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Symbolic action and organizational resources acquisition and exploitation



The article aims to analyze the current literature (conceptual and research articles) in the field of relations between the symbolic activities of the organization and the ability to acquire resources and their efficient exploitation, and an attempt to build a conceptual model on this basis. This goal was achieved by applying a systematic literature review. The analysis was based on literature, both conceptual and research. Types of resources purchased by stakeholders were indicated. The study presents a conceptual model describing the role of symbolic activities in the process of resource acquisition and management. The concept of symbolic obligations was presented as a consequence of actions taken by organizations.
Vol. 23, No. 2
ISSN 1429-9321 DOI: 10.2478/manment-2019-0017
Prof. Eng. Karolina Mazur,
University of Zielona Góra,
Faculty of Economics
and Management,
ORCID: 0000-0003-1430-8754.
Symbolic action and
organizational resources
acquisition and
1. Introduction
The problem of symbolic actions in
management sciences was raised at the
end of the last century (for example: Gioia,
Chittipeddi, 1991; Hart, 1992; Singer, 1994;
Westphal, Zajac, 1994; Westphal, Zajac, 1998)
mainly as a result of the introduction of the
concept of capital symbolic by P. Bourdieu
to the theory of social science (1986; 1993,
after: Swartz, 1998). Symbolic capital was
awarded as a form of capital by P. Bourdieu,
which legitimizes other forms of capital:
economic and social capital (Bourdieu, 1986).
P. Bourdieus theory is not strictly related to
organization but only to the eld which may
arise on its grounds and taking into account
its social environment (footnote), however,
many studies have recently appeared which
transfer P. Bourdieus theory to the ground
organizational sciences by referring to the
concept of symbolic capital directly (for
example: Gergs, 2003; Fuller and Tian 2006;
De Clercq and Voronov, 2009 and others)
and indirectly, by introducing the concept of
symbolic action and symbolic management
(Austen and Kapias, 2016; Lueg and Nielsen
2015, Mazur 2014; Markóczy et al., 2013;
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Rodrigue et al., 2013 ; Perez-Bartes et al., 2012; Jamali, 2010; Kim et al. 2007; Boiral,
2007; Christmann and Taylor, 2006).
The basic idea of symbolic action in an organization is communication with
stakeholders to legitimize organizational activities (Ashforth and Gibbs 1991;
De Clercq and Voronov 2009). Stakeholders, both external and internal, provide
the resources of the organization and can both support its effective operation
and limit it to a certain extent. The impact of individual organization decisions
on a wide range of external and internal stakeholders is now an unquestioned
phenomenon. Therefore, these stakeholders are looking for opportunities to
in uence the decision-making process of economic and public organizations
through various external pressures. Stakeholders enforce the adoption of
certain management rigors, which are then adapted by organizations in the
form of speci c procedures, codes of ethics or formal documents. Due to the
diversity of stakeholders, their diverse interests and in uences, it is dif cult to
satisfy all parties, if at all possible. This provides space for the organization to
carry out symbolic management activities communicating the organization’s
adaptation to the expectations of stakeholders but to some extent separate from
substantive management. In this way, the phenomenon of symbolic decoupling
appears, which is one of the elements of the so-called “The dark side of symbolic
management” (Cril ly et al. 2016, Mazur 2014, King et al. 2005).
In relation to organization, this concept is described by such theoretical
approaches as: agency theory and steward theory, theory of planned behavior
(Donaldson and Davies, 1991, Ajzen 1991, pp. 179–211) and a wide range of
concepts regarding organizational culture and problems related to CSR (for
example: Donia et al. 2019).
As mentioned earlier, the organization communicates to external and internal
stakeholders through symbolic management the fact that it will adapt its decision-
making system to their expectations and does so because the stakeholders
provide resources ( nancial and personal) and affect the ef ciency of exploiting
these resources. This article is intended to determine the relationship between
the organization’s symbolic activities and the ability to acquire resources and
their ef cient exploitation.
This goal will be achieved through a review of available literature in the
databases of reviewed articles (Czakon, 2011). Limiting this methodology can
sometimes be too super cial treatment of the topic, however, the advantage
is its comprehensiveness and that’s why the author used this approach.
This methodology also makes it possible to determine the maturity of the
research eld, which can be considered as an additional purpose of the study.
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Symbolic action and organizational resources
acquisition and exploitation
The following criteria were primarily adopted as the basis for assessing the
maturity of the area: research comprehensiveness (are individual elements
of the research areas evenly and in a balanced way analyzed), maturity of
research tools (have appropriate constructs been developed, methods of
their analysis, including structural analysis) and possibilities future research
The study included articles contained in the databases of electronic magazines:
Proquest, Ebsco, Wiley, Jstor, Elsevier and Emerald. All articles containing
the keywords: symbolism, symbolic management, symbolic capital, symbolic action,
symbolic value, symbolic value creation, symbolic violence, which were scienti c and
reviewed articles, were accepted for analysis. 457 articles were obtained during the
rst analytical iteration ( rst, rough selection). Then (iteration 2) all articles that
did not relate to management issues and doublets were rejected. 73 articles
were obtained during this iteration. In the next iteration (third), articles were
identi ed that related to the problem of organizational resources. There were
36 articles that were analyzed in terms of scienti c added value and limitations
because the basic bene t of this type of analysis is nding a research niche.
Among the analyzed works, 12 were conceptual articles and 24 research
2. The essence of the symbolic capital of an organization
The symbolic capital of an organization in the literature is considered in two
ways. Part of the narrative concerns the concept of P. Bourdieu and transfers it
to the organization. Problems undertaken within this trend are primarily the
problem of legitimacy (exam ple: Kang and Park 2016), the problem of symbolic
power (exam ple: Harr ington et al. 2015) and the related problem of symbolic
violence (example: Tomlinson et al. 2013).
The term ‘symbolic capital was de ned by P. Bourdieu as one of many forms of
capital and de ned as respect, honor, prestige, recognition that legitimizes social
positions (Bourdieu, 1986 p. 57). Symbolic capital refers to one’s own reputation
and values perceived by others. This value and the strength that accompanies
this assessment by others is built over time (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 37 after: Fuller
and Tian 2006, p. 288). Symbolic capital determines the degree of prestige or
honor obtained through social practices, valued as a source of power obtained
through the transformation of economic, social or cultural capital through so-
called distinctive practices (Bourdieu, 1993 after: Burri, 2008, p. 37). According to
R. Kerr and S. Robinson (2015), symbolic capital can be understood as acting as
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an additional form of capital (Bourdieu, 1994; Swartz, 1997, pp. 92-93; Kerr and
Robinson, 2015, p. 704) or as a type of meta - capital, which “obtains from the
successful use of other capital” (Kerr and Robinson 2015, p. 704). The concepts
related to this concept are the concept of symbolic power and symbolic violence.
Symbolic power is de ned as the power through which people see and believe
in some visions of the world, and not others. “Symbolic power is the power
to make things with words. lt is only if it is true, that is, adequate to things,
that description makes things. “(Bourdieu, 1989, p. 23). Symbolic violence is
de ned as “violence against a social agent with his participation” (Bourdieu and
Wacquant, 1992, p. 272). Symbolic violence is not perceived as a violent control
system but the system of functioning based on it and its effects are treated as
natural and thus are more easily accepted. In this way there is a process of
hidden domination, which causes people to accept processes harmful to them
(Agyemang and Broadbent 2015, pp. 1020, 1024).
According to Convay et al. (2017, p. 1022): „the powerful possessors of symbolic
capital become the wielders of symbolic power, and thus of symbolic violence’’,
enabling them to impose meanings as legitimate while concealing the arbitrary
power relations that are the basis of its force.
Within these concepts, issues such as the role of leader (in the context of
power and symbolic violence) and problems related to the topic of gender are
raised. Analyzes of social mechanisms are carried out, which are initiated by
symbolism in the organization, however, problems that include the concept
of ef ciency, which refer to the economic and social goals of the organization
(e.g. Fitria and Sarwono, 2018; Harrington et al. 2015 and many others) are
The second part of the narrative omits or marginalizes the direct reference
to the concept of P. Bourdieu. However, the context implies that it also refers
to symbolic capital as the symbolic basis for a symbolic action or action. As
part of these approaches, topics such as manifestations of symbolic activities
(for example: Rodrigue et al., 2013; Markóczy, 2013; Kim et al., 2007), symbolic
management and change management (Westphal and Zajac, 1998, 1994; Barr,
1998) are taken up, sensemaking and sensegiving (Austen and Kapias 2016;
Christiansen and Varnes, 2009; Gioia and Chittipeddi, 1991) and the problem
of organizational resource management (for example: De Clercq and Voronov,
2009; Zott and Huy, 2007; Ashforth and Gibbs, 1991). All these topics are analyzed
from the performance point of view, often of an organizational nature, and can
be included in the mainstream of narratives closely related to the organization
science. The purpose of this article is related to the last group of problems.
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Symbolic action and organizational resources
acquisition and exploitation
It is also worth mentioning here that symbolic resources are also discussed
in the literature. They may be the result of symbolic actions or they may appear
naturally as a result of actual activities undertaken by the organization. The
purpose of this article is related to the last group of problems.
The part of literature that refers to symbolic management in relation to
organizational resource problems can also be divided into two groups. The
rst concerns the acquisition of resources through the legitimacy of activities
and processes. This part of the studies is dominated by those that relate to the
acquisition of nancial resources, including organizational excess in terms of
nancial liquidity. The second part of the literature concerns the exploitation
of resources and in this case, the main issues discussed are human resources
retention, the problem of leaders in the workplace, management of employee
involvement and exploitation of knowledge resources. Both problem currents
are described below.
3. Symbolic management and acquisition of resources
The acquisition of resources1 is one of the basic tasks of both a commercial
organization and one that is oriented on social goals. The set of resources form
the basis of organizational functioning. Therefore, the authors’ interest in the
role of symbolic management is signi cant, although views are not always
supported by research results.
Conceptual elaborations have taken into account different views. The rst
refers to the problem of legitimacy of organizational goals and processes.
Legitimacy helps attract human resources because it justi es the organization’s
role in the social system (Ashforth and Gibbs, 1991). Legitimacy can act also as
a symbolic resource.The intent of ceremonial conformity is to demonstrate
the social congruence of the corporation to secure organizational resources
such as legitimacy” (Meyer and Rowan, 1977 after: Rodrigue et al., 2013, p. 111).
Organizations that incorporate societally legitimated rationalized increase
their resources and through this they increase survival capabilities (Meyer
and Rowan, 1977) because the legitimacy of organization attracts its members
(human resources), and enables to obtain credit and funds ( nancial resources)
(Starbuck, 1982). These views are particularly relevant to new enterprises, which
1 Due to terminological ambiguity, the author introduced a division into symbolic resources,
which constitute a special group of intangible resources that strengthen the quality of other
organizational resources, hereinafter referred to as ”resources”.
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are socially not recognized yet. The management of the newcomers’ signals
and symbolizes conforming to external expectations and establishes trust
vis-à-vis potential customers, creditors, and suppliers (Gergs, 2003; De Clercq
and Voronov 2009). Fostering a shared identity (as a manifestation of symbolic
action) is a precursor to acquiring and leveraging resources (Webb et al., 2009).
In the theoretical elaborations, attention was also paid to the role of symbolic
management in the acquisition of market resources. An entrepreneur needs to
create an identity for their venture that is legitimately distinctive for constructing
resonant identities and motivating resource-holding audiences to allocate their
resources to a venture (Ustuner and Thompson, 2010). Attaining legitimacy is
important for organizations as it can lead to greater access to resources, especially
relational and human (Walker and Wan, 2012).
Various types of resources were the object of the research studies, but the
research material was not particularly structured. Summarizing the results of the
research, there can be formulated speci c conclusions about the role of symbolic
action (as the basis for the generation of symbolic capital). Symbolic capital is
supporting the process of developing social capital as a source of resources
(Gretzing er and Royer, 2011; Kang and Park, 2016). It has been shown that
symbolic actions in uence investors decisions and that acquisition of nancial
resources is easier with use of symbolic action and symbolic assets (as good
reputation) (Westphal and Zajac, 1998; Westphal and Graebner, 2010; Markoczy et
al., 2013; Crilly et al., 2016; Yoo, 2017) but this impact is limited by the perception
of investors by separation (Mazur and Kulczyk, 2014). There is also a question
whether the availability of high-level nancial resources (organizational slack),
which accompanies e.g. CSR practices (Perez-Batres et al. 2012) is their effect or
cause. This calls into question the unambiguous role of symbolic management
in the accumulation of organizational resources. The research evidence however
has indicated that entrepreneurs who are more attentive to the management
of strategically important symbols are more likely to acquire resources (Zott
and Huy, 2007). Entrepreneur needs to create an identity for their venture
that is legitimately distinctive (symbolic action) and differentiates the venture
from competitors while aligning it with the interests and values of targeted
resource-holders (Überbacher et al., 2015). By this, executives engage in symbolic
management to acquire material resources (public and private funding) and
intangible resources (legitimacy and collaboration), especially in high-tech,
innovative companies (Granqvist et al., 2013). As part of the research it has been
shown also that cultural (symbolic) resources are part of the necessary conditions
for the exchange and combination of knowledge (Fuller and Tian, 2006).
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Symbolic action and organizational resources
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The problem of the involvement of symbolic activities is of particular importance
when gathering resources by social-oriented organizations. According to results
of research conducted by Pache and Santos (2013), social organizations needed to
display appropriateness with stakeholders as clients ( nal users) and industrial
partners, who are embedded in a commercial logic in the process of interacting
with public social services to receive the right to operate, recruit bene ciaries,
and mobilize primary and additional nancial resources to fund their social
Summing up this part of the arguments, it can be stated that the current
research indicates the bene ts that can be achieved by the management of the
organization in the event of the use of symbolic actions. These bene ts include
both the accumulation of nancial and human resources.
4. Symbolic management and resource exploitation
As mentioned earlier, the second part of the literature concerns the role of
symbolic activities in the exploitation of resources. This part of the narrative
includes and in this case the results of theoretical considerations and the results
of empirical research, however the latter dominate in the literature on symbolic
Among the conceptual approaches, it is worth mentioning the study on
organizational discourse. It can be recognized as a symbolic action in which
discourse in uence the behavior of members and reinforces mindsets. It shapes
the relations between individuals, creates mental frames and offers a great
potential for social change (Galbin, 2015).
In reference to intangible assets (status, reputation, legitimacy) relation with
symbolic action was also indicated. Organizational symbolic management is
strengthening the unique knowledge of an organi zation, and also giving meaning
to experience through shared awareness and understanding (Schnackenberg et
al., 2019). Therefore, both market advantages resulting from unique knowledge
resources are deepened and certain competitive products resulting from these
strategic resources are built.
The research ndings include the role of performance in exploitation of such
resources as: human, (including knowledge resources) social, market and
relational ones. According to results of research of Walker and Wan 2012 (p.
236-237), symbolic actions as especially greenwashing will have a negative effect
on nancial performance. The discussion of research starts with elaboration of
McEachern (1998) who focused on manipulating of worker perceptions and
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gaining by this some performance outcomes. An employee who trusts in the
right practices of the organization is able to engage in a higher degree of work
and thus also improve results both individually and in groups.
A slightly different problem in the analyzed context is the problem of leadership.
In the symbolic leadership dimension, the leader acts as a guide, inspirer and
visionary. The results of the study by Axelsson et al. (2000) indicate that in times
of transition leaders could bene t from exercising symbolic leadership and act
as symbols for fundamental values and visions in the process of performance
management (p.case167). In this way, employees increased their ef ciency and
organizations also increased results. You analyzed the problem of knowledge
resources in a special way. Common language and codes operationalized
through common narratives are part of the necessary conditions for sharing and
combining knowledge (Fuller and Tian 2006, p. 290) and also lead to improving
team results.
The symbolic capital can also enhance the performance of market resources
as labels or signals. Labels act as symbolic resources and enhance the market
performance of the organization (Vazquez and Gonzalez 2015a; Vazquez and
Gonzalez 2015b). The signal of presence of particular CEO members can act as
a symbolic resource and enhance the relational performance of the organization.
Another eld of the research is related to symbolic action from the negative
perspective of symbolic violence. Symbolic violence by leadership enables a more
ef cient human resource management (Tomlinson et al., 2013). Symbolic capital
enhances short-term work performance by using certain performance indicators
(which are some kind of social obligation for workers) and can in such cases be
recognized as symbolic violence (Harrington et al., 2015). Knowledge-sharing
performance also in some cases is a result of symbolic violence (Kamoche et al.,
2014). Another study contributes to debates about the dysfunctional impacts of
the use of performance measures to manage research process. It explains that
the management control systems developed to resist the imposition of external
performance measurement systems may lead to symbolic violence where
participants become involved with their own subjugation (Agyemang and
Broadbent, 2015). There exist some cases of management of employee retention
caused by using symbolic capital (Brannan, 2015) which, to some extent, can be
recognized also as symbolic violence. The research results revealed the role of
symbolic violence in in increasing short-term ef ciency but there is no research
evidence, how the violence (even symbolic) in uences long-term performance
and value-creation system of organization. Unfortunately, these studies did not
suf ciently consider the mechanism of impact on the organisation’s ef ciency.
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Symbolic action and organizational resources
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Rather, the authors try to focus on short-term performance results without in-
depth discussion of long-term results. This is surprising, but the concept of
symbolic violence is rather perceived in a neutral way in literature.
5. Conclusions and limitations
To sum up the analysis, several conclusions can be made.
In both conceptual approaches and research studies, the relationship between
symbolic management and the acquisition of nancial, human resources
(including knowledge resources) and those of a social nature (relational and
market-based) was examined and demonstrated. acquiring resources can be
considered that the positive side of these phenomena was usually pointed out.
But Crilly et al. they noticed that rms secure resources and goodwill from
external constituencies making public commitments. It can also be concluded
that analyzing these commitments can be an interesting research area.
The research on the impact of symbolic management on the ef ciency of
resource management was conducted primarily concerning human resources.
The exceptions are research on market resources (Vazquez and Gonzalez, 2015a,
Vazquez and Gonzalez, 2015b) and relational (Bilgili et al. 2017, Schnackenberg
et al. 2019). Perhaps this is due to the social context of social capital. In the case
of the analysis of research achievements regarding the relationship between
symbolic management and performance management of this resources, it
can be seen that the conclusions of the research indicate both positive effects
in the eld of performance management as well as neutral effects and threats
rather than the bene ts of social violation, e.g. in the form of symbolic violence.
Research indicates positive effects in the form of short-term results, but long-
term dysfunctions are highlighted (such as in the case of workplace bullying
(Harrington et al. 2013).
Summing up the conclusions of the analysis, it is possible to build a model
( gure 1). Organizations operating in a speci c environment exchange values
and resources with other entities in the environment, i.e. with stakeholders (Alle
& Taug 2006). Symbolic actions are taken as a result of the need to legitimize
activities and attempts to satisfy stakeholders. they constitute a source of
legitimacy for the organization’s activities and outside communication.
Communication with the environment takes place through symbolic assets (e.g.
brands). As a result of this communication, something appears that supports
the organization’s processes, increasing its ef ciency (constituting in this way
symbolic capital as assets) while generating certain symbolic obligations which
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balances them. An interesting future research area may primarily be the problem
of symbolic obligations. Referring to the theory of intellectual liabilities (Harvey
and Lusch, 1999) it can be concluded that the active side of symbolic capital is
balanced by symbolic obligations ( g. 1). They result from the very essence of
symbolic capital, but also from the appearance of the assets themselves owned
by the organization. For example, a brand that is a signal to stakeholders that the
organization is adapting to their expectations means that the organization has
better access to nancial resources. At the same time, the declaration following
the advent of the brand raises social expectations (symbolic obligations). Their
ful llment will become the basis for credibility and future effectiveness in the
eld of nancial resources management. Lack of ful llment will become the
basis for symbolic decoupling and will reduce ef ciency in the eld of managing
nancial resources in the long run. Similarly, with the introduction of symbolic
leadership. As an asset, it can be a basis for encouraging employees to cooperate
and share knowledge. At the same time, it can take the form of symbolic violence,
which, like any form of violence, can become dysfunctional for an organization
and reduce its long-term effectiveness. That is why it is important to combine the
active and passive side of symbolic capital as well as to examine their impact on
the short and long-term operational ef ciency of the organization.
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Symbolic action and organizational resources
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It is also worth paying attention to the many limitations of this material. First of
all, the extremely important aspect related to the resource approach in strategic
management was omitted, referring to the VRIO / VRIN analysis. This approach
is appropriate for analyzing the symbolic resources of an organization and can
be the basis for formulating hypotheses in terms of building and maintaining
a competitive advantage, the more so because this approach very often links the
problem of value with speci c aspects of management. Similarly, it is also worth
analyzing the problem of symbolic resources from the perspective of dynamic
capabilities. The only reason for skipping such important topics is the editorial
restriction of this magazine. Therefore, this type of analysis will be continued in
further publications.
The next limitation of the conducted research results from the very essence
of the methodology of systematic literature review. This methodology should
be used to identify research niches and to determine past achievements and
maturity of the research area. Therefore, the scienti c discussion conducted on
its basis may be considered too super cial. It points more to the state of research
than leads to scienti c conclusions. In-depth discussions are only made as part
of a critical literature review that already allows speci c generalizations and
conclusions to be made. In-depth analysis is planned for the issues raised in this
article in subsequent editions of this journal.
It is also worth addressing the problem of maturity of the research area. After
analyzing the available articles, it can be pointed out that the research material is
not sustainable because it is dominated by the problem of acquiring resources and
the problem of ef ciency has not yet been exhausted. First of all, this can be seen
when analyzing the problem of short-term effectiveness resulting from symbolic
violence, where the problem of dysfunction such as violence in the organization
and its long-term effects has been virtually completely ignored. The maturity
of research tools can also be assessed quite poorly. The research methods used
are primarily case studies and narrative descriptions. Lack of operationalized
variables, especially in relation to the management environment. However, this
gives space for future research and further development of research tools.
Symbolic action and organizational resources acquisition and
The article aims to analyze the current literature (conceptual
and research articles) in the eld of relations between the
symbolic activities of the organization and the ability to acquire
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Vol. 23, No. 2
resources and their ef cient exploitation, and an attempt to build
a conceptual model on this basis. This goal was achieved by
applying a systematic literature review. The analysis was based
on literature, both conceptual and research. Types of resources
purchased by stakeholders were indicated. The study presents
a conceptual model describing the role of symbolic activities in the
process of resource acquisition and management. The concept of
symbolic obligations was presented as a consequence of actions
taken by organizations.
Keywords: symbolic activities, symbolic capital, organization resources, symbolic
Działania symboliczne a nabywanie i eksploatacja zasobów
Artykuł ma na celu przeanalizowanie dotychczasowej literatury
(artykułów koncepcyjnych i badawczych) w zakresie relacji
pomiędzy działaniami symbolicznymi organizacji a zdolnością
do nabywania zasobów oraz ich efektywną eksploatacją oraz
próba zbudowania modelu konceptualnego na tej podstawie. Cel
ten został zrealizowany poprzez zastosowanie systematycznego
przeglądu literatury. Analizę przeprowadzono na podstawie
literatury, zarówno opracowań koncepcyjnych, jak badawczych.
Wskazano na typy zasobów nabywanych przez interesariuszy.
W opracowaniu przedstawiono konceptualny model opisujący
rolę działań symbolicznych w procesie nabywania zasobów oraz
zarządzania nimi. Przedstawiona została koncepcja zobowiązań
symbolicznych jako konsekwencji działań podejmowanych przez
kluczowe: działania symboliczne, kapitał symboliczny, zasoby organizacji, zasoby
JEL Classi cation: M14
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Symbolic action and organizational resources
acquisition and exploitation
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... Obtaining cooperative resources is one of the main tasks of enterprises, and the resources are not only related to the operation and development of enterprises but affect also the extent of their competitive advantages in the market (Mazur 2019). Therefore, if enterprises want to gain long-term competitive advantages in the market, learning to make full use of various resources is crucial for them. ...
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