Work In Progress: An Ethnographic Study of Power and Work in a Norwegian Engineering Unit
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This thesis is about power and discipline in a software developing unit in Norway. I have conducted ethnographic fieldwork in a small subsidiary of a US Internet company, and my main concern has been: What is the nature of power-relations here, and how is power practiced? In the current literature on knowledge intensive workers it is possible to discern two very different narratives on the nature of the employee-manager relationship. One is the narrative that I have called ‘the gold collar worker’. Here managerial power is to a large extent absent, or at least much reduced, and the workers are running everything by themselves in self-managed teams. Work is presented as ‘hard fun’, engaging and a vital source for personal development. The other narrative, which I call ‘the willing slave perspective’, paints a much gloomier picture. Here the worker is tricked into believing he is empowered when in reality he or she is exploited even more than before. With the two perspectives in mind I have conducted a prolonged qualitative study of software developers. These are employees with solid educations and great prospects for a good career in the software industry. They are young, self-confident and resourceful and take great pride in what they do. For many of them it is a job that started out as a hobby when they were very young. Their position in the company is strong, based on the fact that they deliver an advanced, large scaled software product that is part of the company’s core technology and service. They are treated as valuable resources because directly upon them the success of the company relies. At the same time these employees represent a resource that has to be attended to, exploited and developed in certain directions, and a lot of attention and effort go into guiding, shaping, controlling and supervising the workers and their work. Their autonomy is therefore also very limited; thus it seems as if the gold collar worker and the willing slave are co-present in this workplace and that the question of who’s got power becomes irrelevant. Instead it seems more sensible to look into the how question of power; how is power practiced and what are the effects? One of the most prominent writers on the practice of power is Michel Foucault, and the present study leans heavily on his work. Three of his concepts are especially central to this study. These are governmentality, subjectivation and power/knowledge. They all point to the productive aspect of power; the fact that power shapes and produces subjects, truths, and possible fields of behaviour. They also point to the subtle, indirect forms of power, and how individuals are encouraged to engage in self-discipline and produce their selves according to certain rationalities or truths. In the organization of this study I found that manifestations of submission, power and resistance are accomplishments depending on specific, situated practical and conceptual resources and that one very important tactic for rendering something true is to argue that it is scientifically rational. Furthermore, I learned that when power is practiced as an extension beyond the immediate relation between manager and worker, preferably via something impersonal, power is more accepted. Power that works through technological systems, through ‘work processes’, through norms, values, rules, and specific constructions of subjectivities meet less resistance – not necessarily because this makes power invisible or too subtle, but because power is interpreted as less corrupted by one person’s possible greed for power. This thesis can be seen as a contribution in the study of work in the affluent part of the world. It gives an in-depth glimpse into the reality of work in a group of employees that has grown steadily since the 1950s and today holds a strong position in society due to the fact that they are responsible for creating and defining our time’s technological reality. In addition this project represents an effort to put power center stage in an anthropological study. The foucauldian approach to power has enabled me to reveal the concrete and detailed practices of power, and how power works. Power is not just the unexplainable explanation, or a mysterious black box. On the other hand, even though the foucauldian framework surely has proved to be valuable in understanding power relations among high-skilled, software developers in Norway - and there is in fact something in the Norwegian anti-authority attitude that seems to fit well with indirect, impersonal forms of power - I disagree with Foucault’s insistent focus on power. I came to the conclusion that with Foucault one can dig deep into the nature of the modern art of governing, but what you might miss is the other, sometimes better, story of life.