Occupational boundary play: Crafting a sense of identity legitimacy in an emerging occupation

Chad Murphy, Glen E. Kreiner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In emerging occupations, individuals are given very little prepackaged identity “content”—for example, occupational values, legitimating ideologies, clear goals, tasks, and/or routines—to help them build their individual-level occupational identities. By contrast, individuals in well-established occupations (e.g., professions) are given ample identity content, and prior identity research has examined identity work processes almost exclusively in the context of such occupations. Consequently, prior theory assumes that identity work is mostly a matter of tailoring prepackaged identity content to fit one's individual-level preferences and objectives. Prior theory is therefore of limited use in emerging occupations, where the key identity problem is not one of tailoring identity content effectively but creating an identity in the first place—more specifically, an identity whose existence feels justified and valid. Thus, in this paper, we ask: how do individuals in emerging occupations construct an internal sense that “who they are” is necessary, desirable, and appropriate (i.e., legitimate) within the broader occupational landscape? On the basis of a grounded theory study of health coaches, we suggest that individuals in such circumstances can craft this sense of “identity legitimacy” via a sensemaking process we call occupational boundary play. This process consists of both “occupational boundary setting” and “occupational boundary blurring,” the former providing for individuals a sense of identity novelty and the latter providing a sense of identity familiarity. Taken together, this subjective experience of both novelty and familiarity provides for individuals the sense that “who they are” is legitimate within the broader occupational landscape.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)871-894
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Organizational Behavior
Issue number9
StatePublished - Nov 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Applied Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Psychology(all)
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management

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