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Crafting the Institutional Self: Identity and Trajectory in Artistic Training and Creative Careers

  • Author(s): Rowe, Matthew
  • Advisor(s): Swidler, Ann
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation is a study of identity processes in two social domains: higher education and professional careers. Each chapter presents a distinct form of social identity and shows how it serves either as a resource to guide social participation (in the case of careers) or is a product of social participation (in higher education). "Institutional self" is a shorthand term for a pragmatic definition of identity, an ongoing process through which individuals make sense of their own capacities and trajectories as economic agents, in relation to the cues systematically produced in different environments. Each chapter of the dissertation develops a distinct conceptual model related to institutional self-formation, using empirical cases that are of interest to sociologists: the tensions of work in cultural production; formative stages of boundary-spanning careers; and college-level vocational training. Each fills gaps in the sociological research in these areas.

The data used throughout the dissertation come from 106 interviews conducted by the author with students, faculty, and graduates of one art school, Adams College of the Arts (43 students, eight faculty, and 55 graduates). The school is located in a metropolitan area on the West Coast of the United States, where interviews took place in 2012 and 2013. All participants are drawn from two academic departments at the school: Visual Design, centered on the discipline of graphic design, and Media Arts, a mix of several digital media applications. Subsequent qualitative analyses of interview transcripts were primarily inductive, involving several rounds of coding along with development of guiding questions that emerged from observed patterns in interviewees' personal accounts and detailed work histories. Each of the dissertation's three empirical chapters is presented as an independent research manuscript; introductory and concluding chapters frame the conceptual and empirical contributions of the project as a whole.

Chapter 2, "Boundary Work as Career Navigation in Design and Media," looks at how creative workers use rhetorics of creativity to justify preferences for a wide range of working arrangements. Interviewees pursue one of two distinct forms of boundary work: segmentation and integration. Segmentation involves reproducing the institutionalized opposition between artistry and commerce in the temporal and spatial arrangements of working lives. Integration breaks down the boundary, merging the opposing motivations. Each finds expression in a range of career-building practices, from maintaining separate creative projects, to becoming an entrepreneur, or leaving creative work altogether. In closing, the chapter questions the relevance of occupations as a place of sensemaking and belonging for skilled, contingent workers.

Chapter 3, "Self-Assessment and Self-Presentation in Disorderly Careers," looks at a different set of career navigation strategies, based on ongoing accounting of one's capacities in relation to the observed expectations of work roles and environments. The organization of American work has shifted fundamentally in the last few decades. Work in many skilled occupations now takes on patterns long found in creative fields: project-based work and "portfolio careers" that are disorderly, uncertain, and highly mobile. I find that young creatives continually evaluate their skills and personalities in market terms as they experience jobs in different contexts. These self-assessments lead to instrumental investment in "human capital"-both emotional and technical capacities-and self-selection into work roles based on a sense of fit with a firm, project, or industry. The chapter illuminates the experience of boundary-spanning careers, reviving an underdeveloped stream of micro-sociological career theory.

Chapter 4, "Crafting Identity: Two Approaches to Professionalization in Art School," turns to college education as a training ground in occupational identification and preparation for boundary-spanning careers. Professional training is the dominant contemporary form of higher education in America, having surpassed the arts and sciences in the number of undergraduate enrollees and graduates, yet sociologists know little about how students experience the professionalization process at the college level. I find that two departments providing artists with training in commercial art practices create distinct pedagogic cultures within the same school. One prepares students for industry-specific work roles to which students peg their future trajectories; the other cultivates general competencies that are applicable across industries, leaving students to identify likely work roles and career pathways. The analysis provides a conceptually nuanced model drawn from cultural and organizational sociology that is applicable across settings of higher education.

The dissertation concludes with a brief closing chapter that provides an overview of the contributions of each chapter and the project as a whole. It closes with questions for future research that are directly and indirectly informed by these findings that may be useful for sociologists of the arts and media, work and occupations, and culture.

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