Can labour process theory help us to understand what is happening to teachers' work?

Year: 1997

Author: Reid, Alan

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The publication of Braverman's famous work, Labour and Monopoly Capital, in 1974 initiated what has become known in the field of industrial sociology as the labour process debates. The focus of these debates was the extent to which Taylorist production strategies served to deskill workers by separating conception from execution, and narrowly defining work tasks. By the early 1980s a number of education scholars began applying a labour process perspective to teachers' work. Here the emphasis focussed upon the extent to which teachers were being deskilled and their work intensified by contemporary education policy and practice. These efforts were subjected to a number of critiques, most of which contested the determinism implied by labour process theorists. The critiques appeared to score some telling hits, and by the early 1990s the labour process literature looked to have stalled. In addition, it began to look outdated as scholars sought to grapple with phenomena such as globalisation and post-fordist work practices, which labour process theory appeared not to be able to encompass.

This paper argues that labour process theory, far from being irrelevant, is an essential tool of analysis of the contemporary experience of teachers' work. However, it maintains that the recent neglect of labour process theory, and its susceptibility to critique, stems from some unresolved theoretical issues. These need to be addressed if labour process theory is to fulfill its potential as a powerful explanatory framework for understanding what is happening to teachers' work today. The paper seeks to develop an auxiliary theory of the labour process of state teachers which takes into account the special circumstances of teachers as state employees. Contemporary examples of education policy and practice are used to demonstrate the theory in action.