Dependent workers and subjectification


New Challenges For Action Research1

Werner Fricke

IJAR – International Journal of Action Research, Heft 2+3/2018, pp. 83-109

From the perspective of sociology of work, the article “New Challenges for Action Research” raises the question: How can dependent employees in heteronomous employment relationships fulfill their elementary need for self-determination, if the progressive economisation of the working and living world shapes their consciousness and even their identities? If utilitarian calculi supersede empathy and solidarity everywhere, and everyone is called upon to become a successful manager of himself under the pressure of so-called “self-optimisation” (Subjectification trap)?

Research in sociology of work and experiments in action research show how dependent workers can escape from the subjectification trap by engaging in processes of collective reflection, and so reactivate their capacity for active and democratic participation, and for self-determined designing their working conditions to regain the ability to act and the power to independently shape their working conditions. Finally, it is asked if and how this process is possible under conditions of digital work in platform economics.

Key words: Action research; democratic participation; subjectification; platform society


Nuevos Desafíos Para La Investigación-Acción

Desde la perspectiva de la sociología del trabajo, el artículo “Nuevos Desafíos para la Investigación-Acción” plantea la pregunta: ¿Cómo pueden los empleados dependientes en relaciones de trabajo heterónomas satisfacer su necesidad elemental de autodeterminación, si la progresiva economización del mundo del trabajo y mundo de vida moldea su conciencia e incluso sus identidades? ¿Si los calculus utilitaristas substituyen la empatía y la solidaridad en todas partes, y todos están llamados a convertirse en un exitoso administrador de sí mismo bajo la presión de la llamada “auto-optimización” (trampa de la Subjetivación)?

Investigación en sociología del trabajo y experimentos en investigación-acción muestra cómo los trabajadores dependientes pueden escapar de la trampa de la subjetivación al involucrarse en procesos de reflexión colectiva, y así reactivar su capacidad para la participación activa y democrática y para el diseño autodeterminado de sus condiciones de trabajo para recuperar la capacidad de actuar y el poder de configurar independientemente sus condiciones de trabajo. Finalmente, se pregunta si y cómo este proceso es posible en condiciones de trabajo digital en la economía de plataforma.

Palabras clave: Investigación-acción; participación democrática; subjetivación; sociedad de plataforma.


1. Posing the problem

How can dependent workers recognise their interests when the progressive economisation of the work and life ‒ world and the so-called subjectification of labor (Moldaschl and Voss 2002) shape their consciousness, their identities? Cost-benefit calculations everywhere take the place of empathy and solidarity. Everyone is called upon to become a successful manager of themselves under the pressure of “self-optimisation”. The result is widespread fatigue in the face of a plethora of supposedly unlimited opportunities (Ehrenberg 2015). Therefore, at stake in this investigation are the difficulties encountered by attempts to realise democratic participation in today’s economy and society.

Democratic participation in the workplace depends on the commitment and activity of many stakeholders. Their motivation is the interest in participation and self-determination inherent in every human being as an anthropological constant (Fricke 1975, 2004, 2009). However, as our empirical work has often shown, the need for democratic participation and self-determination is often suppressed: in Fordist work situations due to high workloads of physical and emotional nature, through domination and control in the work process, through Taylorist forms of division of labor (Fricke et al.), in post-Fordist forms of work through the subjectification of work (subjectification understood in the sense of Foucault as the conditioning of the subject by social, as well as economic norms). This subjectification is at the heart of a currently successful rationalisation strategy of capital; its success stems from the fact that the management of companies succeeds in using the subjective skills of the employees to an unprecedented extent for the efficient organisation of their work. Employees are given limited freedom to design co-operation and work processes that give them the illusion of working independently. I speak of an illusion of self-determination, because the participation granted by management is limited to executing work, whereas the participation in the design of their working conditions (financial and human resources, time budgets, type of product) is excluded.

After a brief examination of some of the positions of current sociology of work on the thesis of the subjectification of work (Section 2), I will present the concept and my empirical experiences with action research based on Kurt Lewin (Lewin 1951), which aims at the activation of dependent workers (Section 3). Action research is suitable as a theoretically and practically founded concept to release dependent workers from the subjectification trap, inasmuch it develops and promotes their ability to act and their self-determination in processes of collective reflection and subsequent actions. In addition, it will be concerned with the concepts of autonomy and self-determination of the workers. I do not share a naive concept of individual autonomy. The subject is the ensemble of social conditions (Verhältnisse, nicht Beziehungen (relationships) (Marx) and therefore not autonomous as an individual.

But despite being socially shaped, the subject is capable and interested in dealing actively and consciously with social influences (norms, social background) in order to shape his/her identity as far as possible in self-determination and resistance to conditioning (alienation) through social norms and economic interests (Parin 1983; Foucault 1994; Eribon 2016).

2. The subjectification trap

I start with some remarks on the centrality of work for the subject.

There is increasing information from companies, psychiatric clinics and relevant literature that depressive disorders among workers are massively increasing (Déjours 2008). The psychologist Alain Ehrenberg explains that the modern subject of the twenty-first century becomes depressed as result of the effort to become self-actualised in the face of unlimited possibilities of self-realisation (becoming her/himself) and of the pressure to constantly self-optimise; the subject loses his/her ability to act.

Action research can initiate a healing process for these employees. It can become a counterbalance to today’s widespread depression illness. Above all because, as a dialogical procedure, it enables employees to collective self-reflection and to act in processes of democratic participation. From a task of the individual self-determination it becomes the accomplishment of collective action. While autonomy in the first half of the twentieth century was still a possibility (Parin) attainable for the development of the individual subject, self – determination of subjects today is attainable and stable only within the framework of collective solidary action by groups. Individual employees acquire the ability to selfdetermination only in joint democratisation and reflection processes. And they preserve, even more: in the co-operative process they practice and increase their ability to act, their self-consciousness, their innovative qualifications, their ability to work. By exploring the possibilities of alternative work design together and realising it together, they no longer stand as individuals resigned to a wealth of unattainable possibilities; it is no longer about individual self-realisation, but forms of solidarity work design: through them then also to self-determination and strengthening of the subject.

One recognises the importance of co-operation and solidarity for successful selfdetermined work design, if one remembers that work is a social relationship that is characterised by a special relationship of subjectivity and work (Déjours 2006): Through work, the sensitivity of the subject develops, it changes and evolves. The result is a “bodily intelligence” that the Greeks called metis (cunning intelligence at Déjours 2006, p. 52, probably to be understood as Geschick in German).

Furthermore, Déjours addresses the subject’s situation between individual experience and collective action. Work as a social relationship “… takes place in a human world characterised by relationships of inequality, power and domination. Working means involving one’s subjectivity in a world that is hierarchical, ordered, constrained, and rife with struggles for domination. Thus, the reality of work is not simply that of the task … Working is also experiencing the resistance of the social world, and more precisely that of social relations, to the development of intelligence and subjectivity. The reality of work is not only the reality of the objective world but also that of the social world” (Idem, p. 56).

The co-operation of workers, especially when they deviate from standard requirements and develop their own more productive ways of co-ordinating their work, is the result of discussions between them, which are not only about technical considerations, but also about preferences, taste, age, gender, health and medical history, in short: values (Idem, p. 57). These are processes of collective reflection (Eikeland 2007) and reflexive work (Langemeyer 2015; Fricke 2014). At this point, Déjour’s reflections come very close to a central theme of work-related action research: promoting processes of collective reflection and democratic participation in the organisation of work (see Section 3).

Déjour’s conclusion: “… work rules always have a double orientation ‒ that of the efficiency and quality of work on the one hand, and a social objective on the other. Co-operation presumes a de facto compromise that is always both technical and social. This is so because working is never just producing; it is also, and always, living together (in the Aristotelian sense of the term)” (Déjours, 2006, p. 58). And elsewhere: “Work offers what is perhaps the most ordinary opportunity to learn about living together” (in Aristotle’s sense) and democracy. But it can also give rise to the worst ‒ the instrumentalisation of human beings and barbary” (Idem, p. 46, italics WF)2. Dejour’s conclusion is: “At the core of these processes, the relationship to work seems irreplaceably decisive. But the relationship to work only offers this possibility if what emerges from subjectivity in work is recognised and respected. Contemporary changes in the forms of work organisation, administration, and management, in the wake of the neo-liberal turn, rely on principles that precisely suggest sacrificing subjectivity in the name of profitability and competitiveness” (Idem, p. 60).

Déjours opens the view on the ambivalent effect of work on the subject: as a social relationship, work promotes processes of subjectivation3. However, in its current neoliberal form (heteronomy of a domineering work organization, instrumentalisation of participation, interest and apparent autonomy in the context of indirect control in the service of efficiency and competitiveness) work causes subject subjugation, subjectification in the sense of Foucault. Not Déjour, but some German sociologists of work see both forms, becoming a subject and submission of the subject to the conditions of labor, as the results of the same process. Bröckling, for example, thinks that the creation and submission of the subject, his “social conditioning and self-constitution, go hand in hand” (Bröckling, 2002, p. 177).

Ines Langemeyer drew attention to this short-circuit, “that the subject subjugation, as a domineering conditioning and productive utilisation of subjectivity is short-circuited with becoming subject in the sense of developing a capacity for thought and action” (Langemeyer 2002, p. 364). She criticises Bröckling for hiding “forms of acting capacity and of becoming subject, which can point to the possibility of power-free relationships” (ibid). The present text is about this capacity for action and the need of the subjects to liberate themselves from domination, and to work and live as self-determined as possible. We have summarised the acting capacity and the need for self-determination in terms of innovative qualifications (Fricke 2009); in what follows, I would like to show how action research can foster the development and application of these innovative qualifications, albeit initially limited by heteronomy and domination of current neoliberal capitalism in work and social life.

If one attempts to develop forms of self-determined work under the conditions of heteronomous work in neoliberal capitalist enterprises, as is the goal of action research , then one must become clear about when, as we have done in our research, we may at least be able to speak of democratic participation, and when not. We did our best not to set the scale too low for that. The increased and growing importance of the subjectivity of workers, or more precisely of their subjective qualifications such as creativity, content engagement, empathy, solidarity, etc., for coping with modern work processes is undisputed in the literature of sociology of work. Undisputed are also the interests of companies and their ability to exploit subjectivity for the purpose of increasing the efficiency of their work. On the other hand, it is controversial whether capital pays or is willing to pay the employees the price for using their subjectivity by recognising the claim of workers to self-determination in the work process and accepting its realisation, at least in the form of democratic participation. Based on our research experience (Fricke et al. 1981; Fricke 2009), I conclude that companies and enterprises allow forms of participation, but as a rule this is an instrumentalisation of participation: companies grant opportunities for limited self-organisation in work processes (Pongratz and Voß, 1997, speak of heteronomous (fremdbestimmte) self-organisation, but this is neither democratic participation nor a form of self-determination: the participation in decisions on the framework conditions of work (human and financial resources, time budget, product) is regularly excluded, while the output and efficiency control via a system of indicators continues. Nevertheless, the workers engage in these forms of externally determined, limited and controlled self-organisation, because they seem to meet the interests of democracy and participation of dependent workers. However, this interest is not fulfilled by granted self-determination, but merely instrumentalised.

1 I am very grateful to Danilo Streck, Emil Sobottka, Tyler Olsen and Richard Ennals for their precise translation of my German text.
2 Súzen sunérgia (living together) is always working together at Aristotle. Citizens must co-operate in the accomplishment of tasks: that makes them, for Aristotle, political people, citizens.
3 I distinguish between subjectivation (as fully developing one’s subjectivity or becoming an agent of one’s subjectivity in the sense e.g. Rancière is using it) and subjectification in the Foucauldian connotation.

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Would you like to continue reading? This article was published in issue  2+3/2018 of IJAR – International Journal of Action Research.

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