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by Richard L. Simpson and Ida Harper Simpson. (Volume 5 in Research in the Sociology of Work). Greenwich, CT: JAI, 1995, 284 pp. $73.25 (cloth).
To put the following comments and observations into context, allow me to begin by relating a recent personal experience. In early November 1995, 1 arrived in Paris for a stay of 6 months. My main objective was to write the final draft of a research report on the possible emergence of new models of production in Europe, and in Spain in particular, for an international project on the subject. My own academic training and interests have meant that over the years I have closely followed French literature on the social sciences of work. On this occasion, however, I was especially interested in the lively and extensive debate on the unemployment crisis, new forms of employment and activity, employment policies, growing job insecurity, and the unions' response to this situation. I carried out a detailed and exhaustive study of the different positions and schools, discovering a plethora of studies, books, research reports, and monographic numbers of journals on the subject. All these only reflected a climate in which, perhaps more so now than for more than a decade, work is at the center of the political and social agendas. I found that whereas some of these authors maintain that work is now on the decline as a value (Meda, 1995), others examine it in the negative and limited context of rising unemployment.
Only confirming the topicality of the issue, October had seen the first of a series of lectures/debates in the Pompidou Centre under the generic title of "Les Mutations du Travail." The inaugural session consisted of a lecture by Alain Touraine. Its title, "Au dele de la Societe du Travail" (Beyond the Work Society), failed to reveal whether or not he adheres' to the idea of the disappearance of work.
In France, and in the field of sociology alone, there is a multitude of research centers with an interest in the sociology of work, employment, social policies, and/or the crisis of the welfare state. Almost without exception they have devoted considerable attention to what is unquestionably identified as a, if not the, principal problem both in Europe and beyond: unemployment. Despite their very different approaches, if one had to identity a dominant school of thought in autumn 1995, it was that work no longer is at the center of the values and fabric of society.
The first of the advertised debates was held on November 23 and was intended to serve to "Refonder la Notion du Travail" (Rethink the Notion of Work). This was an opportunity for professionals in the social sciences to speculate, amid an already tense social climate, on the place of work in contemporary societies. They discussed the work that postindustrial society is leaving behind, whether work is really at the center of French men's and women's lives, and the scant role work plays in shaping individual personality. Moreover, there was widespread agreement that even those people with what previously were called "normal" jobs--permanent contracts, social security, and career prospects (however minimal)--are very reluctant to participate in collective action in defense of these values.
The subsequent session of the seminar was due to take place 2 weeks later. Yet, it had to be cancelled because the entire country, and above all Paris, was "on strike." These strikes, by public employees with contracts for life, were applauded by those with precarious, temporary contracts--by the very people who, according to the specialists, should have opposed the strikers. These strikes revealed that the cheminots (railway workers) continue to adhere to the notion of a lifetime of work and to a sense of being a collective with a history--a notion that clashed head-on with the ideas of the experts. These strikes revealed the capacity of small groups of workers to defend demands that counted on the support of those who were objectively incapable of struggling around similar issues, even if they believed it was necessary to do so.
The same sociologists who were preparing their contributions to the debates on the end of work in their different research centers and offices could not understand what was going on around them. All their predictions clashed with the stubborn reality of solidarity. For these strikes, or what were officially known as "social movements," they offered explanations that, for this observer at least, merely confirmed the inability of certain approaches in the social sciences to come up with scientifically convincing interpretations. They began to talk in terms of "archaism," "corporatist" strikes, and outmoded demands. They would do anything rather than recognize that reality often is far more complex than the sociologist or economist thinks.
I believe that these events are of fundamental significance for us as sociologists. First, when taken as a whole, they point to our problematic position as social scientists in society. Rather than producing hasty analyses of this wave of …