Making an Impact: Cultural Studies, Media and Contemporary Work

Justine Humphry


Cultural Studies has tended to prioritise the domain of leisure and consumption over work as an area for meaning making, in many ways defining everyday life in opposition to work. Greg Noble, a cultural researcher who examined work in the context of the early computerisation of Australian universities made the point that "discussions of everyday life often make the mistake of assuming that everyday life equates with home and family life, or leisure" (87).

This article argues for the need within Cultural Studies to focus on work and media as a research area of everyday life. With the growth of flexible and creative labour and the widespread uptake of an array of new media technologies used for work, traditional ways to identify and measure the space and time of work have become increasingly flawed, with implications for how we account for work and negotiate its boundaries. New approaches are needed to address the complex media environments and technological practices that are an increasing part of contemporary working life.

Cultural Studies can make a significant impact towards this research agenda by offering new ways to analyse the complex interrelations of space, time and technology in everyday work practice. To further this goal, a new material practices account of work termed Officing is introduced, developed through my doctoral research on professionals' daily use of information and communication technology (ICT). This approach builds on the key cultural concepts of "bricolage" and "appropriation" combined with the idea of "articulation work" proposed by Anselm Strauss, to support the analysis of the office workplace as a contingent and provisional arrangement or process.

Officing has a number of benefits as a framework for analysing the nature of work in a highly mediated world. Highlighting the labour that goes into stabilising work platforms makes it possible to assess the claims of productivity and improved work-life balance brought about by new mobile media technologies; to identify previously unidentified sources of time pressure, overwork and intensification and ultimately, to contribute to the design of more sustainable work environments.

The Turn Away from Work

Work held a central position in social and cultural analysis in the first half of the twentieth century but as Strangleman observed, there was a marked shift away from the study of work from the mid 1970s (3.1). Much of the impulse for this shift came from critiques of the over-emphasis on relations of production and the workplace as the main source of meaning and value (5.1). In line with this position, feminist researchers challenged the traditional division of labour into paid and unpaid work, arguing that this division sustained the false perception of domestic work as non-productive (cf. Delphy; Folbre). Accompanying these critiques were significant changes in work itself, as traditional jobs literally began to disappear with the decline of manufacturing in industrialised countries (6.1).

With the turn away from work in academia and the changes in the nature of work, attention shifted to the realm of the market and consumption. One of the important contributions of Cultural Studies has been the focus on the role of the consumer in driving social and technological change and processes of identity formation. Yet, it is a major problem that work is largely marginalised in cultural research of everyday life, especially since, in most industrialised nations, we are working in new ways, in rapidly changing conditions and more than ever before.

Research shows that in Australia there has been a steady increase in the average hours of paid work and Australians are working harder (cf. Watson, Buchanan, Campbell and Briggs; Edwards and Wajcman). In the 2008 Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI) Skinner and Pocock found around 55 per cent of employees frequently felt rushed or pressed for time and this was associated with long working hours, work overload and an overall poor work–life interaction (8).

These trends have coincided with long-term changes in the type and location of work. In Australia, like many other developed countries, information-based occupations have taken over manufacturing jobs and there has been an increase in part-time and casual work (cf. Watson et al.). Many employees now conduct work outside of the traditional workplace, with the ABS reporting that in 2008, 24 per cent of employees worked at least some hours at home.

Many social analysts have explained the rise of casual and flexible labour as related to the transition to global capitalism driven by the expansion of networked information processes (cf. Castells; Van Dijk). This shift is not simply that more workers are producing ideas and information but that the previously separated spheres of production and consumption have blurred (cf. Ritzer and Jurgenson). With this, entirely new industries have sprung up, predicated on the often unpaid for creative labour of individuals, including users of media technologies.

A growing chorus of writers are now pointing out that a fragmented, polarised and complex picture is emerging of this so-called "new economy", with significant implications for the quality of work (cf. Edwards and Wajcman; Fudge and Owens; Huws). Indeed, some claim that new conditions of insecure and poor quality employment or "precarious work" are fast becoming the norm. Moreover, this longer-term pattern runs parallel to the production of a multitude of new mobile media technologies, first taken up by professionals and then by the mainstream, challenging the notion that activities are bound to any particular place or time.

Reinvigorating Work in Social and Cultural Analysis

There are moves to reposition social and cultural analysis to respond to these various trends. Work-life balance is an example of a research and policy area that has emerged since the 1990s. The boundary between the household and the outside world has also been subject to scrutiny by cultural researchers, and these critically examine the intersection between work and consumption, gender and care (cf. Nippert-Eng; Sorenson and Lie; Noble and Lupton, "Consuming" and "Mine"; Lally). These responses are examples of a shift away from what Urry has dubbed "structures and stable organisations" to a concern with flows, movements and the blurring of boundaries between life spheres (5). In a similar vein, researchers recently have proposed alternative ways to describe the changing times and places of employment. In their study of UK professionals, Felstead, Jewson and Walters proposed a model of "plural workscapes" to explain a major shift in the spatial organisation of work (23). Mobility theorists Sheller and Urry have called for the need to "develop a more dynamic conceptualisation of the fluidities and mobilities that have increasingly hybridised the public and private" (113).

All of this literature has reinforced a growing concern that in the face of new patterns of production and consumption and with the rise of complex media environments, traditional models and measures of space and time are inadequate to account for contemporary work. Analyses that rely on conventional measures of work based on hourly units clearly point to an increase in the volume of work, the speed of work and to the collision (cf. Pocock) of work and life but fall down in accounting for the complex and often contradictory role of technology. Media technologies are "Janus-faced" as Michael Arnold has suggested, referring to the two-faced Roman god to foreground the contradictory effects at the centre of all technologies (232). Wajcman notes this paradox in her research on mobile media and time, pointing out that mobile phones are just as likely to "save" time as to "consume" it (15).

It was precisely this problematic of the complex interactions of the space, time and technology of work that was at stake in my research on the daily use of ICT by professional workers. In the context of changes to the location, activity and meaning of work, and with the multiplying array of old and new media technologies used by workers, how can the boundary and scope of work be determined? What are the implications of these shifting grounds for the experience and quality of work?

Officing: A Material Practices Account of Office Work

In the remaining article I introduce some of the key ideas and principles of a material practices account developed in my PhD, Officing: Professionals' Daily ICT Use and the Changing Space and Time of Work. This research took place between 2006 and 2007 focusing in-depth on the daily technology practices of twenty professional workers in a municipal council in Sydney and a unit of a global telecommunication company taking part in a trial of a new smart phone.

Officing builds on efforts to develop a more accurate account of the space and time of work bringing into play the complex and highly mediated environment in which work takes place. It extends more recent practice-based, actor-network and cultural approaches that have, for some time, been moving towards a more co-constitutive and process-oriented approach to media and technology in society.

Turning first to "bricolage" from the French bricole meaning something small and handmade, bricolage refers to the ways that individuals and groups borrow from existing cultural forms and meanings to create new uses, meanings and identities. Initially proposed by Levi-Strauss and then taken up by de Certeau, bricolage has been a useful concept within subculture and lifestyle studies to reveal the creative work performed on signs and meaning systems in forming cultural identities (cf. O'Sullivan et al.).

Bricolage is also an important concept for understanding how meanings and uses are inscribed into forms in use rather than being read or activated off their design. This is the process of appropriation, through which both the object and the person are mutually shaped and users gain a sense of control and ownership (cf. Noble and Lupton; Lally; Silverstone and Haddon). The concept of bricolage highlights the improvisational qualities of appropriation and its status as work. A bricoleur is thus a person who constructs new meanings and forms by drawing on and assembling a wide range of resources at hand, sourced from multiple spheres of life.

One of the problems with how bricolage and appropriation has been applied to date, notwithstanding the priority given to the domestic sphere, is the tendency to grant individuals and collectives too much control to stabilise the meanings and purposes of technologies. This problem is evident in the research drawing on the framework of "domestication" (cf. Silverstone and Haddon). In practice, the sheer volume of technologically-related issues encountered on a daily basis and the accompanying sense of frustration indicates there is no inevitable drift towards stability, nor are problems merely aberrational or trivial. Instead, daily limits to agency and attempts to overcome these are points at which meanings as well as uses are re-articulated and potentially re-invented.

This is where "articulation work" comes in. Initially put forward by Anselm Strauss in 1985, articulation work has become an established analytical tool for informing technology design processes in such fields as Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) and Workplace Studies. In these, articulation work is narrowly defined to refer to the real time activities of cooperative work. It includes dealing with contingencies, keeping technologies and systems working and making adjustments to accommodate for problems (Suchman "Supporting", 407).

In combination with naturalistic investigations, this concept has facilitated engagement with the increasingly complex technological and media environments of work. It has been a powerful tool for highlighting practices deemed unimportant but which are nevertheless crucial for getting work done. Articulation work, however, has the potential to be applied in a broader sense to explain the significance of the instability of technologies and the efforts to overcome these as transformative in themselves, part of the ongoing process of appropriation that goes well beyond individual tasks or technologies.

With clear correspondences to actor-network theory, this expanded definition provides the basis for a new understanding of the office as a temporary and provisional condition of stability achieved through the daily creative and improvisational activities of workers. The office, then, is dependent on and inextricably bound up in its ongoing articulation and crucially, is not bound to a particular place or time.

In the context of the large-scale transformations in work already discussed, this expanded definition of articulation work helps to; firstly, address how work is re-organised and re-rationalised through changes to the material conditions of work; secondly, identify the ongoing articulations that this entails and thirdly; understand the role of these articulations in the construction of the space and time of work. This expanded definition is achieved in the newly developed concept of officing.

Officing describes a form of labour directed towards the production of a stable office platform. Significantly, one of the main characteristics of this work is that it often goes undetected by organisations as well as by the workers that perform it. As explained later, its "invisibility" is in part a function of its embodiment but also relates to the boundless nature of officing, taking place both inside and outside the workplace, in or out of work time.

Officing is made up of a set of interwoven activities of three main types: connecting, synchronising and configuring. Connecting can be understood as aligning technical and social relations for the performance of work at a set time. Synchronising brings together and coordinates different times and temporal demands, for example, the time of "work" with "life" or the time "out in the field" with time "in the workplace". Configuring prepares the space of work, making a single technology or media environment work to some planned action or existing pattern of activity.

To give an example of connecting: in the Citizens' Service Centre of the Council, Danielle's morning rituals involved a series of connections even before her work of advising customers begins:

My day: get in, sit down, turn on the computer and then slowly open each software program that I will need to use…turn on the phone, key in my password, turn on the headphones and sit there and wait for the calls! (Humphry Officing, 123)

These connections not only set up and initiate the performance of work but also mark Danielle's presence in her office. Through these activities, which in practice overlap and blur, the space and time of the office comes to appear as a somewhat separate and mostly invisible structure or infrastructure.

The work that goes into making the office stable takes place around the boundary of work with implications for how this boundary is constituted. These efforts do not cluster around boundaries in any simple sense but become part of the process of boundary making, contributing to the construction of categories such as "work" and "life". So, for example, for staff in the smart phone trial, the phone had become their main source of information and communication. Turning their smart phone off, or losing connectivity had ramifications that cascaded throughout their lifeworld. On the one hand, this lead to the breakdown of the distinction between "work" and "life" and a sense of "ever-presence", requiring constant and vigilant "boundary work" (cf. Nippert-Eng). On the other hand, this same state also enabled workers to respond to demands in their own time and across multiple boundaries, giving workers a sense of flexibility, control and of being "in sync".

Connecting, configuring and synchronising are activities performed by bodies, producing an embodied transformation. In the tradition of phenomenology, most notably in the works of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and more recently Ihde, embodiment is used to explain the relationship between subjects and objects. This concept has since been developed to be understood as not residing in the body but as spread through social, material and discursive arrangements (cf. Haraway, "Situated" and Simians; Henke; Suchman, "Figuring").

Tracing efforts towards making the office stable is thus a way of uncovering how the body, as a constitutive part of a larger arrangement or network, is formed through embodiment, how it gains its competencies, social meanings and ultimately, how workers gain a sense of what it means to be a professional. So, in the smart phone trial, staff managed their connections by replying immediately to their voice, text and data messages. This immediacy not only acted as proof of their presence in the office. It also signalled their commitment to their office: their active participation and value to the organisation and their readiness to perform when called on.

Importantly, this embodied transformation also helps to explain how officing becomes an example of "invisible work" (cf. Star and Strauss). Acts of connecting, synchronising and configuring become constituted and forgotten in and through bodies, spaces and times. Through their repeated performance these acts become habits, a transparent means through which the environment of work is navigated in the form of skills and techniques, configurations and routines.

In conclusion, researching work in contemporary societies means confronting its marginalisation within cultural research and developing ways to comprehend and measure the interaction of space, time and the ever-multiplying array of media technologies. Officing provides a way to do this by shifting to an understanding of the workplace as a contingent product of work itself. The strength of this approach is that it highlights the creative and ongoing work of individuals on their media infrastructures. It also helps to identify and describe work activities that are not neatly contained in a workplace, thus adding to their invisibility.

The invisibility of these practices can have significant impacts on workers: magnifying feelings of time pressure and a need to work faster, longer and harder even as discrete technologies are utilised to save time. In this way, officing exposes some of the additional contributions to the changing experience and quality of work as well as to the construction of everyday domains.

Officing supports an evaluation of claims of productivity and work-life balance in relation to new media technologies. In the smart phone trial, contrary to an assumed increase in productivity, mobility of work was achieved at the expense of productivity. Making the mobile office stable—getting it up and running, keeping it working in changing environments and meeting expectations of speed and connectivity—took up time, resulting in an overall productivity loss and demanding more "boundary work". In spite of their adaptability and flexibility, staff tended to overwork to counteract this loss. This represented a major shift in the burden of effort in the production of office forms away from the organisation and towards the individual.

Finally, though not addressed here in any detail, officing could conceivably have practical uses for designing more sustainable office environments that better support the work process and the balance of work and life. Thus, by accounting more accurately for the resource requirements of work, organisations can reduce the daily effort, space and time taken up by employees on their work environments. In any case, what is clear, is the ongoing need to continue a cultural research agenda on work—to address the connections between transformations in work and the myriad material practices that individuals perform in going about their daily work.


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cultural studies; officing; contemporary work, space and time; media technologies

Copyright (c) 2011 Justine Humphry

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