RE: [xmca] Emotion at Work

From: Helena Harlow Worthen <hworthen who-is-at>
Date: Wed Aug 01 2007 - 09:20:31 PDT

Hello, xmca --
I hope this response is not too late to re-engage in the discussion of Wolf-Michael's paper "Emotion at Work." It always seems to take me a while to work my way through a paper. By the time I get through it, and then read through the discussion, the discussion has started to fade. In addition, I tend to write pretty long responses because I come to these discussions as a labor educator and therefore imagine, rightly or wrongly, that I have to load up my contribution with some explicit explanations. So apologies for the long post and the late contribution, but I'm very interested in hearing anyone's reply.
Helena Worthen

Comments on Wolf-Michael Roth's paper, Emotion at Work (MCA14, 1-2)


Wolf-Michael follows the work experience of two employees at a federal fish hatchery in Canada over a period of five years, with a return visit one year after the five-year period. In this article, he is concerned with investigating the relationship between emotions and motivation and identity for the purpose of incorporating these into activity theory, which he says has tended toward being a theory of "cold cognition." He compares the emotions, motivation and work identities of two employees, Erin and Jack, to show how their feelings about their work relate to their motivation and identity - or more specifically, how their emotions about their expertise at work and the degree to which it is valued in the workplace affect their motivation to do their work and consequently, their identity as workers.

Bringing emotion into the discussion of the production of knowledge at work is very important, and this ethnographic study provides plenty of material. As someone whose job (labor education) consists of teaching employees about the social relations of employment from the perspective of workers, I appreciate attempts to approach the profoundly important question of how people feel about what they know and how this affects what they learn on the one hand and what they do with what they know on the other hand. Since learning goes on all the time at work, and since the success or failure of both workers and workplaces is tightly related to what is learned and what is done with that knowledge, this is a question of general interest to both employees and management.


However, I would argue that Wolf-Michael's study would benefit from a step which would have to be taken early in the analysis. I would like to see the comparison of the emotional valence of Erin and Jack's deployment of their expertise framed in terms of not one activity system but two. First is the activity system of production and second is the activity system of earning a living. Through the division of labor of the first system, Jack and Erin are fish culturists, engaged in fish feeding, ordering feed, cleaning the fishpond and other actions that contribute to the overall activity of fish hatching (p. 45). In this first system, their goal-directed actions are consistent with the collective motive of the hatchery: hatching fish. But through the division of labor of the second, they are employees who are trying to earn a living. Not always, but sometimes, these two activity systems conflict, with resulting tensions between the emotions, motivations and identities associated with them. Wolf-Michael notes that Jack and Erin could be doing the same actions in a backyard fish pond, where they would also be engaged in a different activity system (motivated by recreation, not production or earning a living), but he doesn't distinguish between the two activity systems that are taking place at the workplace - fish hatching and earning a living.


For example: Wolf-Michael's description of Erin's voice pitch as she analyses the computer generated plot of fish length and weight (rising pitch, positive valence of emotion) is taken from a moment when she is talking about her work in the activity system of fish hatching. He does not provide a description of her voice pitch when she is talking about the changes undertaken by the new management or the impending layoffs, although he does report that at the time when she is being laid off, the emotions expressed through voice pitch (p. 50) are wider in range and there are "many more emotional outbursts with large differences" (p 52). I would have said here that we're looking at the emotional tension between Erin's pride in her expertise as a fish culturist and her anger as an employee at being laid off - one activity system (fish culturing) is going well and the other (earning a living) is going badly. If we are looking at two systems, we can understand why Erin, for example, might feel proud and committed with regard to her work as a fish culturist but anxious and even bitter with regard to her job, and that these two emotions would be in tension with each other.


Similarly, Wolf-Michael's description of Jack's emotional state could also benefit from being understood as the tension between being engaged in two conflicting activity systems at once. Wolf-Michael gives us more information about Jack. Although he is a gifted and conscientious fish culturist who developed some original experiments and did research that at first got some recognition, the hatchery is now under the new management and support for his professional development has evaporated. He is seeing doors of opportunity closing. He's understandably angry and cuts back on his investment in the fish hatchery beyond what he has to do to earn a living: he re-calibrates his commitment to being just an employee.


Separating out these two activity systems early in the analysis allows us to see how the knowledge or expertise produced within each of them becomes charged with emotional valence. Wolf-Michael proposes "positive" and "negative" labels for this valence, which we might expand by proposing pride, enthusiasm, elation, curiosity, anxiety, disappointment, fear, anger, bitterness, etc - some of these are Wolf-Michael's. This separation would open the door in two directions. In one direction we would look outward to the pressures on that workplace from society which are typically transmitted through management into a workplace. In the other direction we would look to see the relationship between individual workers and the collective of workers. Activity theory helps us hold these two perspectives steady while we investigate what is going on in each of them.


Looking outward, in order to really understand the social relationships of a workplace and thereby to interpret how people are behaving and feeling, we need to be explicit about the industrial relations system within which that workplace is operating. We need to look closely at the concrete reality of the division of labor that has sorted some people into management, others into employees (or in this case, two people into management, five into fish culturalists, two into maintenance/administrative assistant staff workers, and perhaps thirty into seasonal employees). Looking inward, we need to understand what kind of solidarity (Michael's word in page 59, although he notes it as something that "fuels invidiaul short-and long-term emotional states") is available to the employees. These two dimensions, both easily approached through activity theory, will give us the concrete reality of the kind of control that the managers have (or don't have) over the work done by Jack, Erin and the other employees. How was this division of labor established and how is it maintained? What are its edges and limits? What are the resources of the employees? The answers to these questions would provide the framework, or matrix, within which the emotions that Wolf-Michael is writing about are generated.



Wolf-Michael tells us a few things about the concrete social relationships of the hatchery, so that we can extrapolate what is probably going on. There are 18 federal fish hatcheries in this province and this one employs 2 managers, 5 culturists, a maintenance person and an administrative assistant, and up to 30 seasonal temps. This means that there are not a lot of alternative jobs for fish culturists (especially for one like Jack who has only a high school education) so that keeping one's job is very important. There is new management and thus probably new employment practices on the agenda. Costs are closely watched to the point of choosing what kind of feed to give the fish and whether to drive 50 kilometers to exchange a set of keys, and the survival of hatchery is always in question (p. 53). We can't tell much more than this, except that "collectively, then, there was a sense that things were going from bad to worse" (p. 56). It would help if we knew what the overall agenda of the new management was with regard to budget and target number of employees; that, after all, is the overarching framework of the social relationships of the workplace which are being experienced by the employees. If we were looking at this material as an activity system in which managers were trying to manage a workplace during a period of budget cuts and downsizing, and employees were trying to earn a living and protect or improve working conditions (including job security and earnings) at that same workplace, we could understand the emotional valence in which the knowledge of how to do these complementary and conflicting activities becomes charged.


It's within the workforce, obviously, not between the two managers, that the "sense that things were going from bad to worse" is generated. Wolf-Michael notes this: "Interactions with the new managers were laden with conflict" (p. 57). We are now looking at Jack as a member of the workforce, and Erin as a member of the workforce - them as employees, not as fish culturists. Not surprisingly, Jack - who as an older employee (he was in fact once Erin's mentor) has fewer options in case he is laid off - resorts to his knowledge of how to behave as just an employee - not someone who, as a fish culturist, gives 300%, but someone who as an employee calculates how to invest the least effort for the highest return. He works to rule and minimizes contact with the new management.


Finally, in the absence of making the distinction between the two activity systems that are going among the workers at the fish hatchery at the same time (hatching fish and earning a living), we have a hard time making sense of what we're reading on several accounts. The fish hatchery is referred to as a "collective." Although we are not told much about the collective solidarity of the workforce, it sounds as if Jack is pretty isolated in his withdrawal into work to rule. When we get to the final section on page 59 where Wolf-Michael is talking about the phenomenon of collective emotion and its connection to individual emotion,it sounds as if he's saying that everyone who works at the fish hatchery, the new management included, is part of the collective. I would argue that the collective is not the whole hatchery including the new management, but that it's the employees for whom the hatchery is a way to earn a living. This essence, which can be left in the background when budgets are generous and jobs are secure, jumps into the foregrand during a period of layoffs and budget cuts, which is what is happening in this fish hatchery.



Helena Worthen

University of Illinois Labor Education Program

Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations

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Received on Wed Aug 1 09:22 PDT 2007

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