Commitment in liminality: Independent consultants betwixt and between organisations, clients and professional bodies

  • David Cross

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


This thesis investigates the commitment bonds of individuals through the lens of liminality. While workers are able to commit to multiple targets and this has been linked to important performance outcomes, previous study of commitment in the workplace is almost exclusively concerned with organisational contexts and employer-employee dyads thus neglecting the increasingly fragmented and diverse world of work. Commitment is developed here by examining it in a liminal position, a term often applied to cross-boundary knowledge workers due to its ambiguous and uncertain nature but also the freedom of being 'betwixt and between' organisations, professions, and clients. Indicative of this liminal position are independent consultants, a growing army of self-employed freelance knowledge workers who use their tacit knowledge and high levels of human capital to solve complex problems for multiple business clients. Independent consultancy is a growing area and as self-employed independent contractors they are an increasingly important policy battleground. They are vital to our understanding of a changing world of work where existing theories and frameworks are becoming stretched, distorted and perhaps even irrelevant.Adopting a pragmatist research philosophy and making use of a reflexive metamethodology, 50 semi-structured interviews using critical incidents and participatory visual methods were conducted. Thematic analysis was used and a new method of visual metaphor analysis pioneered. The resulting findings focus on three areas. Firstly important targets of commitment are identified; clients, professional bodies, and collaborators. I argue that these act as substitutes for commitment to an organisation because they perform a similar role. Secondly, these bonds of commitment are underpinned by the inherent freedom of a liminal position. Although this freedom is evident in various ways, a more critical reading suggests that it is more complex and relational rather than total. Finally, this freedom from organisational ties and structures can cause conflicts of commitment based on knowledge, time, and contractual issues. Devoid of an organisational employer and many of the accompanying administrative and support mechanisms these conflicts are resolved at an individual level by turning the conflict into a synergy, preventing, avoiding, or in extreme cases changing the nature of the bond altogether.The primary contributions to knowledge are the development of substitutes for organisational commitment, the detailing of conflicts of commitment and their resolution, and the inherent freedom of a liminal position which underpins these. Furthermore, this thesis offers the first investigation using the Klein et al. (2012) reconceptualisation to investigate commitment outside of an organisational employment setting. This context and aspects of liminality are used to further problematise the extant literature and theory around the volition inherent in commitment and the isolation and measurement of targets. Understanding of liminality is advanced in terms of freedom, which is often assumed but rarely explored, and anti-structure by arguing that liminality is full of structure in the form of commitment bonds which act as important anchors and reference points to help minimise the ambiguity.
Date of Award12 Dec 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorJuani Swart (Supervisor) & Nicholas Kinnie (Supervisor)


  • Commitment
  • Liminality
  • Independent contractors
  • Self-employment

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