A Generalist’s Work, Day 3

One of the big issues on my mind lately is my ability (and that of my colleagues) to imagine the world of work as our students will experience it.

Most of us at Swarthmore know something about the range of positions in academia, including contingent faculty positions, both through direct experience and overall knowledge of our profession. (Though the older you get as a tenured faculty member, the more your own experience with adjuncting or working as a teaching assistant is completely unlike the current situation.)

Some of us have direct experience with or fairly good working knowledge of professional work that is closely related to our fields of study. I have some knowledge of small-scale NGO work in Africa, while I have colleagues who are very knowledgeable about the World Bank and similar big-scale organizations. Some of my colleagues in the sciences have worked in corporate settings or have reasonably good knowledge of them. Many of our faculty teaching language know about professional translation.

A few of us study work and labor, though I think some of the worlds of labor that we know most about are increasingly unlike the work situations that most of our students (and their contemporaries) will face. So I think on the whole we’re pretty lousy when it comes to helping our students imagine exactly how they’re going to use what they’ve learned.

It was with all this in mind that I picked up Stephen Barley and Gideon Kunda’s Gurus, Hired Guns and Warm Bodies. I honestly don’t remember where I saw it recommended first, but I’m glad I did. Regardless of my interest in the world of work in the 21st Century, I’d recommend it as a great ethnography and as a consistently thoughtful inquiry into the sociology and structure of organizations.

But I also think it’s a great example of how the ethos of academic inquiry can produce work that confounds rather than confirms prior expectations. Barley and Kunda comment in their introduction that in studying “itinerant” white-collar workers of various kinds (consultants, project specialists, and other kinds of ‘free agents’) that they set out to document how the unravelling of the social contracts underpinning corporate labor had created a new white-collar underclass. What they found did not neatly contradict that assumption, but neither was it straightforwardly confirmed. Itinerant or contract experts, in their view, continued to make use of many of the standard modes of individual self-presentation commonly found in other professions, and thus identified more with their own capabilities, training and skills than with the organizational circumstances of their employment. They spend a lot of time confounding both the common sense of the people they studied and the set assumptions of academic researchers in their fields of specialized interest.

I learned a great deal reading the book: their sense of discovery in writing it paced my own in reading it. How contractors see themselves and their work, how clients see both organizations and contractors in choosing to buy services, and a great deal else had a good deal of revelatory force.

I can see a lot of complaints you could level at the book as far as the bigger conclusions go: maybe Silicon Valley’s consultation economy is nothing like Kansas City’s (a point they address), maybe there’s another world of contingent labor lying underneath or parallel to the one they studied, and so on. All fair enough, all discussed in the research. Nevertheless: I meddle enough in my colleagues’ curricula as it is, but at the very least, I’d love to see this book as a requirement in economics and computer science (and maybe far more) just to make the students think carefully about the labor models ahead.

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One Response to A Generalist’s Work, Day 3

  1. Stephen Frug says:

    Just wanted to say I’m enjoying this series (in addition to the links you left in the earlier thread). Thanks.


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