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“The fine art of boundary sensitivity: Second-generation professionals engaging with social boundaries in the workplace”

On Friday May 18th, a promotion ceremony took  place at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, concerning a double degree in cooperation with the University of Antwerp. Ismintha Waldring defended her thesis, which highlights the pathways to success of Turkish-Dutch and Moroccan-Dutch second-generation professionals - Dutch-born descendants of labour migrants from Turkey and Morocco. These pathways are analysed at the intersection of various social boundaries in Dutch society and organizations on the one hand, and boundary strategies employed by second-generation professionals in the workplace on the other. The thesis will also be presented at the University of Antwerp in the near future, in the presence of promotors prof. dr. H. Ghorashi, prof. dr. M. Crul and prof. dr. C. Timmerman.

The main research question of the thesis is: How are social boundaries opening up for and being opened up by second-generation professionals in the workplace?

The relevance of this question is embedded in a societal context in which impermeable, bright social boundaries are in place between ethnic groups in Dutch society, and these bright social boundaries percolate into organizations. Bright boundaries act to exclude, or drive the second generation to make a zero-sum choice to become either someone on the inside of the boundary line, or outside of it:


“I had a female, Dutch co-worker and she had certain ideas about me, because I’m Muslim and because I’m a man. She told me at one point that these ideas about me were negatively affecting her behavior at work.”


The zero-sum choice that the second-generation is required to make in the Dutch context of bright social boundaries touches upon the existence of boundary strategies. A much-used typology of boundary-related strategies is made up of three, separate options: boundary crossing, boundary shifting and boundary blurring.

What the analysis in this thesis shows, is that the separate strategies do not explain how Turkish-Dutch and Moroccan-Dutch second-generation professionals gain access to organizations and high-level positions, or gain acceptance by co-workers. Instead, the analysis shows that second-generation professionals successfully engage with bright social boundaries in the workplace because they make use of aspects related to boundary crossing, blurring and shifting. This simultaneous use of the three boundary strategies is done through switching between “sameness” and “difference”. Through “sameness” second-generation professionals emphasize their professional identity over their ethnic and religious identities to enter organizations and climb the organizational ladder, and it entails aspects of boundary crossing and boundary blurring:

My leadership style is just Dutch. We work together towards a shared goal. I’m involved with my team, I always communicate. It’s about working towards a shared goal together and to leave room to deliberate.”

Through “difference” second-generation professionals protect their ethnic and religious identity and aim for steps towards social change in organizations, which entails elements of boundary shifting:


“I’ve had to justify myself with co-workers because of the fact that I have a Dutch and a Turkish passport. Co-workers don’t agree with me having two passports and have told me that I should choose between the two. Then I ask them: Why should I choose? And how can I make this choice? And I bounce it back, asking my co-workers to explain why they think like this. They usually don’t know. They just follow what others say.”

 Switching between the three boundary strategies by using “sameness” and “difference” amounts to the strategy of “boundary sensitivity”, which is an individual and contextual strategy. Boundary sensitivity offers a viable strategy towards the bright boundary lines that continue to affect second-generation professionals in the form of boundary making in organizations. Through “sameness” boundary sensitivity makes room for the introduction of second-generation professional “newcomers” in organizational positions of influence and power. While through “difference”, boundary sensitivity can challenge social boundaries in organizations.

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