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What do we learn about occupational identity from Amartya Sen?

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Sail Boat by Lee Cannon via FlickrPlural identities

I’ve just finished reading Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence.  He ends:

“As an eleven year-old boy I could not do much more for Kader Mia as he lay bleeding with his head on my lap.  But I imagine another universe, not beyond our reach, in which he and I can jointly affirm our many common identities (even as the warring singularities howl at the gate.”  We have to make sure, above all, that our mind is not halved by a horizon.”  (pp. 185-186)

Identities as a concept in organizational psychology

I picked up Identity and Violence partly because of the author’s fame but also because identities are a hot topic in contemporary organizational psychology.  We encourage people to develop personal identities that are stronger than the identities of the companies with whom they work.  Instead of being a small boat bobbing about on the choppy waters of a stormy ocean, rather be the ocean and let the company bob about on you.

It’s a fine aspiration and possibly the only way to stay sane.  But I wanted to be able to think about this core idea critically and what better way that to pick up a highly readable book by a Nobel prize winner with command of philosophy and world history and an inclusive outlook.

What are the dangers of encouraging strong personal identities?

I think Sen would not regard our exhortations as entirely foolish.  Sen counsels developing our commitment and appreciation of multiple stories and identities as parents, as children, as professionals, as members of churches, as patriots and as members of organizations that cut across international boundaries.  We are all of these at the same time.

“To halve our horizon” by narrowing our world to one identity and then too, to narrow that world to a formulaic lifestyle laid down by others – that’s what he counsels against.  That’s what he believes is used easily to manipulate us into actions we might in other times and other places (my words) find unacceptable.

Thoughtful multiple identities are strong occupational identities?

A strong occupational narrative might narrow our world.  I suspect though, that narrow occupational narratives turn us into the small boat on choppy seas.  When we see ourselves as part of an ocean able to accommodate many small boats of identities, we feel more comfortable.

That’s my humble reading, anyway.



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