Becoming a graduate, becoming a manager:
the warranting of emergent identity

Leonard Holmes

Presented at ‘Critique and Inclusivity: Opening the Agenda’,
the 4th International Critical Management Studies Conference
held at Robinson and Selwyn Colleges, University of Cambridge, 4-6 July 2005
Stream 10 : Identity: Exploring the Impacts of Individual and Collective Constructions


Introduction: identity and expertise

In concluding his classic study of 'The Moral Career of the Mental Patient', Goffman extends his preceding analysis:
"Each moral career, and behind this, each self, occurs within the confines of an institutional system, whether a social establishment such as a mental hospital or a complex of personal and professional relationships". (Goffman, 1961: 168)
Goffman’s analysis fits in that interactionist strand of the conceptualisation of identity that purposefully avoids privileging either the personal/ private or the social/ public. As Jenkins (1996: 20) puts it, the model is that of "the internal-external dialectic of identification as the process whereby all identities - individual and collective - are constituted". Such an approach requires attention to be paid to the interaction between social and biographical significance, that is to say, social and biographical consequence of ongoing processes of identifying, by self and by others. At any moment and in any context, whatever configuration that has emerged within such an interaction is essentially unstable, and any stabilisation that has appeared is essentially fragile. This approach conceptualises identity is always situated, emergent, both in-the-instant as well as over time. As identity ascriptions, or identifyings, by self and by others, carry understandings of the anticipated and socially legitimated practices deemed appropriate to the person so identified, these have significant implications for our understanding and analysis of expertise (competence, knowledge, skill, etc) as a social attribution (Holmes, 2000).

This paper will present a framework for considering ‘emergent identity’ as the outcome of the interaction between the claim (or disclaim) by the individual on a particular situated identity and the ascriptions made by significant others. In relation to the claim (or disclaim) by the individual, ascriptions may be regarded as affirmation or disaffirmation (of the identity claim/ disclaim). However both claims/ disclaims and ascriptions may be provisional, tentative, equivocal. A five ‘zone’ framework of ‘modalities of emergent identity’ will be presented. It will be suggested that a framework affords analysis of ‘identity projects’ (Harré, 1983) in terms of trajectories ‘through’ such modalities of emergent identity. Moreover, whilst what may be typically viewed as ‘happy’ trajectories may be examined, the framework also provides for consideration of what Goffman (1961) termed ‘hazard’, and of the possibility of failure to gain affirmation of identity claim, or of the withdrawal of affirmation, ‘spoiled identity’ (Goffman, 1968).

A key utility of the modalities framework, it will be argued, is that it orients our attention to the processes by which claims (and disclaims) and ascriptions are presented. It will be argued that identification, or identifying, is enacted through modes of warranting (Toulmin, 1958; Draper, 1988). In seeking affirmation of a claim on a particular identity, an individual will attempt to match self-presentation with (what s/he perceives to be) the normalised and legitimated modes of identity ascription. Where the previous affirmation of identity claim comes under some potential or actual contestation, the individual may seek repair through modes of accounting (Scott and Lyman, 1968), which itself may be viewed as a particular form of warranting.

This approach will be explored in terms of two occupational areas currently of particular importance: managers and graduates. Studies of managers (eg Stewart, 1976; Mintzberg, 1973; Kotter, 1982), and thus of managerial identity, have typically taken for granted that those who are studied are managers. Few studies, (eg Hill, 1992; Holmes, 1995a; Watson and Harris, 1999), have considered novice entrants to managerial positions. This paper will apply the modalities of emergent identity to the process of becoming a manager, drawing upon data from interviews with novice managers. The field of research on graduate employability is currently dominated by the skills and attributes approach (eg Harvey et al., 1997), despite severe challenges (see Holmes, 2002 for review). Using interview data, this paper will examine the process of the student through higher education into their post-graduation lives (including employment as a graduate) in terms of trajectories through modalities of emergent identity.

Emergent identity: claim and ascription

Conceptualising identity as emergent in and through interaction emphasises the processual nature of the social world and of people’s places in it. ‘Who a person is’, within a particular social setting, arises from the way that the person attempts to present themself and the way that others regard them. There is no external, objective source for categorisation, but ongoing identifying or positioning (Hollway, 1984; Harré and van Langenhove, 1999) by self and by others, within the patterned discursive and symbolic practices jointly engaged in as meaningful, socially consequential, activities. Viewing identity as an interactive accomplishment also draws attention to its fragility, the possibility that positioning attempts by the ‘focal person’ and significant others are contradictory and that there is no agreement on that person’s identity in the situation. Whilst always essentially fragile, because identity is constructed in-the-instant of interaction, a degree of stabilisation of identity may be achieved through the complex web of practices and their own stabilisation through the use of space, time and materials objects (cf actor-network theory eg Callon and Latour, 1981; Callon, 1986; Latour, 1987; Law, 1994). There is thus a dual emergence, synchronic and diachronic, both aspects being central to the conceptualisation of identity as emergent and providing the basis for empirical investigation and analysis.

The dual aspect of emergent identity, by self and by others, may be considered in terms of
(a) the claim made by the individual on a particular identity, or the disclaim of that identity, and
(b) the ascription by others that may itself be considered in terms of affirmation or disaffirmation of that claim.
The interaction between these gives rise to various ‘modalities’ of emergent identity, instantiated in any particular interaction and more-or-less stabilised over a continuing period. The model shown in figure 1 attempts to present this conceptualisation of emergent identity in graphical form, indicating the main salient modalities as ‘zones’. Rather than a two-by-two box of four modalities, the five ‘zone’ model allows for degrees of tentativeness with which claim/ disclaim and ascriptions are made.

claim-affirmation model of emergent identity

In ‘zone 1’, the person does not claim the salient identity, nor is it ascribed to them: their identity may be said to be ‘undetermined’. ‘Zone 4’ represents what might generally be regarded as a ‘happy’ situation, where the individual’s claim on the particular situated identity is affirmed by significant others, what may be termed ‘agreed identity’. The straightforward transition from zone 1 to zone 4 represents what may be regarded a ‘happy’ identity trajectory, or moral career in Goffman’s terms (Goffman, 1959). However, there is the possibility that an individual lays claim on a particular identity but does not succeed in gaining affirmation of that claim by others, a situation represented in the model by ‘zone 2’, the modality of ‘failed identity’. Such a situation faces many individuals who, whilst formally graduates in terms of having been awarded a degree, nevertheless find difficulty in gaining recognition in respect of gaining employment as graduates. Somewhat differently, ‘zone 3’ represents the situation in which, whilst significant others ascribe a particular identity to an individual, that person disclaims the said identity, or at least the meaning associated with the identity categorisation by those others. Arguably, this ‘imposed identity’ may be said to apply in the case of identity ascriptions in respect of ethnicity, such that, for example, a black person may be viewed by others as having (or lacking) particular characteristics which that person would disclaim (Holmes and Robinson, 1999). The central area in figure 1, ‘zone X’, represents positions in which there is, for the time being, no clear claim/ disclaim by the individual and no clear ascription by others: the position is of ‘under-determined identity’.

Such consideration of emergent identity in terms of such modalities now allows us to examine the variety of trajectories taken by individuals, their moral careers (Goffman, 1959) or identity projects (Harré, 1983). Both Goffman and Harré focus mainly on the single trajectory shown here as the ‘happy’ trajectory from zone 1 to zone 4, or the failure to achieve that, the model depicted in figure 1 permits exploration of a number of different trajectories. This is more consonant with the interactionist understanding of the processual, essentially-temporary and fragile character of social reality. It also relates to notions of the ‘protean career’ (Hall, 1976) or ‘boundaryless career’ (Arthur and Rousseau, 1996).

Trajectories of emergent identity

To illustrate the utility of the model, four outlines cases will now be presented of individuals whose occupational identity trajectories are very different . The first two cases are of graduates seeking employment as graduates, and their varying success achieving such employment. The third and fourth cases are of ‘novice managers’, one of whom is a mid-career school teacher who is now head of a department.

Case 1: 'Making something of my life'

SA graduated in 1994, with a degree in Business Economics from a new university in the London area. He had no clear idea what he wanted to do, just a general idea of working in sales and marketing. After several months of writing 20-30 job applications per week, without success, he was persuaded by his parents to travel to Pakistan to visit relatives there. This, he says, was "the most intense six weeks I've spent". The poverty and deprivation made him realise the benefits and opportunities available in the UK. He was affected by the wishes of his relatives for him and his family to succeed. This led him to decide to "make something of my life, to make a difference".

Initially he took a short computer course to remedy what he saw as an area in which he was lacking. He then saw the opportunity to take a business course for unemployed graduates, in another city. After some difficulty seeking a placement after the course, he eventually found one with a black training provider. This got him involved in community economic development field. He began to apply for jobs in the field, and was offered a post as policy officer with a London-based black training and campaigning organisation. The post was not specifically advertised as being for a graduate; however, the other employees are all graduates.

Initially, he was very unsure about whether he could do the job. Despite saying that he would take his time to settle in, he threw himself into his work. "Every day it would be like I felt I had to prove myself to be in this job." He is now more settled, has a sense of "equilibrium" in his life. He has strong commitment to the values of community-led economic development.


This graduate experienced disaffirmation of his identity as a graduate "worthy of employment" (zone 2). For a time, he may be seen to have withdrawn his claim on that identity (zone 1), prioritising another identity, that of his family and ethnic identity, by travelling to and staying with relatives in Pakistan. Determined to "make something" of his life, he re-established his identity claim, gaining tentative affirmation (zone X) by gaining entry to a short course for unemployed graduates. He eventually gained employment, not specifically in post advertised as a graduate entry job, but working with other employees all of whom are graduates (zone 4).

In terms of the ‘five zone’ model, the trajectory may be shown as 1-X-2-X-1-X-X-4.

Case 2: Leaving a traditional "graduate job":

SB graduated in 1996, with an Oxbridge mathematics and science degree. She chose to take these subjects "for love of the subject really, not as a career path". During her first year at university, she sought advice from the university careers service and undertook a psychometric test. The personnel field was suggested as an appropriate career; this also happens to be her father's profession. She applied to various companies for an opportunity for work experience, and spent a week shadowing the personnel director of a building society. Towards the end of her second year at university, she applied to the company for a summer job, and worked there for eight weeks in the personnel department. In her final year, she applied to a number of large companies, seeking a place in their graduate recruitment and training schemes. She had an offer from a major grocery retailer, which she accepted.

Following the initial induction and training period, she was placed in charge of the counters section of the store to which she had been posted. She found that she was working very long hours, because of the need to cover for staff shortages. The merchandising, display and selling parts of the job did not interest her. She did not welcome the prospect of 3 years working in such an environment, moving from one department to another, before she would be able to move on to personnel work at head office. After about 9 months, she decided she would leave. She started applying for jobs, was interviewed for the second company to which she applied, and was offered the job. She resigned her job that afternoon, which was the beginning of her holiday, and started her new job two days later.

Her new employer is a training company, providing training through TEC funding for people who are unemployed. There are 24 employees. Her post is that of placement consultant, finding client companies to take trainees on work placement and monitor the trainees on placement. She had applied for a post of course administrator. This had been advertised as "an ideal first job for a graduate seeking to go into personnel"; however, at the interview, the business manager discussed the placement consultant post and offered it to her. Most of her colleagues are graduates in their first jobs.

She is successful in her job, and is the only consultant that reliably gains commission for the income she brings to the company. She attributes this to the way she has organised her own system for recording trainee placements in client companies, so that accurate invoices can be sent for all placements. Her experience in her first job has made her "more determined" to be organised. She drew up guidelines for trainees, to ensure good relations with client companies. She achieves a high level of repeat business. Her boss regularly Abounces ideas" off her.

Her experience in her first job has been useful in terms of her confidence: "if I can handle that I can handle anything really"; a colleague in her first job is rather in awe of the manager, Ascared" to ask for advice. She is undertaking a personnel management course, and has just started to look for jobs with wider personnel work, preferably in a large company.


For this person, the move from an identity as a student, and thus potential graduate employee (claim and tentative affirmation) was quickly made, with a job offer before graduation, then to affirmation on starting the job (zone 1 through X to 4). However, she soon began to question (tentative disclaim, from zone 4 to X) the identity she then had, which was not matching her aspirations and claim on an identity as a personnel management practitioner. She effected her disclaim by resigning (from X to 3), to seek a post which was closer to her aspirations, and quickly gained one (from 3 through X to 4). This identity is further affirmed by her success in her new post, and by the interaction she has with her boss. However, this is not fully in line with her aspiration and is seeking to warrant a claim on an identity as a personnel management practitioner (from 4 to X).

The trajectory may thus be represented as: 1-X-4-X-3-X-4-X.

Case 3: Becoming a manager, facing challenge

NE was born and went to school in Ireland, leaving school with the Irish school leaving certificate (usually classed as between GCSE and GCE "A" level). He worked in administration for the civil service, before leaving at the age of 25 to come to England. After being made redundant in a former job, he now has a job with the title "office co-ordinator", working for a security firm. He has a staff of seven, and has responsibility for the payroll system and other administration. His first appointment was as a supervisor (of three staff), and was promoted to his present post after some restructuring and redundancies. The move into this new post was not easy, especially the first month, as he realised that he now carried responsibility for the area, that he is the one with whom "the buck stops". He felt that some former colleagues were unwilling to accept him in his new role, and so he had to impose discipline. In the case of one person, who apparently had expected to be offered the job, and was causing problems, he had to ask his line manager to intervene. He also found difficulty with other senior managers, especially in terms of their styles of working, most having a military background; he began to develop more assertiveness with them to "stand his ground".

He had already started on part-time studies for a Higher National Certificate in Business and Finance when he started with his present employer. On completion of this, he went on to the Diploma in Management Studies, because it seemed to relevant to his role as a manager. He also did not wish to take the time needed to carry on to a part-time degree course before taking postgraduate study. He was conscious of time moving on, as his girlfriend has a PhD; she, a fellow manager and the two people with whom he lives are all younger. He felt that he was getting left behind, "falling off the train".

His plans are to return to Ireland, and feels that this would be more difficult to do after the age of 35. He has ideas for setting up a restaurant business, but in the meantime sees himself as likely to take a senior managerial post, probably with a security firm. He wants to return to Ireland in a position he would not otherwise have gained, because of the qualifications and experience he has gained in the UK.


In terms of occupational identity, NE may be seen as initially gaining affirmation of a claim on the identity as an administrator within the civil service in Ireland, warranted by the qualifications gained through his education (in terms of figure 9.4 moving from zone 1 through X to 4). Experience in administration provided the warrant for gaining affirmation as an employee and as an administrator, in his first job after migrating to the UK (moving from zone X to zone 4). His identity as an employee of that organisation was disaffirmed when he was made redundant (from 4 through X to 1) . He was then able to gain affirmation of a claim on an identity as a supervisor, with the supporting affirmation of such a claim by an employment agency (from 1 through X to 4) . The identity as supervisor was further affirmed by promotion to a management, ironically as a consequence of the identity disaffirmation of the previous incumbent. However, his identity as a manager was subject to contestation, and thus attempted disaffirmation, by some of his subordinates (from zone 4 to X, with the potential to move to zone 2). He took steps to reinforce his claim on the managerial identity by seeking and gaining the affirmation of his line manager, which constituted a strong warrant for his claim (from zone X back to 4). He is seeking further warranting of his claim on managerial identity through studying for a postgraduate/ post-experience diploma in management studies. He aspires to be (to lay claim on the identity of) a senior manager.

In terms of the "zones" of emergent identity, the trajectory may be shown as: 1-X-4-X-4-X-1-X-4-X-4.

As with SA in case study 1, we should also note that other situated identities, and their claim and affirmation, are at work. His anticipated return to Ireland is based on the desire to claim a "superior" identity to that which he would have been able to claim and have affirmed without having the warranting available through experience and qualifications gained in the UK. His relationship to his girlfriend carries with it differentials in educational identity, and his identity in relation to those with whom he share accommodation carried issues in respect of age, "falling of the train" as he puts it. Age is also a factor with respect to his identity in relation to other managers in his company, most being very much older but one being younger.

Case 4: Teacher or manager?

BF is director of studies for art at a secondary school who has special responsibilities for developing a wider set of activities and provision. He has a degree in Art, then took a PGCE before entering the teaching profession. Prior to joining the school he was deputy head of department at another school. His job at the current school was initially that of a ‘fairly traditional head of department’, but that has changed over the time he has been in post. He has responsibilities for managing resources and people, and a small budget. He expresses some ambivalence about whether to describe his job as managerial. Coming from a "strong socialist" background, when younger he saw issues of management and labour in "black and white", but this has moderated over the years and particularly in having managerial responsibilities.

He sees his career in terms of possibly moving into the "upper tier of management", but is reluctant to move away from involvement in subject specific curriculum matters. He certainly would not see himself transferring into a managerial role outside of teaching.

His views on how to manage come mainly from his own experience. He has attended some middle management training sessions would not call that ‘formal’ management training. He states that he ‘skimmed’ (but did not "actually read") one book on management, on the recommendation of a friend.


This teacher initially regarded management as not an identity that he valued and sought. As director of studies for art in a secondary school, his views have somewhat altered, although he still questions whether he is indeed a manager. However, in terms of the increasing emphasis upon the need for management in schools, as in other public sector contexts such as healthcare, clearly many significant others such as the Head of School, the Board of Governors and the local education authority, this teacher would undoubtedly be regarded as having been appointed as a manager. The trajectory may thus be shown as: 1-X-3-X, possibly with 3-X-3 as continuous oscillating cycle .

These four examples clearly indicate that the trajectories of identity projects may take a variety of forms, but that the framework of modalities of emergent identity provides an aid to the analysis of particular empirical cases. Not all, perhaps very few, trajectories are straightforward movements towards the ‘successful’ achievement of what is here termed ‘agreed identity’. Research on managers and their careers that does not also take account of the experiences of those who seek entry to management positions but who experience difficulties or even are unsuccessful can be regarded as only partial accounts (Holmes and Robinson, 1999). Similarly, research into graduate employment that presupposes that success in gaining such employment is a consequence of acquiring certain ‘graduate attributes’ (eg Harvey et al., 1997) and ‘employability skills’ (eg CVCP/DfEE/HEQE, 1998) must be considered of limited value: it fails to explain how other modalities of emergent identity may come about. In particular, such work underestimates the significance of other identity ascriptions, particularly in terms of class (Purcell et al., 1999) and ethnicity (Connor et al., 2004).

Trajectories and transitions

A key feature of the framework of modalities of emergent identity is the central ‘zone X’, representing the modality of ‘under-determined identity’. This is to position where the person tentatively claims or disclaims a particular identity and where significant others tentatively make their identity ascriptions of that person. At stake in this zone is the question of what ‘zone’ would next be entered, to what modality of emergent identity the trajectory takes.

The ‘happy’ trajectory is into zone 4, ‘achieved identity’, where the identity is claimed and affirmed. However, there are other possible trajectories. Thus, for NE in case 3 above, the contestation of his managerial identity by some members of his staff place him in zone X with the possibility of moving to zone 2, ie where he would be seen as not being capable of managing his staff and would possibly be demoted or dismissed. In the first case, the graduate on the management development programme moves from zone 4 to zone X, as she begins to question whether she is willing to continue in the post achieved, then to zone 3 when she finally decides that she is not willing. In her case, a move back to zone X occurs as she applies for another post, from which she moves back to zone 4 in the ’agreed identity’ of a graduate in a job in the desired field of personnel management. Similar potential and actual moves into and from the ‘under-determined may be seen in the cases of other interviewees.

This suggests that this mode of analysis may be enhanced by developing a typology of the different potential outcomes from a move into and from zone X, where either there is tentative affirmation or disaffirmation or tentative claim or disclaim, and the likely resolution(s). That is, given a particular tendency in the trajectory, for example, where someone’s claim is being challenged (potential disaffirmation), which may be shown as X-2 (tending towards zone 2), we might consider three possible resolutions:

The first possibility is where the challenge continues, but is resisted by the individual (who maintains the claim on the identity in question). The second possible resolution is where the person is seen to have failed in respect of the identity, for example, where someone is dismissed as ‘incompetent’. The third case would be where the individual decides to withdraw their claim on the identity, for example by resigning . The schematic presentation in table 1 displays what are the likely trajectories where there is tentative claim/ disclaim and/or affirmation/ disaffirmation.

Some of these relate to the subjects of other research. For example, the case of the trajectory from under-determined to ‘imposed identity’ (X-3), where this is preceded by achieved identity (4-X-3), may be related to the ‘reluctant managers’ studied by Scase and Goffee (1989). These are mid-career managers who realise that their aspirations on higher-level managerial posts are unlikely to achieved, and question the wisdom of the commitment and efforts they have previously devoted to their jobs and employers, at the cost in respect of other aspects of their lives, eg family life. Many continue in post, with lowered commitment and experiencing dissatisfaction and possible stress, to the disbenefit of both employer and themselves.

Where the case of trajectory X-3 is preceded by positioning in zone 1, and the person remains in zone 3, we have a typical scenario described by Parker and Lewis (1981) in terms of managers in transition, at the low point of the transition curve. In contrast, the resolution of X-3 in terms of a return to zone 1 is descriptive of both career change for younger employees (as with SB), and in the case of older employees, of "downshifters", ie those who seek a simpler lifestyle by abandoning the "rat-race".

Warranting identity claims

The utility of the model presented in terms of providing analytical purchase on the character of identity trajectories, particularly in respect of the crucial (literally) crossing area depicted as ‘zone X’, may be further enhanced by considering the process by which movement between modalities is effected. Such moments of liminality, of hazard (Goffman, 1961) for the person claiming a particular identity, require the identity-claimant to present themselves to significant others in a manner that, for the claim to succeed, matches what those significant others would accept in order to affirm the claim. Affirmation of the claim would constitute a key element in the construction of a certain social order, as would its disaffirmation, a certain moral order in which the individual is positioned (including possible positioning as an ‘outsider’, alien, even non-person). But as the social order is constantly being constructed in the routines of everyday life, such identity claim and (dis)affirmation is itself for the most part routinely accomplished . In order to understand this process, we may usefully draw upon the concepts of warranting and accounting.

Scott and Lyman (1968), drawing upon Austin’s paper, ‘A Plea for Excuses’ (in Austin, 1961), use the term ‘accounting’ to refer to "a linguistic device employed whenever an action is subjected to valuative inquiry" . That is, they mainly focus on what actors do to repair some social situation that has gone awry for them, pleading, variously, excuses or justifications. Accounts presuppose an identifiable speaker and an audience:
“The particular identities of the interactants must often be established as part of the encounter in which the account is presented ... To assume an identity is to don the mantle appropriate to the account to be offered.”
(op. cit.: 58)
Such identities are negotiated as part of the encounter, such that, according to Scott and Lyman,
“Every account is a manifestation of the underlying negotiation of identities.”
(op.cit.: 59; emphasis in original)

The concept of warranting may be seen as a more general notion, as the manner in which any assertion is justified and sustained within a social context. Drawing upon Toulmin’s use of the concept in respect of the analysis of arguments (Toulmin, 1958), Draper (1988) extends Toulmin’s use of the term ‘warrant’ to refer to any support for a claim, ie any reason or belief: warrants as a major type of explanation (op. cit. : 22). Gergen (1989) uses the notion of ‘warranting voice’ in psychological discourse, both lay and professional, in relation to the ‘elaboration of the self’. He argues that it is of great importance to people that they succeed in their attempts to gain the assent of others to their own ‘world construction’:
“If one’s linguistic construction of the world prevails, the outcomes may be substantial. Failing to achieve intelligibility in construction is to have little role in the co-ordinated set of daily activities from which life satisfactions are typically derived.”
(Gergen, 1989: 73)

Applying such concepts to the situation of managers, we may then examine how those who are novice managers, or those who are aspiring to become managers, warrant their claims on that identity. In a set of interviews , a key question, posed in a variety of verbal forms, was: in what sense would you say your job is managerial?. For many, the answer was not straightforward, with the answer typically being expressed in terms such as “I’m not a manager but ...”. For these, what would clearly constitute being a manager was the fact of having supervisory authority over and being responsible for the work of other staff. However, a claim on being a manager could be made in terms of other aspects of the work undertaken or circumstances in which it was undertaken; for example:

MA: " Right, well I’m managing processes rather than people, as a product manager I am sort of responsible for the pricing policy, the promotions the place, who we sell it to, and also the product specification itself. Obviously a lot of my decisions affect a lot of other people and also I have to share my decisions with other people, confer with them before actually doing anything. But it’s the initiative that would come from myself."

MG: "I don’t have a team to manage but I do have full responsibility. I mean I’m the only person working on this project so I have to manage my own time ... I have to go out to a lot of people and persuade them that the new products I am coming up with are sensible and they are what the business needs."

NH: "Indirectly [it is a managerial job], because although I am not managing staff, I am managing projects. I am budgeting schemes for the mentally ill people, so I oversee the running of various schemes. I am actually on a management committee for several different schemes ... So I do staff recruitment and am involved in all that."

The tentative nature of responses by these individuals who do not directly manage subordinate staff contrasts sharply with those of individuals who do manage staff. Here the replies were direct and straightforward; for example:
ND : "Head of buildings, plural, operations ... kind of facilities manager, if you like...My direct responsibilities are for security, cleaning, room bookings, and fabric and buildings maintenance...."

Interviewer: "So how many people who you call supervisors or managers do you have reporting to you?"
ND: "Reporting to me directly? My deputy, one, site officer, two... directly to me, three.... there's many other managers and supervisors, the site superintendents, but they go up to the sites officer and the sites officer reports directly to me..."

NE : "[my job title is] actually termed as an office co-ordinator ... [which involves] first of all supervising seven people, that's administration, and that includes a payroll system for four hundred and fifty people, and that brings me into contact with security officers themselves or security guards..."

Emerging from such responses appears to be that the interviewees drew upon some basic, tacit model of what is involved in being a manager and doing managerial work. Direct authority over others ('managing people') is viewed as a sufficient criterion for being (having the identity of) a manager, ie warranting the claim on that identity. However, it not viewed as a necessary criterion for having the claim on a managerial identity. This may be tentatively asserted (warranted) when the work involves significant autonomy and significant responsibility for determining and co-ordinating projects and processes, particularly where these are of major importance to the organisation, and where this brings the individual into a (honoured) relationship with important people within and/or outside the organisation.

However, although the novice managers without responsibility for managing staff used other criteria for making a tentative claim on a managerial identity, when asked what they saw as the key aspects of being a 'good' manager they tended to refer initially to aspects of managing people.

MB : "... hmm, understanding your job, understanding the people you're working with and how you relate to each other, being sensitive to their needs, respecting them , that sort of thing..."

MA : "I think being able to delegate to the right people. I mean, coming back to the people management bit, you might not always have the time to listen to these issues, but you should be able to delegate the responsibility of that to someone else to ensure that, you know, the job was done ... and to do that, I think you need to know who you're working with and also be a good communicator..."

The problematic nature of the process of constructing a managerial identity may be seen to be reflected in the lack of a clearly identifiable source of specification of such an identity. Although there is a considerable volume of literature on 'how to manage', ostensibly written in popular style and widely available, most respondents did not refer to this as the origin of their own understanding of managing. Some referred to general conversation with social contacts as a key source:

Interviewer : "Was there anything you did about management before taking the DMS course, or going on short courses?"
NA : "No, no not really. A lot of friends I have are sort of managers, so I hear them talking about their problems all the time ..."

Those who had formally studied aspects of managing within their degree courses tended to discount the study of theory in favour of contemporaneous or later practical experience:

NC : "It was through actually doing it that you learned what you learned."

MA : "Well, at university you do learn a lot of theory about management skills ... and my view of management is you can't become a good manager just through theory..."

MB : "It's not a set of logical steps, it's not written down anywhere as a set of rules, you know. What I've said and a whole lot more which are all part of leadership and management, and everything else..."

For most, the observation of other managers was a significant source of their developing understanding of being a manager.

NJ : "You were asking what I know of management books and things. Well, I don't know anything at all, but I have always made a study of people that are in management positions, what makes them good. And I know immediately why I like someone as a manager, so I think I would be a good manager later on ..."

NB : "... looking at different managers who are successful and trying to learn from them. I think that helps and then you go from one organisation to another and you see very different managerial styles, and it helps you to, I think, you learn....I would not necessarily copy but try to adapt ... thinking what it is that makes the person seem effective ..."

This would seem to confirm the interactional nature of the process by which novice managers interpret and give meaning to managerial identity and the practices which constitute managing. Observation, interaction and performance appear to have primary importance in such process. Whilst this does not totally discount those approaches which attempt to specify and codify management performance, particularly the ‘behavioural’ wing of the competence movement, it does indicate their limited and subordinate place in how novice managers come to understand what it means to be a manager in terms which they can use to warrant their own claim on the identity.

Limitations of space here prevent further elaboration but the above analysis shows the utility of the concept of warranting, in terms of developing an understanding of how novice managers present their identity claims. The number of novice managers interviewed is insufficient to construct a meaningful typology of such warrants, given the range of possible types of trajectories and their empirical instantiations. It is also not possible from these studies to make any conclusions on how particular warrants give rise to their effects in respect of the types of warrants deployed by those who may affirm or disaffirm identity claim. This would point to the need for similar research on a larger scale. Moreover, the research methodology has provided for just a one-sided version of the process by which the novice managers sought to warrant their claims on the managerial identity. In so far as the outcomes from such warranting has been described by the interviewees, this is as interpreted by them in respect of their intentions. What is not available is evidence of how other interactors understood and responded to the warrants presented, nor how they may have understood and responded to different warrants, in respect of the claim on identity.

This suggests the need for complementary research with the significant others involved with such identity projects. That is, rather than survey-based investigations of what senior managers consider in the abstract to be the attributes and competences required of managers, there is need for the grounded study of warranting, in practice, of identity ascription. Ideally, this should be undertaken alongside the study of claim warranting, although the politics of organisations may place obstacles in the way of such holistic and synchronised study of both claim warranting and ascription warranting. This problem would particularly apply where the outcomes were deemed to be less-than-happy, ie where there is disaffirmation of claim, that is, the warrants deployed have not been honoured. Even if the holistic, synchronised study were not feasible, this area does suggest fruitful areas for further research with individuals who have experienced such adverse judgements. The emergent structural changes in managerial occupations and careers would, ostensibly, be resulting in many instances where individuals have been confronted with adverse judgements, often in contrast to confident expectations. Understanding the ‘becoming a manager’ can only be understood in relation to ‘not becoming a manager’.

In a similar way, the transition of undergraduate finalists into their post-graduation lives, particularly in terms of employment, may be subjected to the analysis of warranting. At present, research on graduate employment is in ‘poor shape’ (Johnson, 2003), particularly in terms of the dominance of the focus on ‘skills’ and ‘attributes’. Adopting an alternative research agenda based on an identity approach and examining how graduates attempt, and seek or fail, to warrant their claims to be considered for the kind of employment typically associated with graduates, should provide new insights into a situation now facing nearly two-fifths of new entrants to the labour market (Holmes, 2001; Holmes, 2002).

Prospects for becoming

The above arguments have attempted to present an approach to the study of identity in terms of an interactionist perspective: as such, it clearly assumes a degree of agency on the part of individuals. This is not to say that individuals have complete freedom to successfully choose which identity they wish to claim and be ascribed in any particular setting. As indicated, emergent identity is a joint accomplishment and may result in a number of different modalities. Nevertheless, the individual is, or at least may be, an active subject in the dynamic process. This may be contrasted with more pessimistic approaches, those that tend to treat identification as involving a process of subjection (eg Alvesson and Willmott, 2002; MacIntyre, 1999; Sennett, 1998). Of course, such writers do not argue for complete and permanent determinism, but that the forces which lead to oppression, subjection and control are powerful and pervasive within modern society. The approach outlined in this paper does not seek to deny that this is the case, but does suggest that the scope for successfully claiming particular identities perceived to be desirable is fairly considerable. Quite separate to that are issues concerning how such identities relate to wider social processes, and the scope for moral action available to individuals within such identities, as noted by MacIntyre and Sennett (opera cit.).

What the approach outlined here does provide for is the analysis of the process by which individuals become managers, employed graduates, professional practitioners, etc. We might have anticipated that such issues would be central to educational policies and practices in the context of the increased emphasis upon the ‘knowledge economy’. Yet the currently dominant framing of such policies and officially-endorsed practice is in terms of an agenda based on a possessive-individualist (Macpherson, 1962; Sampson, 1988; Dachler and Hosking, 1995), that is, the individual acquisition and possession of certain capabilities and competencies that are deemed to be objectively measurable. Whilst the terminology of such capabilities and competencies may be deployed in the process of identity claim and identity ascription (Holmes, 1995b; Holmes, 2000), treating the ‘vocabulary of competence’ as referring to objectively real states diverts our attention to the relational character of the processes by which real persons become managers, become employed graduates, or become practitioners within technical and professional arenas.


Alvesson, M. and Willmott, H. (2002) "Identity Regulation as Organizational Control: Producing the Appropriate Individual", Journal of Management Studies, 39, 619-644.

Arthur, M. and Rousseau, D. (Eds.) (1996) The Boundaryless Career: A New Employment Principle for a New Organizational Era, New York: Oxford University Press

Austin, J. L. (1961) Philosophical Papers, London: Oxford University Press

Callon, M. (1986) "Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of the scallpos and fishermen of St Brieuc Bay" in Law, J. Power, Action and Belief? A New Sociology of Knowledge?, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 196-233.

Callon, M. and Latour, B. (1981) "Unscrewing the Big Leviathan: how actors macrostructure reality and how sociologists help them to do it" in Knorr Cetina, K. and Cicourel, A. Advances in Social Theory amd Methodology: Toward an Integration of Micro and Macro-Sociologists, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 277-293.

Connor, H., Tyers, C., Modood, T. and Hillage, J. (2004) Why the Difference? A Closer Look at Higher Education Minority Ethnic Students and Graduates, Brighton: Institute of Employment Studies
CVCP/DfEE/HEQE (1998) Skills Development in Higher Education: Full Report, London: CVCP

Dachler, H. and Hosking, D.-M. (1995) "The primacy of relations in socially constructing organizational realities" in Hosking, D.-M., Dachler, H. P. and Gergen, K. Management and Organization: Relational Alternatives to Individualism, Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 1-28.

Draper, S. (1988) "What's going on in everyday explanation?" in Antaki, A. Analysing Everyday Explanation: A Casebook of Methods, London: Sage, pp. 15-31.

Gergen, K. (1989) "Warranting Voice and the Elaboration of the Self" in J. Shotter and K. Gergen Texts of Identity, London: Sage, pp. 70-81.

Goffman, E. (1959) "The Moral Career of the Mental Patient", Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 22, 123-142.

Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books

Goffman, E. (1968) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Harmonsworth: Pelican

Hall, D. (1976) Careers in Organizations, Glenview, IL.: Scoot, Foresman

Harré, R. (1983) Personal being, Oxford: Blackwell

Harré, R. and van Langenhove, L. (Eds.) (1999) Positioning Theory, Oxford: Blackwell

Harvey, L., Moon, S. and Geall, V. (1997) Graduates' Work: Organisational change and students' attributes, Birmingham: Centre for Resarch into Quality, University of Central England

Hill, L. (1992) Becoming a Manager: Mastery of a New identity, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press

Hollway, W. (1984) "Gender Difference and the Production of Subjectivity" in Henriques, J., Hollway, W., Urwin, C., Venn, C. and Walkerdine, W. Changing the Subject, London: Methuen, pp. 227–263.

Holmes, L. (1995a) "The Making of Real Managers: Ideology, Identity and Management Development", presented at The Strategic Direction of Human Resource Management: Understanding and Practising Human Resource Management, Nottingham Business School

Holmes, L. (1995b) "Skills - A Social Perspective" in Assiter, A. Transferable Skills in Higher Education, London: Kogan Page, pp. 26-37.

Holmes, L. (2000) "What can performance tell us about learning? Explicating a troubled concept", European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 9, 253-266.

Holmes, L. (2001) "Reconsidering Graduate Employability: The Graduate Identity Approach", Quality in Higher Education, 7, 111-120.

Holmes, L. (2002) "Reframing the skills agenda in higher education: graduate identity and the double warrant" in Preston, D. University of Crisis, Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, pp. 135-152.

Holmes, L. and Robinson, G. (1999) "The Making of Black Managers:Unspoken Issues of Identity Formation", presented at International Conference on Critical Management Studies, UMIST

Jenkins, R. (1996) Social Identity, London: Routledge

Johnson, B. (2003) "The Shape of Research in the Field of Higher Education and Graduate Employment: some issues", Studies in Higher Education, 28, 413-426.

Kotter, J. (1982) The General Managers, New York: Free Press

Latour, B. (1987) Science in Action, Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Law, J. (1994) Organizing Modernity, Oxford: Blackwell

MacIntyre, A. (1999) "Social Structures and their Threats to Moral Agency", Philosophy, 74, 311-330.

Macpherson, C. (1962) The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Mills, C. (1940) "Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive", American Sociological Review, 5, 904-913.

Mintzberg, H. (1973) The Nature of Managerial Work, Harper and Row

Parker, C. and Lewis, R. (1981) "Beyond the Peter Principle - Managing Successful Transitions", Journal of European Industrial Training, 5, 17-21.

Purcell, K., Hogarth, T., with Pitcher, J. and Jacobs, C. (1999) Graduate Opportunities, Social Class and Age, London: Council for Industry and Higher Education

Sampson, E. (1988) "The debate on individualism", American Psychologist, 43, 15-22.

Scase, R. and Goffee, R. (1989) Reluctant Managers: Their Work and Lifestyles, London: Unwin Hyman

Scott, M. and Lyman, S. (1968) "Accounts", American Sociological Review, 33, 46-62.

Sennett, R. (1998) The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, New York: W. W. Norton

Stewart, R. (1976) Contrasts in Management, London: Pan

Toulmin, S. (1958) The Uses of Argument, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Van Gennep, A. (1960) The Rites of Passage, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Watson, T. and Harris, P. (1999) The Emergent Manager, London: Sage


The Competence Debate   Graduate Employability    Regeneration   e-skilling and cyberontology
    Live Working Papers    Useful Links     The Odyssey Group     Back to home page