Re: [xmca] A Culture of Safety at Work

From: Paul Dillon <phd_crit_think who-is-at>
Date: Fri Jan 18 2008 - 20:28:25 PST

andy, mike, steve, helena, others not named
  This afternoon I read Fine's paper and wrote some notes hat make up the main body of this post before reading the most recent posts in this theads tarting with Andy's. Apparently everyone agrees about the quality of Fine's ethnographic eye but, for different reasons, finds the article lacking in an adequate account of what he observed. My reasons are also different than those provided so far and, in relation to Andy's summary and comments, bring to the fore issues we have been discussing.
  I enjoyed the article despite the problems I encountered. It also brought back memories of working as a researcher in different bureaucracies in which, as Helena also described for "research" in bureaucracies she knows, variants of "burocrat/researcher-scientist” dialectic provided the dynamics for local and inter-office discourse; jokes, etc. I especially appreciated Fine's empasis on the role of humor..
   From a methodological point of view several issues that have enormous importance for the variation in the different office "ideocultures" are never addressed in this paper : e.g.,
    What are the population and urban characteristics of Belvedere and Fairflower? In a smaller town the common participation of co-workers in other social networks, such as schools, churches, community activities of various kinds, etc. would be much more likely than in a megalopolis such as Chicago. Do the Chicago meteorologists socialize together outside the institutionally related events mentioned?
  What are the ages of the 4-5 “culture creators” in Chicago? Are they the same ones who favored a change of practices but kept their mouths shut?
  Also important but never addressed: : Do the Chicago, Belvedere and Flowerland offices maintain daily communications beyond the exchanges in which they justify their forrecasts? Do these guys get together a periodic regional conferences? etc. This seems related the absence of any mention of the worker/management issues that Helena emphasized . The presence of various elephants on the workshop floor elegantly ignored.
  But , in contrast to Andy and perhaps Helena herself, I do think Fine’s description of the “idiocutures” / forecasting practices of the 3 NWS offices is relevant to Helena’s concerns about safety in the workplace although the NWS staffs’ “safety” concerns are those of the residents in the areas for which they have responsibility and authority to forecasts, not the “workshop floor” itself. But this relevance has to do with the phenomenoogical detail of Fine's workplace ethnography; not with the article's underlying, almost Durkheimian, FUNCTIONALISM .
  Fine’s functionalism is exemplified in such statements as: “Humor serves as a social control when a Chicago forecaster overtheorizes or overwarns, and sets standards for occupational practice” or “That is,culture is not merely a set of collective representations, but an enactment based on social coordination” . At first glance the latter of the above quotes appears to be a rejection of functionalism, directly stating that the “generation of culture” takes place, can be observed and be studied, in the interaction of members of small groups; social representations don’t express themselves in the interaction, rather “group interaction” is the enactment of the representations,
  Nevertheless, Fine states that the Chicago office workshop floor ideoculture and webs of relations constructed with it , . . . “ have social coordination” as their basis; this an equilibrating function of the group, a functionalist black-box, relating to the group cohesion.
  Also, despite Fine's overt intention of situating “culture creation” in the small group setting, the article continually illustrates how, like the eddies in a tidepool, the interactions of meteorologists in the three workplaces draw on and respond to the the macro-structures in which they are embedded.
  On the other hand, from a CHAT perspective, the study is a beautiful example of the way in which type-3 artefacts, the apparently immaterial artefacts whose objects exist in the domain of imagination, fantasy, make-believe, and models, exist in a cycle of movement between "ideal" and "material" forms. Fine even states this directly, “Their fantasies are given material form, and provide the staff with an arena for enacting these mock identities.” This description of artefacts that are indistinguishable (to the subjects who use them) from the objects the subject seeks to attain through their use, illuminates the artefact's ambiguous "material/ideal" existence.
  I can imagine various directions for approaching CHAT analyses of the work places Fine describes. The "scientist"/"techno-bureaucrat" contradiction that the Chicago meteorologists experience, and around which their zany, nerdish, and creepy rituals develop, needs a more historical analysis for one thing. The macro-level reorganization that transformed the chicago office from the nation's most pretigious NWS station to just-another regional office responsible for a Doppler-radar defined territory occurred as a part of the neo-con reorganization of federal bureaucracies . When did the science-mocking ideoculture develop? Certainly not when the office was housed in the U of Chicago. I agree with Helena that "control over the work process" is a key factor. Sawchuk's analyses of the employees struggle for "use value" in the workplace would seem especially relevant here. A fuller description of the technological differences between the offices also seems necessary.
  Enough, or too much.

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Received on Fri Jan 18 20:30 PST 2008

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