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Identity, agency and institutional work in higher education: a qualitative meta-synthesis

Chloé Adler (Department of Management, Laval University, Quebec City, Canada)
Carole Lalonde (Department of Management, Laval University, Quebec City, Canada)

Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management

ISSN: 1746-5648

Article publication date: 26 July 2019

Issue publication date: 4 May 2020




The purpose of this paper is to synthesize a body of research addressing changes in academic identity brought on by neo-liberal university management while proposing a new interpretation based on the institutional work theory and a relational approach to agency.


The authors analyzed 19 qualitative empirical studies regarding the impact of new public management policies on academic identity within universities from different countries to support a qualitative meta-synthesis.


The meta-synthesis established a classification of work identity and self-identity that reflects variable but globally difficult experiences with the universities’ neo-liberal management. The results also indicate that, paradoxically, academics contribute to the perpetuation of managerialism through protection strategies and institutional maintenance work while acknowledging their painful effects on their identity. Despite the control and monitoring measures put in place by university administrations, academics have assumed a pragmatic approach to identity by using the prevailing spaces of autonomy and engaging in constant self-questioning. Those involved could make better use of these free spaces by adopting projective agency, that is by expanding the areas of support, collaboration and creativity that, by their own admission, make up the academic profession.


This meta-synthesis sheds light on the limits of current academic identity research while advancing studies conducted on institutional work, primarily by highlighting the type of agency used by actors during institutional change; at a practical level, this research promotes discussion on the manner in which academics could use their agency and reflexive skills by pushing their institutional work surrounding identity recreation further.



Adler, C. and Lalonde, C. (2020), "Identity, agency and institutional work in higher education: a qualitative meta-synthesis", Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, Vol. 15 No. 2, pp. 121-144.



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