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Trends in Skilled Work: 3 Models


An Aside: Status Ambiguities

within the Division of Labour

• Grounded in the Occupational Sociology of the

Chicago School [Symbolic Interactionism].

– E. Hughes Men and their Work (1958) especially

chapter 3 Work and the Self and chapter 9 The

Making of a Physician.

– H Becker Boys in White (1961).

– R Gold ‘Janitors vs. Tenants: a Status-Income

Dilemma’, American Journal of Sociology, LVII,


– G Fine Kitchens (1996)

Hughes and his Colleagues IN THE

Chicago School Emphasized:

– Centrality of work for identity

– This is both external and internal

– ‘dirty work . . . is formed in all occupations’ and

leads to feelings of shame and ‘status pain’.

» 1970s: Hierarchy of Telephone

Maintenance Work

» Installation of phones and fault-finding and

repairs inside homes

» Outside fault-finding and repairs

» Laying down main cables/erection of

telephone poles and wiring.

- Hierarchy = function of pleasantness and

cleanliness and possibilities of interaction

with the public

Hughes and his Colleagues in the

Chicago School Emphasized:

• Centrality of work for identity

• This is both external and internal

• ‘Dirty work….is formed in all occupations’

and leads to feelings of shame and ‘status

pain’. The Project I

• A comparison of the skills of the telephone

technician over a period of 20 years.

• Benchmark was personal experience in the

occupation 20 years before.

• Major source was personal observations and

memories [akin to oral history].

• These were tri-angulated with tape- recorded

open- ended, semi- structured interviews with

older, experienced technicians.

The Project II

• Observations and interviews in the field

with telephone technicians 20 years on.

• These were supplemented by a literature

review and the collection of data on the

changing organizational structure of BT

[the telephone company].

Telephone Maintenance Workers

in the Early 1970s I

• Highly skilled workers who required

extensive training and continuous


• Training conceptually complex and

technologically sophisticated.

• Skills developed as different cabling

systems introduced.

• Left very much on their own to perform

maintenance work [Responsible


Telephone Maintenance Workers

in the Early 1970s II

• Mostly unsupervised. Assumed to take

care in their work, with a considerable

degree of commitment to performing a

‘good job’.

• Very similar to other Skilled Workers [see

Penn Skilled Workers in the Class

Structure, 1985 and Class, Power and

Technology, 1990 especially chapter 6

‘Socialization into Skilled Identities’].

• Both of these are on my webpage in pdf


Telephone Maintenance Workers in

the Early 1970s: Hierarchy of Work

• In the 1970s there had been a clear hierarchy

within telephone maintenance work

1. Installation of phones and fault-finding inside


2. Outside fault-finding and repairs

3. Laying down main cables/erection of

telephone poles and wiring

• The hierarchy was a function of the

pleasantness and cleanliness + possibilities of

interaction with the public.

Cleanliness: A Central Ambiguity I

• As skilled manual workers, telephone

maintenance workers were akin to plumbers,

electricians, pipefitters and carpenters [they

wear overalls, get dirty on occasions and were


• As technicians they read diagrams and

repaired fualts within a complex and esoteric

technological environment

• As technicians they would come to work in light-

coloured trousers, ordinary shoes and summery


Cleanliness: A Central Ambiguity II

• Receive details of fault.

• Go to exchange and assess situation.

• Narrow down fault: enter the system

[either via a junction point or by digging a

hole in the ground].

• Only with physical labour of this kind

(often very dirty) would they don their

overalls and boots.

• They would never enter a home, business,

pub or café wearing such clothing but

would change back into their original


Fault-Finding: A Complex Set of


• Technical: Understand the System and

the Diagnostic Equipment. Training

Courses. Different generations of cabling:

lead to fibre optic.

• Experience: Knowledge of the

underground and over ground system of


• Social: Ability to network with other

telephone maintenance workers about the

likely factors at work with difficult faults.

Attitudes to Management

• Traditional wariness of skilled manual workers.

• Responsible autonomy: a pattern of compromise

between management and telephone engineers

involving a degree of ‘indulgence’ [cf A.

Gouldner Wildcat Strike, 1955] coupled with

periodic tightening up.

• Telephone engineers expected to be left alone

but also recognized a commitment to perform a

certain amount of work.

Research Questions in 1989 I

• What had been the effects of technical changes upon the

job skills of telephone maintenance engineers since the

early 1970s?

• Had there been any changes in the monitoring of

telephone engineers? These could have included:

– two-way radios

– daily norms for fault rectification

– payment-by-results

• What effects had the privatisation of British Telecom

had on managerial styles, work content and traditional

patterns of indulgence?

Research Questions in 1989 II

• What had happened to the ambiguous status of

telephone engineers with one foot on either side of the

manual-nonmanual divide?

• How far was the picture of deskilling portrayed by

Braverman and by Martin an accurate description of the

trajectory of skilled activities within telecommunications?

• Null Hypothesis: Nothing much had changed [If so,

could be the result of a variety of factors: nature of the

work per se/effective monopoly supplier


• Bifurcation of maintenance function

• Business Customers (most profitable)

• Domestic Customers

• Creation of new Business Services

Division for Maintenance.

Technical Change: Local

Network [Domestic]

• Fibre Optic Cabling Fewer Joints

• Traditional Joints Rewrapped in Pre-Shrunk

Sleeves that were highly resistant to damp.

• Test Equipment more accurate

• Easier access to man-holes

• Crimps more robust and more water resistant

• Overall expansion of skills required: this was

mainly the result of different generations of

cabling and jointing [lead plug, epoxy resin

and fibre optic joints]

Technical Change: Business


• Elite group – special clothing, take

vehicles home at night, not required

to sign in at exchange

• Highly autonomous workers

• Much of their work had been

routinized by advent of modular

electronic business exchanges




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+1 anno fa

Corso di laurea: Corso di laurea magistrale in relazioni internazionali
Docente: Penn Roger
Università: Bologna - Unibo
A.A.: 2009-2010

I contenuti di questa pagina costituiscono rielaborazioni personali del Publisher Atreyu di informazioni apprese con la frequenza delle lezioni di Social Change and Economic Life in Britain e studio autonomo di eventuali libri di riferimento in preparazione dell'esame finale o della tesi. Non devono intendersi come materiale ufficiale dell'università Bologna - Unibo o del prof Penn Roger.

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