The Current Social Form of Automation and a Conceivable Alternative: French Experience

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Reference

Freyssenet M., The Current Social Form of Automation and a Conceivable Alternative: French Experience, in Shimokawa K., Jurgens U., Fujimoto T., (eds), Transforming Automobile Assembly. Experience in Automation and Work Organization, Springer, Berlin, 1997, pp 305-317. Édition numérique, freyssenet.com, 2006, 120 Ko.

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The text is a shortened and adapted version of 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.

Abstract

A tool has always been the materialization of the intelligence of producers to attain more efficiently their goal. However, the end pursued, the social conditions to attain it, and the social modalities of the materialization of the intelligence have not remained unchanged throughout history, and neither are they the same in different societies.

Aims, conditions and modalities have varied and do vary depending upon the type of social relationship, that links those participating to the activities under consideration. This would explain, why the material form of the means of work, not only carries the stamp, but also symbolically represents and delimits practically 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, the social relationship is the wage relationship.

So we tried to identify and question the objectives, principles, presuppositions, social images, which oriented the technical choices characterizing some automated installations (especially in automotive industry: robotized welding lines, mechanical assembly lines, automatic testing equipment, and expert control and maintenance systems) reconstituting or following their design process and utilization. It appears these choices come under particular manufacturing philosophy and explain some social and productive problems.

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. One French carmaker agreed to an exploration of what a change of work organization 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 describe a process and social form of automation, which bring about a real and lasting inversion of the division of knowledge from work. But 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 not only sociologically, economically and culturally conditioned in their development and diffusion, but are also socially "constructed" and "constituted" by a set of objectives, principles, images, economic and social presuppositions, which are themselves rooted in the wage relationship and the division of knowledge from work, linked 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 work organizations in the factory, which only distributes what remains of knowledge. 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.

Technique is obviously "malleable", if it is considered in general. However, the techniques which are concretely implemented and in particular the production techniques discussed in social science research on work, 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 “constructed”. 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 social extra-territoriality. Productive techniques 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.

Content

1. THE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL PRESUPPOSITIONS BEHIND CURRENT PROCESS AND SOCIAL FORM OF AUTOMATION
1.1. First presupposition: the profitability of investment would depend on workforce reduction importance and rapidity
1.2. Second presupposition: rapid repair would the key to the availability of automated lines
1.3. Third presupposition: The greatest uncertainties about production are human and social

2. COMPATIBILITIES AND INCOMPATIBILITIES BETWEEN CURRENT FORMS OF AUTOMATION AND NEW FORMS OF WORK ORGANIZATION
2.1. Organizations that "enrich"
2.2. Organizations that "skill"

3. AN AUTOMATION PROCESS AND SOCIAL FORM OF AUTOMATION AIMED AT FINANCIAL PERFORMANCE AND SKILLING OF WORK ARE CONCEIVABLE AND ACHIEVABLE IN A LOCALIZED WAY, BUT CAN THEY BE GENERALIZED?
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. This production and maintenance philosophy allows a progressive and non-excluding automation process
3.3. Machines that are readable and intelligible…
3.4.. . . testable and analysable . . .
3.5. . . . adaptable and modifiable.

4. THE DIFFICULTIES OF IMPLEMENTATION, AND THE SOCIAL PRE-CONDITIONS FOR GENERALIZATION OF THE PROCESS AND SOCIAL FORM OF AUTOMATION WE HAVE DESCRIBED

CONCLUSIONS

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

Contribution
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., « Évolution du contenu et de l’organisation du travail d’usinage »,, CSU, Paris, 1985, 84 p. Édition numérique, freyssenet.com, 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, freyssenet.com, 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, freyssenet.com , 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 : freyssenet.com, 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, freyssenet.com, 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, freyssenet.com, 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, freyssenet.com, 2007, 230 Ko.

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Dates of updating

2007.01.19

Date of on lining of the downloadable text

2006.02.24

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