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Moral Gray Zones

Moral Gray Zones: Side Productions, Identity, and Regulation in an Aeronautic Plant

Michel Anteby
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Moral Gray Zones
    Book Description:

    Anyone who has been employed by an organization knows not every official workplace regulation must be followed. When management consistently overlooks such breaches, spaces emerge in which both workers and supervisors engage in officially prohibited, yet tolerated practices--gray zones. When discovered, these transgressions often provoke disapproval; when company materials are diverted in the process, these breaches are quickly labeled theft. Yet, why do gray zones persist and why are they unlikely to disappear? InMoral Gray Zones, Michel Anteby shows how these spaces function as regulating mechanisms within workplaces, fashioning workers' identity and self-esteem while allowing management to maintain control.

    The book provides a unique window into gray zones through its in-depth look at the manufacture and exchange of illegal goods called homers, tolerated in a French aeronautic plant. Homers such as toys for kids, cutlery for the kitchen, or lamps for homes, are made on company time with company materials for a worker's own purpose and use. Anteby relies on observations at retirees' homes, archival data, interviews, and surveys to understand how plant workers and managers make sense of this tacit practice. He argues that when patrolled, gray zones like the production of homers offer workplaces balanced opportunities for supervision as well as expression. Cautioning against the hasty judgment that gray zone practices are simply wrong,Moral Gray Zonescontributes to a deeper understanding of the culture, group dynamics, and deviance found in organizations.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2888-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Business, Management & Organizational Behavior

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures and Table
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. Introduction The Persistence of Organizational Gray Zones
    (pp. 1-14)

    In 1997, in a steel mill in northern France, an ashtray rested heavily on a desk, its luster dimmed by time. It seemed to blend quite easily into the plantʹs surroundings, and yet something about it caused it to stand out. Upon noticing my gaze, the person with whom I spoke took the ashtray in his hand and began to recount his life. An hour later, when he finished, he returned the ashtray to the desk.¹ This ashtray, which he made with his own hands, was my first encounter with ʺhomers,ʺ or as they are called in French,perruques. Two...


    • 1 Revisiting Social Systems in Organizations
      (pp. 17-28)

      Understanding human behaviors requires paying close attention to their settings, specifically the social systems that both result from and inform these behaviors. Small groups capture many elements of social systems in organizations. Though other, broader settings, such as demographic and economic environments, add to the understanding of human behaviors, small groups, and the interactions they afford, provide a strong basis for an inquiry into these behaviors. George Homans defined the social system (or at least its manifestation) as ʺthe activities, interactions, and sentiments of the group members, together with the mutual relations of these elements with one another during the...

    • 2 The Side Production of Homers in Factories
      (pp. 29-42)

      The person referring to the bedside lamp, which was manufactured at his workplace, is a retiree from the Pierreville aeronautic plant, where he worked in a testing workshop. He is reluctant to talk about the lamp because, he says, ʺthese things are oftentimes confidential,ʺ but decides that enough time has elapsed since he made it, so he can now talk. His lamp is an example of a homer. Homer-making is a workerʹs use of company materials or tools in his or her workplace, during work hours, to manufacture or transform artifacts that are not part of the official production of...

    • 3 The Pierreville Plant: Setting and Status Divides
      (pp. 43-60)

      The pierreville aeronautic plant, part of the AeroDyn Corporation, stands beside an often vacant airstrip. It is slightly removed from the nearby highway, and is surrounded by fields of beets. Slowly but steadily, it produces airplane engines. The regular sound of what seems to be planes taking off and landing disturbs an otherwise peaceful setting. Upon hearing the engines roar, a newcomer to Pierreville might look up at the sky in vain, not realizing that the true origin of the noise is the testing that takes place in nearby workshops where meticulous routines ensure the proper live testing of the...


    • 4 Retirement Homers: An Entry into the Community
      (pp. 63-77)

      The practice of giving retirement homers, or gifts given to departing colleagues, and by extension, the gray zone practices that lead to making them, constitute the most tolerated and visible homer gray zone at Pierreville. These homers are presented in what are often semipublic ceremonies, and plant members are more willing to comment on this type of homer than on any other. Focusing first on retirement homers therefore provides a fairly nonthreatening way to ease into the homer community (spanning all levels of the plant hierarchy, including management). It also allows for the identification of the specific role the craftsmen...

    • 5 Homers Gone Wrong: Delimiting the Gray Zone
      (pp. 78-90)

      The opening quote illustrates the efforts Pierreville plant members made to distinguish homer activities from theft. The contrast between ʺbuildingʺ activities and ʺtheftʺ articulates an initial morality of homer-making; it highlights agreed-upon versus unaccepted gray zone practices. Thus, by contrast, an examination of homers gone wrong helps reveal patterns of meaning for acceptable homer gray zone practices. After focusing on retirement homers—the most tolerated homer gray zone—this chapter deals with homer practices gone wrong, which are defined as those that do not seem to fit agreed-upon Pierreville norms. Previous research highlights the benefits of outliers in providing insight...

    • 6 Shades of Homer Meanings: Occupational Variations
      (pp. 91-105)

      The analysis of retirement homers and of homers gone wrong suggests distinct ways to narrate homer activities. A close reading of the interview transcripts, triangulation with the archives, and the exchanges I had with the retirees at the Labor Council and in the factory museum lent further salience to these distinctions. The question, then, becomes: what drives such distinctions? This chapter partly answers that question by examining the variations in the occupational identities of gray zone participants. Participants, in this case, encompass the homer initiating, creating, and receiving parties, as well as the facilitators, such as members of the plant...

    • 7 The Rise and Fall of Craftsmanship
      (pp. 106-121)

      Some homer interactions carried very desirable meanings for craftsmen. They both expressed and conveyed a peculiar form of respect and recognition that played into their occupational identities. Why would such interactions become so valuable? And how is it that craftsmen seemed so attached to these specific homer interactions? An examination of the shifting occupational dynamics at Pierreville provides insight into the interactionsʹ desirability. As new technologies at the plant increasingly marginalized the craftsmenʹs skills, homers offered one of the last available venues in the plant to sustain their occupational identities.

      This chapter begins by explaining why craftsmen and engineers were...

    • 8 Trading in Identity Incentives
      (pp. 122-136)

      What holds a community of homer-makers, homer participants, and informed bystanders together? How does the community sustain homer practices? Given our knowledge of the boundaries of homer practices at Pierreville, the shades of meaning associated with such practices, and the craftsmenʹs diminishing prospects for professional development in the plant, a partial explanation of the sustainability of homer-making can be offered. This chapter discusses three readings of homer-making. Together, these readings provide a conceptual framework for understanding what homer practices and, more broadly, many gray zones are about, and why they persist in organizations to this day.

      The first reading frames...


    • 9 Organizational Gray Zones as Identity Distillers
      (pp. 139-152)

      The homer practices that are the focus of this book might seem slightly esoteric to those unfamiliar with industrial settings, yet many organizations harbor their own distinct gray zones. Though rarely documented, gray zones are present in many and varied work settings. This chapter takes pause from homer-making at Pierreville to discuss some examples of other organizational gray zones, and to describe the occupational dynamics at play within each setting. An exploration of disparate work environments—ranging from hospitals and restaurants to docks and postal services—demonstrates the prevalence of gray zones and the pervasiveness of identity pursuits within these...

    • 10 Identities, Control, and Moralities
      (pp. 153-172)

      Nearly a century after the introduction of scientific management, gray zones are still rampant in organizations, raising the question of how they are sustained. When gray zones become public, moral outrage from the broader community often ensues with little understanding of the distinct moralities of these arrangements. Why do rationally designed and professionally managed organizations permit gray zones to develop? This study of homers addresses that question by refraining from hasty judgment and, instead, attempts to understand the full depth and impact of the social dynamics at play. At the broadest level, this book provides evidence of how gray zones...

  9. Appendix A Data and Methods
    (pp. 173-182)
  10. Appendix B Position in the Field
    (pp. 183-190)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 191-212)
  12. References
    (pp. 213-226)
  13. Index
    (pp. 227-230)