Symbolic boundaries and the new division of labor: Engineers, workers and the restructuring of factory life

TitleSymbolic boundaries and the new division of labor: Engineers, workers and the restructuring of factory life
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2001
AuthorsVallas, S. P.
Secondary TitleResearch in Social Stratification and Mobility
Abstract

The past decade has witnessed an outpouring of theory and research on the relation among status distinctions, symbolic boundaries and the structure of social inequality. Yet remarkably little of this discussion has been brought to bear on the workplace as an arena in which symbolic boundaries are established and maintained. I seek to fill this gap by applying theories of symbolic boundaries to the restructuring of work within a small sample of manufacturing plants located in disparate regions of the United States. Using qualitative methods, the study explores how the boundary work of high-status employees has shaped the division of labor within plants undergoing the introduction of automated production systems. Contrary to claims advanced by some theorists, my analysis suggests that specifically “cultural” boundaries, based on the deployment of refined or high-status knowledge, do indeed play a salient role at work, exerting a powerful effect on the outcome of workplace change in ways that skilled production workers find difficult to contest. These findings suggest that much more attention should be paid to the varied forms that cultural boundaries can assume at work, especially in an era in which formal knowledge operates as a powerful axis of class differentiation.