Chris Uggen's Blog: teaching deviance with (the other) nwa

Saturday, August 20, 2005

teaching deviance with (the other) nwa

Northwest Airlines mechanics went on strike today. Like many Minnesotans, I have good friends and family members on both sides of the picket line. No one disputes that these mechanics are highly skilled, well compensated, and largely responsible for the sterling safety record of the airline's aging fleet of DC-9s. Citing competitiveness and losses, however, management is demanding deep pay cuts and plans to outsource many jobs overseas. The mechanics have been so frustrated with management's position -- especially the hiring and training of replacement workers -- that there is some evidence of a work "slowdown" over the past month.

In my sociology of deviance course this semester, I'm thinking of referencing NWA as I make my way through the theories -- both as corporate and workplace deviance. I can think of a structural Marxist account of power and rulemaking, as well as a neoclassical or functional account based on markets. I'm most intrigued by the idea of teaching about this at the situational and group level of analysis, though. Let's say a mechanic could fix a cooling fan, but decides instead to ground the flight by defining it as irreparable -- either out of frustration with management or loyalty to the union or both. From a differential association or social learning perspective, this seems a clear case of close group ties compelling (rather than restraining) deviance -- conformity to the group produces rule violation. I'm less certain of social control explanations (the DA take always comes a bit easier to a Sutherland student), but I'll probably lean on Hirschi generally and Toby's stake in conformity more specifically. Once the mechanics figured out that most of their jobs were gone about a month ago, they had zero incentive to conform to NWA (or FAA) rules, and informal controls went out the window. Is this too much of a stretch? It seems like a sad but apt example that raises basic questions about the social construction of deviance and whether or how it is learned in interaction. Sound reasonable? As a companion article, one might use an accessible structural/institutional piece by Rick Mathews and David Kauzlarich (featured in the Adlers' fine reader) about the disastrous consequences of shoddy maintenance at one budget airline.


At 10:15 AM, Blogger Brayden said...

There's a lot of research in organizational behavior that suggests that when workers want to cause a slowdown they actually adhere more to the rules than they would otherwise. This is because the bureaucratic rules designed to maximize managerial control in the workplace actually hinder optimal productivity. In normal situations, workers develop workplace-specific routines and norms to supplement (or replace) the official procedures, but when the union wants to start a slowdown workers go back to the rulebook.

At 12:23 PM, Anonymous chris said...

Thanks, Brayden. That makes great sense! In such cases, are workers violating (productivity) norms by following the (bureaucratic) rulebook? If you have time to drop a classic cite on this I'd appreciate it. I've talked with my org friends about how little crossover there is between orgs/ethics and crim/deviance. I guess a better "pure deviance" example would be sabotage (and, unfortunately, there's been some unsubstantiated buzz about that locally as well).

At 1:36 PM, Blogger Brayden said...

The practice of following bureaucratic rules to sabotage productivity is called "work to rule." I have no idea where this concept came from or where the practice originated. In fact, I did a google scholar search for the term and I couldn't even find an original citation. My guess is that unions have been using "work to rule" for some time now and it's been common in the parlance of organizational scholars just as long.

Couldn't agree with you more on the crossover issue. More work should be done at the intersection of deviance and organizational studies. In an ASA session for economic sociology, a presenter noted that economic sociologists tend to ignore white-collar crime, which seems very odd given our interests. I wouldn't be surprised to see this issue become much more important in the subfield in the next few years, although it would come a few years too late. Enron is already history.

At 10:54 PM, Anonymous chris said...

Thanks, Brayden. I noticed this when I started writing about illegal earnings as a criminologist and violation of eeo law as a sociolegal scholar -- a lot of the best work was done in orgs and econ soc, but there wasn't a lot of crossover. Don't worry about missing Enron, though. Regrettably, there's lots more where that came from...


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