Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Workplace Ethnographies - an Underestimated Source of Subject-Oriented Work Research

Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Workplace Ethnographies - an Underestimated Source of Subject-Oriented Work Research

Article excerpt

1. The debate on subjectivation of work

"I am an entrepreneurial self now", Christoph Bartmann writes on his brave new, 'post-bureaucratic' world as an employee (Bartmann, 2012, p. 15). In fact, the subject seems to have been allocated a larger space in the work process today, representing an important aspect of the transformation of work. It is a main characteristic of the (earlier) Fordist organisation of work, to eliminate the subjective factor through strict division of work, mandatory rules and rigid control by management, and thus considerably contribute to alienation. In Taylorist work, the subjective factor seems to be completely excluded, from its ideal typical concept as well as from the average working day, although I will show later that subjectivity is indispensable in everyday work and that, in fact, it does play a central role. With the introduction of post-Fordist, post-bureaucratic working methods however, subjectivity is recognised as a factor that may increase production, and is even promoted. First of all, from the point of view of the company and the management, this subjectivation means a more intense access to the labour capacity of the employee. Higher demands on the presence and the flexibility of the companies, resulting from the process of 'marketisation', are handed 'down' to the employees as higher demands on their creativity, flexibility and subjective potentials which have not been used before. The subjective work capacity, although it had always been present and was practiced, but so far had rarely or not at all been claimed, is today expected and used for the purposes of the organisation. The employees are supposed to work in a 'holistic' way, to give up their creativity and their ability to structure completely, and to exploit their potential of self regulation. Next to their professional skills, they are supposed to integrate social, extra-professional and personal abilities into their work: that is, their complete personality. Thus, subjectivity is functionalised, new ways of control and cooperation emerge: a process that is presently debated, using terms like 'self control instead of surveillance' or 'ways of team or project work'.

The other side of subjectivation of work is based on historically relatively new demands of employees concerning their work. The main social trend of the 20th century, which is an increasing individualisation, materialises here in a stronger insistence on self realisation, on individual responsibility, and on greater freedom of one's own decisions and actions in the work process. This "normative subjectivation" (Baethge, 1994) confronts companies with a need for holistic, more 'liberated' and satisfying work-places. In this way, we are dealing with a "double process of subjectivation" (Kleemann, Matuschek, & Voß, 2002, p. 58). In German sociology of work and industrial sociology, the current debate focuses, on one hand, on manifestations of this 'double subjectivation'. On the other hand, there are attempts to identify the consequences for employees and employment (see Lohr, 2013, pp. 434f.). The empirical findings remain contradictory (see ibid., pp. 432ff.), in spite of the spectacular thesis of the 'Arbeitskraftunternehmer' (entrepreneur of one's own manpower) (see Voß & Pongratz, 1998). 'Double subjectivation' is first of all an ideal typical description, and should be differentiated according to groups of employees, industries, and demographic and individual factors. Only then, its chance: like self-realisation, higher work satisfaction, breaking of fixed role patterns, and its risks: like work overload, insecurity, and alienation, can be identified empirically.

With the identification of this twofold transformation: a stronger grasp on work ability and higher demands on work, the sociology of work increasingly considers the subjective aspect. However, its "research into subjectivity as well as attitudes towards subjectivation [are] still in the phase of conceptual development" (Langfeldt, 2009, p. …

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