Time, Work and Organisation

Term Paper 2000 9 Pages

Sociology - Work, Profession, Education, Organisation



1. Introduction

2. Thompson: Task- and Time-Orientation
2.1. Overview
2.2. Task-Orientation
2.3. Time-Orientation
2.4. Working patterns today

3. Whipp: Criticism and Alternative Model
3.1. Criticism of Thompson's theory
3.2. Whipp's alternative model

4. Summary and Future Outlook

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

Until our century the connection between work and the apprehension of time used to be a subject that was hardly observed. One of the main reasons may well be the fact that the everyday authority of time is so complete that it is usually taken for granted and, consequently, rarely appears to be problematic (see Young and Schuller, 3).

With increasing awareness of the complex time-work relation, this issue is nowadays discussed from different perspectives within as well as beyond the field of sociology.

To understand the sense of time and work in present days, it is interesting to examine how it has developed in history, especially under the influence of a changing industrial system. The focus of this essay will therefore be the question how capitalism has transformed the human sense of time. To discuss this I will concentrate on the theory of E. P. Thompson, its main ideas as well as arising problems and questions. I will start by outlining this theory in detail and continue to summarise its main points of criticism in connection with Richard Whipp's idea of an alternative model of time perception. Finally, I will conclude by giving a future outlook of the problem.

2. Thompson: Task- and Time-Orientation

2.1. Overview

Although other scientists have dealt with the issue before, the historian E. P. Thompson was the first to thoroughly study the shift in time-sense during the era of industrialisation. His main ideas are presented in the essay "Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism" published in 'Customs in Common' (Penguin 1991, chapter 6), which the next paragraph is based on.

The foundation of Thompson's theory lies in the realisation that the apprehension of time is influenced by the industrial system in which people work. This is reflected not only in working habits, rules, or economic aspects – such as the popularity and distribution of clocks –, but also in social and cultural characteristics, particularly in literature. Thompson uses all these different features to form and extend his thesis.

Deriving from his findings, he distinguishes two main directions: task-orientation prevailing in the pre-industrial society, and time-orientation, which developed with the rise of capitalism.

2.2. Task-Orientation

In the pre-industrial world, the rhythm of work was usually induced by natural needs. This co-ordination of labour according to duties and necessities is called task-orientation.

In task-orientation, the timing of work is primarily determined by nature or by needs which disclose themselves as an essential conditioning, such as the tides in fishing, the changing seasons in agri-culture and the need of milking cows at regular times. This way different work-situations are often provided in relation to the rhythms of nature.

As a consequence, the passing of time is measured by natural circles and the duration of completing a given task. In other words, a specific job takes as long as is needed to finish it; there are hardly any abstract periods of time fixed for a certain amount of work.

Furthermore, the working day lengthens or contracts with occurring tasks and the time it takes to carry them out, which leads to an irregular circle even within the working week. Probably the most widely discussed example is the one of so-called "Saint Monday". It refers to the common habit in pre-industrial society to extend the weekend by working very little, or not at all, at the beginning of the week.

Thompson makes three points about task-orientation. Firstly, it is said to be more humanly comprehensible than working by the clock because it is based upon observed necessities. Hence, it can be understood why a duty has to be carried out at a certain point of time.

Secondly, in task-orientation there is only little boundary between work and leisure as tasks are often included within the rhythm of every-day life. Thus, no great conflict between labour and 'passing time of the day' is experienced by the worker.

Finally, because of these features task-orientation often appears lazy, wasteful and lacking in urgency to those used to timed labour.

2.3. Time-Orientation

With the rise of industrialism, changes in manufacturing techniques, in particular the rapidly increasing use of technology together with the division of labour, demanded greater synchronisation of work and exactitude in time-routines. To be efficient, the timing of work had to be unified and controlled, especially because of advancing mechanisation.

Thus, by pacing labour by the speed of machinery, by introducing clocks and strict working hours as well as by supervision, time-discipline was imposed upon the workers. A new understanding of time in a much more abstract notion is brought up: the system of time-orientation. The so-called 'tyranny of the clock' becomes an important element of industrial control. Since it is seen as the co-ordinating object between machinery and labour-power, Mumford suggests the clock rather than the steam-engine is the key to industrialisation (see Giddens 1981, p.131).

In time-orientation time is currency: it is not passed but spent. This commodification of time was also highlighted by Marx as a guiding principle of capitalism. According to him, in capitalism value is created through units of abstract labour which are sold to the employer. Time is characterised as the "underlying constitutive component of both goods and labour (...) as interchangeable commodities" (Giddens 1981, p.118) and, thereby, as the standard measure of exchange-value.

Time becomes also an object of bargaining between worker and employer and an expression of the struggle in class conflict. Employees experience a distinction between their own time and the abstract 'time units of labour' sold to the capitalist. In this way, the discussion about work and time is linked to the Marxist concept of alienated labour.

In his essay Thompson points out that the development from one system to the other was by no means easy or continuous (see Thompson 1991, pp.383ff). He describes in detail the – often futile – attempts of employers to introduce rules and time-discipline into the working process. On the whole, Thompson notes strong resistance on the side of the employees, who fought at first against the imposition of time-orientation itself. However, as they realised that time had become an important feature of the labour process, they began fighting about time – an aspect that can still be observed today, for example in strikes for a shorter working week.

2.4. Working patterns today

In modern industrialised societies the system of time-orientation obviously dominates. Rather than being measured by the duration of a task, time itself has become the measure of work. It is an in-dependent variable scaled in fixed abstract units – a minute, an hour, a day.

The crucial role of time in relation to work at present can be underpinned by various examples, such as the importance of deadlines across occupations, the concept of just-in-time production, or time as the basis of reimbursement.

Generally, the importance of time in relation to work depends to a large extent upon the need for synchronisation of labour (see Thompson 1991, p.370). Two extreme examples of maximising the use of time can be found in Fordism, where control over working pace and time is imposed with speed of the assembly line, and Taylorism, which similarly emphasises 'one best way' of working (see Starkey, p.101).



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Ashcroft International Business School Cambridge
Time Work Organisation Contemporary Organisational Life



Title: Time, Work and Organisation