The Value of Work

I've just skimmed through Matthew Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft, having read it during the early part of the summer. I was looking for his description of working as an article abstractor. It's a few vivid paragraphs on what it was like being employed on a piece work basis to write abstracts of academic articles. His starting quota was fifteen articles a day and when he left eleven months later his quota was twenty-eight articles. Apparently abstractors were taught how to write abstracts to a formula or method – they didn't need to have an understanding anything in the article.

Crawford states that he 'felt trapped in a contradiction. The fast pace demanded absorption in the task, yet that pace also precluded absorption, and had the effect of estranging me from my own doings. Or rather I tried to absent myself, the better to meet my quota, but the writing of an abstract … cannot be done mindlessly. … To not do justice to an author who had poured his life into the subject at hand felt like violence against what was best in myself.'

Crawford has a PhD I political science and philosophy and now runs a motorbike repair shop. The book is essentially a closely argued treatise on what makes work meaningful to an individual and of value to an organization which may be mutually contradictory states. Drawing on his own experience in various type of work he comes to the conclusion (if this is an argument that can be concluded) that in the absence of political and organizational systems that strive to make work meaningful for individuals it means "seeking out the cracks where individual agency and the love of knowledge can be realized today, in one's own life".

I've glossed over the debates he has on why 'knowledge work' is more valued by society – at least in the US and UK – than craftwork or trade work. It's a rich, carefully researched book with personal touches which make me want to pick up the phone and talk to the author. It's certainly reminded me of the disparity of value that organizations put on the different skills that make them profitable and led me to another debate to pick up with clients as they undertake organization design projects.