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Dignity at Work - Book Review

Randy Hodson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 320 pp. $64.95, cloth; $22.95, paper.

Everyone loves a good story. What better, then, than a book based on 84 good stories? Randy Hodson has taken 84 book-length ethnographies of organizational life and attempted to distill the insights into a grand model of dignity at work. The advantages of this approach are compelling. Ethnographies enable readers to become immersed in rich settings peopled with intriguing characters who are propelled by both stranger-than-fiction events and grinding ordinariness. On display are ambivalence, passion, generosity, capriciousness, affection, spite, and so on through the gamut of human emotions and behaviors. In short, ethnographies provide a slice of life. The problem, of course, is that ethnographies are highly idiosyncratic, creating doubts about how generalizable the resulting insights are to other organizational settings and individuals. Hodson's brainstorm was to have his cake--his slice of life--and eat it, too: by analyzing multiple ethnographies, he could abstract a one-size-fits-all model. The result is a book laced with wonderful quotes, provocative findings, and bracing insights and speculations. The book is clearly intended for scholars in organizational studies, although it's accessible to anyone interested in workplace dignity as a lived experience.

Hodson defines dignity as "the ability to establish a sense of self-worth and self-respect and to appreciate the respect of others" (p. 3). Hodson's basic thesis, summarized in chapter 1, is simply stated. He argues that there are four workplace "denials of dignity" (p. 19): mismanagement and abuse, overwork, constraints on autonomy, and contradictions of employee involvement (e.g., pressuring employees under the guise of participation). In response, employees have developed four means of safeguarding dignity: resistance, organizational citizenship, pursuing meaning at work, and social relations at work. This model, and the empirical indicators of each concept, were developed a priori and then refined during the coding of the first eight ethnographies by Hodson and three graduate students. Although the use of an a priori model greatly simplified the analysis of the 84 books, the model necessarily functions like a horse's blinders, constraining what is sought and therefore found. The upshot is that the study seeks to confirm a model rather than discover one.

Chapter 2 expands on the basic model, nesting it in the classic works of The Three Sages: Karl Marx (capitalism alienates workers from their labors, necessitating resistance), Emile Durkheim (the division of labor induces anomie, necessitating that workers band together to forge a moral order), and Max Weber (bureaucratic rationalization depersonalizes the individual, necessitating that charismatic leaders transcend the impersonal). Hodson continues his historical tour of the struggle for workplace dignity with interesting visits to Frederick Taylor, Chester Barnard, and William Ouchi, among others, along the way.

Chapter 3, coupled with Appendix A, outlines the rationale and method for the study. This was a study so prodigious that it might have given Hercules pause. Hodson and his research assistants started with an initial pool of 365 book-length ethnographies and winnowed these down to the final pool of 84: a book had to be based on observations of a single organization over at least six months, with a focus on at least one specific group of workers. Given the author's claim to have captured the population--not merely a sample--of suitable ethnographies, and given that many readers may wonder along with me why their personal favorites were excluded, a list of the excluded books and the criteria by which each fell afoul would have been very helpful. Even more helpful would have been a table documenting how the final pool of books scored on the various measures used in the study. I often found myself wondering how well a book-length description of a living, breathing organization over time could be distilled into, say, a 3-point scale of pride in work. A scorecard would at least let the reader compare his or her recollection of a particular ethnography with the scores assigned by the research team. In the absence of such a scorecard, the reader has to take on faith that the measures are valid. (The author does describe some sensible checks and balances that were used to reduce coder bias and enhance reliability.)

Also, as Hodson notes, because ethnographers do not choose their targets at random, the "population" is by no means representative of all organizations and workgroups. The 84 ethnographies seem skewed toward so-called blue-collar occupations, particularly in factories (41 of the 108 groups in the ethnographies do assembly work), and toward times that are receding faster than my hairline (40 of the 84 ethnographies were published before 1980, and none after 1992). The unfortunate effect is a lopsided emphasis on increasingly dated settings and technologies.

Chapters 4 through 7 focus on the four denials of dignity. Chapter 4 concludes that mismanagement and abuse appear to be major causes of employee resistance and low citizenship. The notion of mismanagement is particularly intriguing: because employees generally desire a meaningful connection to their work, unintended incompetence can be almost as debilitating to dignity as intended abuse. Thus, consistent with Newton's famous law, lousy management invites an equal and opposing reaction.

Chapter 5 is ostensibly about the second denial of dignity, overwork, but focuses exclusively on contrasting assembly work with nonassembly work, as if overwork were somehow equated with the former. Not surprisingly, the data strongly indicate that resistance is higher and citizenship lower in assembly work. Interestingly, however, the imposition of tight supervisory and technological control tends to limit the variety of resistance "to either exiting the workplace or engaging in collective forms of resistance" (p. 139). The same controls that galvanize resistance also constrain the forms that resistance can take: the assembly worker is thus doubly damned.

Chapter 6 is ostensibly about the third denial of dignity, constraints on autonomy, but focuses largely on professional and craft work. Hodson concludes that professionals "work extremely hard and with a minimum of resistance" (p. 168) and a maximum of citizenship, thus qualifying as managers' prize pets. More insidiously, Hodson speculates that this gosh-may-I? stance of professionals "encourages management to chronically exploit professional workers through understaffing and work overloads" (p. 168). The reward for hard work, apparently, is a request for harder work. Conversely, craft workers offer far more resistance (perhaps due to their history of unionization); indeed, their relative power encourages them to out-resist other classes of workers in various ways.

The final denial of dignity, contradictions of employee involvement, is the province of chapter 7. Not surprisingly, organizations that allow participation (defined as team-based systems, formal consultation, joint union-management programs, or worker ownership) are associated with less mismanagement, management abuse, and resistance, and greater meaningfulness of work and citizenship. The flipside is that participation is seductive and may effectively co-opt employees into abnegating their interests and policing themselves in toxic ways.

Chapter 8 turns the spotlight on one of the means of safeguarding resistance, social relations at work. Interestingly, Hodson concludes, "Solidarity appears to be not as much a consequence of conflict with management as a consequence of positive relations between coworkers and managers" (p. 232, his emphasis). Apparently, mismanaged and abusive organizations foster a culture of disrespect that in turn leads to conflicted social relations, even among coworkers who might otherwise serve as a protective shield. Further, as suggested by the chapter subtitle--" For Better or Worse"--coworkers "can also make daily life at work a nightmare through gossip, cliques, interference, scapegoating, and ostracism" (p. 200). Coworkers are evidently a double-edged sword.

The piecemeal findings are integrated into a single model in chapter 9: denials of dignity (principally mismanagement) foster resistance and coworker conflict and undermine citizenship, all of which affect worker dignity and well-being. There is some unaddressed ambiguity, however, concerning the pivotal role of resistance. As a safeguard of dignity, resistance should be positively associated with dignity and well-being, but figures 9.2 through 9.4 show it negatively affecting, directly or indirectly, three highlighted indicators of well-being: job satisfaction, creativity, and meaningfulness. I would argue that resistance often represents a Pyrrhic victory or even a losing cause: although it may be engaged in as a necessary bulwark against threat, the fact that resistance to one's employer is even necessary may incur a profound loss of innocence and loyalty--and may ultimately provide only symbolic redress. An organization that provokes resistance from its employees is an organization that is already undermining their attachment and well-being.

Chapter 10 closes the book with a recap and some implications for theory and practice. To know how employees will act, look at how they are treated. Thus, the implications boil down to a plea for developing norms of management citizenship (do unto others ...) and for allowing employees greater agency in the workplace. In this regard, time may be on Hodson's side: the more turbulent and complex the environment, the less likely that management will have all the answers and can afford to be fighting its employees instead of its competitors.

A subtext of this innovative book is that dignity at work is not a luxury, a humanistic trifle. Employees crave meaning and respect, and organizations that answer that call can and will be rewarded with passion and pride. Organizations that don't will find that same passion and pride inverted into ill will and resistance. In the spirit of ethnographic research, let me close with the words of a factory worker (p. 45):

There isn't anyone among us who doesn't resent how the factory is operated so fast and sloppy, because there's no way to respect what we're doing and what we're making. In fact, most people here like it best when things don't work right and production goes to hell, and I'm right along with them. And that's a crummy way to waste your working time. (Turner, 1980: 61)


Turner, S.

1980 Night Shift in a Pickle Factory. San Pedro, CA: Singlejack Books.

Blake E. Ashforth

Jerry and Mary Ann Chapman Professor of Business

Department of Management

Arizona State University

Tempe, AZ 85287-4006

COPYRIGHT 2002 Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

Bibliography for: "Dignity at Work - Book Review"

Blake E. Ashforth "Dignity at Work - Book Review". Administrative Science Quarterly. FindArticles.com. 26 Jun, 2011. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m4035/is_4_47/ai_107762253/

COPYRIGHT 2002 Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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