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Toward a Phenomenology of Work

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Toward a Phenomenology of Work

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  1. Toward a Phenomenologyof Work Amy Lavender Harris Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto 9 November 2005

  2. “Next, we consider the impact of workforce skill on the portion of output created with IT support as shown in the second terms of Equations (2a) and (2b). First, in simple IT-worker systems, worker skill beyond the base level is not needed to operate IT and generate output so that ∂p^sup 1^^sub 2i^/∂s = 0 holds. … In sharp contrast, in complex IT-worker systems, the speed that a worker operating IT generates output depends heavily on the extent that worker skill exceeds the base level. For example, a highly skilled engineering specialist may generate more output volume per unit time from a CAD system than a lesser skilled worker operating the same technology. Specifically, while holding constant the size of the workforce (w), IT accessibility (x), and the IT choice (i), the volume of output in a complex IT-worker system is a non-decreasing function of worker skill (∂p^sup 2^^sub 2i^/∂s ≥ 0). However, increasing worker skill while holding other inputs fixed leads to diminishing returns so that ∂^sup 2^p^sup 2^^sub 2i^/ ∂^sup 2^S < 0.” (Napoleon, Karen & Cheryl Gaimon, 2004. The Creation of Output and Quality in Services: A Framework to Analyze Information Technology-Worker Systems. Production and Operations Management, 13(3): 245-260) Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  3. “During my discussions with these office workers, I sometimes asked them to draw pictures that represented their “felt sense” of their job experience before and after the conversion to the new computer system. Frequently these pictures functioned as a catalyst, helping them to articulate feelings that had been implicit and hard to define. … These simple drawings convey feelings that often elude verbal expression. The condition of being “tied to the machine” represents a new kind of confinement, not just the spatial confinement of having to sit in one place for long stretches, but an interior confinement. These clerks, driven into the confines of the laboring body, have seen their tasks shorn of opportunities for using interpersonal and substantive skills. The principal challenge of their current jobs is an effort of endurance. It is a sullen effort, subtly corrosive, felt in diffuse interior discomforts, rarely dramatic, but persistent and inescapable.” (Zuboff, Shoshana, 1988. In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic Books. See pages 141-150.) Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  4. A Short Caricature of Empiricism “the project of empiricism is to make observations, to classify and order what is observed and to make general statements about observed or calculated relations between observables.” (Marsden, 1982: 233, after Zubaida (1974)) • All knowledge is a posteriori, that is, derived from experience or experiment (many empiricists deny the legitimacy of a priori knowledge or knowledge derived through pure reason) • The validity of any claim is measured by the ability to test it (in this sense, theories are the second-order products of hypotheses tested in the field; theories subsequently derived are subject to further testing; hence the claim that a good theory is one we can test empirically) • non-observable and non-measurable phenomena are generally excluded: at its core, empiricism reflects a materialist orientation • In the sciences and social sciences, ‘rigorous’ is generally interpreted to mean ‘empirical’; the scientific method is generally equated with an empirical method and an empiricist orientation Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  5. Criticisms of Empiricism • “There is a world of difference between the terms ‘empirical’ and ‘empiricism’. The term ‘empirical’ refers to a battery of very useful research methods. The term ‘empiricism’ refers to a restrictive methodological doctrine which claims that researchers may only use empirical methods.” (Mende, 2005:189) • IR scholars, among them Richard Marsden (1982) and John Godard (1989, 1994), have argued that industrial relations theory and practice is doctrinally (or at least epistemologically) empiricist. • According to sociologist Louis Althusser, in empirical research there are ‘objects’ (real things) and ‘essences’ (abstractions, ultimately theories) which researchers purport to extract from them. Yet, these ‘essences’ are not actually derived from objects but are themselves products of thought – theoretical objects – which appropriate and conceal the real object. Knowledge is produced, not discovered: the empiricist production of knowledge always occurs within an ideology. (viz Marsden, 1982) • In this critique, empiricists might be said to play a sort of shell game, infusing objects with the very theories they then pretend to extract from them. Another way of putting this is to say that the answers a researcher gets are dependent upon the questions s/he asks. Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  6. IR theory faces a dual quandary … • Deficiency: A fetish for empirical approaches and a fixation on description, classification, and the quantification of the visible has left IR theory partial, “primitive” (Adams, 1988: 5), and reliant on uncritical interdisciplinarity. (Walker (1977: 310) • Duplicity: The doctrine of empiricism in IR has concealed its ideological underpinnings (the theory-ladenness of objects and essences as the proverbial elephant in the corner), thus posing a further obstacle to the development of genuinely critical IR theories. Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  7. Whither IR? • Low/middle-range theorizing and generalization/hypothesis building: Give up and accept an atheoretical or thinly theoretical IR focused on circumstantial relationships (Dunlop’s systems model, KKM’s rational choice model; “industrial relations are”). - and/or - • Higher-level theorization: What should a theory of IR look like? Risks carving up IR into theoretical territories across which academic antagonists wield their warring axiologies in infinite regress (e.g., Hyman’s “conflict-critical approach” (1994; see Hansen, 2002), feminist/gendered approaches (Hansen and others), Marsden (1982), labour process theory, Frankfurt school, etc.; “industrial relations is”). - and/or - • Meta-theory (theory about theory; explores assumptions underlying any given theoretical perspective): One asks, “What might a philosophy of IR look like?” [Note: the three ‘levels’ of theorization are influenced by Hansen (2002) who credits Hyman (1994)] [Note also: the are/is distinction comes from Marsden (1982)] Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  8. What might a philosophy of IR look like? • It would ask epistemological questions: What does it mean to know something? Is there any a priori knowledge? What are the limits of knowledge? How do we get to knowing? • It would acknowledge ontological questions: What is the nature of reality and of being in it? How many ways are there of being in the world? How many worlds are there? • It would seek to uncover world views about the nature of knowledge, reality, meaning, and being. • It might begin by examining philosophies of work. Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  9. Philosophies of WorkThe means of production and the production of meaning • A longstanding area of philosophical inquiry that is largely overlooked by IR scholars. • Many philosophers write about work, but the most influential contributions are generally attributed to Hegel and Marx. • Both held that work is an essential part of human existence; it is a “rational and distinctively human activity that creates the way of life of the human being and, at the same time, transforms the world and human relationships.” (Kovacs, 1986: 196) • Philosopher of education John White challenges the notion of the centrality of work (and the inherent “work ethic”) advanced by thinkers from Marx to Hannah Arendt: instead, he cites Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell’s critiques of “industriousness” in building his theory of ‘autonomous’ and ‘heteronomous’ work in relation to “personal flourishing” (White, 1997) • The question of alienation is present throughout philosophical analyses of work. • Yet, missing or poorly developed is a clear analysis of the self (particularly with respect to autonomy and cooperation) and of the nature and meaning of work itself. In other words, an ontology of work (and working) is needed. Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  10. Toward a Phenomenology of Work • A phenomenology of work is one element in a philosophy of work within IR. • A phenomenology of work asks, “What is the meaning of work?”; “What does it mean to do work?”; “How are being and work(ing) related?”’ “How does alienation characterize the experience of work?” • Kovacs (1996) holds that work is a basic mode of being in the world; it is “a way of self-creation and a mode of forming and transforming the world and nature.” (196). Kovacs also holds that work has both personal and social dimensions: phenomenologically speaking, it is both subjective and intersubjective. • Research in IRHR applying phenomenological methods and approaches includes Shoshana Zuboff’s well-known In the Age of the Smart Machine (1988), Francis & Penn on the phenomenology of skill (1994), work-nonwork conflict and the phenomenology of time (Thompson & Bunderson, 2001), among others. • My research begins where these accounts leave off. It considers how paying attention to phenomenological accounts might alter not only how we understand and organize work, but how the inclusion of a phenomenological approach might alter IR as a whole. Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  11. Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  12. A Phenomenological Analysis of ‘Alienation’ • A joining of Heideggerian phenomenology with Marx’s concept of the alienated worker, read in large part through a philosophical analysis of technology. • I am not the first person to suggest that Marx’s concept of alienation might be ‘read’ phenomenologically: see Kovacs (1986), Eldred (2000); nor to suggest that alienation and technology are intertwined (see Laing, 1960; Kateb, 1997). • Marxian scholars (e.g., Rinehart, 1996) tend to reject any reading of alienation that departs from Marx’s notions of class consciousness. • However, a phenomenological analysis helps deepen as well as challenge Marx’s views while taking the genealogy of IR seriously, and might help build a more solid place for a philosophy of work within IR. Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  13. Alienated Labour • Concepts of alienation have a long genealogy in philosophy and social & political thought. • Hegel held that the self was a historical and social creation and that alienation (and self-recovery) was part of a process of growth for individuals and society as a whole. Acts of work are both alienating to the self and offer the possibility of reconciliation. • Diverging sharply from Hegel while retaining some of the same terms, Marx’s concept of alienation arises as part of a materialist critique of industrial capitalism. In his early work Marx identifies five dimensions of alienated labour (see Rinehart, 1996): (1) estrangement from the products of one’s labour; (2) estrangement from the work process itself (when labour belongs to someone else) (3) self-estrangement (from self-expression and self- development) (4) estrangement from one’s own essence of nature (5) estrangement of individuals from one another (e.g., by class) • According to Marx, workers share an alienated consciousness of the effects of structural alienation: their class consciousness is what will give rise to resistance and (perhaps) revolution. Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  14. Heidegger and Alienation: the Question Concerning Technology • Marx’s concept of alienation bears striking similarity to Heidegger’s view that the essence of technology is the reduction of Beings to “standing reserve”. • In The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger distinguishes between techne (the bringing-forth of something out of itself, a revealing, in the form of the activities and skills of the craftsperson but also the work of the fine arts: “the bringing forth of the true into the beautiful”) and the essence of technology (a challenging-forth, in which everything is ordered [about] to stand by and thereby reduced to “standing reserve”). • The essence of technology permits only this one manner of revealing: it buries and denies other ways of Being; it is a kind of banishment of the self. • While important differences exist between Marx and Heidegger (Heidegger almost never engaged with Marx, and Heidegger’s phenomenology is neither materialistic nor ideologically critical of capitalism), both raise important questions about how technology alters the experience of Being. Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  15. Implications for Research on Work • What is ‘work’? Is all work alienating? How might technologically mediated work exacerbate alienation? • How is alienation experienced? How is it expressed? How is it subverted? • Is “abolishing alienated labour” (e.g., Schwalbe, 1986) a reasonable goal? As an HR practice? As part of a Marxist revolution? • How might an understanding of alienation advance IR/HR theory? How might it advance its practice? Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  16. Conclusion A phenomenological analysis of alienation contributes to the development of IR/HR theory in a variety of ways: • It provides insight into aspects of work that empirical approaches do not (and perhaps cannot) account for. • It encourages us to take the lived experiences of workers seriously; to see workers as something more than “human capital”, “human resources” or “standing reserve”; and to think about the meanings of work. • It requires a re-thinking of the perspectives and presumptions that inform our thinking and doing, whether as IR/HR practitioners or scholars. • It seeks to integrate seemingly disparate corners of IR/HR research and thought (e.g., HRM, Marxian thought, questions about technology, phenomenological method, etc.) and in doing so seeks to both challenge and further them. • It prompts consideration of the kinds of epistemological and ontological questions IR must tackle if it is to succeed as a discipline. Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  17. Work \ werk \ n [ME werk, work, fr. OE werc, weorc] Activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something | sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result | the labour, task, or duty that is one’s accustomed means of livelihood | energy expended by natural phenomena | something that results from the use or fashioning of a particular material | structures in engineering or mining | a place where industrial labour is carried on | the working or moving parts of a mechanism | something produced or accomplished by effort, exertion, or exercise of skill | something produced by the exercise of creative talent or expenditure of creative effort: artistic production | performance of moral or religious acts | the material or piece of material that is operated upon at any stage in the process of manufacture | everything possessed, available, or belonging | subjection to drastic treatment | engaged in working | having effect | in process of preparation | to bring to pass | to set or keep in motion | to solve by reasoning Source: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. (2002) Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  18. Sources Adams, Roy, 1988. Desperately Seeking Industrial Relations Theory. The International Journal of Comparative Labour Law and Industrial Relations, 4(1): 1-10. Burston, Daniel, 1998. Laing and Heedegger on Alienation. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 36(4): 80-93. Eldred, Michael, 2000. Capital and Technology: Marx and Heidegger. Cologne, Germany: Artefact. Available electronically at Godard, John, 1994. Beyond Empiricism: Towards a Reconstruction of IR Theory and Research. Advances in Industrial and Labor Relations, Godard, John, 1989. Beyond Empiricism: Alternative Philosophies of Science and the Study of Industrial Relations. Queen’s University, Kateb, George, 1997. Technology and Philosophy. Social Research, 64(3): 1225-1246. Kleinberg-Levin, David, 2005. The Invisible Hands of Capital and Labour: Using Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to understand the meaning of alienation in Marx’s theory of manual labour. Philosophy and Social Criticism, 31(1): 53-67. Kovacs, George, 1986. Phenomenology of Work and Self-Transcendence. The Journal of Value Inquiry, 20: 195-207. Marsden, Richard, 1982. Industrial Relations: A Critique of Empiricism. Sociology, 16(2): 232-250. Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  19. Mende, Jens, 2005. The Poverty of Empiricism. Informing Science Journal, Volume 8: 189-210. Napoleon, Karen & Cheryl Gaimon, 2004. The Creation of Output and Quality in Services: A Framework to Analyze Information Technology-Worker Systems. Production and Operations Management, 13(3): 245-260. Rinehart, James W., 1996. The Tyranny of Work: Alienation and the Labour Process. 3rd edition. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Canada. Schwalbe, Michael L., 1986. The Psychosocial Consequences of Natural and Alienated Labor. Albany: State University of New York Press. Waugh, William L., Jr., and Wesley W. Waugh, 2004. Phenomenology and Public Administration. International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior, 7(3): 405-432. White, John, 1997. Education and the End of Work: A New Philosophy of Work and Learning. London: Cassell. Zuboff, Shoshana, 1988. In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic Books. Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto

  20. Further Information This ongoing research is documented on-line at: See also related phenomenological field research on life and work at: Centre for Industrial Relations University of Toronto