Academic journal article Management Revue

Contingent Work: The Problem of Disembeddedness and Economic Reembeddedness

Academic journal article Management Revue

Contingent Work: The Problem of Disembeddedness and Economic Reembeddedness

Article excerpt

Contingent Work:

The Problem of Disembeddedness and Economic Reembeddedness**

All economic action is embedded in social contexts (Granovetter 1985). However, contingent work practices make work relations more episodic, transient and marketlike. They produce dislocated and time-space spanning social contexts and, therefore, contribute to what Giddens (1990) has called the process of disembedding. The aim of the paper is to relate contingent work practices to a wider societal context by looking at how these disembedded practices become reembedded in local contexts of interaction. For situations in which means-end calculations are the dominant focus of social relations and in which social interactions are, for the most part, consciously reflected as resource exchange relations, the term economic reembedding is suggested. But illustrated by Bourdieu's notion of social capital - the paper also explores limits to an economization of social relations in general and of work practices in particular. In conclusion, some implications for firms' utilization, management, and reproduction of human resources are discussed that follow on from the embeddedness perspective on contingent work developed in the paper.

Key words: Contingent work, disembeddedness, economic reembedding,

embeddedness, human, resource management, social capital


The theory of the firm increasingly devotes attention towards social relations as resources which have a crucial effect on organizational success (Dyer/Singh 1998; Nahapiet/Goshal 1998). Furthermore, referring to the resource-based view of the firm (Penrose 1959; Barney 1991) and its offspring, the knowledge-based view of the firm, workers are seen as human resources that can provide competitive advantages and that have to be linked to the organization by appropriate contractual arrangements (Matusik/Hill 1998, Lepak/Snell 1999, Burton-Jones 1999). These theoretical developments support the standpoint taken up by most social scientists, that economic action is embedded in social contexts (Granovetter 1985; Hollingsworth/Boyer 1997; Maurice/Sorge 2000; Moldaschl 2003). Whereas the views mentioned accentuate the (growing) importance of human knowledge, social ties and trust from an organizational perspective, recent sociological diagnoses of postmodern or late modern societies state processes of fragmentation (Sennett 1998; Bauman 1995) and disembedding (Giddens 1990). By disembedding, Giddens means ,the `lifting out' of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space" (Giddens 1990: 21). An important precondition of disembedding is, according to Giddens, the emptying (separation) of time and space in combination with the separation of space from place as a physical setting of social activity.

New, contingent work arrangements play an important role in the societal production of these disembedding and dislocating processes and are results of these processes. The rationalization or colonization of our Lebenswelt was diagnosed many years ago by Max Weber (1972 [1922]) and, later, by Jurgen Habermas (1981; see also Smith/Kulynych 2002: 163), and Karl Polanyi (1944) has analyzed how in the course of the industrial revolution the commodification of labor has dissolved the social and cultural embeddedness of workers and their families. However, new developments such as flexible labor and flexible workplaces, as well as the rising power of organizations (Perrow 1991), seem to accelerate (or revive) these processes. Additionally, as most of the so-called atypical work arrangements lead to more market-related transactions and fuzzy boundaries between work and private spheres, economic calculations (means-end-rationality) might also become dominant for social relations vaguely related to the work sphere. Despite these processes of disembedding, synchronous interactions between human beings are still an important basis of our (working) lives. …

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