December 2011 Archives

Working Like A Dog?


One of the Christmas gifts received in my dog-loving family was Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet by John Bradshaw (Basic Books, 2011). The book starts with the observation that "dogs today unwittingly find themselves on the verge of a crisis, struggling to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of change in human society" (p. xvii). Sounds a lot like the human struggle! And similar to the human struggle, work is an important part of this story.

I really enjoyed today's Dilbert comic strip:

This is a great illustration of what sociologists label normative control--subtle ways of directing employees to work harder and be more loyal not through traditional forms of structural control such as monitoring and direct supervision, but through workplace norms and identities. If companies are successful at getting employees to internalize the desired norms and values as their own, then employees will identify with their employer, form emotional attachments, and serve the organization's interests as if they were their own. In other words, workers become self-disciplining (to use a Foucauldian term).

This might be a win-win situation if workers' interests truly align with corporate interests. Alternatively, if workers' and corporate interests do not truly align, then efforts to create corporate cultures ideologies and other norms are better seen as campaigns to ultimately lure workers into serving corporate rather than personal needs and goals. So which perspective is right? There are differing opinions, but today's Dilbert comic certainly gives us something not only to chuckle at, but also to think about. Unfortunately, the joke might be on us.

What is Worker Well-Being?

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The well-being of workers has long been an important issue. As industrialization became widespread in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, early exposés by Friedrich Engels and Henry Mayhew, novels by Charles Dickens and Émile Zola, the photography of Lewis Hines, and diverse secular and religious reform movements focused attention on poverty wages and dangerous working conditions The academic field of industrial relations was born out of a deep unease with imbalances in the employment relationship that led to exploitative wages and working hours, arbitrary supervisory methods, and frequent industrial accidents. Concerns with worker well-being similarly underlie the early theorizing of Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, and others regarding the alienation of workers from their work, Max Weber's work on the repressive nature of bureaucracies, and Henri de Man's search for factors that enabled or prevented workers from fulfilling a variety of human needs such as activity, creation, and self-worth.

The Metaphor of the Octopus Worker

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Being from the United States where work is mostly about money and where organized labor is frequently demonized, when traveling it's quite refreshing to encounter museums devoted to workers. One such museum is Copenhagen's Arbejdermuseet (Workers' Museum). Among the many stimulating items is a plate from the early 1970s depicting a woman who needs eight arms to juggle all of her responsibilities--taking care of her family, tending to her house and household chores, and working outside the home, all with a smile. In the Workers' Museum, this is described as an octopus woman. I was able to find out that this provocative image was used by the Kvindeligt Arbejderforbund (Female Workers Confederation) as part of their fight for equal pay in Denmark in the early 1970s, but it speaks to me today on many levels.

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About this Blog

Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.