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Microcosms of the American workplace

In a matter of minutes, Steven Vallas had observed the power the mill manager wielded.

Shortly after Vallas sat down at a small-town restaurant with his lunch companion, a man who managed the 3,000 employees of a local forest-products factory, the governor’s wife walked over to their table. She wanted to chat with the manager.

“Her husband was up for re-election,” Vallas recalls, “and this manager held real sway. It’s hard for city dwellers to understand, but many of these men are like Caesars in rural communities.”

Vallas is used to seeing his studies in flesh-and-blood action. The newly hired chair of Northeastern’s sociology and anthropology department—and the author of a new book, “The Sociology of Work: Structures and Inequalities”—has had a long affinity for observing the microcosms of the workplace and charting the dynamics between employers and employees in an ever-changing work force.

Appropriately, his own career history has been wide-ranging. “I’ve worked as a line cook. I’ve loaded trucks. I’ve been a social worker, and a labor union organizer,” he explains. All these experiences have illuminated his research specialty: understanding the complications of work in America under constantly changing circumstances.

In his new book, as well as in many articles published in professional journals, Vallas covers workplace trends, ranging from the rise and decline of labor unions, and transformations in managerial practices.

He also studies evolving organizational paradigms. As Vallas writes in his book, in a chapter titled “The New American Workplace,” “Employees today often face a bewildering set of shifts in every aspect of their jobs. Cell phones, PCs, PDAs, BlackBerry devices, and webcams now make it possible for employees to perform their jobs almost regardless of the time or place. This is of course a mixed blessing, as some organizations have begun to expect their workers to be available at all times of the day or night.”

Long fascinated by the employee-manager relationship, and sensitive to what he calls the “finely textured matters making up workplace life,” Vallas at one point immersed himself in a study of forest-products factories in America, working under a large 1999 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

He examined the way new technology and reorganizations were being introduced to employees and integrated into company life and culture. He focused on how traditional plants tried to empower their workers by adopting team-based systems.

“What I found was that corporate plans for worker empowerment that seemed to make sense in company headquarters just didn’t hold together when they were actually introduced,” he says.

From a macroeconomic perspective, Vallas believes that bureaucratic organizations have largely reached a “point of diminishing returns,” and cannot fully utilize workers’ skills.

The companies he analyzes are often seeking new ways to motivate employees and establish higher levels of worker commitment, a key goal. “Especially in an era of globalization,” he says, “U.S. workplaces must maintain high levels of worker involvement.” Yet, he’s found, “this is often just not possible using centralized, bureaucratic forms of work organization.”

Currently, Vallas is studying how scientific study in the academy is merging with commercial, or for-profit, research, thereby “breaking down the traditional boundary between academic and commercial science,” he says.

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