Re: by way of a common reading

From: Paul Adler (
Date: Sun Jan 11 2004 - 10:12:06 PST

Mike proposed that I post my draft paper for discussion, and I am
delighted to. I've gotten interested in activity theory over the past
few years, prompted mainly by my reading of work by Mike and Yjro,
and have been a lurker on xmca for some time. So I'd be very
interested in any comments my paper provokes.

Mike asked for some background. My field of research is work
organization and how it is evolving. I've worked on the impact of
computerization on banking work, on manufacturing, on engineering
design. I've worked on Toyota-style "lean production". More recently
I've been studying software development and hospitals.

My academic training was in sociology and economics (and all too
little of it in psychology), with a strong predilection (intellectual
and political) for Marx. For the last 10 years or so, I've been on
the faculty in a business school. Given my predilections, this is
admittedly a strange choice of vantage point, but (a) it is not so
strange given the kind of marxist ideas that appeal most strongly to
me (discussed in the paper), and (b) to "atone for my sins," I've
helped form a radical caucus within the Academy of Management
(critical management studies )

Since marxism is so marginal a point of reference for most of my
institutional colleagues, much of my prior work has focused on points
of intersection between marxist ideas and those of more mainstream
sociology and "organizational theory," and has left the specifically
marxist components in the background (one might say, in the closet).
More recently, I have come around to thinking that rehabilitating
Marx as a source of inspiration for social scientists is a worthy
goal, and so I have written a couple of pieces that push in that

Activity theory (Engestrom-style) has given me one platform for doing
that, and I have a paper that uses activity theory in a fairly
explicitly marxist variant to analyze recent changes in the
organization of software development work.

The paper I've posted starts from a different platform, that of
"labor process theory." LPT, whose founding text is Harry Braverman's
Labor and Monopoly Capital, was immensely popular among progressive
sociologists interested in work and industry in the late 1970s and
80s. LPT was the common intellectual matrix for an annual conference
series based in the UK (now in its 24th year! LPT also had
numerous advocates in US radical and industrial sociology. LPT's
fortunes waned somewhat in the 1990s, under attack from several
quarters, most notably post-modernists.

LPT took inspiration from Marx, esp Marx's discussions of work
organization in Capital vol. 1. In the posted paper, I take issue
with the reading of Marx that underpins most LPT -- I call that
reading "neo-Marxism" and contrast it with a reading I call (tongue
in cheek) "paleo" to signal that (a) it was a commonly received
understanding of Marx up till WW1, and (b) I think it corresponds
better to the "original" spirit of what Marx "really meant."

The paper use a stripped-down version of Engestrom's "triangles"
model of the structure of activity systems to chart the progressive
"socialization" of the forces of production under capitalism (which I
take to include workers' cognitive capabilities). Basically, the
paper attempts to rehabilitate the notion of "socialization" as Marx
uses it -- I think it's a terrifically fruitful way to understand the
evolution of work.

This draft does not do a good enough job defining exactly what I mean
by socialization. And it assumes the reader is familiar with G.A.
Cohen's reading of Marx's theory of history. I'll be interested to
see what other flaws you find! And I hope you can find something of
interest in it nevertheless.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Prof. Paul S. Adler,
Management and Organization Dept,
Marshall School of Business, 
University of Southern California,
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0808
USC office tel: (213) 740-0748 
Home office tel: (818) 981-0115
Home office fax: (818) 981-0116
List of publications and course outlines at: 
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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