Saturday, 16 May 2015

Working assumptions

This post is inspired by Martin Vogel’s thought-provoking piece, on the excellent Vogel Wakefield counter-consultancy blog, where he discusses the politics of organization. In particular, he points out how little conversation there was during the British election of the changing nature of work, the social purposes of business and similar themes. With economic debate (and not just in Britain) dominated by the single theme of government fiscal deficit and cultural debate by that of immigration, work – so central to most people’s lives – barely got a look in.

True, there were some marginal references. Labour did seek to open up issues of lack of employment security, lack of quality jobs, and zero hours contracts. The Conservatives did talk at times about the number of jobs created in the British economy in recent years. Both parties talked occasionally about apprenticeships. But huge issues about under-employment, about the effect of technological change on white-collar employment, and about productivity (again, see Martin Vogel’s post for more on this) didn’t get mentioned at all. Moreover, nothing much was said on the many issues adjacent to or around work – for example the highly uncertain future of pensions and the exploding need to provide care for the elderly, much of which will be done as unpaid work, especially by women.

Perhaps it is the case that modern politics is incapable or unwilling to talk about such large and long-term issues. Indeed, it is not just in relation to work that big issues are neglected. In particular, no one in British politics seems willing to take a good look at Britain’s role in the world, something which has been ducked since, arguably, 1945. In fact, with the exception of the issue of EU membership, foreign policy of any sort did not figure in the election. And this is not just an issue for Britain. The mechanisms of international governance seem unable to gain any traction at all on a range of pressing problems from Ukraine, through to the dire and increasingly unstable situation right across the Middle East. The central structures of the UN, specifically the permanent membership of the Security Council, again reflect the world in 1945, not 2015.

One factor here – pertaining to work as much as to security – is the way that globalization, whilst largely created by the decisions of nation-states, has now undercut the purchase that nation-states have upon policy, leaving a political vacuum. From this viewpoint, what can national politicians say about, for example, job insecurity, pensions or de-skilling other than to see it in terms of the ineluctable effects of the global free market? The same could be said about things such as corporate tax avoidance which I posted about earlier this year. We just don’t have the political structures to deal with this situation, and very few people talking about how we might create them.

Yet there are some levers which national governments do have, especially around education and training, that might be pulled at least with respect to issues of employability and productivity. One reason why they do not get much discussed is, I suspect, the increasingly dysfunctional effects of media management. Political strategists seek simple, constantly repeated mantras to ‘frame the narrative’ – the fiscal deficit being the obvious example – which are by definition incapable of speaking of or to complex, inter-related problems. Add to this the almost inevitable short-termism of the electoral cycle and it is perhaps unsurprising that long-term problems get shelved for another day – witness the huge difficulties of developing a global approach to environmental sustainability.

Coming back to work, and thinking just from the standpoint of organization studies, I think that one striking and problematic feature of the subject is just how little it actually has to say about work. This is partly to do with the demise of what used to be called industrial sociology and the concomitant rise of studies that are more concerned with consumption and identity than production and the workplace. It probably also reflects the way that organization studies takes place almost entirely inside management and business schools, with more emphasis on management than on work per se. It certainly reflects the growing ‘theoreticism’ of the academic literature, with a disdain for ‘merely’ reporting what is actually happening in the workplace and an insistence that each academic paper should make a suppose ‘theoretical contribution’, something I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog. As Barley & Kunda argued in 2001, there is a need to “bring work back in” to the discipline, but it is an argument that more than decade later shows little sign of being heeded.

In 1974, in a book probably better known in the United States than elsewhere, the writer and oral historian Studs Terkel published Working. People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, the title of which is self-explanatory. Its coverage ranged from farm workers to dentists, tennis players to nuns. It’s difficult to think of anything remotely like this book now, and certainly not anything by an organization studies academic. The neglect of work within political discourse may be an intractable problem but within the more limited terrain of organization studies may not be irredeemable. And who knows, perhaps the two might be linked. After all, an organization studies that educated students into the realities of contemporary working life might not only prepare them better for those realities but also encourage them to ask political questions about it.


Barley, S. and Kunda, G. 2001. ‘Bringing work back in’, Organization Science 12: 76-95.
Terkel, S. 1974. Working. People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. New York: Pantheon/Random House.

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