The Precarious Position of Workplace Sociology

Chris Warhurst raises a number of issues that warrant careful attention. One stems from the still-considerable boundary between UK and US sociology – trends “over there” don’t map on to what’s happening in the USA (to the detriment of both sides, I might add). A second and related issue concerns the fate of the sociology of work and employment –empirically rich and ascendant, relative to economics? Or in the doldrums and losing its audience? A third is the jurisdictional struggle between culturally attuned areas of study (cultural studies, gender studies) on the one hand, and more structurally oriented approaches toward the “hidden abode.” Let me comment on these in turn.

First off: Let’s be honest and point out that we students of work remain nationally bound. Debates and theoretical trends in the UK seem to have little purchase in the United States. This is complex, so let me fasten on only one facet of this issue. Though labor process analysis (for example) has dramatically waned in the USA, for want of theoretical inspiration, in the UK the study of work organizations has retained its theoretical energy, but in novel directions. Two examples will suffice: For one thing there is the whole debate over “aesthetic labor,” which Chris himself helped to fuel. For another, there is the massive debate over “enterprise culture,” driven by Paul du Gay, Niklas Rose, and other worthies. This latter trend has in turn sparked interest in the relation between organizational dynamics and employee identity –a rich literature that has found support in the growing field of organization studies. My point here is that there is a dynamism in the UK study of work that is not present in the USA, despite Chris’s admiration for the outpouring of workplace ethnographies. Elsewhere I will be writing on this point, and how much US students of work have to learn from (and contribute to) UK debates. For now, let me say only that national parochialisms are the bane of good intellectual inquiry.

My second point: Whither the sociology of work and employment? I recently gave a talk at Stanford, and my host (himself a leading figure in workplace ethnography) introduced me as “the last sociologist of work.” More of a eulogy than an introduction, don’t you think? I (or rather, the field in which I work) don’t feel dead. But the signs of our marginalization are there. The ascent of cultural sociology, the absorption of organizational theory into economic sociology, and (dare I say) the rise of the shareholder conception of the firm – these and other developments have overwhelmed our capacity to foster meaningful public dialogue about the future of work, Ironicallym this is happening at the very time when paid employment is undergoing changes that might be compared to the enclosures movement that gripped the rural workforce in Great Britain during the transition to capitalism . To be sure, there are inspiring examples of strong and cogent studies in workplace analysis. One thinks of Kate Kellogg’s Challenging Operations, or Ofer Sharone’s Flawed System, Flawed Selves, or Karen Ho’s Liquidated. But it’s hard to avoid the sense that institutionalism, business school perspectives, the lure of consumerism, and the “job shortage” discourse (which goads us to remain silent about the nature of work) have all combined to limit the demand for critical discussion about the social and organizational relations that obtain within the sphere of paid employment. So on this point I agree with Chris –smug perspectives about our discipline are fully inappropriate. We’re swimming upstream and the current is strong. Somehow our strokes don’t seem to be making much headway at all.

The third and last point: The jurisdictional struggle that has unfolded in sociology, as the “cultural turn” seems to suck up all the oxygen in the room. I have seen this in the UK, to be sure, where the theoretical sophistication on offer by cultural studies scholars seems much more fashionable than straight up studies of workplace life. But there is a parallel development here in the states, too, where graduate students seem much less interested in the study of work than in culture, music, the body, gender, sexuality, and other areas that seem more “relevant” to public discourse and social movements generally. What’s a scholar to do? This is a complex issue, but one that may best be approached by seeing the work versus culture question as a false dichotomy. For too long we sociologists have kept our distance from cultural analysis. Needed are studies of the meanings that work acquires in the media, of shifts in the representations of work that predominate on television and other media, of the discourses that inform common sense talk about “work,” especially in social media, and of the identity norms that employees are now expected to adopt. Put simply: Where is the #sociologyofwork? We need to absorb the lessons of cultural analysis, in other words, rather than seeing it extraneous to our concerns. This is a point that Michele Lamont has been making for some time, and I for one heartily agree.

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