The automation process and its social forms: the sociological paradigm


Freyssenet M., The automation process and its social forms: the sociological paradigm, Communication at the SASE Congress (Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics) Paris, 15-16 Juillet 1994. English version of ✔ Freyssenet M., “Processus et formes sociales d’automatisation : le paradigme sociologique”, Sociologie du Travail, n° 4/92, pp 469-496. Édition numérique,, 2007, 428 Ko, ISSN 1776-0941.

The text is downloadable. This presentation page is also printable. Please, go to the end of this page.


A tool has always been the materialization of the intelligence of producers with a view to attaining their goal; more efficiently from their point of view. However, the end pursued, the social conditions under which it must be attained, and the social modalities of the constitution and of the materialization of the intelligence necessary, that is to say the type of division of labour which is at work, have not remained unchanged throughout history, and neither are they the same in different societies. Aims, conditions and modalities have varied and do vary -- this is the hypothesis that we bear in mind -- depending upon the type of social relationship that links those participating to the activities under consideration, and depending upon the history of this relationship within each society that has allowed its development. This explains why the material form of the means of work not only carries the stamp but also symbolically represents and delimits practically (if it is not modified or diverted towards other kinds of goals) the use that can be made of these means in the social relationship at the heart of which and for which they were conceived. And in our case here, that means the wage relationship.

In reconstituting or following the design process and utilization of several automated installations (machining lines, robotized welding lines, railway points and signalling posts, mechanical assembly lines, bottling lines, automatic testing equipment, and expert control and maintenance systems), the article started by making a point of identifying and questioning the objectives, principles, presuppositions, social images, which oriented the technical choices characterizing these installations, and searching for their organizational and social origins and as a consequence their history or evolution.

This does not suffice, however, to demonstrate that other technical forms are possible. It is still necessary to verify that by pursuing different social objectives and by changing presuppositions, one is in fact defining other processes and other social forms of automation. Now the real world certainly offers examples that would allow us to test this. One method might have consisted of looking for and analyzing them. The "research relationship" agreed with the companies in which the investigations cited were carried out led us to proceed differently. Once the presuppositions and principles behind current forms of automation were revealed, it was possible to show that they contradicted the objectives behind new forms of work organization set up in these companies, that paradoxically they were transforming (as we shall see, only in appearance) these forms of work organization, in a single step and with one technical change, towards a deepened division of labour. In view of these results, three companies agreed an exploration of what a change of principles might bring by way of modifications to the technical specifications of machines, materials and automated installations, and consequently to the use that can be made of them.

It has therefore become possible today to conceive of and describe a process and social form of automation which bring about a real and lasting inversion of the division of knowledge from work, even if the type of company that this implies causes doubts about its generalization in the absence of a thorough transformation of the wage relationship itself, the abandonment of Taylorism not being sufficient in itself.

From a scientific perspective the exercise has the advantage of confirming that production techniques are sociologically, economically and culturally conditioned in their development and diffusion, just as much research has indicated. But it also shows moreover, that these techniques are also socially "constructed" and "constituted" by a set of objectives, principles, images, economic and social presuppositions which are at their root, and which are themselves rooted in the wage relationship and the division of knowledge from work which has been tied to it for two centuries.

The division of knowledge from work has two sides: one material, the other organizational. Nowadays, it is transmitted more efficiently via production techniques, because most of the necessary knowledge has been incorporated into them, than via the organization of work in the factory, which only distributes -- differently according to the forms it takes -- what remains of knowledge, to arrive at the goal given in this framework. Production techniques are not simply marked by the social conditions of their design. They are also, in the context for which they were designed, an active instrument in the type of division of labour which is at work there.

Techniques are obviously "malleable" if their principles are considered abstractly, and if this means that they can assume different forms and therefore have different uses connected to those forms depending upon the objectives chosen. However, the techniques which are concretely implemented in given situations and in particular the production techniques discussed in social science research on work and in which the current debate is interested, are materially constraining, prescriptive and substitutive, for so are their presuppositions today. They determine the content of work, not because techniques are determining in themselves, but because they are themselves socially determined. They only possess the "hardness" or the "malleability" of the social whose materialization they are. The opposed theses of "technological determinism" and of the "social neutrality of techniques" share in common here that they confer upon techniques a status of extra-territoriality with respect to the social, as if they belonged to another reality entirely. Productive techniques are socially determining because they are socially determined. They belong to the realm of sociological analysis, with nothing special to mark them out, like any other social product. It is of course necessary to think of the social not as a separate area of field of analysis alongside the economic, the technical, the political, but as marking out the limited number of social relationships (each with its own economics, techniques, symbolisms) in which we are historically called to act.


1.1. The actual functioning of an installation should and could correspond to its theoretical function
1.2. The profitability of investment would be higher to the extent that workforce reductions were significant and rapid
1.3. Rapid repair is fundamental to the availability of automated lines
1.4. Seeking a "good compromise" as an optimization strategy
1.5. The superiority of the technical solution over every other
1.6. The greatest uncertainties about production are human and social

2.1. Organizations that "enrich"
2.2. Organizations that "skill"

3.1. Giving priority to increasing reliability over rapid repair: a strategy for financial performance and for skilling work, under certain social conditions
3.2. Implementing a "short circuit" for increasing reliability
3.3. A progressive and non-excluding process
3.4. The availability of staff as the basis for the availability of machines
3.5. Machines that are readable and intelligible
3.6.. . . testable and analysable . . .
3.7. . . . adaptable and modifiable . . .

4.1. Surmountable implementation problems
4.2. Implications and social conditions that might destabilise the wage relationship
4.3. The illusion that there is an automatic link between performance and skilling forms of automation/organization

Key words

Automatization, labour, intellectual division of work, work uncertainty, work content, work organisation, qualification, competency, know-how, Taylorism, Taylor, social relationships, Capital-Labour relationships, engineers, maintenance workers.

Concerned disciplines

Anthropology, Economics, Ergonomics, Management, History, History of Sciences and Technologies, Engineering, Cognitive sciences, Sociology.

Writing context

to personal questioning
to scientific reflection of research laboratory or network
to national and international scientific debate
to diffusion of scientific results
to implementation of scientific results

References, commentaries, critics

Curent relevance

See also

✔ Freyssenet M., “Processus et formes sociales d’automatisation : le paradigme sociologique”, Sociologie du Travail, n° 4/92, pp 469-496. Édition numérique,, 2007, 428 Ko, ISSN 1776-0941.

✔ Freyssenet M., « Évolution du contenu et de l’organisation du travail d’usinage »,, CSU, Paris, 1985, 84 p. Édition numérique,, 2006, 4 Mo.

✔ Freyssenet M., “Les conducteurs d’unités automatisées : qualification réelle et devenir” communication au Colloque international « Automatisation programmable et usages du travail », Ministère de la Recherche, Paris, 2-4 avril 1987, 18 p. Édition numérique,, 2006, 212 Ko. Version modifiée et augmentée de ✔ Freyssenet M., “Les conducteurs confirmés d’unités automatisées”, Actes du GERPISA, n° 2, 1986, pp 75-93.

Freyssenet M., Imbert F., “Genèse sociale des choix d’automatisation et d’organisation. Le cas de l’aiguillage dans les chemins de fer”, Paris, CSU, 1986, 185 p.

✔ Freyssenet M., Thénard J.C., “Choix d’automatisation, efficacité productive et contenu du travail”, Cahiers de recherche du GIP Mutations Industrielles, n° 22, 15 Décembre 1988, 68 p. Édition numérique, , 2006, 2,5 Ko.

Freyssenet M., "Atelier d'embouteillage-verre. Analyse de la situation actuelle. Critique du projet d'automatisation. Proposition d'une autre automatisation et d'une autre organisation", GIP MI, Paris, 1988, 40 pages.

Freyssenet M., "Guide de conception de lignes automatisées d'embouteillage pour leur conduite par des ouvriers professionnels", GIP MI, Paris, 1988, 35 p.

✔ Charron E., Freyssenet M., Imbert F., Conception des équipements et travail de maintenance, Cahier de Recherche du GIP Mutations Industrielles, n°30, mai 1989, 72 p. Édition numérique :, 2006, 2,6 Mo.

✔ Blanc M., Charron E., Freyssenet M.,Le « développement » des systèmes-experts en entreprise, Cahiers de recherche du GIP « Mutations Industrielles », n° 35, novembre 1989, 84 p. Édition numérique,, 2007, 1,4 Mo. Version complétée et modifiée de Blanc M., Charron E., Freyssenet M., “Les systèmes experts: expérimentations et réflexions”, Paris, GIP Mutations Industrielles, 1988, 85 p.

Freyssenet M., “Les formes sociales d’automatisation”, Cahiers de recherche du GIP Mutations Industrielles, n° 37, 30 Janvier, 1990, 47 p.

✔ Freyssenet M., Les techniques productives sont-elles prescriptives ? L’exemple des systèmes experts, Cahiers de recherche du GIP « Mutations Industrielles », n° 45, mai 1990, 39 p. Édition numérique,, 2007, 280 Ko.

✔ Freyssenet M., Systèmes experts et division du travail, Technologie, Idéologie, Pratiques, 1992, volume X, n° 2-4, pp 105-118. Édition numérique,, 2007, 230 Ko.

Dates of on lining of the text


dates of updating

2007.01.19, 2013.09.24

Fichier attachéTaille
The automation process and its social forms the sociological paradigm.pdf375.88 Ko