Rational Choice Theory at the Work Place

also posted on here meaning at work or why utility is a priori only to itself

When I was growing up, my parents presented me with a life path.  It went something like this:
  1. Go to public school
  2. Go to College
  3. Get a job
  4. Get married and buy a house
  5. Have kids
  6. Work until your kids have left home
  7. Work until you retire
  8. ????
I asked them, what's the point of that?  They didn't have much to say, I'm not sure why, but their basic argument was to say, well, look at us.  We are doing it and it's fine. (Ironic perhaps, but they are at step 8 now, and the four question marks seem to loom over them everyday.... such that they still have no answer.)

But at the time, being something like, 10 years old, I didn't have much to say.   I'm not going to fight-club my way through this, but I will mention that this post will survey a growing trend that I have noticed across different areas of our online media, that of where meaning and work inter-relate.  After all, even if you don't follow the schema above, if you wish to be "standing on your own two feet" you're going to have to contribute to society in a meaningful way.

Contribution doesn't always mean being paid but it does mean earning a living somehow and not soaking up someone else's resources.

But that's the catch isn't, it?  I mean, how I defined the problem: in a meaningful way. That's problematic.

If you're on the blogosphere reading this post written in American English, most likely you're in the upper part of the Global Economy.  Not necessarily at a leadership position, but certainly in the upper stratas of the global-economy.  So you think of the world in terms of $$$$ in terms of capitalism.  How does meaning fit in?

After all that's what this blog is about: Meaning.  In particular:


Meaning in the Workplace

I'd like to cite an article first written by Tammy Erickson.  You can find the article in the Harvard Business Review Blogs.  The article is titled: Meaning is the New Money, although the url suggests an earlier title was about challenging deeply held something... (probably belief?)  To sum this article: Erickson challenges the common belief about what best holds us together as a work-force when we work at a job.  For instance, my parents suggested that I do something I like.  What I like, like many teenagers, had nothing to do with earning money because it was pretty much focused on pleasing myself.  And no one will pay me to do things that please me.

So while many of us like money, working a job to make money isn't something (I hope) most of us have to do.  What my parents meant is that we should do something for a living that we at least enjoy.  If you think about it, most of us spend more time with our coworkers in a week than with our loved ones, at least during our waking hours.  That's kind of a sad thought.  All those turn-key children.  Left alone without guidance from parents who slave away....

No, Erickson argues that we all need meaning in our jobs, we all need to be energized by what we do, to believe that it matters.  Here's a compelling quote:
My research has clearly shown that high levels of engagement, and the associated discretionary effort, occur when our work experiences reflect a clear set of values that we share. For many today, meaning is the new money. It's what people are looking for at work. Clear company values, translated into the day-to-day work experience, are one of the strongest drivers of an engaged workforce, one primed for successful collaboration.
Now if that doesn't convince you read, or at least skim, the article I don't know what will!

Isn't what all the corporate magazines talk about?  Team-building a corporate culture with a cohesive message so everyone is on the same page, working happily towards a shared goal?

So now, if I get this right -- companies not only need to produce more value for their customers than it costs (monetarily) to produce that good or service -- they also need to produce meaning for their workforce so that their employees are on board the project too... not just as a wage earner, but with a clear vision and focus as to how their work at the company is meaningful and helps others in the long run.

Sounds like managers also need to become teachers!  And CMOs and CEOs need to be philosophers!  So then, if I take this article literally, business organizations need not only a clear cash flow that makes fiscal sense for them to operate and survive business cycles, but also that businesses need a clear pedagogical skeleton so that the message is disseminated from the philosopher-CEOs and COOs and CFOs that drive a business towards its strategic goals.

Certainly many of the more successful corporations that have exploded since their founding today have that clear mission and vision of the kind of company they want to be.  But besides the issue of meaning, what else is at stake?

What happens when we lose meaning?


The Great Depression of the early 21st Century

Certainly in our current lifestyle, we find ourselves amid a "Great Depression" comparable to the many depressions in the earlier part of the 20th and latter part of the 19th century... For instance, Detroit basically has 50% unemployment (from World Socialist Website via Jodi Dean, here: The Depopulation of Detroit).  If we take Detroit as a sintome of our current employment life, what does that entail?

The issue as I see it has less to do with what happens if we get meaning back in our life, but what happens if we lose it.  If we treat our jobs as vehicles for money, which is how we might traditionally look at our job, we end up in a completely different kind of "depression".

From the Socialist Worker via Jodi Dean, we get an article about Capitalism's Crisis.  This article hails from a Marxist view of what has traditionally been seen as a deficit on the part of laborers.  I'm not a big Marx expert, or even fan, but I do find him useful.  The idea is that the surplus value of a laborers' only real commodity (his time, energy and life-force) is where capitalists make their profit.  The crisis of capitalism that Alex Callinicos talks about is the end of capitalist profit.  I don't want to talk about capitalism too much here as a system, but the basic idea is that as long as capitalism is profitable that profit can be spread among everyone (albeit unevenly).  When that profit stream dries up, it needs to get its $$$ from somewhere, so Callinicos talks about how it is going to try and take more of it from its working class by deducing wages or benefits.

So the lack of jobs that say, Detroit faces (along with the rest of us) also stems from the lack of profit that is to be had (eating up all our equity from our finance instruments circa 1980 to mid-2000s).  By the way, Alex Callinicos also wrote a book called Against Postmodernism which I read trying to figure out what Postmodernism was.  I was an undergrad at the time, and frankly, my first attempt to grasp what he was saying resulted in a huge fail.

But in any case, if Callinicos is correct, then our current recession is actually a depression.  And as such, it is unlike the depression resulting from the speculative crashes in 1929 -- this depression is actually a crisis in the logic of capitalism.  If the system of economic redistribution is no longer adequate to redistribute... meaning or money or whatever it distributes, then it has failed us.  To quote Callinicos,
The great Russian revolutionary Lenin said there’s never a really hopeless situation for capitalism as long as workers allow it to survive.
Sooner or later the system can recover from any crisis. It would be difficult for it to return to the pattern of the recent past, as the financial system has been seriously weakened.

While the slump continues, it’s important to see that it’s uneven. One section of the system, the historical core in North America and most of Europe, is still quite depressed.

But if we look at China and the economies associated with it, which include Germany and Brazil, they are growing quite quickly.

This reflects the way in which the Chinese state threw everything into preventing a protracted economic slump.

The fact that this bit of the system is growing is a further destabilising factor, however.

It produces tensions between the US as the dominant capitalist power, and China—increasingly seen as the major challenger. That makes it harder to manage capitalism.

But even if they do find a way of muddling through, what produced the crisis was the logic of capitalism and the system—a system that is driven by blind competition in pursuit of profit.

That system will continue to produce crises and continue to try to solve them at the expense of working people and the poor.
So the only real guarantee of escaping crises like this one is to get rid of capitalism altogether.  That may not be a bad idea, but it also may not be necessary.  Callinicos seems to adhere to Marx to understand what Capitalism is... but you should also understand that Marx himself did not really see capitalism as a horrible system.  Faulty, to be sure, but not without its merits.

Nonetheless, we can take this Callinico's call to action a step further.  Richard Seymour, author of the blog Lenin's Tomb, in an article titled Towards a new Model Commune critiques the basic segmentation that happens in capitalist culture -- the organization of the workforce, the regulation of our 9-5, the unthinking box each of us puts herself in when we think, oh I should get another job, often with a helpless conviction that there is in fact no other way for one to live.... that we cannot effect a change in the larger system because I'm just one poor little me!  What can I do? The question then comes as a parallax reversal of JFK's statement, we should not live for our system -- we should ask that our systems live for us, allowing us to live.


Beyond Nihilism: Meaning without Utility

Having followed me thus far, you'll be impressed with how far "left" I have gone.  But this is not a matter of liberal or conservative however; the status quo has no substance in itself.  People will only adhere to a meaning if it continues to service them well.  So the question is more aligned with Immanuel Wallerstein's dichotomies from his World Systems Analysis.  We have rather, three parties, a defense of the status quo for no change, a desire for some carefully measured change, and then we have those few who want radical change.  Critical theory, or at least a philosophical eye on the relations that be want change, push for change.  It's doomed to be, a measure of how things can be "better".  The Americanizations of Liberal and Conservative are anything if not misleading.  Conservatives may want change, but it's not so much change of what is fundamentally sound, but a tweaking of our current day back to the intentions of "the good ole days".  Liberals more would more on the side that what is fundamentally sound has yet to be conceived of.

Thus, the content of both sides is irrelevant, their positions are metered around what is seen as being fundamental "change" or not.

So my point in bringing this up, if anything is that while you'll see that while this entry has gone into the very "liberal" ideologies of Marxist critiques of capitalism, you can find similar thoughts echoed, if not in the right then at least in the status quo.

My evidence for this?  Straight from the business blog of Tony Schwartz, We're in a new energy crisis.  This one is personal.  While much of this blog's purpose is to promote their "The Energy Project" which has to do with auditing tasks that businesses (and their front running exes) to save energy.  Not energy like green energy or electricity, but personal energy.  What does this blog post reveal about one of his key principles?  It's worth quoting:
Companies need to take up the cause of a new way of working.
The companies that build competitive advantage in the years ahead aren't going to do it by seeking to get more out of their people. They'll do it instead better meeting people's core needs — physical, emotional, mental and spiritual — so they're freed, fueled and inspired to bring more of themselves to work every day.
What energies people -- what meets their needs is to give them meaning, to energize them with a goal, exactly what Erickson writes about above.

But then we knew this already.  Victor Frankl wrote Man's Search for Meaning which is actually a memoir of his survival from a Nazi Concentration Camp.  His analysis and conclusion is that human beings need meaning to survive.  He observed that those who survived the camp did so because they had sufficient reason not to give up.

I don't think that we of the global economy are ready to give up.  And our daily lives DO have meaning, albeit personal meaning.  For many of us, our jobs mean a little bit, we find a way to incorporate what we do into the larger picture of how others live around us.  Even still though, to get supreme satisfaction is requires more than just knowing that we did our part in some small way.  Having a personal disjunction between our life with our family and friends and what we do in the office is perhaps one of the greatest conundrums of the modern era.

Both Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Jean-Francois Lyotard (to mention a few) cite our postmodern, post-industrial society with its circularity of capital (C-M-C and M-C-M) and its built in limits as without producing meaning.  Instead, meaning is foreclosed between production on one side, and consumption on the other-side through the parallax multi-faceted kernel of $.  The only thinker I know of who seems able to transcend this analogous gap between money, commodity and capital is Kojin Karatani and he proposes a barter type system as a way of side-stepping the dialectic.

Anyway, such discussions between meaning and money are fit for another time, however.  And my reading of Lyotard's Libidinal Economy is quite rusty.  I did try and tackle this subject before here: On Capitalism, a Tragedy although the approach was quite philosophical.

No, I don't think capitalism is a tragedy, I was just playing off of Michael Moore's Capitalism, a Love story.

So the takeaway?  If anything it's not that we can work more hours in a day.  Or that we could be more productive if we paid our employees more, or save our economy by shrinking the benefits to those who have jobs.  I suppose I can write a little bit on that some other time, maybe.  But what I want to end with here, is simply that if we are to find our way out of the current economy deadlock, and our collective dissatisfaction with how much we work then we need to take a risk and alter the way we approach work.  This can't happen until businesses collectively see their mission to be more than just greed and profiteering.  The world today is remarkably different from when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations.  The main difference is that the world then was much bigger.  Today we live in a sandbox. We find our resources dwindling and our pollution with no where to go.  We used to shit in someone else's backyard -- but only now we see that someone else's backyard is also our backyard.

If anything we need to forcefully reinstill meaning into our existence.  Instead of embracing the null of capitalism and relying on transactions and cash flow to be the determining factor of meaning and rationality (decision making) we need to find some other means.  Which will be hard, because we wouldn't be changing the tangible pieces on the table.  We would be changing the intangible relationship of those pieces, the logic of how they work together.  I think if anything, the experiment of a centralized bureaucracy like the Soviet Union's most likely isn't the answer...

So to get back to the takeaway, we have to understand that Homo Economicus cannot be the basis for Rational Choice Theory.   This kind of maximization of utility can only be cohered when understood in conjunction with a meaningful metric.  Only one kind of meaningful metric exists:  MONEY.

One could argue that the metrics don't need tampering and the basis for rational choice is sound, it's rather the instrumentation needs to be refined.  But then if you use the Energy Project as above, can we actually put a dollar sign for every effort spent on pedagogically infusing an employee with the company mission?  Or the time spent by a manager to explain to an employee how they fit into the company network?  Or the extra productivity an employee may show (or not lose) because such time and energy was spent?

Well, business has a vested interest in these things, and big business has a ton of money and a need for quantifying studies so I am sure someone has been insane enough to create tools to describe what I've described directly above.

But in all seriousness: I am not alone in voicing a concern that economy theory is insufficient in properly modeling and putting into practice what is healthy for human beings.  This article:  Goodbye, Homo Economicus from Economist's View voices concerns about the insufficiency of linking rational choice theory (with its model of humans as homo economicus, interested mainly in external measurable values of maximizing utility and minimizing cost).
What the “madmen in authority” heard this time was the distant echo of a debate among academic economists begun in the 1970s about “rational” investors and “efficient” markets. This debate began against the backdrop of the oil shock and stagflation and was, in its time, a step forward in our understanding of the control of inflation. But, ultimately, it was a debate won by the side that happened to be wrong. And on those two reassuring adjectives, rational and efficient, the victorious academic economists erected an enormous scaffolding of theoretical models, regulatory prescriptions and computer simulations which allowed the practical bankers and politicians to build the towers of bad debt and bad policy. ...
Which brings us to the causes of the present crisis. The reckless property lending that triggered this crisis only occurred because rational investors assumed that the probability of a fall in house prices was near zero. Efficient markets then turned these assumptions into price-signals, which told the bankers that lending 100 per cent mortgages or operating with 50-to-1 leverage was safe. Similarly, regulators, who allowed banks to determine their own capital requirements and private rating agencies to establish the value at risk in mortgages and bonds, took it as axiomatic that markets would automatically generate the best possible information and create the right incentives for managing risks. ...

The scandal of modern economics is that these two false theories—rational expectations and the efficient market hypothesis—which are not only misleading but highly ideological, have become so dominant in academia (especially business schools), government and markets themselves.
I am not familiar with the author of this article.  Where the article stops, is in suggesting how economics could be reformed so that the internal models that build our current understanding of how resources and finances should be handled.  That's okay though, this is a blog about economics, not about meaning in the face of rational nihilism via utility... an understanding of money that is nearly a priori due to its near-circularity.

But if anything, the takeaway should be that our current system needs to change in some fundamental ways because of a lack of meaning in our workplace and the lack of integration between our system of resources and how people live.

It's not enough to BS a company work-place environment.  That environment needs to be genuine. People today are quite savvy at detecting bullshit.  Likewise any meaning a company creates, like the lessons in a public classroom, for it to be meaningful, need to be integral to our personal lives, in some way.  And that choice has to be allowed by each individual, we need a society that sets the proper conditions for such connections to thrive.  What such a society should be, or how it should be transitioned onto is of course, a difficult but collective choice each of us needs to make on a daily basis.

The next time you go to work decide for yourself, if this is what you ought to be doing.  Not today or tomorrow, but next year, or ten years from now.  Understand that maximizing a paycheck is like maximizing utility.  Getting a pleasant job that is close by is like minimizing cost.  Is that really the best way to live?

After all, in the journey of being alive, we collect things, bank accounts and stuff.  It's not been accepted that anyone who has died has come back to really talk about it.  Even still, we all see that No, you can't take it with you.

So the worthwhile part needs to be the journey, not the destination.  Why else would be possibly be here and now, alive today?

If anything, society should try and maximize its populations' "journey" instead of maximizing utility in the form of numbers in a corporate bank account...

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Comment by John McCreery on September 6, 2011 at 9:48pm

"We have to rethink authenticity because we might have to deal with multiple subjects."


Nice point. When X speaks for native community Y, does it matter if X is a young radical or a tribal elder? A man, a woman, a member of this or that class or cast? Whose is the authentic voice here?


I would add that the problem doesn't end with multiple subjects. We must also consider multiple situations. There are times when even the most respected authorities have reasons to retreat into vagueness, twist what they say for some ulterior purpose, or outright lie.

Authors we now revere as authorities—I think of Malinowski—were well aware of these possibilities. That is why they recommended keeping detailed notes, cross-checking assertions with multiple informants, and focusing analysis on social facts that everyone agreed on. Some, like Frederik Barth in Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktaman of New Guinea even went so far as to consider the implications that few might know what they were talking about and knowledge is frequently lost during demographic accidents.

Comment by Alexander Lee on April 12, 2011 at 8:45am

This may be one of the central dilemmas of our times. If cheap and good enough is all that we want as consumers, we are the target for fast food companies, high-volume discounters and other businesses that embrace scientific management as a way to squeeze profit from their operations and, simultaneously, squeeze meaning from their workers' jobs. If we want everyone do have meaningful work and to have all trade be fair trade, are we willing to pay the price? Or, thinking bigger, can we come up with an economy that both works for seven billion people and provides meaningful work for them all?


I guess that's one of the biggest issues with socialism as I recall from elementary school.  Marx's critique is well taken but conservatives come back with: Someone has to pump the gas.


Currently, of course, not everyone can live a middle-class-suburban lifestyle.  We all can't have our own house, our own beach front property and do meaningful work.  Someone still has to lay in the asphalt.  It's possible that in the future technology provides enough infrastructure such that people can live in luxury and let robots do all the repetitive tasks.  I forget where it comes from, but there was an adage that in the future, robots will do all the work but the rich will be served by people.


None the less, I don't feel that it's too early to start working to this end.  It may not be possible at Macdonalds, where employees aren't paid enough to smile.  But if they were well taken care of... maybe it is possible.  Unlike our economic models, money still really isn't the most important part of people's lives... and as such I think there is hope.  It's possible that as companies find the need to survive and distinguish themselves from one another, we will end up developing the kind of society that fosters happier people with meaningful lives.  One can hope, I guess.

Comment by John McCreery on April 6, 2011 at 5:12am

So this is may be a little off topic from where the discussion is going, but as a society we do not foster building a culture of meaning.


Not off topic at all. That said, perhaps an overstatement. We live in a society with two models for how to run a company. The scientific management, a.k.a., assembly-line model associated with Henry Ford and Taylorism, systematically deskills workers and thus reduces the meaning in their jobs, with the result brilliantly parodied in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. A recent account can be found in George Ritzer's The McDonaldization of Society, which explains its appeal to businesses that depend on maximizing efficiency, calculability, predictability and control over their workers. A central benefit is facilitating mass production of standardized products without the expense of training a skilled work force. 

The alternative has many names but is frequently discussed in such publications as Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review. Its gurus include Seth Godin and Daniel Pink. The problem is that this alternative "meaningful work" or "work as play" model is largely restricted to knowledge workers and personal service providers. Wherever the task is repetitive labor, the scientific management model continues to reign supreme. 

Experiments with this model have appeared in both the auto and fashion industries. Some, primarily Scandanavian, automakers have experimented with moving workers along with the cars they build, so that each car that comes off the assembly line is produced by a team that stays and works together. The Italian fashion industry is often written about as an example of a business approach that carefully nurtures craftsmanship. In both cases, however, the products are luxury items, to which craftsmanship and customization add perceived value that justifies a higher price. 


This may be one of the central dilemmas of our times. If cheap and good enough is all that we want as consumers, we are the target for fast food companies, high-volume discounters and other businesses that embrace scientific management as a way to squeeze profit from their operations and, simultaneously, squeeze meaning from their workers' jobs. If we want everyone do have meaningful work and to have all trade be fair trade, are we willing to pay the price? Or, thinking bigger, can we come up with an economy that both works for seven billion people and provides meaningful work for them all?

Comment by Alexander Lee on April 5, 2011 at 1:44am

I think this is a very stimulating discussion.


@John - I see what you mean by peasant now.


To supplement John and Keith's remarks about scholars and peasantry, I would venture to suggest that on the one hand, while fruit-pickers, manual laborers' work do not inherently suggest having many meaning in itself (perhaps unlike an academic) the ability to find meaning is both an aspect of the surrounding milieu and an individual's choice.


This is something that Janny moves towards.  Perhaps I did define meaning narrowly.  I was less interested in exploring how an individual creates meaning more for themself than how a 'social organization' ought to allow for the creation of meaning.  As much as some companies would like, I don't believe we can pry meaning into a job if the individual does not find it to be meaningful or relevant.  Likewise I would like to think that even if a job does not allow itself meaning in its description (such as someone who loads and unloads trucks all day) if that worker sought to make their daily interactions meaningful it would in fact be so.


So this is may be a little off topic from where the discussion is going, but as a society we do not foster building a culture of meaning.  Acknowledging and hiring employees who will find what they do daily to be meaningful is important but it lacks the weight that we put on a job.  I would say that most of the weight lies in how much we get paid and how important we are.  Too often in a social gathering do we often judge strangers we meet (or are judged) by the perception of how much we make and how embedded we are in a group or organizational hierarchy.  Perhaps I am betraying my age here, but the emphasis is on $ and stuff.  This is where meaning lies for many, because it's what often seems to get people out of bed.  To make that next job and take a vacation in Europe.  Not on the social good.  Not on others or how we exist with them.  But to manage debt and credit.


For corporations, this is also the case -- if they take their planning and their fiscal modeling to generate their primary goals.  Regardless, the way we value behavior has to be rooted in those fiscal models.  Even non-profits have to have clear cash flow in order to survive.  There is currently a rise in 'social entrepreneurship' but unless those $ models are clear and make fiscal sense, I doubt that anyone will be willing to invest in them, or help their further their goals.


To address Huon, it may be that the 'end of Western Civilization' lies in the end of money.  I hope not and I don't think so.  We may find our axises changing, but there's quite a ways to go before the acquisition of stuff becomes less important to us as a society.  As a people, even as a poor people, we have quite an investment in our bank accounts, our homes and our continued lives.  That's why I would suggest that we define our economic models around different means so as to discount something like rational choice theory and homo economicus.


But of course, that would suggest an end to the weight we put around quantification and even something like the scientific method as a social institution which relies on repeatability and 'objective' modelling.


To define our ambitions along a different epistemological axis could even mean the end of all sciences... including Anthropology. ;p

Comment by Alexander Lee on April 5, 2011 at 1:05am
Sorry all, I have been reading your remarks but been swamped with work.  I am going to reply now.
Comment by Keith Hart on April 4, 2011 at 11:19am

Janny, I am in substantial agreement with your comment which, if I read it right, is to place more emphasis on society and less on culture, on the social organization of work more than meaning as such. The contrast between the three decades after WW2, when public services and rising real incomes were a priority in the leading industrial economies, and the last three when the rich have won back control, with cutbacks in public services, reduced real incomes, harder work and greater precarity for many, can only be seen as a class struggle in which plutocracy has temporarily won, at least in the US.

But let us suppose that Alexander's point was to ask what individuals can do to improve their lot under these circumstances. Here I believe your four dimensions of working happiness are a good guide: autonomy, individual creativity and teamwork, lack of exploitation and not being ground down. That suggests to me, Don't work for a US corporation. How might these conditions be made more likely? That might lead us into networked enterprise, pluriactivity, lifetime self-education and a whole load of other topics this side of a revolution. Perhaps the key issue is tolerance for precarity which varies widely in the population. I have always tried to get a staple income from something that leaves me time for other things. Universities once provided that, but I wonder if they do now.

Your comment about toll booth operators got me wondering. I am in South Africa right now and I had plenty of opportunity to consider their lot over the weekend. Of course it is work that should be done by machines, but who is to say that a TBO's life is one of mechanical routine? Here every motorist is an opportunity for a brief chat. I found myself playing the role in my imagination, wondering is that grandmother on the back seet was alive or not and so on. But perhaps the point is that a job of any kind is valued highly here and workers with the public are unfailingly generous and warm. Where else would an airport security gaurd think it is his job to cheer up the line with jokes? There are many historical factors, the recent abolition of white supremacy, the very high levels of unemployment, the character of the African population. So that, for all the rising inequality and general frustration, poor workers have reason to believe that history is on their side in this young country which was only formed as such 100 years ago.

The last time I was in California, I thought the whole society was going through a nervous breakdown with computerized controls everywhere trying to fix a highly mobile population into the ground. If you add to that the fiscal crisis and the end of rising house prices, I think I would be depressed to live there now. These things are all relative.

Comment by Janny Chang on April 1, 2011 at 10:49pm
I find Lee's argument very compelling, because it takes into account what Jill Fraser's White Colalr Sweatshop does not discuss -- the affects, attachment, belief systems and interpretation of work that make it a deontological good. I used to work at a start-up company before the dot-com busts and we experienced morale boosts from the excitement of being at the brink of revolutionary innovation...that is, until we realized we were not going to get funding from venture capitalists and we had to make ends meet from our overly thinned bank accounts. I also worked at a computer store selling hardware parts. That store shut down. At the same time, I worked at a local restaurant, which also shut down shortly after I started working for them. (I promise I am not bad luck though!!) Because I was not intellectually stimulated by either job, I did not find meaning. I was glad to see the hours pass by. Sometimes they passed quickly if we had many clients, and other times the hours dragged on. I suppose I derived meaning from interacting with friends at the workplace, but even they wanted to rush home. When I think about the best work experiences I had, among them being an SAT tutor, a web programmer at my undergraduate university, working for the mayor of Maui on low-income housing projects (for a summer), teaching 9 to 17 year-old kids technology at a summer camp, and working on administrative and technical projects at a teachers credit union, there are several factors that contributed to meaning at the workplace:

1) I had relative high autonomy.
2) I was valued for creativity and individual thought tempered with group teamwork.
3) Compensation (both pay and benefits) were average or above average.
4) Workplace pressures were not overwhelming.

While I agree with Lee that we should concentrate on putting meaning at the workplace, this goal should supplement the goals of trying to make working conditions fair and less cumbersome, not substitute for them. We should not assume that meaning is completely separate from other factors, economic or otherwise. For example, in Viktor Frankl's Search for Meaning that is referenced by Lee, logotherapy involved a form of separation from one's situation because it was simply too difficult to deal with the pain of witnessing a loved one die. It says, like many self-help books -- and I've probably read Stephen Covey's Seven Habits a dozen times -- that the individual must rise above her situation. While I find this notion hopeful and necessary in challenging times like those faced by Frankl, it seems most applicable when there are no other or few other options, for example, when stuck in a concentration camp. But when one does have the option of a career-change, asking the boss for a raise, changing companies, or uniting with other workers to go on strike, maybe that also provides meaning. That is to say, perhaps Lee is defining meaning a bit narrowly. It can be means to an end, or an end in itself. For some, the meaning might lie in fighting for better conditions. For others, it might solely be in providing for one's family. It makes sense for knowledge workers to easily find meaning in one's research, teaching and other areas due to the relative versatility and autonomy of the nature of this type of work. But what of toll-booth collectors? There is no doubt that while some people might find meaning in that type of work, it would probably be much more difficult than for other jobs due to the lack of autonomy and the repetitive nature of the work. It is also possible re-orienting or shaping meaning is a band-aid to a larger issue -- namely the increasingly specialized and mechanical division of labor. Maybe those who are dissatisfied with being toll-booth collectors need more than to be told that they should somehow try to find meaning in their work. Aren't some jobs much more difficult to find meaning in? Don't some people have to perform these jobs nonetheless? It seems clear that in situations like this, we need more than a search for meaning in order to improve the lives of workers.

The crux of Lee's argument, I think, is about choice. Wouldn't it be lovely if we had autonomy to do what gives us meaning? Lee brings up a good point about finding meaning at work. But perhaps the solution is that we should be able to find work that gives us meaning. It might be the case that some jobs simply by nature are meaningless. This is not to say an individual out there may not find meaning in that particular job, but that the onus should not be placed on the individual to make meaning at the job or to accept corporate propaganda. There is no meaning in increasing work pressures, workloads, and declining levels of career and financial security, which Jill Fraser has claimed leads to less emotional attachment and also, less time and energy to spend with one's family and children. Given a lack of choice due to economic pressures, we are forced to find "work meaning" elsewhere -- in social relationships, in civic engagements, in civil society, and in our homes. Given a set of choices, we can decide whether we want to hunt in the morning, criticize at night, or do both. First increase autonomy. Perhaps then, meaning will naturally follow.
Comment by John McCreery on April 1, 2011 at 4:02am

Keith, your mother-in-law is a great example. Sounds a bit like my dad. His day job at the shipyard may not have been the GP treadmill she describes—as I've written elsewhere, working on big, individually designed ships for which engineers were constantly coming up with what they saw as improvements made the job very different from an assembly line process. His real love, however, was horticulture, and what we called "the home place," was filled with  shrubs and flowers, strawberry and asparagus beds, and a grape arbor. We had pecan, walnut and fig trees, and the point at the head of a salt water creek on which we lived was partially surrounded on three sides by the bamboo he acquired from an experimental farm in Georgia and introduced to York County, VA. Before, near the end, he started to forget things, he knew every plant and animal on the place by scientific and common name and could run on forever about how it was responding to changes in the weather.


I do have to note, though, that neither his garden nor your mother-in-law's was their primary source of livelihood. So the rough edge that comes from constantly struggling to defend or expand the family's major asset in a densely populated landscape where others struggling to do the same thing wasn't there. I take your point about the variety of peasant life. But, seen from a different angle, Deirdre was not wrong to point to the fierce defense of the narrow field as a typical aspect of genuine peasant behavior.


It is both these aspects to which I point with my speculative model. Scholars who devote their lives to a handful of classical texts can find an infinite, albeit tightly bounded, variety within them. Those with imperial ideas can find endless ways to elaborate them (God save us from the Talcott Parsons of the world). The merchant adventurers will know less about any specific field that the peasants who cultivate them but more detail about more fields than the imperial thinker pursuing his vision. Perhaps that explains our fondness for mid-range theory.

Comment by Keith Hart on March 31, 2011 at 6:01pm

It's a pity that Deirdre got there before me. I had a different idea with the peasant comparison which is echoed in your first comment, John. The bourgeoisie represents peasants as being stuck in the mud, conservative, addicted to a tradition that is just one thing ("subsistence farming"), limited horizons etc. John Berger In Pig Earth argues that it is the other way round: peasants live a life of great variety and innovation, while the bourgeois holes up in his monolithic world view and hangs on like grim death to what he has got.

My mother-in-law (one of them) was a GP in Lancashire. She kept a substantial smallholding with every kind of bird and animal on it. She spent all her spare time there. I asked her why and she replied that her work as a GP was monotonous and pointless: she might as well be a conveyor belt between Big Pharma and patients who need social solutions for their messed up lives not drugs. 95% of doctors would make the same prescriptions as she did when faced with a patient in need. Her part-time life as a peasant was the opposite. Every time she went outside was a different situation that she could usually fix by doing what was necessary on the spot: a lamb needed to be helped to suckle; a piece of fence had broken and had to be fixed, ditto the tractor (which meant borrowing a bit of machinery from a friend and the opportunity for interaction); she could calm down a skittish goat, spread love among the cows; plot to acquire a field from her neighbour. Helping her was almost impossible because her working terrain was so particular and customized by her as a spontaneous bricoleur to meet her animals' needs.

Although experience of academic work varies, I think one can make a case that we combine a wide range of tasks which are the opposite of otherwordly and are met by others outside the universities in a much more specialized way. We have to write and publish, organize research, learn oral performance, manage those we teach and each other, increasingly run our affairs like a business and so on. Although many of these tasks may be onerous, even unpleasant to some, it is possible to develop a varied occupational mix that includes many different things that we enjoy doing. Most jobs do not offer that variety and that was the basis of my comparison with peasants. Idealized of course.

Comment by John McCreery on March 31, 2011 at 10:20am

Quick responses to Keith's first two remarks.


1. How many anthropologists do we know who aren't doing something that their parents or other authorities never expected them to do? Isn't it a bit odd, then, how much of anthropological speculation assumes that the "natives" are perfectly socialized beings who believe the oddest things and behave in outlandish ways because those are what they've been taught (or, if not taught, learned by a kind of osmosis)?


2. Some knowledge workers resemble peasants. They pick a small field in which they can learn everything there is to know and cultivate this or that new insight. Others, however, have imperial ambitions. They search for the big idea, the one that, at least for a while, appears to explain everything. A third possibility is the one I've stumbled into and adopted for myself, the knowledge worker as merchant adventurer, mentally traveling here and there, looking for ideas in one place that might be useful (even worth money!) in another.

In part my inspiration is Deirdre McCloskey's "Bourgoise Virtue" (not the  book in which its been expanded) but the earlier article I read in American Scholar, when my mother-in-law was still alive and buying me a subscription. In that article, McCloskey observes that academics tend to behave like peasants or  aristocrats, defending a narrow turf or being excessively sensitive to what they see as slights to their honor. Where both types agree is in their rejection of the primary bourgoise virtue, the willingness to compromise, to work out a deal where both sides get something they want. But that's a discussion for another day; here it is just a footnote on what lead me to think up the merchant adventurer alternative.


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