Rethinking Work is an edited collection of 15 peer reviewed chapters designed to thrust work researchers out of their disciplinary comfort zone and facilitate their exploration of new theoretical perspectives and methodologies necessary to explain the rapidly evolving and multi-dimensional realm of 21st century work. The volume takes as its main premise that those who study work must themselves be capable of adapting to the profound changes reshaping “this most powerful expression of human relationships and experience.” They also perceive that progress in the study of work has been hindered by the academic silos that have been created over time. The solution, argues the editors of this volume, is for industrial relations researchers to put aside the disciplinary boundaries that have governed their work in the past and engage with other cognate social science researchers to explore the links and relationships between temporal, spatial and discursive dimensions of work.
To this end the editors have produced a book that synthesizes the concepts of time (section one), space (section two) and discourse (section three), and offers an innovative perspective on the study of work and employment relations.
The first section of the book deals with time. Time is frequently considered as a resource in the context of work and organizations as illustrated by our focus on efficiency, time management, “just in time,” manufacturing, etc. Researchers have explored many issues that can be classified within this area including time of work (long hours), timing of work (work arrangement), work life balance, and time as a political construct (i.e. who controls work time?). The six wide ranging articles in this part of the book contend that our current focus on the rapidity of social change is preventing researchers from using lessons from the past to understand the present and anticipate the future.
The second section of the volume contains four articles focusing on space. Work takes place in space: factories, offices, and now, with the advent of portable office technologies, where ever one has Wi-Fi access (what the editors call the “third space”). This book does not, however, treat space as synonymous with the “static” place in which work occurs. Rather, it views space as something that people organize, structure and reproduce in order to communicate important symbolic and power elements in social contexts. Discussions in the book on globalization are used to make clear that the remaking of and rethinking about work is a spatial process.
The third section in this volume includes five articles focusing on discourse. The editors note that discourse “refers to the practices of talking and writing, the visual representations and the cultural artifacts that bring a range of social phenomena into being through a variety of texts” including written documents, verbal reports, symbols, signs and terminology. They also note that in work and industrial settings, different discourses and how they are articulated represent the interests of different groups such as governments, unions, employers, lawyers, etc.
Researchers will appreciate the following aspects of this edited collec-tion. First, the authors make an effort to ground their discussion in empirical research and many apply the lessons learned to issues of public policy. Second, the editors include chapters of commentary at the beginning and end of the book which integrates the main themes and puts the various articles into context. Finally, the fact that the authors of the book chapters come from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives (including geography, history, industrial relations, law, economics, management, political science, strategic management, organizational theory, labour and business history and sociology) broadens our understanding of the work construct.
For me, the chapters on discourse analysis were particularly useful. In fact, section three of this book offers a great methodological primer for those who are thinking of incorporating techniques such as “critical discourse analysis” into their own work. In addition, I feel that the editors have achieved their goal of providing a unique identity to the Sydney School as a national and international leader of the debate around the organization of work (20 out of 21 of the authors of the articles in this book teach in the Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Sydney).
Readers of the book do need to be aware of several shortcoming of this volume. First, the book is “Australia-centric” as most of the major changes in the book as well as much of the empirical data that is presented pertain to circumstances in Australia in the past decade and a half. While the editors argue the Australian experience will inform and speak to the experiences of other countries, in my opinion the book (with the exception of the section on discourse) would have benefited from more international examples. Additionally some chapters will have little relevance to those outside of Australia.
Second, the editors note in their introduction that they wish to avoid giving the impression that the discussion of time, space and discourse is too theoretically abstract or “rarefied” to have practical applications. Unfortunately, that is just the impression I was left with after reading this book. Many authors’ “discourses” were very academic and “siloed” in their terminology and phrasing. This will limit the applicability of this book to academics who either use similar terminology to these authors, or researchers who are willing to put the effort into understanding the concepts being presented.
Finally the editors argue that time, space and discourse are interdependent categories and state that one goal of their volume is to suggest connections between these ideas. Unfortunately, with the exception of the two commentary chapters, few connections are made in the individual chapters. In fact, the authors seem to prove the editors’ point: people do work in silos with their own language and methodologies. That being said, ideas do abound in this book and the techniques of discourse analysis as described in section three can be applied to the study of work however you define this construct. As such, the book offers much to those willing to make the effort to read it.