Image by the author.

Image by the author.

by Rina Agarwala

Since the 1980s, as governments have reduced state welfare rhetoric and policy, the proportion of unprotected, “informal” workers has increased. As a result, we have witnessed an unexpected increase in the proportion of the world’s workers who do not receive secure wages or social benefits either from employers or the state. This is not news. In recent years, many scholars and policy makers have highlighted this growing population of unprotected workers, variously calling them “informal”, “precarious”, “casual”, “non-standard”, “Post-Fordist”, and “flexible.” In some cases, these trends are celebrated; in others, they are critiqued.

What explains the worldwide increase in informal employment? The most common explanation is that the pressures of increased competition in a globalized and liberalized marketplace have forced firms to decrease costs by relying on unprotected workers. While this is true, it is equally important to remember that informal work is not a product of neoliberalism. Long before the rise of neoliberalism, informal labor comprised a large section of the labor force in the Global South, because they subsidized the minority of formally employed, protected workers that emerged during the industrialization era (in the South and North).

Informal workers have long been, and not surprisingly continue to be, a central, structural feature of modern economies. After all, it is informal workers that have and continue to (albeit in increasing numbers) construct our buildings, build our roads, grow and sell fruits and vegetables, clean homes and streets, sew clothes, weld car parts, and make shoes – not to mention the boxes they come in.

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In Oct-Nov of 2014, we ran a virtual symposium on “The future of organizational sociology,” with short contributions from 14 organizational sociologists. We have now compiled all of those contributions into a single pdf document (just over 17,000 words), which can be found here.

We hope that many will find this document useful, particularly for academics teaching organizational sociology, but also non-academics wondering what organizational sociology is all about and wanting to have the views of a number of leading organizational sociologists in a single document. With any luck, the ideas in this document may also help some young PhD students who are trying to figure out a topic for their PhD thesis!

The workstation of the future in “Big Hero 6” (2014) Image: DisneyLifestylers via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The workstation of the future in “Big Hero 6” (2014)
Image: DisneyLifestylers via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

by William Attwood-Charles and Juliet B. Schor

The image of the U.S. worker and U.S. workplace is in the midst of a transformation. Stable, full-time employment is increasingly scarce and many firms are organizing work around projects rather than fixed tasks or competencies. Workers, particularly in knowledge intensive industries, are expected to self-manage and collaborate as teams, a dramatic shift from Fordist and Taylorist systems that emphasized direct supervision, simplification, and standardization as techniques for coordinating production. Thus, while the dominant image of the U.S. worker in the 1950s might have been the industrial laborer, arguably the new face of U.S. industry is that of the “maker.”

Urban Dictionary (always on the forefront of linguistic innovation), defines makers as “those who love to create things in their spare time (often electronic, often with their own hands). Also called Hobbyists.” These passionate, multi-skilled tinkerers are offered in exuberant think pieces (here, here and here) as the engine of the New Economy. Indeed, the Maker is arguably having a cultural moment with Disney’s release of its animated movie, Big Hero 6, which features a group of tech-enabled wunderkinds fighting a scorned research professor.

Putting aside the fashionable aspect of the maker movement, it fits squarely within a trend over the last four decades to flatten hierarchies and promote open and egalitarian workplace arrangements. To understand how the architects of leveling hope to achieve these goals, it is first useful to examine what the leveled workplace is situated against; namely, the conventional hierarchical and bureaucratic world of work. In doing so, we can have a better idea of how hierarchies are produced in ostensibly leveled environments, as well as the meaning of status hierarchies in domains where they should be absent.

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On the commodity trailby Susan Marie Martin 

On the Commodity Trail: The Journey of a Bargain Store Product from East to West. Alison Hulme. Bloomsbury. February 2015.

‘Euro shop’, ‘pound shop’, ‘dollar store’. The name varies but the premise is the same: commodities sold at low prices. For many the relationship with the ‘bargain’ shop is fraught by love and loathing.  Loathing is prompted by the cheap nonessentials, and the thought of the sweatshop labour that produced them. Love comes from the pursuit of a bargain, and the smug feeling that we have not been exploited.

In boom times discounters seem reserved for the terminally cheap, or those whom prosperity has overlooked. But what of their place in an era of austerity? Historically, according to Alison Hulme, times of decline were not like the present: saving back then meant not spending. However, she tells us on the first page of On the Commodity Trail, this current ‘age of austerity’ is not like its predecessors.  Now cheap and plentiful helps maintain levels of consumption seen during the boom, and cements individual mantras of “consumption is good”. For the businesses involved this means “chasing growth through smaller and smaller profits”.

If our age is “characterized by the desire for immediate gratification, disposability, the fragmentation of old systems and the rise of China” then, she asserts, the commodity chain of bargain store products “is a classic trail of our times”. Hulme subsequently takes the reader on a journey across the life cycle of eight bargain store commodities: a pet gravestone, a pregnancy test, a garden gnome, a plastic bonsai, a model Buddha, plastic flowers, a Chinoiserie vase, and a ship-in-a-bottle. Hulme’s inspiration was the early twentieth century work of the German philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, and his Arcades Project. However, unlike Benjamin’s focus on the “bijou objects of bourgeois Paris”, she opted to create an ‘Arcades Project’ of the pound shop.

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Image: Tiffany window at Winchester House by Chris McSorley, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Image: Tiffany window at Winchester House by Chris McSorley, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

[Ed note: This is the sixth of six articles in a virtual panel on Who should benefit from organizational research?]

by Hugh Willmott

Professor Davis asks: who should benefit from organizational research? Rather than taking for granted its beneficiaries, he usefully poses the question. To the extent that organizations research has a practical impact, it informs decisions made by business and governments, amongst others. In turn, as Professor Davis (2015) notes, those decisions ‘shape the life chances of workers, consumers, and citizens for decades to come’. This expectation provides what I commend as an answer to his question: there is potentially as large and diverse audience for knowledge of management and organization as there is diversity of stakeholders in the widely diffused practices of management and organization. The audience includes, but is not restricted to, managers.

There is perhaps some irony in how the established, critical case for challenging the role of business academics as ‘servants of [executive] power’ is now been joined by a pragmatic recognition that the audience of managers is diminishing. As Professor Davis reports, bean counters have (with scientific rigor?) assigned the status of ‘manager’ to 7 million Americans, but the number of employees who manage others is, in all likelihood, in sharp, and probably irreversible, decline. There is, then, some common ground between long-standing critics of managerialism and those now wishing to expand the audience (market?) for business academics.

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1200px-Geisel_Library,_UCSD

Image: Geisel Library by Amerique, via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

[Ed note: This is the fifth of six articles in a virtual panel on Who should benefit from organizational research?]

We are all indebted to Jerry Davis for his provocative piece. The issues he raises are frequent objects of discussion but have seldom generated such an insightful challenge to scholarship generally, and to the field of organization studies in particular. Yet I must confess some misgivings with this line of analysis. Let me explain why.

Davis’s argument raises two interrelated points. The first concerns the reward structure that governs academic publication. This reward structure, he contends, has unduly fostered the production of novel (“interesting,” or counter-intuitive) findings, even if these run the risk of being misleading, distorted or even untrue. This is especially the case, given the use of metrics that judge academic merit by virtue of “impact” (a faulty metric if ever there were one). Especially when individual careers (hiring, promotion, mobility) all depend on the individual’s metrics, the production of knowledge is now governed by a system that tends implicitly to pervert the development of knowledge, to lead away from cumulative knowledge, and even to fuel the generation of illusions. His chosen metaphor –the Winchester Mystery House— stands as an object example: a concerted, generations-long effort that serves little or no use, save as a program of job creation whose only product is the very embodiment of irrationality itself.

Davis’s second claim is that we now live in an era when the large corporation has undergone a major shift. Put simply, corporations no longer offer organization studies the same primary constituency as in the past, since the management of human beings has now been given over to computer algorithms, which govern fluctuations in corporate workforces without need for managerial intervention. Under such a regime, the study of management must reconsider the audience for whom it speaks.

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Image: Winchester Mystery House by Cullen328, via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Image: Winchester Mystery House by Cullen328, via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

[Ed note: This is the fourth of six articles in a virtual panel on Who should benefit from organizational research?]

by Paul Hirsch

I agree with my colleagues’ statements and would just add the following.

It seems clear to me that research on organizations, especially by sociologists, does not have as a goal aiding managers in running their organizations.  Indeed, many of the articles published in Administrative Science Quarterly, which Jerry edits, do not seem to have that in mind either.  Of equal interest, of course is what role do organizations play in society, how do they treat their employees and consumers, how do they and their leaders come to achieve the power they exert, and what kinds of values and ethics do they encourage and transmit?  It is true the field may look like the Winchester Mystery House –  but considering the alternative proposed in the article we are commenting on (i.e. to do managers jobs for them better), I prefer we continue with the variety of topics, and multiple pillars and points of view found in our own academic version of that mansion.

Paul Hirsch is the James L. Allen Professor of Strategy & Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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