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

Our research reveals how meaningless work experiences arise through the relational processes of powerlessness, disconnection, devaluation and self-doubt. In dealing with these, we have shown that individuals deploy a complex and interconnected range of agential responses. Not all responses are geared towards the reinstatement of meaningfulness; rather, in some instances, individuals are concerned with coping with the experience of meaninglessness which some informants explicitly state to be an inevitable, yet episodic feature of their work (Bailey & Madden, 2016). Our research moves understandings of meaningful/meaningless work beyond the self-oriented mechanisms more commonly used to explain these, towards a more relational perspective that locates such experiences as expressions of power and social value which workers actively seek to moderate and negotiate. The relational sociology perspective has enabled us to shed light on how a sense of work as meaningless arises in an interpersonal context (Erikson, 2013), thereby contributing to gaps in the meaningful work literature concerning the role of “others” in meaningful work (Rosso et al., 2010). (p.10)


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


Meaningful Work

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