Leeway or oneway?

Autonomy in (partly) digitalised worlds of work. Fuzzy Set Qualitative Comparative Analysis (fsQCA) as path to understanding of complex reality in sociology of work

Christian Manfred Wilke, Paderborn University
Eva Susanna Kunze, Paderborn University

» Full paper: ilera-2019-paper-51-Wilke.pdf

Qualitative Comparative Analysis (Ragin, 1987; Ragin, 2000; Schneider & Wagemann, 2012) – QCA – is not yet well-established in German-language publications concerning the sociology of work. In this article we want to show that QCA can be used as a methodological approach for analyzing the impacts of modern technologies on social dimensions of the workplace. QCA allows us to conduct parallel analyses of multiple theoretically relevant variables, whose combinations might impact the outcome variable. Specifically, an observed condition does not necessarily demonstrate its impact on the outcome as an isolated condition, but combined with others. Hence, cases analysed using QCA manifest themselves as configurations of multiple properties. Moreover, it is assumed that several causal paths (certain combinations of conditions) exist which explain the outcome. Our analysis searches for configurations of structural and technological workplace conditions interpretable as causal paths to perceived work autonomy.

Existing theories concerning this relationship point to negative consequences of new technologies in the workplace for autonomy. In both the labor process (Braverman, 1974) and technological determinism debates (summarized in Rammert, 2006) this relationship is mediated by a “dequalification” of employees whereas in action theory the introduction of new technologies provides opportunities for an expansion of autonomy, e.g. by formal gaps in newly created structures of work processes.

In our analysis we identify sufficient and necessary configurations for highly perceived work autonomy differentiated along the three dimension by Breaugh (1985). These configurations are combinations of up to four conditions: two conditions concerning the structural position of the employee (leadership and formal qualification) and two conditions dealing with technological properties of the workplace under observation (degree of digitalization and the degree of automated machine interference in work and decision processes).

Our sample consists of 33 employees from different firms and branches organized in the IG Metall (German metal workers union). The analysis produces multiple causal paths to work autonomy. First, autonomy of work method is sufficiently conditioned by a combination of high formal qualification and the absence of machine interference in the work process. Similar results are found for the sufficient conditions for autonomy of work scheduling. Second, we show that the presence of high-level formal qualification also leads to a highly perceived autonomy of work method and scheduling when combined with the absence of a digitalized workplace and leadership position.

The analysis of necessary condition reveals that holding a leadership position leads to high perceived autonomy of work method as far as it is combined with the absence of one of the two technological workplace properties. As hypothesized before the analysis, it does not show any consistent causal path to perceived autonomy of work criteria.

Our study shows how complex patterns of sufficient and necessary conditions for work autonomy can be identified using QCA. The analysis of combinations of technological and structural workplace properties allows us to review implications of the aforementioned theories beyond pure correlations. For our sample we can show that especially those workplaces with low impacts from alleged intelligent technology are endowed with high work autonomy. Therefore, visions of some “Brave new world of work” driven by digitalization as postulated in Internet-of-things/ smart industry/ industry 4.0 debates (e.g. Kagermann et al., 2013; Spath et al., 2013) remain worthy of discussion.


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