11:49:19 pmCategories: Fieldwork, Politics, Distinctions

Hierarchy… work ethics and myths… and fieldwork

I realise – as I read an interesting comment in Le Monde on, of all things, why the Toyota model can’t be French – that I haven’t written any posts on hierarchy yet. My cahiers and mind are full of speculations of quite another sort than on French business and work place interaction – for instance I’m thinking about what I can make out of the coincidence that the two last books I’ve read are called the art of something (loving and fieldwork to be precise). Thus, I’m relieved to find another reason for choosing this subject for a post after such a long silence in the blogsphere; it’s unforgivable to have written 69 blog-posts from France without mentioning hierarchy and arrogance!

I’m up in the air again, with Air France, my for all reasons favourite air company for the time being. It’s awfully sunny up here, we haven’t seen any of the thunderstorm and turbulence they announced at Gardermoen, and the French (slightly) arrogant steward has served me chilled Chardonnay from Pay d’Oc – an excellent remedy against turbulence – and I’m not sure what I feel about going back to Faubourg du Temple after 9 days up north which seemed like an eternity at the other side of the galaxy (in terms of mind set of the anthropologist. Perhaps more on that later. I’ve realised that what anthropologists call going native, lay people like my Mom and ex call the Stockholm syndrome – surely this makes important data for a blog on fieldwork and anthropological research, but right now we’ll return to hierarchy). It’s not only the chilled Chardonnay that explains my fancy for Air France. I just love to serve myself unashamedly with a pile of French newspapers and go through all of them as I’m forced to do little else for 2 hours and 25 minutes. The great thing with newspaper in paper versions – compared to the e-version I usually consult through my rss feed thingy – is that I read articles I never would have clicked on deliberately. Pourquoi Toyota n'est pas français is a typical example.

At a dinner party light-years ago, an economist I know told me about a survey he’d read about in the Norwegian economist newspaper Dagens Næringsliv, explaining France’s economic and business retard as a lack of confidence between the echelons in the workplace hierarchy. The analysis in Le Monde seems to refer to the same or a very similar survey (perhaps this view is common knowledge in the financial world outside France): The gap between the managers/employers and the employees are wider in France than most other countries in the western world. There are archaic social relations in this country, the analysis claims, which keeps the French from working well together. The cadres don’t give any freedom to their subordinates, as they do not trust their capacities, and the lower employees are mistrustful of those above them. “Of course I wouldn’t use his first name and tu (second person singular as opposed to vous, the polite second person plural),” a friend of mine said about his – quite clearly idiot – boss, “he’s not my pal!”

The radical labour unions are another division holding back French business, according to the analysis. The labour unions in France have little interest in improving the work conditions for the labourers, as that would just help capitalism and le patronat… The unions here – les syndicates – are very different from the ones we’ve got back in Scandinavia. Here, less than 10% of the workforce is organised, while back home I think there are only 10% who are not in a union. I don’t know too much of what they do here, but they seem far more radical than my own “Union for researchers” which mostly care about salaries (in addition to some grumbling over the worsening conditionings for doing research after the university reform). In France, les syndicates are feared for their strike force. A relatively large portion of the French are fierce strikers, and many people count on – or worry for – what will happen to his reforms when the striking season sets off in the autumn.

Thus, it’s this archaism and divisions that are to blame, and not decline of work ethics, as the new president complains. He proclaims a rupture with the past and wants – like leaders before him in history – to restore the values of travail, famille, patrie (work, family and fatherland…). To the contrary, claims the analysis: In the developed world, the French are among those who gives most importance to work and many think it important to instil in their children the value of working hard. (Perhaps in contrast to the oil bubble Norway, if you ask my aging teacher parents…).

Interestingly, it’s not only the president who thinks that the French don’t value work sufficiently. The Guardian loves to portray the French as non-protestant hedonists who know that one should work in order to live and not live in order to work. (For instance Goodbye to la Belle France? on the possible effects of Sarkozy’s reforms). I would agree that the pace of life appears slower – and frequently comes completely to a halt on pavement cafés, just for idle conversation for hours – here than in Oslo or London. (It would be interesting to count people walking around with paper cups with coffee in the three capitals. Oops, here I can feel the urge for a digression on espresso at the counter in Latin countries, but I’ll retain myself). However, diverging from what appears to the eye of The Guardian and me – but in line with the argument that strong work ethic still exists – productivity per work hour is higher in France than in the US and Britain (but the same as in Norway).

I’ve landed in freezing cold France days ago, and when I opened the document in order to round up this post and put it online, I could no longer remember where I initially had planned to end it. I probably had tons to say about how hierarchy and “archaic social relations” shape social life here. I’m sure it also shapes the slam poetry scene, and my relations there. A few indications: French slam poetry is an east end, popular phenomenon in a country with high youth unemployment. In stark contrast to my previous fieldwork, I have markedly more education than the majority of the people who surround me, in some cases more than ten years of formal schooling and education. And where to place poetry in the French field of archaic hierarchies?

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