Observing the Labor Process: Toward A Critical Interactionist Approach to the Workplace



Work is a central life activity, through which we accomplish goals, create meaning for our lives, earn our keep and change the world through our actions. In modernity, work has a very special place, in that most of us must sell our labor for wages to afford to pay rent, buy food, and create our lifestyles. To understand how we "do modernity", we must pay close attention to everyday life in the workplace. We must consider the dynamics of the labor process, the subcultures of occupations, the paths of careers, and other aspects of the complex worlds of work.

One of my long term interests is the sociology of work and labor process studies. As a graduate student at UC-Santa Barbara in the mid-1980s I completed an year-long Area Exam in the Sociology of Work and Occupations with Professors Bill Bielby and Sarah Fenstermaker, in which I reviewed and critiqued observational approaches to the workplace. As someone who hoped to do "microsociological" research on everyday life at work, I wanted to know what others had said based on their observations of workplaces.I found five important phases of scholarly research in the United States based upon observation of work processes:

(1) Frederick Taylor and "scientific management";
(2) Elton Mayo and the "human relations school";
(3) Everett C. Hughes and his students at the University of Chicago;
(4) Michael Burawoy's Manufacturing Consent; and
(5) Harold Garfinkel's ethnomethodological studies of work program.

My sense is that close observation of work practices in naturally-occurring settings is a central component to understanding social life in modern capitalist practices. These notes reconstruct the jist of my concerns from the earlier project.

Braverman's Labor and Monopoly CapitalismMy interest in studying work practices began in 1977, when as an undergraduate at UMass / Amherst I met a Puerto Rican graduate student who turned me on to Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capitalism (1974). This was the first book of Marxist scholarship I ever read, and it had a profound influence on me. UMass / Amherst had many Marxian-inspired graduate students in the 1970s, partly because the the Economics Department (which housed Professors Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, Jane Humphreys, and other radical economists fired from Harvard). introduction to social science occurred in this context, in which radical political economy was widely discussed in the dormitories of first-year students.

Marx's writings on "alienated labor" under capitalism provide a crucial starting point for an understanding of work practices in modernity. In the 1848 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx eloquently examines how capitalist economic systems limit human potentiality. He contrasts modes of work organization in pre-capitalist and capitalist societies. In traditional agricultural societies, crafts people conceive of products in their imaginations, mold products with their hands, and take joy in seeing these objects to their completed form. Under capitalist modes of work organization workers on assembly lines do not conceive of the products they make, nor pridefully see the objects to completion. This is a key source of modern alienation. Braverman builds upon Marx's thinking to demonstrate how the organization of work is determined by the requirements of capitalism to dominate the labor process.

Frederick Taylor and Scientific Management

Frederick Winslow Taylor's "scientific management" was an early attempt to use observational practices to formulate a scientific approach to the workplace. "Taylorism", as it came to be known, seeks to apply the logic of rationality and science to work activities to better manage and control the work process. The goal was to increase productivity by eliminating individual differences in workplace behavior. It infused the factory shop floor with a form of techological surveillance, not to create more self-actualized workers, but to more fully dominate them.Beginning in the 1880s and 1890s Taylor entered factories with his stop watch, and began contemplating the "most efficient" means to achieve industrial ends. A series of "time-and-motion" studies of various work practices was launched.

This approach is also known as "Fordism", named for Henry Ford's distillation of techniques of mass production using assembly lines. This intense focus on "rationalizing" work practices is also seen in fast food restaurants, and is a dominant theme in George Ritzer's The McDonaldization of Society (1995).The general approach of scientific management is to develop standard methods for performing each job and providing wage incentives to workers for increased output.Advocates of scientific management claim that it is a scientific approach to management and process improvement, and that it began a careful study of jobs and tasks. Moreover, they point out that Taylor pioneered the whole compensation-for-performance movement. Scientific management did pioneer the use of film analysis to examine work practices, which were then dissected into their component parts.Critics note that the consequences of scientific management were dehumanization and de-skilling.

The Human Relations School

The famous Hawthorne studies formed the basis of the "human relations" school, and are described by Roethlisberger and Dickson (1939) and Mayo (1945) and Homans (1950). Mayo and Roethlisberger came from the "scientific management" tradition, and were studying fatique to optimize the length and spacing of rest periods for maximum productivity.The early work followed the scientific management approach, but surprisingly they found that production rose in both control and experimental rooms no matter what they did to the lighting. Later they found that people simply worked harder because they were part of the experiment and they wanted to do the best they could for the researchers and the company. This points to the importance of the social in the workplace.Other Hawthorne studies showed that workers are not simply motivated by economic self-interest but have complex motives and values. They are driven by feelings as much as by facts and interests, and act as members of social groups. The formal systems were subverted by emerging informal systems of norms and relationships, demonstrating that social-psychological effects were often stronger than economic effects.

E.C. Hughes and Chicago Ethnographies of the Workplace

The Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago holds a very special place for American interactionist scholars. The first formalized sociology department in the country, it established very strong traditions of urban ethnography and microsociology, and provided the homebase out of which symbolic interactionism emerged. As a graduate student I was thrilled to learn about Everett Cherrington Hughes and his many students at the University of Chicago, who launched a massive exploration of everyday life in the workplace. While teaching at Chicago, he mentored some of the greatest ethnographers of work in the 20th century, including Donald Roy, Howard Becker, Erving Goffman, Anselm Strauss, and Eliot Friedson.

I was particularly interested in the ethnographies of the factory shopfloor by Donald Roy. His "Banana Time: Job Satisfaction and Informal Interaction" (1960) most impressed me, and showed me that analysis of the mundane moments at work could reveal deeply sociologically interesting matters.Howard Becker studied the occupational worlds of school teachers and jazz musicans. He helped to formulate the concept of "career".Anselm Strauss studied the occupational worlds of medicine, and for many decades explicitly researched in the sociology of medical work. He is well-known for his "negotiated order approach" to organizational settings, studying psychiatric ideologies, the "arc" of work, "articulation work", the "work itself", and many other important concepts.Much more could be said about the ethnographic tradition of studying work and occupations that emerged from the University of Chicago. Focus included: the routine patterns of interaction, the daily negotiations through which structure is produced and reproduced, the socialization of occupational roles, and the sequential organization of work processes. Work was seen as an unfolding drama.

Burawoy's Manufacturing Consent

Michael Burawoy is a well-known sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley who has trained generations of ethnographers. While it is wrong to think of the Chicago interactionist tradition as "uncritical", Burawoy is drawing upon a qualitative approach to social life more explicitly critical that that of Hughes, Becker and Strauss, and more indebted to the writings of Marx.Burawoy's Manufacturing Consent (1979), is an outstanding ethnography of everyday life on the factory shopfloor, and it can be read as a powerful critique of Donald Roy's conceptualization (discussed above). By chance, both ethnographers did their fieldwork in the very same factory setting, separated by many years. Burawoy is nonetheless very respectful of Roy's insightful work.Yet, Burawoy sees the "little games" at work as so much more important than Roy does. Literally, at the site of production in those simple games workers play with the piece-rate system, the capitalist system "manufactures consent". By playing games with the piece-rate system, workers give consent to their own oppression as workers. This is workplace hegemony-in-action.This is relevant to the "doing inequality" theme of this blog.

Ethnomethodological Studies of Work

Harold Garfinkel's ethnomethodology is one of the truly innovative American sociological approaches of the twentieth century, and I have written about it extensively in this blog. As noted, it is an approach to practical reasoning and practical action, which often focuses on the practices of everyday social life. Even in Garfinkel's classic Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967), there were persistent concerns with work practices, such as those of jurors, record-keepers, and those working as a suicide prevention center. Also, many other early ethnomethodologists focused on work practices, including Don Zimmerman's well-known work on record-keeping in a public assistance office, Sudnow's research on the work of coroners, and Egon Bittner's work on police officers.But a new wave of ethnomethodological studies of work emerged with Garfinkel, Lynch and Livingston's research on scientists's work practices in discovering a pulsar (1983). These studies sought to uncover the "just-whatness", or "haeccity" of scientists's work practices.

In a recent article, "Harold Garfinkel, Ethnomethodology and Workplace Studies" (2008) Anne Rawls describes ethnomethodological studies of work as "an important alternative theory of work". In examining workplaces and work processes, researchers need to focus on the "local orders of work", including displays of attention, competence and trust, for it is through these situated activities that the worksite ongoingly emerges as an orderly achievement.Another version of ethnomethodological studies has sought to understand everyday life in the workplace by focusing on talk-in-interaction. Through detailed analysis of the sequential organization of embodied activity, a huge corpus of studies have documented a wide variety of occupational practices. For example, dozens of scholarly papers have explored the interactional accomplishment of medical work through talk, examining, for example, how doctors give bad news to patients (Maynard), the structured features of medical interviews (West, Frankel), etc. Paul Drew and John Heritage's (1992) Talk at Work is an excellent collection of these studies of institutional talk.Similarly, my own early research concerned using conversation analysis to advance the sociology of work. 

In "Talk-as-Work (1992, Current Research in Occupations and Professions) I drew upon my dissertation research on paramedic calls for emergency field orders to examine how in many occupational settings, such as these radio calls, talk is the work. In "Accomplishing Fact in Police 'Dispatch Packages'" (1992, Perspectives on Social Problems), I examined the situated record-keeping activities of 911 dispatchers, and how through specific interactional processes they verify information to be placed in the organizational record, and how certain records are marked as "mere accounts". In "Negotiated Orders" (1994, Symbolic Interaction), I sought to demonstrate how conversation analysis could benefit Anselm Strauss's "negotiated order approach" to the workplace by revealing how negotiations actually occur through specific and specifiable interactional practices. In "Talk, Power and Professionals" (1995, in J. Siegfried's Therapeutic and Everyday Discourse as Behavior Change), I examined professional dominance as an interactional achievement in psychiatric intake interviews.

In "Respecifying Organizational Rationality as Locally Achieved Phenomena: Ethnomethodology and Organizational Settings (unpublished, 1994), I attempted to summarize three decades of ethnomethodological work on organizations, including studies of rule-following behavior, recordkeeping practices, decision-making activities, accomplishing organizational agendas and the coordination of action. As Boden (1994) persuasively argues, ethnomethodology in the study of "rationality-in-action", examining the "local logic" of the world as it happens.

Critical Interactionist Approaches to the Workplace

As I move forward with my scholarly research I seek to develop a "critical interactionist" approach, drawing upon what I see as the best insights from the above perspectives. "Critical interactionist" approaches to the workplace draw upon microsociology to explore the "seen but unobserved" aspects of occupational settings. Moreover, they have critical concerns for "manufacturing consent", doing resistance, and exploring oppression and alienation. Critical interactionist studies of the workplace have the potential to "zoom in" to examine the detailed accomplishment of work practices (a la Garfinkel) or the mundane moments of situated encounters, and "zoom out" to examine capitalist and patriarchal control of the labor process, or other critical concerns.My evolution to a "critical interactionist" approach began in the late 1990s when I spent several months doing ethnographic research with clerical workers in a large aerospace firm in Southern California. In the year this study took place, 200,000 aerospace workers lost their jobs in this state alone, and "downsizing" was the buzzword in the corporate suites. I examined worker resistance through a "spoof" these clerical workers created out the corporate newsletter and clandestinely passed among each other. This unpublished conference presentation (1998, Pacific Sociological Association) was called "Textual Guerrillas in the Corporate Mists: Visual Representations of Workplace Resistance. Or, Managers Beward. An Angry Army of Semioticians is Subverting Your Organization."A current ethnographic project I am completing involves the work practices of dealers of methamphetamine in Ventura, California. This paper is entitled "The Dopeman and His Customers: A Cultivated Relationship" and examines the nature of buyer - seller relationships in this drug market, and the range of tactics "dopemen" use to cultivate buyers and promote customer satisfaction. This project is part of a large ethnographic study of the "meth epidemic", Dancing With Dionysus: A Sociological Memoir of Methamphetamine Use.


Everett C. Hughes. 1994. On Work, Race and the Sociological Imagination.Work and Society Research Network.Michael Burawoy websiteGarfinkel's Ethnomethodological Studies of WorkHarrry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly CapitalismResearch in the Sociology of WorkWorkplace Ethnography ProjectRandy Hodson's Homepage.Anselm Strauss obituaryWorkplace Studies: An Ethnomethodological Approachby Ilpo KoskinenWayne Martin Mellinger 6-10-08