Michel (2011). Transcending Socialization: A Nine-Year Ethnography of the Body’s Role in Organizational Control and Knowledge Workers’ Transformation

Alexandra Michel – University of Pennsylvania

Christian Hampel – University of Cambridge
Derin Kent – Queen’s University

Article link: http://asq.sagepub.com/content/56/3/325

Question 1. You suggest the surprising finding that organizations can effectively control their employees by targeting their bodies. In your study, investment banks socialized their employees to subordinate their bodies and helped them to suppress any negative bodily reactions by providing them with seemingly harmless tools, such as the provision of free coffee. As a consequence, employees seemed to willingly put their own body into an exceptional iron cage of control for extended periods of time. At what point in your research did you realize that the body provided a way to explain the control that you saw in the banks? To what extent was this focus on the body embodied in your own career in investment banking?

It is surprising to us, as a discipline, that organizations control people by controlling bodies because we overvalorize the mind. Influenced by a cognitive tradition, we believe that individual action is caused by mental concepts. Consequently, controlling action entails influencing mental concepts. And studying control in organization entails studying how organizations convey mental concepts, such as skills, values, and norms. However, the most potent cultural influence on action is through controls that individuals do not mentally represent, not because the concepts are tacit, but because individuals do not have concepts for the controls, partly because controls are embodied. For example, Bourdieu described how the Kabyle reinforced men’s superior gender status through a division of labor in which men worked up in the trees, cutting down branches, while the women, stooped beneath, picked up. This practice controlled and submitted women simply by placing them in a bowing body position as well as reducing the expansiveness of their habitual perspective and yoking it to men’s actions. These embodied regulators are so potent because when individuals do not notice that an external influence occurs, they cannot examine, resist, or modify it. The influence becomes invisible to participants, which leads me to your questions.

As an ethnographer, I follow the themes that come up in my data. Even before I started my data collection, I knew that bankers can work up to 100 hour weeks and that the average tenure in Wall Street investment banks is around 7 years. Bankers are hired in their twenties, partly on their demonstrated stamina. In addition to having excellent grades from top schools, they must have excelled at demanding extra-curricular activities. However, even these extraordinarily resilient individuals leave in their mid-thirties because they are burned out.

Yet it took me almost a decade to notice overwork as a theme and burnout as a phenomenon that was more significant than a cold. Because I had worked those same hours—and continued to work them as I was spending 100 hour weeks in the field while completing my academic work—this work pace did not strike me as noteworthy. I only noticed the role and control of the body in knowledge work when my own body started to break down and prevented me from working in the way that I wanted to and was used to. Helpless, I looked to my informants for insight. I started to recode my data for themes related to the body, which I had previously overlooked, and added new questions to my interview protocols. By that time, many of the bankers had left the banks and had the perceptual distance to see what had been invisible to them as long as they were part of the culture.

This experience has been intellectually fruitful for me because it helped me to design better approaches to using my own body as a tool in fieldwork. Cultures change people holistically. They influence how one sleeps and eats, the kinds of illnesses one suffers, what registers as data and solutions, what one desires and hopes for, and what kind of change and development is possible over a person’s life. Because cultural participants do not have concepts for many of these deeper influences, these influences are difficult to study through self-report and observation. A better approach to examining such embodied influences is for the analyst to submit oneself to enculturation with one’s own body—becoming the product of the culture that one studies, like Wacquant did by becoming an apprentice boxer. However, doing so required a new set of tools designed to also analyze the embodied and unfolding experience of the analyst.

Question 2. Unobtrusive control plays a key role in your study – it suggests that these controls led bankers to almost invariably push their bodies to a break down point. An alternative explanation is that bankers’ willingness to work is primarily due to banks’ selection of extremely driven individuals, rather than their subsequent socialization. What is the relative importance of the two? Were there instances in which selection without socialization was insufficient?

It was not possible for me to observe selection without socialization because the banks’ recruits were pre-socialized. The programs that feed into investment banking, such as top US MBA programs, inculcate in their students a taste for hard work and achievement. The cultures of the banks and schools also support and are supported by a larger national culture that upholds similar values. This means that socialization is ongoing and occurs through an overlapping web of institutions, which makes it difficult to study individuals outside of this particular type of cultural influence.

This does not mean, however, that one cannot refute a personality-based alternative explanation, which implies that individuals have certain dispositions, such as “drive,” from birth on and display those regardless of context. This explanation is challenged by at least two types of evidence. One type of evidence comes from individuals who were forced to leave the banks and professional cultures, for example because of illness, and who thus obtained a cultural distance that enabled them to notice previously invisible external influences. As I document in a recent study, only when their bodies forced them to leave organizations entirely, did they come up with ways of living and working that were productive and sustainable yet unthinkable within existing professional work cultures. For example, one banker became a mountaineer, climbing mountains for four days a week and all summer. He makes a living helping other middle-aged individuals achieve elite athletic performance through speaking, coaching, and writing projects.

For the purpose of assessing generalizability, it is useful to examine evidence outside of my data collection. For example, in the excerpts from her New York Times Op-Ed below, Erin Callan, who was Lehman Brothers’ CFO before it went bankrupt, argued that her intense work was not driven by a personal goal. Rather, she lost sight of her personal goals because of processes that operated outside of conscious awareness, namely the imperceptibly gradual cultivation of habit:

I didn’t start out with the goal of devoting all of myself to my job. It crept in over time. Each year that went by, slight modifications became the new normal. First I spent a half-hour on Sunday organizing my e-mail, to-do list and calendar to make Monday morning easier. Then I was working a few hours on Sunday, then all day. My boundaries slipped away until work was all that was left.

The second type of evidence comes from individuals who operated differently in different cultures. Take my own experience. After high school, I worked for a German bank, completing a 2-year trainee program. Following German customs, bank employees came at 9 am, completed scheduled coffee and lunch breaks, and left at 5 pm, a schedule that I found long and burdensome. The bank offered opportunities to advance into an inner circle of trainees for top management positions. To qualify, I would have had to exhibit high grades on tests, but could not muster the motivation to study—no evidence of drive in sight.

Contrast this to my experience at Goldman Sachs, a job that had the same appeal to me as the one in the German bank (very little), but that extracted a completely different amount of effort from me. I applied to Goldman for an analyst position in the Mergers and Acquisitions department to pay back my college loans rapidly, not knowing what I was stumbling into. During my job interview, I asked whether the working hours would be 35 or 40 hours per week, the two choices that I was familiar with from living in Germany. The bankers who interviewed me found my question so funny that they slapped their thighs laughing.

My actual working hours ended up being more like 80 to 100 hours per week. I had never worked like this before. I had never stayed up all night in college or for any other reason. At Goldman I had regular “all-nighters.” No one forced me to work like this. I did not make a rational choice to do so. It just happened. Initially, I was disappointed that I could not even spend a Sunday morning reading the New York Times. I spend almost every weekend at work, from morning to night. After a while, I stopped thinking about a life outside of Goldman. I could not conceive of working in other ways. When I talked to people who worked at another firm and worked less, I believed that I was in the better situation for reasons that I don’t remember.

If a personality-based explanation were accurate, I should have exhibited the same intensity at both banks. Yet I was a qualitatively different person at Goldman because I was embedded in a qualitatively different kind of context.

Question 3. Unobtrusive control is an interesting concept because of the subtle ways in which you find that it comes about – it emerges sometimes by design; at other times, as Geertz might put it, it’s a web employees unwittingly spin themselves into. A ‘buzzing’ floor, tolerance of play, and food services are some examples. Can you tell us more about spotting unobtrusive controls when we come across them in an organization? When do office perks and amenities cross the line into something that begins to exert a more profound control over our bodies?

The notion of the cultural web can be helpful, unless we use the spider’s web as a template. Unlike a spider’s web, a cultural web is not created by one single entity and not created for the precise purpose that it ends up serving. Instead, we should envision this cultural web more like a fabric that interweaves distinct resources like threads. Each thread looks differently depending on how it is embedded in the fabric. Similarly, the purpose and effect of each resource is defined not by the attributes of the resource itself, but by the overall cultural pattern into which it is embedded. For example, in the German bank, coffee constituted a “time out” from work. It was served in a break room, where people gathered as an escape from work. It served as a reminder that work was a form of drudgery from which regular respites were needed. In contrast, the two banks made coffee available on each floor so that bankers did not need to take time off from work to buy coffee somewhere else. Coffee was not a respite from work, but the opposite: it was drug that made it possible for people to work without breaks and that intensified their engagement.

One can spot how a resource functions when one tracks the changes that occur either when the resource is introduced or faded out. For example, the banks collected weekly time sheets, on which bankers indicated how long they had worked and on what projects. I noticed a spike in working hours across most bankers when an open work floor replaced a closed-office environment, a change that had been made for a different purpose, namely facilitating training and communication. Again, resources (including persons, as noted above) cannot be understood independently of the specific cultural environment into which they are being introduced.

Question 4. The issue of framing is a perennial challenge, particularly for non-traditional settings. Your framing is unusual as it offers a novel combination of several classic theories (e.g., organizational control, job design, socialization), some of which had received limited attention in recent years. How and when did you arrive at this framing? What would be your advice for those attempting to frame non-traditional topics?

The notion of the cultural web also applies to intellectual accomplishments. The paper’s topic did not spring from my solitary intellect, but imposed itself on me as my own ailing body made my informants’ experiences salient and significant. My mind did contribute elements toward the introduction, but these elements then took on a life of their own as my informants, colleagues, editors, and reviewers offered additional elements.

When one understands the socially distributed and evolving nature of intellectual accomplishments, one can harness these resources better. For example, if I had thought about the introduction as “my” accomplishment, I might have experienced some of the reviewers’ comments as an affront and fought back, defending “my” creation. Instead, I (on most days…) recognized and treated others’ comments as information about the next steps to be taken. This is how the job design literature became part of the picture. I did not think of this literature by myself, but a reviewer suggested that everything that seemed new in my research had already been covered by this existing body of work, prompting me to read more deeply in this area.

All of this has an embodied component in the form of how one orients to and physically uses available resources. For example, a colleague of mine describes a tempting alternative way of using reviewer letters, which involves keeping the letter closed for as long as possible. When procrastination is no longer an option, one reads the letter very quickly, puts it away, writes the paper in the way that one believes it ought to be rewritten, and then defends one’s choices in the responses. Instead, I had the letter with me every day. I carried it around with me and scribbled ideas into the margins during breaks in my day. During revisions, I cut and pasted a given reviewer comment into a word document. Then I printed important papers, read them, writing memos to myself underneath the reviewer’s comment. This “conversation” between reviewers and existing research generated changes I made in the paper. Once I had made these changes, I often noticed better ways to respond to the reviewers. Responding more clearly, in turn, generated new changes to be made in the paper, and so on.

In other words, my advice for creating an effective framing is not about better ways of thinking, but about the quasi-mechanical, embodied process of creating as many back-and-forth iterations among available resources. Good writing, in this view, is not about having good ideas, but about effectively marshaling social resources, including, but not limited to, one’s own.

Question 5. On some occasions it seems bankers must interact with colleagues whose relations to their bodies are very different than their own. Analysts who treat their bodies as objects, for example, may report to associates or VPs who variously treat their bodies as antagonists or as subjects. Can you tell us whether these differences affected the quality of relationships between bankers? If so, how could superior-subordinate relationships work effectively when these bankers related differently to their bodies?

The differences in body relations rarely affected interactions because the bankers who treated their bodies as subjects often disguised this approach, knowing it would be seen as a weakness. Even these bankers only vaguely understood their behavior as a different way of relating to their bodies that had beneficial consequences for both the individual and the organization. More often than not, they encoded it in culturally salient terms, as the inability to work in the way that they (i.e., their culturally shaped minds) would like to.

We as scholars perpetuate participants’ limiting and harmful interpretations. In our expert culture, lay people use scholarly concepts to make sense of their behaviors. Informed by a cognitive tradition, we construe knowledge work as “thinking for a living,” focusing knowledge workers on how their minds shape work, while bodies are the mind’s unproblematic instrument (“mind over matter”). It is our task to rewrite organizational and psychological research in a way that makes it possible to see bodies at work and create conditions that work for bodies.

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  1. […] 6. Michel (2011). Transcending Socialization: A Nine-Year Ethnography of the Body’s Role in Organizat… […]

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