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Industrial sociology, until recently a crucial research area within the field of sociology of work, examines "the direction and implications of trends in technological change, globalization, labour markets, work organization, managerial practices and employment relations to the extent to which these trends are intimately related to changing patterns of inequality in modern societies and to the changing experiences of individuals and families the ways in which workers challenge, resist and make their own contributions to the patterning of work and shaping of work institutions."
Labor process theory
One branch of industrial sociology is Labor process theory (LPT). In 1974, Harry Braverman wrote Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, which provided a critical analysis of scientific management. This book analyzed capitalist productive relations from a Marxist perspective. Following Marx, Braverman argued that work within capitalist organisations was exploitative and alienating, and therefore workers had to be coerced into servitude. For Braverman the pursuit of capitalist interests over time ultimately leads to deskilling and routinisation of the worker. The Taylorist work design is the ultimate embodiment of this tendency.
Braverman demonstrated several mechanisms of control in both the factory blue collar and clerical white collar labor force. His key contribution is his "deskilling" thesis. Braverman argued that capitalist owners and managers were incessantly driven to deskill the labor force to lower production costs and ensure higher productivity. Deskilled labour is cheap and above all easy to control due to the workers lack of direct engagement in the production process. In turn work becomes intellectually or emotionally unfulfilling; the lack of capitalist reliance on human skill reduces the need of employers to reward workers in anything but a minimal economic way.
Braverman's contribution to the sociology of work and industry (i.e., industrial sociology) has been important and his theories of the labor process continue to inform teaching and research. Braverman's thesis has however been contested, notably by Andrew Freidman in his work "Industry and Labour" (1977). In it, Freidman suggests that whilst the direct control of labour is beneficial for the capitalist under certain circumstances, a degree of 'responsible autonomy' can be granted to unionised or 'core' workers, in order to harness their skill under controlled conditions. Also, Richard Edwards showed in 1979 that although hierarchy in organisations has remained constant, additional forms of control (such as technical control via email monitoring, call monitoring; bureaucratic control via procedures for leave, sickness etc.) has been added to gain the interests of the capitalist class versus the workers. Gallie has shown how important it is to approach the question of skill from a social class perspective. In his study, the majority of non-manual, intermediate and skilled manual workers believed that their work had come to demand a higher level of skill, but the majority of manual worker felt that the responsibility and skill needed in their work had either remained constant or declined. This means that Braverman's claims can't be applied to all social classes.
The notion the particular type of technology workers were exposed to shapes their experience was most forcefully argued in a classic study by Blauner. He argued that some work is alienating more than other types because of the different technologies workers use. Alienation, to Blauner, has four dimensions: powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, and self-estrangement. Individuals are powerless when they can't control their own actions or conditions of work; work is meaningless when it gives employees little or no sense of value, interest or worth; work is isolating when workers cannot identify with their workplace; and work is self-estranging when, at the subjective level, the worker has no sense of involvement in the job.
Blauner's claims however fail to recognize that the same technology can be experienced in a variety of ways. Studies have shown that cultural differences with regard to management-union relations, levels of hieararchical control, and reward and performance appraisal policies mean that the experience of the same kind of work can vary considerably between countries and firms. The individualization of work and the need for workers to have more flexible skills in order to respond to technological changes means that Blauner's characterization of work experience is no longer valid. Additionally, workers today may work in teams to alleviate workers' sense of alienation, since they are involved in the entire process, rather than just a small part of it. In conclusion, automative technologies and computerized work systems have typically enhanced workers' job satisfaction and skill deployment in the better-paid, secure public and private sector jobs. But, in more non-skilled manual work, they have just perpetuated job dissatisfaction, especially for the many women involved in this type of work.
- Watson, Tony J. 2008 Sociology, Work, and Industry. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-43555-2. p392
- Labor and Monopoly Capital' for the 1990s: a review and critique of the labor process debate Monthly Review, Nov, 1994 by Peter Meiksins
- Gallie, D. (1991) Patterns in Skill Change, Work, Employment, and Society, Vol.5, pp.319-351
- Blauner, R. (1964). Alienation and Freedom, Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press
- Jenkins, R. (1994). Just-in-time regimes and reductionism, Sociology, Vol. 28, pp.21-30