Understanding the Spirit of the Sectors: Exploring Identity in a New Era of Organizing

Published date01 May 2022
Date01 May 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(5) 792 –827
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211041131
Understanding the Spirit
of the Sectors: Exploring
Identity in a New Era of
Julie Langer1
While sector distinction debates often re-emerge during periods of cultural
and institutional upheaval, none have considered an identity-orientation
perspective. Identity orientation is a natural domain in which to address
these debates as it considers the individualistic, relational, and collectivistic
foundations of organizations. This study explores whether organizational
members across sectors view their organization’s identity orientation
differently. Findings suggest that member perceptions of identity orientation
are significantly different across sectors and align with traditional sector
values and motivations. However, no one sector can be defined solely as
individualistic, relational, or collectivistic. These findings are discussed and
future research paths laid out.
sector identity, sector comparisons, public private distinction
1Northern Illinois University, Dekalb, USA
Corresponding Author:
Julie Langer, Department of Public Administration, Northern Illinois University, 1425 W.
Lincoln Highway, IASBO Building, Dekalb, IL 60115, USA.
Email: jlanger@niu.edu
1041131AAS0010.1177/00953997211041131Administration & SocietyLanger
Langer 793
In periods of upheaval, when cultural and institutional environments chal-
lenge existing patterns of organizing, increased attention is focused on the
similarities and differences of organizations across sectors (public, for-profit,
and nonprofit) and their potential to both create and destroy value.1 In the
wake of industrialization, scholars and practitioners contemplated what the
impacts of bureaucratization and professionalization might be on the roles
that for-profit, nonprofit, and public organizations fulfilled in society
(DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; Hwang & Powell, 2009). In a postindustrial
global economy, it was devolution, managerialism, and marketization that
sector debates centered on (Box et al., 2001; Eikenberry & Kluver, 2004).
Today, in an era defined by integration and hyper-organization,2 issues of
blurring and hybridity define discussions of sector distinctiveness (Bromley
& Meyer, 2015, 2017). While each different, all of these organizational revo-
lutions have prompted questions about the purpose, identities, and behaviors
of organizations within and across sectors and through what lens they can
best be understood.
While expectations of organizations across sectors have evolved over time
in response to changing institutional environments and cultural norms, for
much of the last century organizational “sector” has served as a powerful
symbol of identity, signaling to members appropriate values and legitimate
behaviors. For-profit organizations, birthed from early notions of the market
and private life, have historically been expected to act as efficient profit cre-
ators, focused on the actualization of economic self-interest and the amassing
of shareholder wealth (Coase, 1993; Friedman, 1970; Mill, 1871). In com-
parison, government organizations, an outgrowth of public life and the
nation-state, have been expected to act as social architects, effectively actual-
izing the public interest (Adams et al., 1988; Box et al., 2001; Hegel,
1820/1945; Rosenbloom & McCurdy, 2006; Stivers, 2000). Nonprofit orga-
nizations, a manifestation of the marriage between private life and the com-
mon good, have long been expected to serve the moral interests of individuals
gathering together in voluntary association (de Tocqueville, 1840/2016;
Soskis, 2020).
Despite these long-standing identities, today, thousands of for-profit com-
panies across hundreds of countries endorse agreements to act morally
(Donaldson & Walsh, 2015; Kettl, 2002). Nonprofits, now more organized
and professional than ever, act on behalf of the government and embrace the
market in their endeavors as socially responsible citizens (Bromley & Meyer,
2015; Eikenberry, 2009). Government organizations have embraced market-
based practices, devolving and contracting out public services in the name of
efficiency (Bryson et al., 2014; Hood, 1991; Kettl, 2000). Across all sectors,
794 Administration & Society 54(5)
organizations are now recognized as social actors with their own rights and
identities (Ashforth et al., 2020). These new realities have reignited debates
about whether organizations in the for-profit, nonprofit, and public sectors
have distinct and enduring identities or whether modern organizing processes
have made sector membership less relevant.
Sector distinctions have been approached in a number of different ways
over time. In the public and nonprofit universes, early research on sector dif-
ferences focused primarily on instrumental organizational features such as
goods produced, legal constraints, funding, internal procedures, and sources
of authority (Bozeman, 1987; Breton & Wintrobe, 1982; Chubb & Moe,
1988; Hansmann, 1987; Perry & Rainey, 1988; Wamsley & Zald, 1973;
Weisbrod, 1975). This research expanded our understanding of sector overlap
and dimensionality, highlighting the close connection between organizational
form and institutional environment (Bozeman, 1987; Frumkin &
Galaskiewicz, 2004; Perry & Rainey, 1988). However, sector distinctions
based on organizational form faded as the 20th century wore on (e.g., sector
blurring), leading to the assertion that form and function may not always
coincide (Powell, 2020).
While organizational forms may exhibit dimensionality and malleability
over time as they conform to institutionally legitimized structures and cul-
tural norms; function, or the purpose for which form is used, is more closely
tied to expressive organizational features such as values and motivations.
Given that values and motivations form the foundation of organizational
identity, which is a relatively enduring meta-level construct, it may be better
suited than form to capture similarities and differences both within and across
sectors. Albert and Whetten (1985) define organizational identity as those
features of an organization that are central (core), distinctive (different), and
enduring (long-term). More specifically, organizational identity refers to the
deepest values and commitments that organizations repeatedly commit to
through time and across circumstances (Whetten, 2006). The purpose of this
research is to explore the identity or spirit of the sectors through the lens of
organizational identity orientation (OIO). Identity orientation is a natural
domain to address sector distinction debates as it brings together enduring
values and motivations that define who organizations are in relationship to
others. More specifically, OIO asks, “who are ‘we’ as an organization” vis-à-
vis others? Do we see our organizations primarily as independent entities
motivated to be the best and outshine others (individualistic), as dyadic part-
ners focused on each other’s inherent well-being (relational), or as members
of a larger collective driven to advance the welfare of a group, cause, or com-
munity (collectivistic) (Brickson, 2005)? The comparative nature of identity
orientation makes it ideal for capturing both the similarities and differences
of organizations across sectors.

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