, and if there is an absence of alternative or counter discourses. A range of techniques of control are highlighted for producing the “appropriate individual,” including defining individuals or groups in relation to others, and in providing specific vocabularies.

Identity control is thus a strategy of normative control, aimed at the individual's thoughts, feelings and understandings (Kunda 1992; Barker 1993; Casey 1995; Deetz 1995; du Gay 1996; Halford and Leonard 1999; Alvesson and Willmott 2002; Musson and Duberley 2007). Alongside interest in cultural control, identity controls are seen to be increasingly prevalent in contemporary organizations, supplementing (indeed, some argue, replacing) more traditional controls aimed at controlling the acts and behaviors of individuals. Kunda (1992: 12) refers to this as a “creeping annexation of the workers' selves.” Through the use of normative controls, workers are induced or seduced to take on the organizations' identity as if it were their own. However, attempts to control the identities of employees are, at best, precarious and contested (Ezzamel and Willmott 1998). Organizations are (p. 173) not the only, or necessarily the most important, resource drawn on in the crafting of self, nor are employees passive consumers of management inspired discourses. This leads the discussion on to studies concerned with identity resistance and dis-identification.

Identity Resistance and Dis-identification

The relationship between identities and resistance can be traced back to sociological studies of work, which have made a significant contribution to understanding gendered subjectivities, power and resistance (Willis 1977; Pollert 1981; Cockburn 1983). More recently, a distinct strand of research in CMS of identities can be seen in studies concerned with identities as a source of, and a site for, resistance. Studies of identity resistance have contributed to an appreciation of the role of subjectivity in resistance, extending the focus and definition of resistance to include more routinized, informal, and often inconspicuous forms in everyday practice (Kondo 1990; Edwards, Collinson, and Della Rocca 1995; Ezzamel and Willmott 1998; Knights and McCabe 2000; Fleming and Sewell 2002; Fleming and Spicer 2003; Ezzamel, Willmott, and Worthington 2004). In other words, the rise in interest in cultural, normative, and ideological forms of control has shifted the focus to understanding how resistance operates at this level. In addition, interest in resisting identities has been in response to the overly deterministic portrayal of disciplinary power that gave the impression that “all was quiet on the workplace front” (Thompson and Ackroyd 1995). Theoretical and empirical contributions from those concerned with identity politics at work, coming from feminist (Weedon 1987; Butler 1992), queer (Sedgwick 1990, 1999) and postcolonial (Spivak 1987, 1990; Said 1979; Bhabha 1994) theories have also drawn attention to the political arena of identity.

Micro-political Resistance

A significant strand of research has concentrated on forms of micro-political resistance in organizations, defined as “resistance to the dominant at the level of the individual subject” (Weedon 1987:111). Micro-political resistance takes place at the point of critical reflection—those “moments of difficulty” (Rajchman 1991, quoted in Sawicki 1994) that arise from clashes between an individual's notion of self (itself derived from discourse) and the subject position offered in the dominant discourse. Thus, “where there is a space between the position of a subject offered by a discourse and individual interest, a resistance to that subject position is produced” (Weedon 1987:112–113). For example, in their study of social worker managers' experiences of the implementation of a new managerialist regime in the UK public services, Thomas and Davies (2005b) highlight how beneath a broad-brush portrayal of a professional cadre experiencing deprofessionalization, lies a more complex (p. 174) and varied set of experiences. Their study illustrates how individuals draw on understandings of self (as: professional; upholder of public service ethics; manager; union member; gendered person; provider of a caring service; parent; older worker) as resources from which to resist attempts to redefine their understandings of social work practice and identity. These moments of micro-political resistance are both contingent and processual, occurring as individuals confront and reflect on their own identity, recognizing contradictions and tensions, and in doing so unsettle and subtly shift meanings and understandings. Micro-political resistance is aimed precisely where power resides—in action. The effects of such resistance are low levels of disturbance, weakening the hegemonic grip of dominant discourses, presenting opportunities to exploit spaces that enable the construction of alternative identities and meanings within forms of domination (Thomas and Davies 2005a). Studies on micro-political resistance have been strongly influenced by feminist theories and concerns, emphasizing how identities are both the source of oppression and the site of emancipation, and therefore organizations are a site for political contestation (Kondo 1990; Meyerson and Scully 1995; Katila and Meriläinen 2002; Thomas, Mills and Helms-Mills 2004; Thomas and Davies 2005b).

Dis-identification and Resistance

Studies on dis-identification have focused on how individuals pitch themselves in opposition to identity positions offered to them in organizations. Functionalist studies have concentrated on dis-identification with rather than within organizations, concerned with encouraging individuals to define themselves as having the “same attributes that he or she believes define the organization” (Dutton, Dukerich, and Harquail 1994: 239). Dis-identification for CMS of identities is a critical element of resistance, expressed through cynicism, irony, humour, and other forms of disengagement (Ackroyd and Thompson 1999; Fleming and Sewell 2002; Kosmala and Herrbach 2006). Fleming and Sewell (2002), inspired by the satirical novel The Good Soldier, Svejk, by Jaroslav Hašek, note examples of “Svejkian transgressions” that stop short of out and out rebellion such as foot dragging and feigned ignorance, whereby the self is disengaged from the normative prescriptions of managerialism through a state of detached cynicism. In their study of middle managers in the “Big Four” audit firms, Kosmala and Herrbach (2006) showhow audit managers dis-identify through a mild form of cynicism. Drawing on Žižek (1999), they argue that dis-identification provides a fantasy of the autonomous subject who still, nevertheless, complies with the demands of the organization. Cynicism provides a bogus sense of self-determination, which ultimately serves to support ideological controls because of the illusory sense of freedom it affords the individual. Thus cynicism is a sort of dis-identified identification (Žižek (1999). Such approaches to dis-identification do, however, present a rather pessimistic and (p. 175) self-defeating appreciation of agency and resistance that echoes back to the critique of the manufactured subjectivity thesis.

Crafting Identities

A core focus of CMS of identities has been the dialectics of control and resistance. As a result, the complexities and ambiguities around the dynamics of identity work have tended to be lost in the focus on oppositional responses to identity control. Contrasting with this, some studies have sought to develop a more generative theorizing of power and the subject (McNay 2000), recognizing that power can create in as much as it constrains identities, in so far as it disciplines as well as offers culturally available pathways for fulfilment (Kondo 1990). Therefore, some studies have focused on dis-identification as a key element in constructing who we are (Holmer-Nadesan 1996; Thomas and Linstead 2002; Sveningsson and Alvesson 2003; Thomas and Davies 2005a). Here, dis-identification is reconceptualized, moving from a reaction to repressive power, to a multidimensional, fluid, and generative understanding of power and agency. There is greater emphasis in these studies of the complex interweaving of identification and dis-identification, confirmation and contradiction, with subject positions located within discourses in the ongoing process of identity construction. For example, Holmer-Nadesan (1996) examines attempts to control service workers employed to clean university accommodation in a North American university. She explores how organizationally inspired discourses of performance, enshrined in work manuals and training courses articulate a formal role for women service workers in the university. Her study illustrates how these managerially inscribed discourses are underpinned by wider societal discourses of class and patriarchy which serve to undermine the veracity and expose the contradictions in the formal articulation of the “ideal” service worker. Holmer-Nadesan's study shows how the women service workers engage in counter and dis-identification with the subject positions offered in the formal discourse and in doing so serve to both challenge and reinforce the managerially inspired discourse. In their study of change and restructuring in public service organizations in the UK, Thomas and Davies (2005a) note the way in which the public service professionals involved in the study draw on alternative subject positions to assert, deny, and rewrite the discourse of change. Through processes of dis-identification, individuals critically engaged with “self as other,” a subject position with a positive value that distanced them from that offered in the discourse. However, by engaging with the discourse, they also privilege and legitimize the dis-identified subject position as an arena for political contest. Again, this study emphasizes the coexistence of dis-identification and identification and highlights the contradictory processes of identity construction as individuals negotiate the complex constructions of self, located in a matrix of discourses.

(p. 176) Within studies that examine the complexities around (dis)identification, there is something of a conceptual leap, however, in explaining how individuals undergo critical reflection to challenge the subject positions located in discourse, without resorting to versions of voluntarism. We end up on one hand with deterministic understandings of identification, where the body is a throughput for disciplining discourses, constituted by the operations of power, or on the other hand a somewhat freely constituting self that underemphasizes the role of power relations. More broadly, there still remains, in many CMS of identities, a struggle in conceptualizing a reflexive subject with the will and capacity to reflect upon and challenge the hegemonic ways of being. In revisiting some of these enduring tensions around the ontology of identity, agency, and power, raised in the early part of the chapter, the chapter now turns to consider some of the new directions taking forward critical studies of identities.

New Directions

In a chapter of this length, setting out recent contributions that might inform the future direction of the topic is inevitably selective. A number of different theoretical influences have recently contributed to theorizing the subject, notably, the post-Freudian psychoanalytical discourse theory of Lacan (du Gay 1996; Jones and Spicer 2005; Roberts 2005) and Laclau and Mouffe's political theory of discourse (Holmer-Nadesan 1996; Carpentier 2005; Willmott 2005; Bridgman 2007). Lacan's (1977, 1979) ideas provide us with an active desiring agent behind the act of identification and have been attractive to critical scholars seeking to understanding why as individuals we are so vulnerable to disciplinary power (Roberts 2005). For Lacanian analysts, the answer lies in the narcissistic relationship we have with our own image—a misrecognized fantasy of an integrated and objectivized self, gained from the mirror stage in early infancy. What we take as selfhood is the exteriorized and ephemeral image that we see in the mirror; an image which is both uniform and objectified and in which we subsequently invest throughout our lives, in the desire to achieve this “attribution of permanence, identity and substantiality of the self” (Lacan 1977: 17, cited in Roberts 2005: 629). The motor for identification, therefore, is the need for the individual to gain confirmation of existence. We collude with disciplinary power in a doomed quest to gain recognition by others and to gain a sense of a stabilized self. Lacan's concept of the Imaginary contributes to unpacking the “black box” of identification, however, as with the ideas of the Lacanian theorist, Žižek, the implications appear pessimistic with regards to resistance and there are echoes of essentialism. The empty subject, at the heart of Lacan's thinking, constituted through lack and marked by the impossibility of fulfillment of recognition of (p. 177) the actuality of the other, seems to offer little prospect for resistance at the level of subjectivity, and from which to craft alternative ways of being and alternative lives.

The political adequacy in theorizing of the subject within CMS is picked up in another, though not unrelated direction with the ideas of Laclau and Mouffe (1985). The discourse theory of Laclau and Mouffe (1985)7 is attractive in the possibilities it offers to break out of the dualistic debates of agency/structure in identity formation, raised early on in the chapter, and because of its political orientation of radical change found in the concept of the “democratic imaginary” (Holmer-Nadesan 1996; Contu 2002; Carpentier 2005; Willmott 2005; Bridgman 2007; Fleming and Spicer 2007). Lacla and Mouffe's (1985) approach to identity draws on ideas developed by Foucault, Lacan, and Gramsci. They abandon dualistic framing of structure and agency, collapsing epistemology with ontology, arguing that the material world is part of discourse (in so far as we may only know it through discourse) and so too are identities. As Laclau comments: “it is not that discourse produces some kind of material effect, but the material act of producing it is what the discourse is” (Laclau and Bhaskar 1998:13).

Further discussion of a Laclauian approach to discourse can be seen in Chapter 10 “Discourse and CMS” of this Handbook. More specifically in relation to identity, in developing their post-Marxist thesis, 8 Laclau and Mouffe critique the reductionist and deterministic overtones of Althusser's ideas on the self as interpolated (or recruited) as subject through ideological practices. Rather, identities are both contingent and fluid: the individual is over-determined by competing and complimentary subject positions in discourses with which they identify. Agency is rooted in the act of identification: identification lies at the heart of agency, guaranteeing the possibility of subjectivity and individuality. Discourses are partial fixings of meaning, formed when specific elements are linked into a discursive structure. These elements are drawn from the discursive field, which is characterized by a surplus of meaning. Nodal points are empty signifiers that provide the “cement” to partially fix or sediment elements into a meaningful identity (Torfing 1999). The second part of their theory of identification relates to political subjectivity, thus linking the individual to the wider social sphere. Antagonisms or social struggles that cause ruptures in embedded social relations create identity crises. This is due to the failure of the structure to present an identity for the subject and therefore compels the subject to act: “The very logic of identification requires a decision as a condition of moving beyond undecidability” (Willmott 2005: 752). In other words, you have to make a decision to identify with—and this identification involves both agency (making the decision) and structure (hegemonic discourses). In reference to Lacan, this means that subjectivity emerges out of the lack within structure which compels subjects to identify with those social constructions that are capable of “suturing the rift in the symbolic order” (Howarth and Stavrakakis 2000:14). For example, in his study of media professionals, Carpentier illustrates how four nodal (p. 178) points articulate the media professional as objective, as a manager, as autonomous, and as a member of a professional elite, linked to media organizations. Carpentier examines a series of “vox-pop” style programmes designed by the editorial staff of a Belgian talk show in response to the societal crisis following the infamous Dutroux case where a number of children were kidnapped and murdered. This event, Carpentier argues, resulted in a social crisis, or “dislocation” (Laclau 1990) in Belgium, defined as a “dramatic collapse in popular identifications with institutionalized subject positions and political imaginaries” (Smith 1999: 164, cited in Carpentier 2005: 209). These dislocations point to a moment of social crisis which disrupts existing discourses and identities as well as providing the possibilities for alternatives. Carpentier's study explores the effects of this dislocation in challenging hegemonic articulations in the meaning of media professional identity.

The few critical writers on identities who have been thus far drawn to the ideas of these psychoanalytical and post-Marxist theorists have done so, in particular, for their promise in resolving some of the enduring tensions around political agency within CMS of identities. It remains to be seen whether they will have a significant impact on the theoretical direction of identity studies. There still remains, however, the need to reconnect with the political aspirations of CMS and it is with regard to this matter that I now turn, in the concluding section.


The raison dʼêtre of CMS is its political imperative. Its call to arms is twofold: first to document and challenge forms of exploitation and oppression in organizations; and secondly to engage in research oriented towards changing things for the better. This raises two concerns. With regard to the former, the attraction to CMS scholars of the concept of identity is the analytical promise of its ability to bridge the micro-political and the wider organizational, socio-cultural and temporal context. In doing so, studies draw attention to how power relations operate in organizations and wider society to construct and stabilize identities within specific historical periods. However, there is still the tendency with studies to either deemphasize the “global” in concentrating on the local and vice versa. Consequently, the conceptual promise in analyzing the dialectic and dynamic relationship between self and social remains underdeveloped in many empirical studies. In other words, studies that take a micro-political approach, focusing on identity work in local situational contexts can under-emphasize the wider socio-political and historical context and it is often difficult to appreciate the links between the individual and larger social constructions and institutions. Studies that have analyzed the complex (p. 179) and contradictory ways in which organizations provide a setting for the construction and constraint of identities, conversely, can under-appreciate the nuances of identity work and the myriad of ways in which individuals challenge attempts to inscribe their identities. Thus there is still the opportunity to develop better understandings of the complex and mutual constructions of self and organization, each in themselves bound up with wider social, historical, and political settings. In particular, this calls for empirical studies that examine how individuals might craft sustaining identities located within particular configurations of discourse.

The second concern is over the relationship between critical studies of identities and the self-conscious emancipatory orientation of CMS. This issue has not gone wholly unappreciated within the literature, where it is tentatively suggested that an understanding and awareness of how power operates through the subject may equip individuals to “engage with the subject as a subject” (Townley 2005: 647). Some writers have, for example, explored how we might release ourselves from disciplinary power, letting go of the “fantasy” of the integrated and autonomous self (Deetz 1992; Willmott 1994; Roberts 2005). The question remains, however, as to how ideas on forms of micro-political resistance might take on a political character to provide the necessary tools for critique in order to challenge and transform social relations. For Laclau and Mouffe (1985) this involves identifying the discursive conditions which enable the emergence of collective action, i.e., collective forms of identification, expanding chains of equivalent identities into a collective “we,” and directed towards struggles against inequalities and challenging relations of subordination. Future research needs to be directed towards gaining a greater understanding of the connections between micro-political agency and the constitution of sustaining identities with a radical force for change.

Finally, as critical scholars of identity, we need to remind ourselves that theory should not be viewed as separate from politics (Butler 1992). In the brave new world of globalized labor it is not only the exploited identities but also the excluded—those with an absence of identity—the migrant and transient workers who are “the most conspicuous cases of social polarization, of deepening inequality, and of rising volumes of human poverty, misery and humiliation” (Bauman 2004: 41). We need to question further how our work might inform and empower the embattled, individualized and exploited in contemporary configurations of capitalism (Sennett 2006)? What difference might our studies make in informing policymakers directing decisions on the nature of society, and informing the debates over varieties of capitalism, and the subject positions promoted (Webb 2006)? We need to be constantly vigilant that our critical studies of identities are oriented towards documenting and challenging, rather than obfuscating, the central concerns of oppression and exploitation that mark the experiences of many in organizations. Let us never forget that the political identity of CMS is fundamental to the CMS of identities.

(p. 180) Acknowledgement

I would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Economic and Social Research Council's Advanced Institute of Management (award RES-331-25-3009).


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (1.) Subjectivity is a term used to denote an understanding of individual identity as the product of discourse, ideology and institutional practices, at any given moment of time.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (2.) I am aware of the irony of constructing the identity of a “CMS on identity.” Inevitably, attempting to capture and put boundaries around such a theoretically complex issue not only necessitates pragmatism but is also an exercise of power.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (3.) See Kondo (1990) for a detailed exploration and deconstruction of the binary divide between self and social.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (4.) The anti-essentialist assumption of identities, as fluid and constituted through discourse, has become almost a hegemonic discourse in itself. For a critical questioning of anti-essentialist positions, see Sayer (1997).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (5.) This is of course a somewhat arbitrary division of the literature and will inevitably result in compromising much of the complexity around the debates. The difference between these bodies of literature is often a matter of emphasis. Furthermore, framing the literature around control and resistance may serve to reemphasize the notion of a sovereign subject responding to and resisting structures of control, a dualism, which many of the writers discussed, would wish to collapse (Townley 2005).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (6.) For a detailed account of the agential tensions in Foucauldian studies of subjectivity, see Newton (1998) and McNay (2000).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (7.) For the sake of simplicity, I refer here to the key text jointly authored by Laclau and Mouffe (1985), which has been drawn on by CMS scholars. However, Laclau has subsequently taken these ideas forward in sole authored publications, while Mouffe has similarly published extensively, developing an anti essentialist stance on radical democracy, citizenship, and community.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (8.) For an overview of the contribution of Laclau and Mouffe's (1985) political theory of discourse for CMS, see Willmott (2005). For an introduction to their ideas and the subsequent ideas of Laclau, see Howarth (2000) and Torfing (1999). For a critique of the application of Laclau's work to discursive studies of organization, see Jones (2006).