Consuming Work, Producing Self: Market Discourse in Dispersed Knowledge Work

This page provides video clips and a short summary of my dissertation defense, which I delivered as part of the requirements for my Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology in June 2004.  You can also read Chapter Summaries and download my dissertation if you’re interested.  

Consuming Work, Producing Self: Market Discourse in Dispersed Knowledge Work

Presentation Video

0 Introduction (1:48 min, 3.1 mb)

1 Research Site (15:06 min, 21.5 mb)

2 Argument Summary (1:41 min, 5.1 mb)

3 Forms of Power (10:30 min, 16.6 mb)

4 Technologies of the Self (15:33 min, 24.8 mb)

5 Methodology, Studying Up (6:45 min, 10.7 mb)

Presentation Summary

In the Introduction, I briefly describe the challenges in formulating a meaningful and appropriate research question.  After a couple of false starts, I really became focused on what was so compelling about my work environment, and why I thought it was an important arena for study.  I realized that a growing focus on the customer – and the resulting market discourse – was resulting in internal transformation activities at ‘Techsoft‘ which I felt were worth exploring.

In the section about my dissertation Research Site, I describe ‘the field’ as a globally dispersed corporation and the industry in which it resides.  However, this is not a ethnography about a well-bounded physical space.  Rather, I argue that the research site is a corporation bound by a common discourse.  I also situate that discourse in the major economic industry trends in the US during my research period.  Techsoft is a company with headquarters in Europe and offices worldwide, so I also discuss the experience of US employees in being managed by a foreign parent company, and how various understandings of what constitutes ‘the core’ leads to intra-organizational challenges.

In the dissertation title ‘Consuming Work, Producing Self’, work is both something to consume (verb), but also something that is consuming (adjective).  The Argument Summary, states that management practices have had to evolve in response to the changing nature of work today, as well as an increase in service and knowledge work.  Corporations have to find ways to get employees to internalize corporate values – they consume the messages of the corporation and in turn produce themselves as corporate citizens.

In Forms of Power, I use a theoretical framework from Foucault to show how different mechanisms of control work in concert to exercise power over employees.  In this passage I provide some short examples from my fieldwork about the different types of control described by Foucault.  For example:

  • I look at how call centers encourage employees to self-manage, in addition to (or in spite of) the many technologies that are used to measure and manage them.
  • I share examples of the market discourse and it’s critical role in the evolution of Techsoft, including an internal and external-facing branding campaign.
  • I look at the various ways that internal practices have evolved to change employee behavior, including the performance management and employee rewards processes.
  • I look at the physical space, how it was constructed and why, as well as how that has evolved as the corporation has evolved.

At the heart of the dissertation is the notion of Technologies of the Self.  Based on the work of Foucault, I argue that due to the nature of dispersed knowledge work, the only constant, local point to exercise control is the individual.  Technologies of the self ensure the institutionalization of employees well beyond the apparent boundaries of the corporation.

The remainder of this section is devoted to exploring the core themes of Consuming Work and Producing Self.  Work in the corporation today is demanding (and some might even argue destructive) at a number of levels. Work consumes time that might have otherwise been spent with family, and career growth itself often demands a variety of sacrifices.  It alters the boundaries of work and home, dictates the rhythms of life at and outside of work, and demands mobility.  At the same time, workers must willinglyconsume work, and demonstrate both their satisfaction with and commitment to corporate life in order to succeed.

Consumer culture and market discourse inside the corporation are part of a larger economic trend called the culture of enterprise.  This trend is not just about the changing nature of free markets and corporate practices, it also has to do with changes in individual behavior, and the way that producers are subordinated to the needs of consumers.  But what happens when we consider that employees are producing their own careers?  To whose interests are they subordinate?  I argue that workers are producingthemselves as commodities to be consumed in the job market.

In the Methodology & Studying Up section, I discuss some of the challenges I’ve face in conducting research in one’s own place of work, especially a high-tech company like Techsoft, which has a very strong focus on controlling both intellectual property and market perception.

One Comment on “Consuming Work, Producing Self: Market Discourse in Dispersed Knowledge Work

  1. Pingback: Consuming Work, Producing Self – Chapter Summaries | Natalie Hanson

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