Breaking the “Purity Rule”: Industrial Sabotage and the Symbolic Process

Publication Date01 Mar 1985
AuthorSteve Linstead
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
Breaking the "Purity Rule":
Industrial Sabotage and the
Symbolic Process
by Steve Linstead, School of Management Studies and Languages, Buckinghamshire
College of Higher Education
In the past little has been written on the subject of industrial
sabotage. Even the broader consideration of "resistance" of
which sabotage could be considered part has been little at-
tempted outside the glamorous subject of
Taylor and
Walton[l] adopt an approach derived from the social
psychology of deviance, relying on verbal accounts, press
reports or hearsay for their data. Their emphasis is on render-
ing the act meaningful. Brown[2] adopts a perspective which
extends their definition of sabotage from deliberate damage
to the machine, product or work environment to include
deliberate bad workmanship and the withholding of effort.
Consequently, he views it as an additional mechanism for
negotiating terms and condition of employment, and is con-
cerned with its effectiveness as a strategy.
Dubois[3] adopts a definition which encompasses any act
which is directed in the face of the interests of capital by
lowering the quantity or quality of production. Although
insightful in parts, his approach suffers from the possibility
that many acts that are manifestly not sabotage could be
treated as such, and that it depends on some unarticulated
hypothetical standard of the productivity of capital. Edwards
and Scullion[4], in a wary treatment, follow Taylor and
Walton in emphasising destruction and action at the point
of production. They attempt to understand sabotage in rela-
tion to the labour process and its significance in specific set-
castigating Taylor and Walton for their failure to satisfy
their own demand for contextual consideration. Their ap-
proach is basically instrumental and exchange orientated with
little symbolic awareness, though their argument makes much
of deviations, exceptions and caveats. Storey[5] offers an ac-
cessible, if
summary of the literature. The major em-
phasis common to all treatments seems to be on forms of
In this article, two important problems in the treatment
of sabotage will be identified. The first is that of the inter-
pretation of the act, and the second is that of designating
it as rational. It is argued that both interpreting an act as
sabotage and then considering that to be a rational act re-
quire contextual evidence which is not usually available to
those who make such imputations. Examples from ELS
Amalgamated Bakeries are used to illustrate these problems,
following Taylor and Walton's categorisation of attempts to
reduce tension and frustration, attempts to make the work
easier, and attempts to assert control.
The data which I obtained in ELS Amalgamated Bakeries,
a large commercial manufacturer of confectionery in the
North Midlands, and in McPeakes and Westermans, two con-
struction companies in a similar location, were obtained in
similar ways. I spent two summers working in the construc-
tion industry, at that time without research involvement, but
I noted incidents and stories which I found puzzling or of
interest. A similar process occurred at ELS Amalgamated
during a 12-month employment stint with them, but this was
then followed up by two periods of participant observation
when data were more conscientiously noted. Most of the time
I worked as an ordinary labourer, but for part of the time
at ELS Amalgamated I qualified as a machine operator
which afforded me the knowledge and occasion to witness
the subtler forms of sabotage.
As an observer, I was in a privileged position, but from
this position the definition and analysis of sabotage was not
made any easier rather the range of problems which beset
any would-be analyst of industrial sabotage was brought
more sharply into focus. The tenuous nature of non-
contextual analyses is by implication and illustration heavi-
ly underscored, as is the difficulty in obtaining exposure to
acts of sabotage in specific situations.
It is also suggested that an alternative approach to ra-
tionality, based on the social anthropology of Douglas[6],
can help in the understanding of the symbolic context of
sabotage. Briefly, forms of social order (the industrial order
included) carry associated appropriate symbolic distinctions
and evaluations of the physical world, the body, its permit-
ted expressions (including violence) and technology. The im-
plicit "purity rule" demands forms of physical observance
and expression that symbolically reflect respect and deference
to the moral order. Sabotage may thus sometimes have more
symbolic and moral power than it has instrumental
significance or effect. This form of analysis emphasises the
importance of contextual data to its understanding.
Awareness of this approach may also help those personnel
specialists who find themselves confronting the seemingly
inexplicable violent rejection of initiatives or destruction of
amenities which were intended to be components of a
positive culture change within their organisation.
Intention and Interpretation
In approaching sabotage, Taylor and Walton[l] highlight the
problem of interpretation by explicitly setting themselves to
devote their attentions not simply to actions but to:
The meanings or motives which lie behind such actions. We
categorise acts of
not under such behavioural headings
as "smashing conveyor belts" or "dropping ball-bearings into
12 PR 14,3 1985

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