For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Job Conditions and Personality: A Longitudinal Assessment of Their Reciprocal Effects"

by Kohn, Melvin L; Schooler, Carmi (1982)


In earlier work, we assessed a longitudinal causal model of the reciprocal effects of the substative complexity of work and intellectual flexibility. In this paper, we greatly expand the causal model to consider sumultaneously several structural imperatives of the job and three major dimensions of personality-ideational flexibility, a self directed orientation to self and society, and a sense of distress. The analysis demonstrates that the structural imperatives of the job affect personality. Self-directed work leads to ideational flexibility and to a self-directed orientation to self and society; oppressive working conditions lead to distress. These findings strongly support a learning generalization model. Personality, in turn, has important consequences for an individual's place in the job structure and in the system of social stratification. In particular, both ideational flexibility and a self-directed orientation lead, over time, to more responsible jobs that allow greater latitude for occupational self-direction.

Key Passage

We define the substantive complexity of work as the degree to which performance of the work requires thought and independent judgment. Substantively complex work by its very nature requires making many de- cisions that must take into account ill-defined or apparently conflicting contingencies. Detailed questioning of each respondent in 1964 and again in 1974 (see Kohn 1969, pp. 153-55, 271-76; or Kohn and Schooler 1978) provides the basis for seven ratings of the substantive complexity of each job: appraisals of the complexity of the man's work in that job with things, with data, and with people; an overall appraisal of the com- plexity of his work; and estimates of the amount of time he spends work- ing at each type of activity. The ratings are treated in figure 1 as indi- cators of the underlying but not directly measured concept, the substan- tive complexity of that job. We have information also about the complex- ity of each man's work in two earlier jobs, based on extrapolations from job history information (see Kohn and Schooler 1973, pp. 111-12 and n. 21), extrapolations that we use as indicators of a single concept, earlier (pre-1964) substantive complexity. Closeness of supervision limits one's opportunities for occupational self- direction: a worker cannot exercise occupational self-direction if he is closely supervised, although not being closely supervised does not neces- sarily mean that he is required or even free to use initiative, thought, and independent judgment. Closeness of supervision is measured by a worker's subjective appraisals of his freedom to disagree with his supervisor, how closely he is supervised, the extent to which his supervisor tells him what to do instead of discussing it with him, and the importance in his job of doing what one is told to do. (p.1261)


Intellectual Flexibility, Reciprocity, Personality, Identity, Self, Distress, Psychology, Work Complexity


Kohn-Schooler, Psychological Centrality of Work

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