For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"“We’re not scum, we’re human”: Agential responses in the face of meaningless work"

by Bailey, Catherine; Madden, Adrian (2019)


In this article, we address a gap in the meaningful work literature by exploring the processes by which work is experienced as meaningless. We adopt the lens of relational sociology and, through interviews with 45 participants in four very different occupations, we found that meaninglessness arises through four relational processes: powerlessness, disconnection, devaluation and self-doubt. Individuals enacted six agential responses to this experience. Two of these, resisting and responsibility-taking, were “reinstatement” strategies and four, acceptance, distancing, minimising and resistance, were “coping” strategies. In addition, some informants used “switching” as a framing device. These responses were not equally available to all workers in all occupations, suggestive of a stratified experience of work meaninglessness. Our study contributes to understandings of how work is rendered meaningless and how individuals might respond.

Key Passage

Meaningful work is a topic of significant interest at present in the management field, particularly in light of concerns over job quality and the availability of decent work (Bailey, Yeoman, Madden, Thompson, & Kerridge, 2018). Among recent debates, a growing body of literature has begun to shed light on the processes by which work is rendered meaningful to the individual worker (Mitra & Buzzanell, 2016; Rosso, Dekas, & Wrzesniewski, 2010). Central to these are a sense of unity with others, the perception that one’s work is of service to others or a transcendent cause, self-expression, and the development of one’s inner self through work (Lips-Wiersma & Morris, 2009). However, no prior studies have addressed the related, yet equally important question of how and under what circumstances work is rendered meaningless. Is it simply the case that the absence of these factors leads to a sense of work lacking in meaning, or are other issues at play? (p.1)


Meaningful Work, Work Experiences, Meaning, Sociology, Relational Sociology


Meaningful Work

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