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

Work always has a meaning for the individual worker which, as Budd (2011) has argued, can range at the extreme from being a curse, a disutility or, conversely, a source of freedom. However, not all work is meaningful, and meaningful work is not the same as the “meaning of” work. Meaningful work is conditional on its connection to something beyond the immediate tasks and roles, to something that is deemed, voluntarily, to be worthwhile in terms of overall life purpose (Bailey & Madden, 2017; Dik, Duffy, & Eldridge, 2009). Meaningful work is therefore work that goes “beyond the self” in some way and is in this sense self-transcendent and relational (Heine et al., 2006), or pro-social (Grant, 2007).  (p.2)


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


Meaningful Work

Links to Reference



How to contribute.