In this dissertation, I investigate how identity legitimacy, defined as the extent to which the characteristics of a social actor’s identity are properly and adequately isomorphic with institutional rules, results in changes in the actor’s network characteristics over time. Based on recent developments in social identity theory in market contexts and neo-institutional theory on the dynamics of the interface between social actors and audiences, I propose that the social identity of an actor can be framed as a fuzzy set comprised of elements from multiple socially defined categories, and that the legitimate features of the actor’s identity thus can be determined by both the distribution and the symbolic nature of those categorical elements. While the distribution of those elements determines the cognitive aspect of identity legitimacy, the symbolic nature of those elements reflects the normative aspect of identity legitimacy. Therefore, the internal structure and characteristics of these elements significantly affect the extent to which audiences perceive actors’ identities as legitimate, and such social influences in turn affect the dynamics of actors’ social network profiles. Specifically, the legitimate features of an identity can be investigated on two dimensions: identity focus and identity morality. Network dynamics can be examined for variations in both the structural and the content characteristics of social networks of an actor. To test these propositions, I collected a unique and large longitudinal dataset on the Hong Kong film industry from multiple reliable sources, spanning from 1970 to 1997. I developed and tested specific hypotheses based on three interrelated empirical studies.
The first study explores the relationship between the cognitive aspect of identity legitimacy, identity focus, indicated by the extent to which a network member’s identity spans categories used by audiences, and network dynamics, reflected by variations in a member’s network centrality and structural holes over time. I argue that within particular social norms, a social actor of strong identity focus can become a central player who leads fragmented groups into a cohesive unity. Specifically, in the Hong Kong film industry, the empirical findings suggested that on the one hand, an actor with a focused identity will be perceived more cognitively legitimate by audiences and thus be more visible to partners, and tend to attract more network partners with both similar and different focal identity. On the other hand, due to the specific task (film industry) and cultural contexts (Chinese context), central actors will have more opportunities and face stronger normative pressure to close structural holes in their networks faster, leading to declined structural holes with a more focused identity. In addition, while such relationships hold for an actor’s network composed of ties from one’s own and different domains, the influence of identity focus on network dynamics in one’s different domains was detected to be stronger than the influence in the actor’s own domain.
The second study investigated how the normative aspect of identity legitimacy, identity morality, influences changes in network variables from both the structural and the content perspective. Specifically, this study found that an actor with a more moral identity will be more likely to occupy a central position bridging more structural holes in his network. An actor’s status was shown to moderate the effect of identity morality such that the positive relationship between identity morality and structural holes strengthens as an actor’s status increases. In contrast, an actor with a lower level of identity morality will have a stronger incentive to seek forming ties with those perceived as more moral, and thus the average identity morality of an actor’s partners increases as his own declines. To further test such an incentive mechanism, I found the actor’s status has a weakening moderating effect on the relationship of identity morality with partner identity morality, because the legitimacy accompanying the actor’s status will decrease the actor’s incentive to form ties with those partners of higher identity morality.
The third study, extending the earlier findings in this dissertation, explored the mediating role of social networks in the relationship between identity legitimacy and actor market performance. Identity focus was shown to have a negative impact, while identity morality showed a positive effect, on an actor’s market performance. Network centrality and structural holes can partially mediate the impact of identity focus on actor performance, while the two egocentric network variables seemed not to mediate the positive impact of identity morality on actor performance.
This thesis aims at contributing to the neo-institutional literature and the social identity research in market contexts in the following respects: first, this thesis has examined how the characteristics of identities can be reflected in different levels of legitimacy; second, this thesis has elucidated the linkage between social identities and changes in social networks; third, this thesis has generalized and extended previous findings in traditional Western contexts to a predominantly Chinese context and has demonstrated that the impacts of social identities on network dynamics heavily depend on both the task and cultural normative contexts the actors are facing; finally, this thesis has identified the important boundary condition set by an actor’s status in the above relationships.
Key Words: Social Identities, Legitimacy, Network Dynamics, Status, Categorization, Hong Kong Film Industry, Actors
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