Holding On While Letting Go: Neocolonialism as Organizational Identity Work in a Multinational Corporation

Marianne Storgaard, Janne Tienari, Rebecca Piekkari & Snejina Michailova

Organization Studies 2020, Vol. 41(11) 1469–1489

This paper develops the idea of neocolonialism as organizational identity work in multinational corporations
(MNCs). We argue that neocolonialism – the ethos and practice of colonialism and western superiority in
contemporary society – is a means through which identity is worked on at MNC headquarters (HQ). In
contrast to extant neocolonial studies of western MNCs, which focus on the subsidiaries (the colonized)
and how their identities are shaped by the HQ (the colonizer), we analyse how the HQ is shaped by the
subsidiaries. We elucidate two versions of neocolonialism at play: a traditional neocolonial ethos, which
prevails at HQ, and a more contemporary version, which is silenced. Our findings show that nurturing a
shared and enduring organizational identity across all units of an MNC is a quixotic task. Nevertheless, HQ
managers in western MNCs keep attempting to do this, suggesting that neocolonial ethos and practice
continue to be relevant in these organizations.