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The Sociology of Work

Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry

by Robert Blauner
University of Chicago, 222 pp., $7.50

The Human Shape of Work: Studies in the Sociology of Occupations

edited by Peter L. Berger
Macmillan, 241 pp., $5.95

One can read these books either to discover what sociologists tell us about work in modern, western, non-Communist society, or as problems in the history of ideas—i.e., how sociologists formulate their inquiry. The first approach is the usual one, based on the assumption that we will now be given “the facts.” But facts depend upon what questions are asked. Only when we have determined the form of his inquiry can we tell whether the investigator has asked the relevant questions. This is particularly true in the case of these two books, since one claims to derive the form of its inquiry from Marx, the other from Max Weber.

The orthodox Marxist,” Blauner writes, “believed that the lack of meaningful self-fulfillment of work…would push the proletarian toward a revolutionary outlook.” The worker “does not identify himself with the productive organization but feels himself apart…For Marx himself this was self-estrangement, the very heart of the alienation idea.” The Human Shape of Work, on the other hand, tries to explain the loss of meaning in work by invoking Weber: “The medieval concept of religious vocation was transformed into the modern concept of secular work as a vocation, that is, as action requiring the individual’s highest religious and ethical commitments.”

The trouble with these invocations (given the repeated use of the word alienation, one is almost tempted to say incantations) is that the formulations have little to do with what Marx and, though to a lesser extent, Weber were talking about. To make a fine but necessary distinction, there is an important difference, at least in the history of ideas, between sociology and social psychology. Marx primarily, and Weber in his historical analyses of social change, were sociologists. They were not concerned with “meaningfulness,” “self-fulfillment” and the like, but with actual social processes; not with subjective states of mind, but with objective social situations.

Take the vexing notion of alienation. While Marx, in some of his early, fragmentary, Hegelian writings (in the incomplete Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts), speaks of the self, that concept disappears in his later writings. So does the concept of alienation (Entfremdung, or estrangement) if understood in the social and psychological sense of the self groping for a relationship to the world. Where the idea of alienation (though not the word itself) plays a role in Marx’s later writings, it is as “reification” (Verdinglichung), in which the function, not the person, becomes the unit of social action. The person becomes embedded, swallowed up, in his function, and has no other identity. He becomes a “thing.” This is the use Marx makes of the idea in his famous chapter in Capital on the fetishism of commodities. In capitalist society, where everything becomes a commodity, everyone becomes a means to the abstract ends of exchange—abstract because the purpose of the system is accumulation, and in capitalist society accumulation knows no end other than its own continual accumulation.

The point is that Marx was not a social psychologist and cannot be “tested” as such. He was setting forth, in an imperfect and amorphous fashion—since he never finished his major work on how the system of exchange operates—the model of a social system in which the individual qua individual played no role. Similarly, Marx was not a positivist sociologist. He was not merely describing what is. He worked in a critical tradition, the tradition of Reason, in which historical developments and value judgments were integral to his propositions. He judged social status not by subjective standards but by objective ones. A slave who is happy is nonetheless a slave. In contemporary society individuals may be content to perform mindless and repetitive work, but Marx would say they are still “dehumanized” men because they are unable to realize their full potentialities as human beings.

Marx’s abstract system is not set up so that one can easily derive social or psychological propositions from it. It is true that if a man is “reduced” in theory to a function, certain propositions about behavior should follow; the complex relationship of a person to his function is, in fact, a crucial area for study. But the investigator must be clear about the level of his inquiry. Descriptive findings do not necessarily invalidate a Marxian theory; only a methodological critique can invalidate it, and only another philosophical conception can challenge it.

Similarly, Weber’s discussion of work does not deal merely with a vocation or calling, as Berger implies. To Weber a vocation has nothing to do with an individual’s feelings; it is not a psychological term but an “ideological” one. The medieval concept of vocation as a religious calling was to the workers simply that, a concept, with little relation to practical reality. To most people work was hard, unrelieved drudgery, and even the so-called artisans felt little of the dedicated craftsman’s pleasure in their work. (One has only to look at the complex division of guilds in the textile industry of fourteenth-century Florence, and recall the savage revolt of the Ciompi, the wool carders, to realize what little meaning work had for them.)

For Weber, the meaning of work in modern society lies not in the calling, but in the process of rationalization—an idea akin to Marx’s notion of reification. The process of rationalization is the ruthless drive of a social system for functional efficiency, and anyone who stands in the way is flattened out. Weber went beyond Marx by extending the idea of rationalization, or reification, to internal social organization, as well as to market relations, and by seeing in the process (which today we call bureaucratization) a pervasive force engulfing all modern society, communist as well as capitalist. Again the heart of the problem is a social process, not a social psychology.

I have digressed at this length because the pretentions of Mr. Berger (who on other occasions, particularly in his Invitation to Sociology, has written simply and well) and the serious intentions of Mr. Blauner imply a large-scale sociological dimension which does not exist in their books. The point here is that Mr. Blauner’s and Mr. Berger’s books about work fail to establish a relevant context for their theory of society. Mr. Berger’s collection, containing descriptions of five occupations ranging from janitors, to business executives, lacks a structural context altogether, except for the notion of the “secularization” of work, which appears only in the editor’s summation. Mr. Blauner’s more ambitious study derives largely from the concept of “industrial environments,” by which the author means the variations in technological work settings which affect the satisfactions of the workers. But what is missing from his book is a sociological framework that could join together the technological, organizational, social, and psychological elements.

Mr. Berger’s collection, The Human Shape of Work, contains five impressionistic essays, plus the editor’s observations, on different kinds of work in American society: An essay, by Raymond L. Gold, describes an apartment-house janitor in Chicago, whose chief preoccupation on the job is to “cool off” the tenant who is always making extra demands on him, for repairs and the like, which tend to disrupt his routines. Parts of the essay verge on high comedy and even touch a central nerve, because for most Americans dealing with a janitor is the only experience they have with “servants,” and they do not manage it well. Ely Chinoy’s essay is competent enough, though it merely repeats the hackneyed observation that the men on the assembly line resent the mechanical pacing that hitches them to the line. Another essay, by William M. Evan, deals with the engineering technician, the fastest-growing occupational group in the United States. Unfortunately, Mr. Evan does not go into the experiences of the engineering technician, but discusses in an abstract way the technician’s “role strain” owing to his ambiguous position between the college-trained engineer and the skilled production worker. There is also a graceful essay on advertising by Ian Lewis. Mr. Lewis does not like advertising, but he writes more in rue than in anger, for he sees it simply as society itself writ large. His essay tells us much about the conflicts between the account executives and the “creative” departments, the psychological types attracted by advertising, and the drains on one’s energy advertising demands. This essay is “sociography” at its best.

The last chapter in the book, by Kenneth Underwood, is an unctuous report on the business executive, in the form of a “Buberian” dialogue with a composite company president. One quotation will suffice:

A social ethicist can appreciate at once, with the help of the existentialist literature and philosophy of the past century, the desire of Richard Bishop, the executive, to make clear that the heart of his work is the decision, the free creative act, not reflection.

Blauner’s book is the first serious effort in recent years to bring together a wide range of empirical materials on alienation in work. Starting from the unexceptionable proposition that the degree of alienation will vary in different industrial environments, he takes four industries as models of different settings: printing, as an illustration of pre-industrial, craft work; textiles, as the prototype of early industrialization; automobiles, as an example of the impersonal, modern factory civilization; and the chemical industry as the “clean” semi-automatic work plant of the future.

The data is drawn from a curious source. In 1947, Elmo Roper conducted for Fortune a survey among 3,000 blue collar workers in sixteen different factory industries. For all the talk of detailed empirical work in industrial sociology, this fifteen-year-old survey is about the only national cross-sectional study we have of attitudes towards work. Included in the sample were 118 printing workers, 419 textile workers, 180 automobile workers, and 78 chemical workers, and their answers constitute the data for this book. Blauner did a “secondary analysis” of Roper’s data, and made additional cross-tabulations and correlations. There are obvious difficulties in this procedure: the investigator is limited by the questions initially asked, he doesn’t know what a particular question meant to the respondent, nor does he have relevant background information, such as the kind of plant the chemical workers were employed in, etc. However, Blauner supplemented Roper’s data with an analysis of published case studies (particularly in the textile and automobile industries) and with some field studies in a single chemical plant in the San Francisco Bay area.

With all this technical ingenuity, the findings produce no great surprises. We are told that the printer likes his job, partly because of his “occupational community” and partly because of his pride in his work. The textile worker, though finding his job wearisome, takes some pleasure in “an almost idyllic folk society” or “in a rather totalitarian community dominated by paternalistic management”—which one it is “depends upon one’s perspective.” Mr. Blauner is not sure of his own. The reaction of management to union threats suggests that “the folk element is not totally spontaneous,” yet “even so, the interlocking of work and life in an integrated industrial community probably makes the job of a textile worker meaningful, if not necessarily highly gratifying and rewarding.” (And even if the textile worker is subjectively happy, is the community not totalitarian?) The auto worker is the most alienated, finds his work meaningless, and feels powerless. (“Among the lowest skilled male workers, 61 per cent of the automobile workers felt their jobs were monotonous all or most of the time, in contrast to 38 per cent of the unskilled men in the entire sample.”) The chemical workers were the most satisfied. The nature of the continuous-flow process has turned the blue-collar worker from a mechanic into a record-keeper and has given him a sense of responsibility, which he likes. (“Whereas 33 per cent of the automobile workers complained of excessive job pressures, only 6 per cent of oil refining workers, employed in a very different technological setting—automated continuous process plants—had to work too fast.”) We knew all this before, but it is nice to have it confirmed by “statistics.”

What is disturbing about this book is the mishmash which passes for social theory. The main ingredients come from Marx, as is evident both in the term alienation and in the use of technology as the chief means of differentiating industrial environments. But thick, inditible chunks of Durkheim float in the Marxist soup, with no regard to their compatibility. One can pass over, charitably, Blauner’s discussion of “integration” in the textile community; he is merely repeating a formula. But what is one to make of this explanation of the cause of anomie in the automobile industry?

Another casual factor is the relative lack of internal levels of status within the blue-collar world of the automobile industry. Social stratification and differentiation themselves contribute to the normative integration of a social system because differences in status and rewards symbolize inferior and superior contributions to the goal of the system. Those in superior positions generally uphold most clearly the norms and values of the enterprise and wittingly or unwittingly encourage those lower in status to identify with these norms in order to achieve greater rewards in turn.

In other words, anomie or alienation (in the eclecticism of contemporary sociology, the terms have become interchangeable) exists in the automobile industry because that industry is—you’ve guessed it—a “mass society.” The lack of differentiation between jobs, “symbolized by the narrow wage spread” contributes to the “worker’s sense of anonymity within the general mass of his fellow workers.”

I suppose, in one sense, this analysis is true. If you increased the wages of, say, half the workers, thus making them feel superior toward the other half, they might better appreciate the “goals of the system.” But this is simply a traduction of social analysis. All of this is a pity, for Blauner has worked hard, and the details in the book are better than the whole. His failure reflects the risks of modishness in which “sophisticated” words like alienation, anomie, massification are used freely, but with little attention to what these complicated words represent or the social reality behind them. The result is not social analysis but the separation of ideas from social inquiry.

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