Constructing identity by deconstructing differences: Building partnerships across cultural and hierarchical divides

Sierk Ybema*, Marlous Vroemisse, Alfons Van Marrewijk

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)


Organizational studies of collective identity tend to describe how identities are discursively enacted through claims of a group's uniqueness and the articulation of distinctions between a putative 'us' and 'them'. The ethnographic case study presented in this paper describes organizational actors' collective identity talk which follows a fundamentally dissimilar pattern. Staff members of an international non-governmental organization (NGO) - a Dutch human rights organization working in development aid - do not polarise, but instead depolarise differences between themselves and their 'Southern' partners in their identity talk. For ideological (egalitarian) and strategic (partnership-building) reasons they smooth out, trivialise or upend differences by (i) adopting a 'thin' notion of cultural identity, (ii) depicting one's self as 'strange' and adjusting to 'normal' others, (iii) levelling out hierarchical differences, and (iv) constructing an inclusive 'we' in talk of personal relationships. Our exploration shows, first, how organizational actors build and maintain partnerships across social and cultural boundaries in their identity discourse. Second, it opens up new ways of thinking about the formation of identity by drawing attention to various discursive practices of identity construction which are essentially different from the forms of collective identity talk usually described in the literature. Finally, we contribute to studies of organizational identity by sensitizing research to the fundamental variety and situatedness of collective identity talk.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)48-59
Number of pages12
JournalScandinavian Journal of Management
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Boundary work
  • Collective identity
  • Culture
  • Discourse
  • Identity work
  • Intercultural communication


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