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"We're not scum, we're human": Agential responses in the face of meaningless work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Catherine Bailey, Adrian Madden

Original languageEnglish
Article number101064
JournalScandinavian Journal of Management
Early online date7 Aug 2019
Accepted/In press23 Jul 2019
E-pub ahead of print7 Aug 2019
PublishedDec 2019


King's Authors


In this article, we address a gap in the meaningful work literature by exploring the processes by which work is experienced as meaningless. We adopt the lens of relational sociology and, through interviews with 45 participants in four very different occupations, we found that meaninglessness arises through four relational processes: powerlessness, disconnection, devaluation and self-doubt. Individuals enacted six agential responses to this experience. Two of these, resisting and responsibility-taking, were “reinstatement” strategies and four, acceptance, distancing, minimising and resistance, were “coping” strategies. In addition, some informants used “switching” as a framing device. These responses were not equally available to all workers in all occupations, suggestive of a stratified experience of work meaninglessness. Our study contributes to understandings of how work is rendered meaningless and how individuals might respond.

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