Professional identity and status : an ethnography of architects in professional service firms

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There is a growing consensus that the nature of professional work is changing. Traditionally, the status conferred by the title ‘professional’ signaled a claim to specialist knowledge such that professionals were trusted advisors who played an important economic and social role (as experts in justice, health and education) in knowledge-intensive societies. However, a range of fundamental changes such as the rise of managerialism, increasingly interdependent work structures and the active involvement of increasingly more-knowledgeable clients, have challenged these assumptions suggesting that professional work faces an uncertain future. In this thesis, I argue that such crucial changes to the landscape of professional work trigger tensions for architects’ identity and status premised on notions of expert authority. I problematize long-held assumptions of professional identity and status by focusing on the interpretations and actions of individuals in their day-to-day work. This research was designed and constructed from an interpretivist perspective adopting a tension-centered approach in which tensions and paradoxes play a central role in ordering and disordering social reality for organizational members. I use ethnographic methods to shed new light on the discursive processes through which one group of professionals – architects – attempt to make sense of the changes that affect their daily work. In so doing, my thesis links agentic-level activities with tensions generated by changes to the very structure of professional work. My findings suggest that in an era characterized by increasing skepticism of experts and professional expertise, traditional conceptions of professional identity and occupational status require revision. I present my thesis as four distinct journal articles that are linked by the investigation of how architects negotiate professional identity and status as they seek to manage complex tensions, triggered by the changing nature of their work. I conclude that more accurate understandings of how people employed in complex organizations respond to, cope with and move forward amid paradoxical tensions sheds new light on the construction of work-related identities and status and how this occurs in the new world of work. As the world of work becomes more complex and distributed, these understandings are particularly relevant because they have implications not just for individuals’ sense of well-being, but also broader, economic consequences for organizations and society.
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