Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Making Materials Matter-A Contribution to a Sociomaterial Perspective on Work Environment

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Making Materials Matter-A Contribution to a Sociomaterial Perspective on Work Environment

Article excerpt


This paper discusses the concept of psychosocial work environment based on the dominant perspective within science and technology studies (STS), namely that of actor network theory (ANT). The purpose of introducing this discussion is to emphasize the importance of organizational, technological, and material aspects for emergence of psychological well-being and stress. The work environment research presently inadequately divides elements of working conditions into separate physical (ergonomic, chemical, etc.) and psychosocial (support, job control, rewards, etc.) domains. In order to reassemble those domains we argue that the notion of sociomaterial work environment is a fitting alternative. Firstly, we expand the concept of "psychosocial work environment" in order to include a wider range of phenomena. Secondly, we propose and critically discuss an alternative to the dominant paradigm of assessment and intervention in the work environment research. Thirdly, we argue that the dominant paradigm of assessment and intervention may lead consultants and practitioners to address complex problems with simple standardized solutions. The paper scrutinizes three aspects of ANT: generalized symmetry, assemblage, and the making of subjectivity. We posit these as central to the construction of a sociomaterial perspective on psychosocial work environment. These three aspects underline ANT as a sociomaterial perspective; a perspective focused on the hybrid relations between human and nonhuman actors; and finally as a perspective criticized for ignoring human experience while simultaneously illuminating novel aspects of subjectivity. In order to examine these notions and demonstrate their usefulness in providing a novel understanding of work environment, we apply them to a case study of postal service mail deliverers' work environment. From explorative interviews analyzed with a framework based on the aforementioned theoretical concepts, we examine what novel aspects of work environment are identified using this approach and discuss how the concepts of symmetry, assemblage, and subjectivity can foster new understandings of work environment, and how the dominant conceptualizations can thus be challenged.

We are aware that this shift in vantage point can increase complexity, potentially posing problems for planning and implementation of even simple work environment interventions. The contribution of this paper is thus to offer a presentation and a discussion of the potentials and pitfalls provided by a shift toward a sociomaterial work environment perspective, as well as an empirical exemplification of this approach to work environment assessment. One might argue that other complexity-sensitive approaches such as symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1986), discourse analysis (Fairclough, 2003), or grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1980) might be equally relevant as a means for revitalizing the work environment concept. We chose ANT as a framework, as this approach fosters sensitivity to contextual complexity while also emphasizing the link between social and material aspects of workplaces. Though a number of Scandinavian work environment studies have already used ANT analytic strategies (Bramming et al., 2012; Mogensen, 2012; Nickelsen, 2008, 2009; Olesen et al., 2011), we see the need for a more encompassing discussion of the division of the work environment research into separate domains, and in particular the specificities of applying ANT analyses to work environment assessment and intervention.

We start by presenting a brief account of the theoretical positions that have influenced the field of psychosocial work environment. We include the history of the concept of psychosocial work environment to emphasize which traditions of thinking this paper challenges.

Psychosocial work environment

The concept of "psychosocial work environment" has roots in several scientific paradigms and draws on various disciplines (social psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, biology). …

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