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Materiality, identity and social positioning: The case of the Elbphilharmonie



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Heuer, Tobias 


The papers in this dissertation are studies of totalities such as the NDR EO, the citizenry of Hamburg, the French fashion house Chanel, and the Elbphilharmonie concert hall itself. Each of these totalities is a component of larger totalities, such as the NDR EO being part of the Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) organization or the Elbphilharmonie concert hall being part of the object that is the larger Elbphilharmonie complex. All such totalities comprise individuals and (technological) objects. The theory enabled me to address the relationships between the totalities via the social positions they occupy, and the attendant social identities, system functions, rights and responsibilities.

However, the PhD Viva and the examiner’s report made me aware that using social positioning theory (SPT)—an established theory—was unsuitable to be used in the first paper in this dissertation, because my methodology was guided by a grounded theory building approach and I have accordingly adapted and largely rewritten this paper over the last six months. The paper responds to Watkiss and Glynn’s (2016) call for empirical work on how differing forms of forms of materiality might affect organizational identity and takes into account that organizational identity change needs to be studied in more contexts with a focus on how it changes (Gioia et al., 2013). I use the case of the NDR orchestra’s relocation to the Elbphilharmonie to explore how moving into a new building may trigger organizational identity change. Various aspects of the two organizational identity pillars of “who we are” and “what we do” are explored, focusing specifically on how a relocation leads to the need to redetermine who the organization is and what is does.

I find that the relocation triggered a new set of identity dynamics between the pillars that cause mismatches and introduce “where we are” as a third pillar for organizational identity. The organization uses two forms of identity work to address the symbolic and practice mismatches between the pillars, which I term as symbolic-material alignment and practice-material alignment. I also show that the relocation led to positive and negative effects, most notably motivation and anxiety amongst its members, which it attempts to balance to achieve an overall positive outcome: an improved organizational performance. Nevertheless, I show that a positive overall outcome is not a given result of a relocation, as anxiety can prevail over the motivation. As a result, I am able to show the importance of carefully managing relocations to secure improved organizational performance and to unlock the potential a relocation can bring.

Note that my study interprets the “where we are” pillar in a narrow sense of being restricted to the building an organization occupies and a place change to a more central location within a city. But there are of course others senses of “where we are”. For example, while the relocation to a new building within a city changes the symbolic and material conditions of the organization in one way, it does not change its location in a wider regional sense. Thus, I suggest future research is necessary where other forms of relocation are examined, for example a relocation to a new city, region or country. I also suggest that future research is necessary to study cases in which organizations have outgrown their premises and have changed the organizational identity pillars of “who we are” and “what we do” in advance of a relocation, and the identity dynamics have caused mismatches with their current “where we are” to an extent that a relocation is without an alternative, for example in a startup context.

The interviews conducted for the first paper sparked various questions about the social positioning processes in which the Elbphilharmonie building was involved, and how these might reflect on the identity of the citizens of Hamburg and the city as a whole. The second paper, recently published in the journal European Planning Studies, addresses these questions. While some of the data from the qualitative interviews was helpful for developing the research question, I collected a second data set from individuals involved in the social positioning processes of the building. These included people who had worked on the marketing campaign for positioning the building, for example those from Hamburg Marketing and Jung von Matt, the cultural senator and some journalists. The interviews revealed some remarkable perspectives on how the positioning of the building unfolded over time and might have affected the identity of the city and its citizens. I further learned how, over and above its geographical location at the heart of the city, the buildings (e.g., Johns shipyard, Kaiserspeicher A, Kaispeicher A, and Elbphilharmonie) and their associated system functions, reflected the core identity of the city over time (e.g., shipyard and shipbuilding, warehouse and trade, concert hall and culture). This data was blended with secondary material gleaned from the popular press. The key finding of the paper is what I call “the Hamburg effect” as distinct from the well-established Bilbao effect. Whereas the Bilbao effect is an example of how an instance of star architecture can increase the attractiveness of a city for national and international tourism (as reflected in the statistics on the origin of visitors to the Guggenheim museum), the Hamburg effect is an example of how star architecture can increase the attractiveness of particular activities for regional and local citizens (more than 80% of the audiences attending the concerts at the Elbphilharmonie are from the Hamburg area): Inquiries from external organizers for concert dates in both halls of the Elbphilharmonie rose to a record high. In contrast to the large hall, which was already busy in the previous season, the number of events in the small hall rose from 254 in 2017/18 to over 300. The Laeiszhalle also experienced a noticeable increase in concerts and visitors. This development is particularly gratifying because it shows that the music city of Hamburg is also growing beyond the Elbphilharmonie. Overall, the number of concert goers in Hamburg's concert halls has thus continued to increase. With around 1.25 million guests, the city now has more than three times as many concertgoers as in the 2015/16 season, the last season before the opening of the Elbphilharmonie. This extremely gratifying development is due above all to the enthusiasm of thousands of new music lovers from Hamburg and the metropolitan region, for whom attending concerts has become an integral part of their everyday lives. We are particularly happy that the Elbphilharmonie has reached the center of society in our city in this way. (Elbphilharmonie (2020): Elbphilharmonie Annual Report, 2018/19: 4)

When looking for the topic for a third paper, I came across a prominent example of the Elbphilharmonie and the main concert hall serving system functions other than those they had been designed for: as a venue for the Paris-Hamburg Chanel M’étiers d’Art show 2017 that exploited both the prestige and beauty of the building and the imagery associated with the city and its maritime history. The collection was inspired by male, professional and maritime themes, repositioning clothes formerly associated with harbor or trading activity as women’s fashion items. As the presentation of fashion items is an instance of product positioning, this required me to become familiar with the marketing and strategy literature on product positioning (the two are often grouped under the heading of strategic positioning, and with the marketing literature often overlapping with brand positioning and the strategy literature often overlapping with firm positioning). I realized that these two sets of literature had become quite siloed and lacked a coherent overarching theoretical framework that was able to accommodate product, brand and firm positioning in a unified way. I accordingly decided to attempt to use SPT towards this end, and to use the fashion show as an illustrative case of the interrelationships involved. As the subjects of firm, product and brand positioning are discussed in a variety of diverse literatures, it took some time to find common themes and align them with my theoretical framework. What helped was to increase the scope of this paper and the timeframe of how fashion shows changed over time. The challenge here was that I was unable to gain access to Chanel itself and wasn’t granted a single interview with anyone at the firm who had been involved with the event. However, I did speak to professionals in the beauty, fashion and luxury domain, as well as to fashion models and journalists with insider knowledge. The dataset was strengthened with information gleaned from books, as well as numerous secondary interviews granted to various publications. The resultant dataset enabled me to gain a wider perspective and to develop a theoretical framework that made it possible to harmonize some of the strategy and marketing literature, and to show how the fashion shows of the major fashion houses, at least in many cases, have morphed from being product positioning platforms aimed mostly at local audiences to becoming communication tools in the form of in-person content creation platforms to be amplified online for a global audience. The show in Hamburg exemplified how a firm might be able to harness the positioning of a prestigious building, and how the interrelationships between firm, product, and brand positioning can be exploited.





Runde, Jochen
Tracey, Paul


Materiality, System Function, Identity, Organizational Identity, City Identity, Strategic Positioning, Social Positions, Elbphilharmonie, Architecture, Orchestra, Fashion


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Political Economy Society Trust (CPEST); Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)