Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Autonomy and Control When Working with Humans-A Reflection on Sociotechnical Concepts

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Autonomy and Control When Working with Humans-A Reflection on Sociotechnical Concepts

Article excerpt


This article explores how the sociotechnical concepts of responsible autonomy (Trist et al., 1963) and control (Karasek, 1979; may be useful in modern service work, when working with humans. It is based on twelve years of research in a set of development projects in mainly municipal care institutions in Norway (Amble, 2012a; Gjerberg & Amble, 2011). The projects were theoretically grounded in the Norwegian and international sociotechnical tradition (Engelstad, 1970; Herbst, 1974/1993, 1976; Thorsrud & Emery, 1969; Trist et al., 1963). The article argues that there are many valuable lessons to be learnt from this tradition also concerning nursing and care work in the municipalities. Still, the article points to a need for development of the concept control as autonomy to embrace service work, working with humans.

The article also contributes to the discourse of the meaning of work (Kamp, 2011; Thorsrud & Emery, 1969). How learning-through collective reflection-and training of mastery (Bandura, 1997) as an operationalization of meaning in daily work, can provide control as autonomy on an individual (Karasek, 1979), but also a more collective level (Herbst, 1974/1993; Trist et al., 1963).

It is the observation of "collegial isolation" and the experience of people who have worked closely together for many years, who still felt it was difficult to approach one another, for example, to ask for and give help (Amble & Gjerberg, 2009a), which triggered the subject of the article, the reflection around the concept autonomy.

In 1979, Karasek mapped a broad spectrum of occupations and trades along two dimensions: level of demand in the job and the opportunity to gain control/autonomy over the work tasks. The theory is known as the Demand-control model (D/C model). At that time, care work was classified as being "high strain work" with high levels of demand and little scope for control, or autonomy, as is often used in Nordic translation (Hvid, 2009), with associated risks of stress, health problems, and burnout. The point of the theory was that the situation of the care workers could be improved either by alleviating some of the demands/strains of the job or increasing autonomy by allowing more decision authority over the work tasks, which could be developed through learning, for example, as new behavior patterns in demanding work situations. The last alternative gave another name to the model, the so-called Active learning hypothesis. Both alternatives, reduced demands and active learning, create balance between demand and control, with the latter providing the opportunity for creating well-being through active work and a learning work role (Karasek, 1979; Karasek & Theorell, 1990). The questionnaire developed from the model is still the most frequently used measure of the psychosocial work environment (Hvid, 2009; Saksvik et al., 2013).

Hvid (2009) notes that the model was developed in the 1970s and it is conceivable that occupations have changed with regard to creating greater opportunity for development at work, or indeed the opposite. He provides empirical indications of how knowledge work in the finance sector, which traditionally has enjoyed a high level of autonomy according to Karasek (1979), through the introduction of computers and data control, has experienced reduced opportunity of autonomy. A form of "over-steering" emerged, which is not captured by the investigative parameters of the model. Kira (2006) pronounces a similar development among nurses and their middle management in a regional hospital in Sweden. Kira (2006) described workers who participated significantly but unfortunately not in their own areas of expertise nor in areas which could influence their own work conditions. This represented some sort of "displaced participation," outside-what she calls-their work frame conditions. And she hypothesizes how this displacement of energy is the cause behind a more general feeling of tiredness and fatigue in women's work (Widerberg, 2006). …

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