Transforming Work: Merging Evidence and Theory
Social researchers since Jane Addams' day have addressed the world of work primarily from the conventional standpoint that work is the solution to social ills. Individual success is measured by labor force attachment and advancement. Job quality and employment are assessed by comparing working conditions across demographic groups and job types. Moreover, work-focused policy initiatives are typically incremental, aimed at addressing economic disadvantage through improving workers' footholds within existing workplace and job structures. However, responding to the growing precariousness of work over the last three decades (Kalleberg), some scholars question the sufficiency of this conventional approach to work and call for a more transformational vision that reconsiders the fundamental nature of work and working (Mills; Weeks). These scholars encourage innovation in employment research itself, with a goal of leveraging empirical findings to identify new employment structures and work alternatives that move beyond notions of work as an individual experience and that reconceptualize the intersection of employment and other life domains (Garrett; Weeks). In this symposium, authors draw on four empirical projects to show how viewing findings from conventional and transformational perspectives reveal different possibilities for fulfilling social work's commitment to advancing equity, equality and justice.
The first paper describes some of the theoretical ideas about work transformation that stimulated this symposium. The author uses examples from her ethnographic research to describe the vastly different implications for work and family activities that result from looking at the lives of working parents from conventional versus transformational perspectives.
The second paper reveals how a transformational approach to the employer-employee relationship, as reflected in Costco's human resource policies, can mitigate the effects of cost containment pressures on the quality of jobs and employees’ day-to-day work-life experiences. The authors further consider the tensions between pursuing workplace transformation through voluntary employer action versus public policy mandate.
The third paper examines the federal childcare subsidy program’s goal of supporting stable employment. Findings reveal a recursive relationship between the program and job conditions such that program characteristics can interfere with job retention, and job characteristics influence how well the program serves clients. The author considers the merits and limits of conventional, incremental policy improvements and discusses the need for a transformed system of work and care in the service of advancing a caregiving society.
The fourth paper examines how the context and culture of work interact with and fundamentally shape parents' engagement in their children’s schools. The authors consider the specific components of the “school-involved” role and their fit with the everyday logistics and deeply embedded norms of the workplace. Findings reveal the primary and often restrictive place that work plays in parents’ fulfillment of their multiple roles, and suggest the need to transform the relationship between paid and community work to support parental engagement in both.
The discussant will comment on strengths and challenges of conceptualizing and assessing alternative models of work, drawing lessons from symposium papers and considering the relative usefulness of conventional and transformative perspectives on work for social work research and social change.