Cultural Scripts, cultural repertoires and globalization

The global free flow of goods, capital, labor, and cultures across national boundaries and throughout the world, means that new, complex and shifting identities are created, which demand new understandings of gender and other work identities. At CGO1 we recently discussed with Visiting scholar Michal Frenkel, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, how the concepts of cultural repertoires and cultural scripts can help us address the complexity of gender issues and gender identity in today's world. More specifically, our interest was to explore whether cultural repertoires or scripts help us understand the intersections (or simultaneity) of social identities, organizational practices and societal processes of race-ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, and nation in an increasingly global world.

What does cultural scripts or repertoires mean?

We agreed that cultural scripts, cultural repertoires, and cultural schemas can be used interchangeably, since the literature does not provide very clear differentiations between them. Borrowing from Pawan Dhingra (2004), I use the terms to refer to “…people’s mental image of a setting’s expected mode of behavior” (:7)2 - ways of thinking about what one can/cannot do or say. Cultural scripts or repertoires limit or enhance the available range of strategies of action a person can draw from and are deployed selectively according to the situation.

What is the usefulness of cultural scripts?

We see two important applications of cultural scripts in our work in organizations: 1) cultural scripts reflect the confluence or simultaneity of multiple identities in complex ways, and 2) cultural scripts can empower individuals by enabling them to access cultural scripts learned from different settings to negotiate and deploy “hybrid” or complex identities in particular situations.

Dr. Michal Frenkel’s research (2008) provides a great example. Her study of gender identity in the Israeli hi-tech sector demonstrates how affluent women were able to maneuver in-between two contradictory cultural repertories – one based on a transnational (global) masculinity of the technology worker; and another local repertoire based on the strong family orientation of Israeli society. Drawing from both repertoires, they constructed a third new work identity that challenged on the one hand, the assumption of the supposedly un-gendered “ideal hi-tech worker,” (the “24/7” totally devoted to the organization worker) and on the other, the traditional Israeli femininity based on devoted motherhood. The women accomplished this new identity by their extensive use of work-family balance organizational discourse and policies, arguing that they could be both “good workers” and “good mothers.” This new identity changed their everyday negotiations at work and possibly their organizations’ cultures.

However, I contrast this success story with that of Latino and Latina professionals in US corporations. My research suggests that the cultural scripts they draw from their Latin American background, such as “personalismo” or “familismo,” where friendly, harmonious and close family relations are valued, do not “fit” the dominant scripts of “24/7” availability and aggressive displays of competence and ambition (Holvino, 2010). While the Israeli women were able to combine contradictory scripts, most of my Latino managers perceive they have to choose between their Anglo and Latino scripts, and are unable to bring them together or deploy them selectively to meet a situation.3

Incorporating “nation” and the power of the state into analysis of work identities help us see how the Israeli state’s pro-natalis discourse supports the high-tech women’s use of work-family arrangements to create their new identity, while the “assimilationist-melting pot” discourse in the United States limits the range of options for action for the Latino/a managers.

These two contrasting examples suggest that all cultural scripts are not created equal. National politics and the discourses of the nation-state play an important role in constraining or facilitating how cultural repertoires are used by actors given their specific historical and material circumstances.

What next?

Important questions emerged from our discussion with implications for theory development, research and organizational practice, which we would like to pursue in the future:

  1. Can we identify and use “cultural scripts” without falling into essentialism? That is, once we identify a cultural script or repertoire, do we attribute it to an inherent characteristic of the individual and his/her group, treating every member of the group as if they will follow that particular script? Or do we understand that the cultural script is not a recipe that applies to all members of the group? For example, Latino/as’ familismo does not mean that their commitment to the extended family – the script - predicts that all Latinos will not relocate if offered a promotion or lateral move in another town or country. In fact, it may be precisely a familismo script and the desire to support their family that attracts a Latino/a manager to an offer requiring relocation.
  2. Can cultural scripts help us explore more concretely the role of social identity in the workplace, particularly helping strengthen relations among different identity groups? For example, how do employees construct their complex identities drawing from different cultural scripts in their backgrounds? Can employee resource groups (ERGs) benefit from discussing and learning about the similarities and differences among their and other cultural scripts in the workplace?
  3. Can studying cultural scripts or repertoires help understand more concretely the complexity and simultaneity of identities in the workplace? For example, in his study of the multiple identities of Asian professionals in Texas, Dhingra (2004) captured how they enact what he calls a “lived hybridity” by balancing the contradictory and multiple cultural expectations of their families of origin on one hand and their American professional peers on the other. These complex identities showed up in behaviors and decisions that combined elements of their ethnic, racial, an American lifestyles, at times simultaneously and at other times separately, to form a distinctive way of being an “Asian-American professional in Texas.” My own research reveals that the cultural script of Machismo-Marianismo in the lives of Latino/a managers already reveals the simultaneous effects of race, ethnicity, culture and gender. Other authors like Gloria Anzaldúa (1990) note how these scripts are also strongly coded by sexuality and class differences in the Latino culture, demonstrating that race, gender class, and sexuality for example, are always interacting in our work and life identities.

In all, cultural scripts, repertoires or schemas provide a rich and promising avenue for working with the simultaneity of identities and the complexity of gender in organizations.


Anzaldúa, G. 1990. Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras: Creative and critical perspective by women of color. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Foundation Books.

Bell, E. and Nkomo, S. 2001. Our Separate Selves: Black and white women and the struggle for professional identity. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Dhingra, Pawan. 2007. Managing multicultural lives: Asian American professionals and the challenges of multiple identities. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Frenkel, M. 2008. Reprogramming femininity? The construction of gender identities in the Israeli high-tech industry between global and local gender orders. Gender, Work & Organization, 15 (4), 352-374.

Goddard, C. 2006. Ethnopragmatics: Understanding discourse in cultural context. Berlin, Germany: Mouton De Gruyter.

Holvino, E. 2010. “I think it’s a cultural thing and a woman thing:” Cultural scripts in Latinas’ careers. CGO Insights 30. Center for Gender in Organizations, Simmons School of Management, Boston, MA. 2010.

Swidler, A. 1986. Culture in action: Symbols and strategies. American Sociological Review, 51 (2), 273-286.

Wierzbicka, A. 2006. English: Meaning and Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

University of New England. n.d. Retrieved Nov 30, 2008.

[1] The Center for Gender in Organizations at the Simmons College School of Management is a knowledge development and dissemination think tank on gender issues in the workplace.

[2] Following Goddard (2006) and Wierzbicka (2006), Holvino defines cultural scripts as “commonly held assumptions about social interactions and communication particular to a “cultural” group. Cultural scripts provide a background for interpreting one’s and others’ behaviors but do not describe, determine or predict behavior (2010). Ann Swidler (1986) defines cultural repertoires as “a set of knowledge, skills, and symbols, which provide the materials from which individuals and groups construct strategies of action” (:280-284). What is common to these definitions of cultural scripts and repertoires is a shift from traditional conceptualizations of culture, which defined it as shared cultural values, assumptions and patterns of interaction particular to cultural groups to more poststructuralist notions of culture, such as “the publicly available symbolic forms through which people experience and express meaning” (In Swidler, 1986 :273).

[3] Bell & Nkomo report the same dynamic for Black women managers in “Our separate Ways” (2001).

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