Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Clare Lewin and Myron Orleans (2000) 'The Class Situation of Information Specialists: A Case Analysis'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 3, <>

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Received: 28/6/2000      Accepted: 16/11/2000      Published: 31/11/2000


This paper examined the paradoxical class situation of information specialists in the post-industrial society as both professionals and employees. We described and analyzed the 'technocratic' authority wielded by them and their mode of consciousness. We assessed whether these workers functioned as the vanguard of a new style of democratized work or buttressed the position of managerial authority. We used qualitative methods to study the social conduct and meaning systems of fourteen computer specialists, including programmers, analysts, and project leaders employed in a large insurance company. The data was analyzed using a critical phenomenological perspective derived from the work of authors such as Berger, Braverman, Burawoy, Foucault, and Marcuse. We found that the subjects experienced a class situation that was somewhat more empowered than the industrial or corporate models, but did not differ substantially from that of the production workers in industrial society. Their power, prestige, privilege and status essentially camouflaged the subjects' compliance to hierarchical authority. The subjects exhibited awareness of their power but essentially directed their energies toward task attainment and individual mobility. Lacking an orientation toward structure change, the information specialists did not appear to fit the notion of a vanguard group. From this research we foresee some possibilities of changes within organizational authority as information specialists confront management with their expertise, but we anticipate that the institutions of social domination will prevail.

Class; Critical Theory; Discourse; Empowerment; Micro-class; Mode of Consciousness; Phenomenology; Qualitative; Stratification; Technocratic Authority


Attention to the privileged role of information specialists in organizational and stratification research is not new. Marc Porat was the first American economist to perceive the emergence of something called the 'knowledge industry,' and to develop statistics measuring the size of the information economy (Riedinger 1989). Daniel Bell (1973), using Porat's demographic statistics of the percentage of the American workforce engaged in information work, suggested that a shift was occurring from a goods-producing society to an information or knowledge society. Bell was also the first to point out to the incredible growth of the number of 'knowledge workers' and to assign to them a role of central importance in the post-industrial society. He argued that the industrial era was over and that a new social order was emerging in which knowledge and information will replace industrial commodity production as the 'axial principle' of social organization (Bell 1973).

Bell's predictions coincided with other liberal theorists and futurists of the 1960's and 1970's who projected an organizational revolution in the last quarter of the 20th century (Drucker 1968; Berkeley 1971). It was supposed that the critical role of knowledge work in this new style enterprise would necessitate the restructuring of administrative systems. Dissatisfied with the clear pattern of management domination and hoping to obviate the necessity for remedial social, political or economic action, certain writers anticipated the emergence of a new style of corporate organization. These writers emphasized that increasing management reliance on the application of knowledge to the problems of production would transform and, indeed, democratize corporate organization. In their scenario information specialists, whose knowledge was essential for the new information economy, were assigned the role of forerunners of a huge organizational change. They were seen as the vanguard of a social movement that would suffuse through the social order, reconstituting organizational power structures and fundamentally altering the workplace (Bell 1979; Drucker 1968; Zuboff 1988).

Based on their functional contribution and privileged position, their potential for power, the information specialists were conceptualized as the occupational grouping that would pose the most serious challenge to managerial-based authority (Zuboff 1988). The 'technocratic authority' of computer specialists was defined to be an authority of 'the task', and 'not the rank' (Drucker 1968). According to Drucker (1988), 'knowledge workers' will be guided by the objective imperatives of their skills and will require a performance-oriented organization rather than an authority-oriented organization. In this projection of the future the information specialists will slowly merge into the authority structure without necessarily becoming occupants of hierarchical authority positions, while those in hierarchical positions will find that their authority is increasingly limited (Berkeley 1971).

Opposing this projection is the work of writers in the critical school, such as Pollock (1957), Marcuse (1964) and Burawoy (1979), who argued that apparent transformations of organizations were mere disguises for more subtle, subjective forms of oppression. Critics of the democratizing vision of the corporation contended that specialized technical knowledge would substantially enhance the power of management. In this interpretation, information specialists were functionaries who merely implemented the decisions of top management. Higher management, in order to enhance capitalist profitability, power and social control and reduce the power of middle management, will increasingly use computerization and automation to create more responsive organizational structures.

Braverman (1974) and Kellner (1989) claimed that while knowledge and information play significantly more pivotal roles, they are still subject to processes of commodification, exchange, profitability and control by capital and should therefore be conceptualized within the framework of a theory of contemporary techno-capitalism. Indeed, Braverman (1974) suggested that the production of information as the 'new commodity' is subject to the same old laws of the capitalist labor process: information specialists in order to maintain their existence must sell their labor power by creating knowledge. Thus, their position does not essentially differ from that of production workers in industrial society.

This debate rested, therefore, on whether information specialists are a vanguard of profound changes or a kind of professionalized proletariat in a complex system of domination and subordination. That is, the issue is whether these specialists may best be viewed as prefiguring a new style of work that will genuinely alter future organizational patterns or if the structure of their work situation generates a benign fašade that masks fundamentally oppressive practices of a neo-industrial order.

Our case study was conducted in an insurance company with about 1500 employees, from which 189 were information specialists. It was generally considered a desirable place to work with job security, substantial benefit packages, opportunities for promotions and transfers, and various training programs. In the insurance company under investigation, information specialists' skills and expertise made computerization and automation possible and defined their distinctive location within the hierarchical structure of the company. The knowledge they possessed was critical to the success of the enterprise. The information specialists' knowledge translated into power and granted them a special strategic position of authority during the course of project activity when very specialized technical skills were required as well as during periods of crisis resolution.

A variety of critical (Burawoy 1979), phenomenological (Collins 1975), and postmodernist (Bourdieu 1985) perspectives seem to be converging on the argument for a situated analysis of class. This current of research began with Dahrendorf's (1959) notion of classes as micro-conflict groups within imperatively coordinated associations. These may be seen as associations of people controlled by a hierarchy of authority positions. Different social positions influence the extent of power of different groups (Foucault 1980) and constitute the central mechanism by which various sorts of resources are appropriated and distributed, therefore determining the underlying capacities for action of various social actors (Giddens 1973). Phenomena are to be studied as direct and immediate relationships in which situationally located actors exercise their action orientations as interest-groups (Dahrendorf 1959; Bourdieu 1985) or conflict-groups (Dahrendorf 1959; Wright 1997), and reveal their intentions through real and effective interactional and communicative practices (Foucault 1980).

All social systems express and are expressed in the routines of daily social life (Giddens 1973), and the functioning of social groups find articulation in everyday routines (Collins 1975; Bourdieu 1977). This notion has influenced recent efforts to contextualize class analysis within specific organizational environments (Burawoy 1979; Nash 1979; Britan and Cohen 1980). This approach posits that the central focus must remain with the situated actions of actual groups and the ways in which they function in specific environments. In general, this orientation views class phenomena as concrete enactments of particular organizationally based practices and represents an effort to integrate organizational and stratificational research agendas while grounding all larger-scale concepts in the observables of everyday life (Collins 1975).

This approach that we have used in our study allowed us to probe the nature of the 'technocratic' authority postulated for the information specialists. Focusing on class situation enabled us to assess the significance of the challenge that the information specialists might pose to managerial authority. At the same time, it permitted inquiry into the subjective orientations that reflexively interacted with their knowledge work (Jeffcutt 1993). By viewing the organizational structure as accomplishments of situationally located actors who produce hierarchical patterns through the application of their action orientations, i.e., their knowledge, we were able to study the intentions which informed the activities and the power claims of the specialists. Moreover, we were able to discern the ways in which they experienced subjugation to managerial authority and to their tasks.

Our findings describe the 'technocratic' authority wielded by these information specialists, and analyzes how they used it to more effectively manipulate their work environments and to defend their own interests and existing status. The study examines the implications of the information specialists' contradictory class status (Wright 1997) - they are professionals, but at the same time employees of the corporation. The study reveals different maneuvers, tactics, and techniques that management uses to harness their skills and knowledge for efficient use and maximum benefit to the corporation, and whenever necessary, for neutralization of their independence and political potential. The findings describe the constant-learning work environment of information specialists It assesses whether this generates an innovative method of information sharing and new approach to organizational structure (Zuboff 1988), or if this contributes to the production of consent and compliance. The study also analyzes how management seeks to elicit the higher level of organizational commitment of information specialists by using the ideology of 'empowerment'. Finally, the study reveals how information specialists' subjective orientations further individualize the use of this ideology.

Case Study Methods

Our sample or cast consisted of three groups: 6 programmers, 5 systems analysts and 3 'middle level' managerial personnel. The third group was included in our study, because of the importance it had in defining the tasks and priorities, i.e., the framework within which the technical specialists operated. Our study did not include 'top level management' responsible for corporate budgetary decisions and financial arrangements, profit rates, stock values, etc., that determine the overall trajectory of the corporation, but their importance for establishing parameters and thus conditioning work, life meanings and satisfactions of specialists was considered.

Our cast consisted of: Managers:
1) Larry - manager, age 50, MBA; very well respected as a manager; everything he says and does exhibits a sense of responsibility and rationality; has a reputation of being able to 'handle things';
2) Ann - supervisor, age 45, degree in biology; very well respected and loved by most of the people who work for her; uses an informal, but very motivational management style; 3) Terry - supervisor, age 50; second generation American Norwegian; degree in computer science; not viewed as a very effective supervisor and apparently not very well liked by people who worked for him.

Systems Analysts:
1) Kristina - sr. systems analyst, age 51, MA in education; originally from a small town on an island in Finland; worked for the company for over 15 years; always cheerful and friendly, she is liked by everyone; very good technical skills and also superb knowledge of claims systems;
2) Laurie - systems analyst, age 39, degree in liberal arts; originally from New Jersey; her father is an East Coast company executive; always dressed very stylishly and displays a kind of 'snobbish sense of superiority'; very good technical skills; knows the insurance systems well;
3) Joyce - systems analyst, age 43, degree in economics; relatively new to the company;
4) Stephen - sr. systems analyst, age 48, MS in math; dislikes Terry; calls him a 'do nothing supervisor';
5) Joe - sr. systems analyst, age 55, degree in business.

1) Ed - sr. programmer-analyst, age 37, no degree; likes to have his Irish American origin known; loves computers and thinks of himself as a 'very good technical person'; very critical towards the company and its management;
2) Dennis - programmer-analyst, age 53, no degree; of Dutch and German origin originally from a small town in Pennsylvania; loves to read technical books; recently hired; he is under Ed's influence and progressively is becoming more critical towards the company and its management;
3) John - sr. programmer-analyst, age 46, MBA; an immigrant from Vietnam; very outgoing and loves to joke; hates his job as a programmer because he does not find it to be creative and fun; his goal is to avoid work at any cost; he 'understands' authority and knows that there are conflicts among managers that he tries to use to his benefit;
4) Zhana - programmer-analyst, age 39, degree in accounting; came to this country with her family at age 17 from Byelorussia; she would rather stay home and raise her children; programming is just a job to her; feels lucky to work for a supervisor such as Ann;
5) William - sr. programmer-analyst, age 29, degree in math; loves computers and adores Ann; fully identifies with his profession as a programmer;
6) Jane - jr. programmer analyst, age 24, degree in management information systems; Chinese-American; recently hired.

All information specialists under investigation worked in a group responsible for supporting and upgrading the claims and insurance systems of the company. This group consisted in total of 49 information specialists and was responsible for approximately 15 systems containing several million lines of code. Their work was absolutely critical to the mission of the company. The systems had to be kept running 24 hours a day. If a problem was not resolved in 2 hours, the supervisor was called and a strategy of action was worked out. The implication of a problem not being resolved in three hours (in a so-called batch window) was enormous. If the system went down, hundreds of claims representatives, insurance representatives and sales agents were not able to do their work resulting in thousands dollars lost for the company and eliciting the ire of the vice president of Information Systems or even the president of the company.

There were differences in the work duties of programmers and systems analysts. Programmers work duties included: writing and maintaining computer programs by coding instructions and algorithms into machine readable form; testing, debugging, documenting and implementing computer programs; maintaining existing computer programs by making minor modifications as required. Systems analysts duties included: analyzing users needs; writing requirement specifications for computer programs, identifying the steps in the program and the algorithms to be employed; communicating program specifications to computer programmers; testing and implementing computer programs and providing user training; serving as project leaders for particular systems projects.

The direct-participant observation method in the work process was used to obtain observational and conversational data of face-to-face interactions in work-related situations. The subjects were not informed that they were studied. The discursive practices used by the team members during their encounters with each other were closely attended. Symbolic language and gestures by which one individual unreflectively and unselfconsciously elicited a reaction from others received special attention (Mead 1934). Significant gestures, meaningful symbols, social cues, meaningful interactions were carefully watched (Blumer 1969). Awareness of social constructionist notions of reflexivity, reality definition, meaning creation, and internalization/ externalization served as the backdrop during observations (Orleans 1991; Leeds-Hurwitz 1995).

The interactions and conversations of the sample were transcribed after sequences were observed. The formal rules and policies, established by management to shape information specialists work behavior, were accepted to be the objective context within which the specialists operated. Following Goffman's theatrical analogy, the objective reality was viewed as the 'front stage.' The front is that part of the performance that generally functions in rather fixed and general ways to define the situation for those who observe the performance (Goffman 1959). The subjective reality of computer specialist's consciousness was studied as 'reflective intelligence', a kind of functional reflection or dialectical production of the objective world (Mead 1938). Through observations and analysis of the language and gestures of the face-to-face interaction, the socially constructed world of the computer specialists was inferred (Berger and Luckmann 1966).

Information Specialists vis- a-vis Management

Our theoretical approach, that class situation of information specialists could be viewed as a situation of a 'conflict group' (Dahrendorf 1959) or micro-class existing in contradiction to managerial authority served as the basis for the explicit analysis of the data. It was supposed the ultimate goal of information specialists was to act as if they were independent craftsmen exercising their technical skills and knowledge in a craftsmanlike way (Veblen 1914). At the same time, the ultimate goal of management was to harness these skills and knowledge for efficient use and maximum benefit to the corporation. These conflicts of interests defined their relationships as a complicated interplay of authorities and also predetermined the specifics of the dispositions, maneuvers, tactics, and techniques used by both sides (Collinson 1994).

The information specialists' knowledge translated into power and afforded them a privileged strategic position of authority during project activity that required specialized technical skills and during emergencies (Clegg 1996). In a typical instance, when the system was down, because the program was not set up to process the data correctly, Ann, a supervisor, had to depend completely on, and, therefore, relinquished her authority to Zhana, William and Irena. Information specialists had to 'put their heads together', react aggressively and develop a strategy of action in a tension-charged atmosphere where time was of the essence. Hundreds of claims representatives and sales agents were not able to do their work until the information specialists resolved the problem.

Also the 'technocratic authority' of specialists was apparent when their skills were essential, irreplaceable and viewed by management as cryptic. For example, Terry depended for the success of the project on Dennis who was the only specialist who knew the PL1 language. This was not a very popular language; it was considered obsolete, and few people have been trained to use it. Dennis was not a very good programmer, and because of Dennis' dawdling, a particular project was not on schedule. Terry worried, but kept avoiding a 'direct talk' with Dennis for fear of upsetting him. Terry's tactic was to use the systems analyst for a peer pressure over the programmer. He advised Joyce to try to exert pressure on Dennis, but specified that it should be only 'moderately' and 'not too extreme.' Another management tactic used here was to gain programmer's consent and cooperation. Terry tried to help Dennis by meeting with him in a relaxed atmosphere, so Dennis could 'think aloud' about his program in Terry's presence and hopefully be able to identify the problem and find a solution.

The following instances suggested that programmers were aware of the actual power they wielded with their special skills and expertise (Knights and Willmott 1989). Ed was not excessively friendly toward Joyce. He knew that Joyce, in order to look good as a project leader, needed him to do the job. He evidently believed that she was 'bugging' him too much, and he proceeded to write a nasty e-mail about her, bypassing his supervisor and going directly to the manager. He asked to be taken completely off the project. This attack indicated that he perceived his technical expertise to be a source of strength that made him independent of the project objectives. He conducted himself as if his technical knowledge bestowed upon him a kind of privilege that rendered his co-workers and supervisors powerless.

Sometimes management perceived information specialists' knowledge as threatening and attempted to hamper the operation of expertise. Management was constantly developing strategies to motivate programmers and to use their knowledge in support of corporate goals, but at the same time sought to neutralize the political potential of those who possessed superior technical skill. The following demonstrated how management sometimes found information specialists' knowledge threatening: A particular project was late because Dennis could not resolve a difficult programming problem. Minh, a programmer who worked with this program for many years and was well informed, had been moved to another department under a different manager. Joyce advised Terry to call Minh's supervisor and see if Minh could come down and help. Terry dismissed this as a bad idea. He said, 'We would look bad. It would look as we are technically very weak and can't resolve problems and manage situations.' Terry also expressed resentment toward William. He commented that he hated being put into situations where William 'comes in on his white horse to save him.'

Some data suggests that certain management approaches reflected implicit assumptions as to the reluctance, insincerity and untrustworthiness of information specialists. But coercion did not appear to be the prevailing practice and was not observed to produce very lasting results (Alvesson 1993). It was often supplemented with other practices that had a more disciplinary character. Further, coercion was usually enforced by the use of bureaucratic measures and, rather than expressed forcefully, mainly constituted a ritual affirmation of managerial domination (Deetz 1992).

Terry believed that John had a poor work ethic and tried to shame him by telling him that he was not 'pulling his weight' on a particular project. A schedule with all of John's tasks specifying very strict deadlines was developed, and John was pressured to 'commit' to these dates. The implication was that if dates were not met, disciplinary actions would follow. This was an example of a widely used management practice. Relying on the "tacit skills" of employees (Windolf, Wood and Manwaring 1988), the programmer was pressured to 'commit' during a one-on-one conversation, usually conducted in a 'closed door' environment. Accepting the project deadlines as his own deadlines, in front of both the supervisor and the systems analyst affirmed the subordinate's acceptance of management imperatives. In this particular case, John by saying: 'I accept these deadlines and I commit to them' was a way by which the management exerted pressure over programmers, but at the same time engulfed programmers in its own authority. Through this technique, programmers were invested by management authority; it was transmitted by them and through them' (Knights and Vurdubakis 1994). Therefore, the programmers became an effect of management power, and at the same time, the vehicle of its articulation (Foucault 1980).

Authority of the 'Smart Machine'

Information specialists class situation further might be viewed as a micro-class based on their common unique relationship to the new technological base of modern capitalism. One very important dimension of the information specialists' life-world was their interaction with the computer. The culture, the language, the relationships of information specialists depended on the smart machine (Zubboff 1988). The machine, the mere product of human labor, became an independent participant in the labor process. In Marx's sense of the term, it became the reification of a social relation. This product of human creativity appeared as an independent entity endowed with its own power (Braverman 1974).

Several work- related situations captured by the observer were related to the work events provoked by the problems with the computer systems. These scenarios were the most dramatic because they revealed that there were times during which computer rationality failed and presented itself as an 'irrationality.' All the more strongly, these were the times when management became helpless, and the expertise of the specialists became all the more crucial. Emotions of fear, frustration, anxiety, and panic were common. The computer was experienced as if it were an out of control monster, and the specialists acted like warriors, mobilized in brave combat against it.

In these cases, examples of cooperation among information specialists were the most prevalent manner of conduct. Information specialists were the most willing to exchange information and help each other. Natural leaders as Kristina (Sr. Systems Analyst) were sought out and followed. For example, during a crisis situation Zhana, Irina and Kristina formed a 'task team' to resolve a production problem. They defined the tasks together, and while doing that, they disagreed on a technical matter, but toward the end of the activity they approached a consensus. They split the tasks, but also they worked together. They were able to accomplish the recovery in just a few hours. They complimented each other for their ability to collaborate effectively as a team. Thus, a 'task team', operating flexibly and fluidly, formed regarding a task and dissolved when the task was completed (Zuboff 1988). After the problem was resolved, the feelings of frustration and despair were replaced by feelings of joy and satisfaction.

But could these satisfactions be considered as genuine or these were feelings of temporary relief from the discomfort of work realities? Marcuse (1964:5), for example, classified them as repressive satisfactions, because he believed that such needs have a societal content and function that are determined by external powers over which the individual has no control. No matter how much such needs may have become the individual's own, reproduced and fortified by the conditions of his existence, no mater how much he identifies himself with them and finds himself in their satisfaction, they continue to be products of a society whose dominant interest demands repression.

The class situation of information specialists was further firmly established on the premise that the computer-based system rationality of the computer replaced some imperatives of command authority in the organization under investigation and contributed to its further erosion. In this case study, managers deferred to information specialists as valued resources possessing the arcane knowledge upon which corporate survival depended. System-based rationality as constructed by information specialists, however, functioned within parameters established by command authority. Business criteria as constructed by management still set the framework within which technical specialists operated, conditioning their work life meanings and satisfactions.

It was clear from the observations that the management's command authority was still the legitimate form of control, but the decreased use of coercion confirmed the hypothesis that the authority of management is restrained by technical expertise and it is slowly being eroded by other interests and rationalities. It was hypothesized here that the flattening of the hierarchy was apparent, but this did not automatically democratize. What was apparent was that the sum of powers did not change, but it only was replaced by new rationalities, i.e. computer-based system rationality. New forms of knowledge and new organizational practices, as analyzed here, deserve as much skepticism and criticism as either authoritarian or obviously repressive conditions (Forester 1983).

Conflicts among Information Specialists

The class situation of information specialists was further observed by the ways they interacted within their own group. The fragmentation of knowledge necessitates a constant interchange of ideas and findings in order to obtain solutions. Specialization necessarily increases interdependence (Durkheim 1933). The more complicated the project, the more fragmentary the information held by each information specialist and the greater the variety of inter-connections among them (Galbraith 1967). As a consequence of that, there is an appearance of the redistribution of conflict from a hierarchical direction into a lateral direction, in which individual information specialists face one another not only in cooperation, but also in conflict or competition (Burawoy 1979). In order to accomplish the objective imperatives of their skills and goals, information specialists acted as sovereign subjects not only in conflict with management, but also with each other (Ashforth and Mael 1989).

There were tensions among programmers and systems programmers. Dennis blamed the system programmers for not being able to complete his tasks on time. He complained that he had to call the system programmers a few times and that he was not getting the needed support. He claimed that they were 'nothing but trouble' and that they did 'not care if application programmers completed their assignments on time.'

There were tensions between systems analysts and programmers. Kristina became very upset with Dennis for not being able to solve the program problem. She complained to her manager, Terry, that because of Dennis' inability to solve problems, the project was behind the schedule. She claimed that Dennis did not have very good 'critical thinking skills' and was not trying hard enough. There were tensions between programmers. John blamed other members of the team, Ed and Dennis, for problems that he experienced. He openly called them 'not the right people,' and 'bums' in front of his manager.

There was constant tension between information specialists and the Operation department. For 'security purposes,' the programmers were not allowed to 'put the program changes' into production. This was done by 'technical support' who were part of the Computer Operation. This system of bureaucracy was deeply frustrating to the programmers. Technical support usually did not understand anything about programs, and mechanically moved the changes into production. Programmers frequently expressed judgements such as 'you can put all your efforts into doing a change right and these technical support people mess things up.'

This environment of individual expression fostered competition within work teams. Team members acted as a group, but at the same time as individuals inside of the group. Data supported the hypothesis that the competition among the information specialists muted confrontational possibilities against management while exacerbating feelings of frustration, discomfort, anger, and resentment against each other.

The study also found evidence of how the skills and expertise of the information specialists was very short-lived because the new technology rendered them obsolete thus further fostering competition among them (Argyris 1982). Due to these and other factors, the information specialists had to constantly strive to learn new technologies, in order to continually upgrade their professional status, achieve their career goals, and keep their jobs. The chance to be trained by the company and to be selected to work on a project where the new technologies were used, was an area of bitter competition and rivalry among information specialists.

As long as the corporation supported innovation and elicited participation, the information specialists were subject to benevolent and forward- looking corporatism that further muted confrontational possibilities against management. This resulted in consent and cooperation, and redistributed the conflicts from a hierarchical into a lateral direction.

Empowerment Rhetoric and Compliance

The essence of the capitalist labor process is the extraction of surplus labor, the source of surplus value. The doctrine of surplus value is the cornerstone of the economic theory of Marx and discloses the underpinning of capitalist exploitation (Marx 1967). Our data indicate that the process of extraction of surplus labor took peculiar forms in the case of the labor of information specialists. The work of information specialists is difficult to control because their work is task-oriented (Drucker 1968). Since technical work is obscure to management, it frequently occurred that managers did not know the most profitable way for the specialists to spend their time and energy. Therefore, detailed supervision was observed to be quite rare. The company relied on loyalty enhancing mechanisms in order to achieve desired levels of cooperation and effort (Alvesson 1996).

Information specialists were allowed and encouraged to act 'on their own' and to use their creativity and incentive, i.e. to feel 'empowered.' Management constantly told them that 'they are professionals,' and that their commitment to the company was crucial for the success of the enterprise. They were encouraged to identify with the tasks and projects assigned to them and to feel personally responsible for their success or failure. Evidence revealed that for the most part information specialists accepted the rhetoric, worked very hard and acted as self-disciplined and self-supervised individuals (Knights and Willmott, 1989). They consistently appeared to consent to the ideology of 'empowerment' and played by its rules. The question of what made them accept this 'empowerment ploy' was one of the most challenging questions encountered in this research.

It was hypothesized that as long as the corporation supported the expressions of self-identity, corporate power was often experienced as benevolent rather than as essentially oppressive requiring confrontation. The data showed that information specialists' actions were often impelled not simply by material rewards or to avoid punishment. Often, they perceived their efforts as an expression of their self-identity, and confirmation of the self- disciplining sense of their own normality as sovereign subjects (Willmott 1994). Inspired by some of the late Foucault (1984) writing , Alvesson (1996) suggested that the positive or productive aspects of power, along with its positive attributes, could generate a benevolent attitude towards the forms of power (which may not even be perceived as power). Power expressions may be associated not only with the constraints and fixations of subjects, but with constructive attitudes such as identity creation and affirmation (Knights and Willmott, 1985).

Several examples that typify this condition are offered: Joe and Stephen accepted the empowerment ploy because of a sense of ownership of the system that they personally developed. On one occasion when Joyce told them that the system had to be changed because of new business requirements, they were very willing to help. They still called that system 'their system'. Even though Stephen already moved to a different department, he was willing to come to all meetings that Joyce set up and gave her his valuable input. She never had to call his manager for permission. He strongly felt that because this was 'his system,' and that 'he conceived it,' he had a personal responsibility to make sure that the new changes would not 'mess things up.' Also he felt personally responsible to the business users to make sure that the new changes did not 'make their life harder.'

Laurie accepted the empowerment rhetoric because she enjoyed having power over other people, and the project leader role allowed her this chance. She fully identified with her project. People referred to it as 'her project.' She had been with the company for over ten years and had very good technical and business skills. She enjoyed using this knowledge as power against others who knew less than she did.

Kristina appreciated the respect she received and valued her reputation as an established project leader. She valued the reliance that management placed upon her to deal with serious application system problems. When programmers did system and integration testing, they often went to her with questions about 'how things flow.' She seemed proud of her knowledge and ability to be able 'to point them in the right direction.' She also accepted the empowerment ploy because of her very high sense of personal responsibility. In one recorded instance, Kristina worried about problems after Jane instituted some changes in production. She suspected that because Jane did not properly back up files, the whole online cycle (the input of over 200 claims representatives, thousands and thousands of transactions) could be wiped out. She awoke around 2:30 a.m. and went to work. When her worst suspicions were confirmed, she took the initiative to call the system programmer, Paul, who was responsible for the computer operating system and the disk space. He also voluntarily came to work, and together they got a very 'early start' on resolving the crisis.

On many occasions William sought to demonstrate to his fellow workers that he was a 'super programmer.' When the most disastrous situations occurred, Ann relied on him. He always tried to prove that there was no computer challenge that he could not resolve. He worked at night, sometimes even with no sleep for a few nights. A co-worker once remarked, 'sometimes you wonder if he is really human.'

In these examples, the subjection of information specialists is exhibited in its two meanings: they are 'subject' to someone else by control and dependence; and by awareness of their knowledge as power they are tied to their own identity (Willmott 1994). This subjection is accomplished through the development of modern organizational practices and through their operations, information specialists not only constitute their self- identity, but, at the same time, invest themselves in the reproduction of these practices.


Our study established that as a result of the work autonomy that was afforded to the information specialists in our sample, the corporate power was imaged in such a way that it supported expressions of self-identity. This image of power was itself internalized and adopted by them as a set of discursive practices through which they represented their own presence in the organization. Therefore, they perceived themselves as corporate members and experienced its power as essentially benevolent. The latitude afforded them by management occasioned a sense among them that they were self-disciplining, 'sovereign subjects'. The study found that information specialists from our sample were involved in organizational patterns of relations with management, which were more dynamic and more intricate than earlier models. Their relations were more like a network of mutual dependencies, constantly in tension, an open structure of shifting priorities and strategy positions, often 'situational' in nature (Foucault 1980).

We found that information specialists selected for our study were aware of itself as a distinct group vis-Ó-vis management. This group was fairly well rewarded and moderately highly ranked in the corporation, but was internally split and highly individualized in consciousness. The information specialists were aware of their power but used it primarily to accomplish tasks assigned to them and to carry out their own career projects. Their felt empowerment increased their self-actualization and sense of individual accomplishment, but at the same time subjected them to corporate imperatives and rendered them compliant to fitful expressions of control by managers. However, managers that we studied were in turn intimidated by the mystery of their subordinates' special relationship to the fount of corporate survival: the computer. The information specialists constrained but did not supersede management's prerogatives. Their prime was not class-oriented, rather they were primarily concerned with applying their knowledge in a politically neutral manner for purposes of task accomplishment and individual mobility. Thus, the knowledge workers in this study remained uninterested in structure change, subordinated to existing arrangements, more hostile to each other than to hierarchy, and without a vision of themselves as a vanguard force.

Our study found some indications that these specialists may be viewed as prefiguring a new style of work, and provided limited support for those writers who have held that advanced technical specialization will transform the workplace (Bell 1973; Berkeley 1971). The use of coercion was observed to be in decline. Task rather than rank was determinative in most instances observed. We found some evidence to support Drucker's (1968) vision that specialists, guided by the objective imperatives of their skills and goals, will require new type of hierarchically flatter, performance-oriented organization rather than an authority- oriented organization. This idea is also very much supported by Zuboff (1988) and also by Smith (1996). At the same time our study found that although the flattening of the hierarchy was apparent, that did not automatically democratize. The decreased use of coercion confirmed the hypothesis that the authority of management was restrained by technical expertise, but what was apparent was that the sum of powers did not change, and it only was replaced by new rationalities, i.e. computer-based system rationality.

At the same time, our data did not find evidence that these new organizational practices would democratize corporate organization. We did not find a clear pattern indicating the emergence of a new style of corporate organization. In this instance, there was no persistent evidence that increasing management reliance on the application of knowledge to the problems of production transformed and, indeed, democratized corporate organization. At most, it can be argued that changes 'in' the organization were notable but that changes 'of' the organization did not obtain (Coser 1964). While the specific tasks that information specialists performed were guided by imperatives established within their own micro-class, the goals and basic assignments were driven by the business motives of the hierarchically located managers.

It might well be argued that in fact the information specialists in our study were professionalized proletariats subordinated in a complex system of domination and subordination; their work situation generates a benign fašade that masks fundamentally oppressive practices of a neo-industrial order. They constantly consented to tactics of management, most of the time acted as self-disciplined, self-supervised individuals, and apparently accepted the ideology of empowerment as their own. From this perspective, the information specialists in our study were engaged in 'voluntary servitude' to capital and to the production of surplus value (Braverman 1974; Burawoy 1979) that lends support to Marcuse's (1964) analysis who asserted that tendencies toward technological rationality produced a subtle but highly effective system of social control by promoting accommodation to the economic and social apparatus and by undermining critical rationality (i.e., autonomy, dissent, and the power of negation).

Our research only studied issues of power and authority within the organization, while leaving the issues of information specialists in relation to macro-structural corporate decision making unexamined. The findings implied that higher level business management still makes the corporate bottom line decisions and that financial criteria, profit rates, stock values, etc., still determine the overall trajectories of this corporation. Future research in this area must focus more directly on the impact of top level management on the work, stratificational rank, and power of information specialists.

Conventionally, case study research has been widely justified as a means of yielding groundwork for larger sample studies using quantitative methods. However, the details and actualities of case studies generate a rich texture of meanings that often cannot be analyzed by the decontextualized survey research methods without essential and constitutive subtleties being lost. This project is intended to be suggestive for future work. We have examined the class situation of a particular category of workers at a particular site. It is hoped that this research spawns many other case study analyses of diverse organizational settings to ascertain how the class situation of informational workers is experienced elsewhere. Our interpretations apply only to the one case, but this research modality could well be implemented on a broader scale and only then can generalized assertions be attempted.

The question also that remains for future research is whether micro-class consciousness and action of information specialists is likely to impact the overall political structure of the corporation. One possibility that should be investigated further is whether an increasing number of technical experts may be absorbed into organizational authority positions, displacing those from business backgrounds thereby reducing the capacity of these positions to hamper the operation of expertise. At the societal level, future inquiry might be directed toward the possible political role of information specialists as an interest group.


An earlier version of this paper was presented to the session, CLASS THEORY AND SOCIAL CHANGE: RETREAT OR RENEWAL? at the Pacific Sociological Association Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA. April 16-19 1998.


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