Excerpts from



An Ethnography of a Modern Job


Julian E. Orr

Cornell University Press, 1996
170pp, $13.95, ISBN 0-8014-8390-5
Book Cover Photo

A Technician's Priorities... (page 76)

The [Xerox copier repair] technicians should be viewed as an occupational community (van Maanen and Barley 1984). They are focused on the work, not the organization, and the only valued status is that of full member of the community, that is, being considered a competent technician. In pursuit of this goal, they share information, assist in each other's diagnoses, and compete in terms of their relative expertise. Promotion out of the community is thought not to be worthwhile. The occupational community shares few cultural values with the corporation; technicians from all over the country are much more alike than a technician and a salesperson from the same district.

The technicians, however, depend on both home and client organizations for their own identities, one to provide the machines and pay their wages, the others to provide an arena wherein they may practice. The only real career option, promotion to management, means leaving the community, and most technicians would rather remain a technician-hero than become an organization manager. Then too, the technicians are in some ways more involved with their customers than with their own corporation, so even though they are always working in space that is not theirs, it makes sense to remain within the triangular relationship of technicians, machines, and customers.

The Technician as "Gunslinger"... (page 143)

[These war stories] are part of the occupational community (van Maanen and Barley 1984); they have little to do with the corporation as a whole. In contrast to Joanne Martin's work (1982) with stories told in support of an organizational ethos, the organization rarely appears in technicians' stories, but then the organization is largely irrelevant to the technician's actual work, which is performed alone or with one or two companions. This promotes a gunslinger mystique of self-reliance: the lone technician walks into the customer site to cope with whatever troubles lie therein ... but with the community available as a resource. The technicians are both a community and a collection of individuals, and their stories celebrate their individual acts, their work, and their individual and collective identities.

Why Technicians Love Their Work... (page 148)

The combination of individual, challenging work with a supportive community may be the key to the attraction this job has for the technicians. They participate as individuals, and they work independently. To a great extent they manage their own time and their own accounts. The work is sporadic and unpredictable and therefore cannot be scheduled. Each service call is potentially something new, and initially they deal with it alone. However they have the resources of the group for support and potentially the resources of the entire corporation, if needed. In this arena they can make or lose their reputation, but no single service call will be decisive. Technicians are quite explicit about how much they value independence. They also talk about how much they like the fact that they have to think about their work. With advantages like these, unhappy customers and erratic machines are not major drawbacks; they are opportunities to be heroic and material for better stories.

The Challenge to Management... (page 151)

A concept of collective identity that is more closely linked to modern industrial work is van Maanen and Barley's definition of occupational community: "Occupational communities represent bounded work cultures populated by people who share similar identities and values that transcend specific organizational settings. Moreover, self-control is a prominent cultural theme in all occupational communities, although its realization is highly problematic" (van Maanen and Barley 1984, pp. 314-15).

These authors see control of an occupational community as a clear challenge to management. The fragmentation of work caused by the more successful attempts at de-skilling has increased management's control at the expense of the community. A different approach for management is to offer career development which will increase ties to the organization rather than to the occupational community. This strategy depends on the possibility of real career movement, and the community may counter it by devaluing promotions. Occupational communities can be expected to resist changes in the work process, particularly ones that increase their ties to the organization or that appear to be aimed at de-skilling the practitioners.

[Emphasis added]

©D. Verne Morland, 2003.