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1. Preliminary Remarks
Although now in many developed industrial societies white-collar workers represent, at least in numerical terms, the single most important group within the general workforce, their delimitation and their speciﬁc social proﬁle in relation to blue-collar workers and public servants remains ambiguous and controversial (Kocka 1980, 1981, Lockwood 1989). With hardly any other social stratum was and is the complex interrelation between the actual appearance of a group, its self-deﬁnition and its treatment as an object of investigation so clear as with the white-collar employees.
The sociological interest in these groups has a long tradition which dates back into the late nineteenth century. It arose mainly for two reasons: (a) the exceptional rapid growth of the various groups, labeled as ‘white-collar workers,’ Angestellte, employ s, impiegati, empregados, etc. and (2) the fact that these groups, with regard to some objective features of their working conditions, aspects of their legal status, as well as their consciousness and their behavior, differed markedly from other social groups already established. Interest was nowhere so strong as in the German-speaking countries, where, as a ﬁeld of the emerging social sciences, a special Angestelltensoziologie developed. This pecularity was mainly due to the existence of a radical labor movement and of a strong bureaucratic tradition. The institution of the privileged ‘civil servant’ served as a role model for many white-collar workers and attributed much to the relative depth of the distinction in relation to the bluecollar workers in the respective countries. However, comparative historical research shows that the terms ‘white-collar workers,’ Angestellte, employ s, impiegati, and empregados are in no way interchangeable. The delimitation and, particularly, its social ‘meaning’ vary strongly historically and from country to country. Though much of the special social proﬁle of the various groups labeled as ‘white-collar’ has faded away, there still remain some important differences, especially in relation to blue-collar workers.
2. Deﬁnition By Functional Criteria
In many countries in everyday language as well as in scientiﬁc usage the term white-collar worker refers to a group of dependent workers which, compared to manual or blue-collar workers, is occupied not directly in the process of manufacturing. Rather it is situated in functional as well as in spatial terms before the process of manufacture, beside it and behind it. One encounters white-collar workers in all economic sectors, even agriculture, at least, as it is organized commercially and as a large-scale business. However, the actual domain of the employees is the service sector; that is, trade, banking, insurances, where they always made up the predominant part of the workforce. In addition, large groups of employees are to be found in industry and the public sector. Since the end of the nineteenth and above all in the course of the twentieth century employees have increased their share in all sectors considerably in all developed societies compared to that of manual workers and public servants (see Table 1).
With respect to their productive functions whitecollar workers differ from manual workers in that they—varying with the economic sector in which they are employed—perform directing, overseeing, constructive, analyzing, administrative, commercial, and information-processing tasks. These criteria may lead, in many cases, to a clear distinction between manual workers and white-collar employees in private enterprises. They are hardly suitable for a clear distinction between officials or civil servants (Beamte) and employees (Angestellte) in the public sector. The functions of these two categories normally overlap. But the upper ranks of the hierarchy are staffed by employees with the status of civil servant (Humphreys, 1958). Beamte and Angestellte differ by legal status rather than by types of functions.
3. Origin And Growth
The origins of some white-collar professions may be traced back to the premodern period. Among them ﬁgure, for instance, the commercial employees which at that time still had a good chance to reach the status of a self-employed salesman later in life. Nevertheless as a mass stratum one has called white-collar employees rightly the ‘latest child of industrial capitalism.’ Two main developments contributed to the rapid growth of the group: (a) the shifting balance between the ‘ﬁrst’ (agriculture) and the ‘second sector’ (industry) in favor of the ‘third,’ the service sector (Fourasti 1963)—a development that took place ﬁrst in Great Britain while other industrial nations followed suit in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century; (b) the rise of ‘Organized Capitalism’ (Hilferding 1981) since the end of the nineteenth century, a phase characterized by the growing importance of organization, planning, information-gathering, bureaucratic control, and the creation of structures within and outside industry to serve these ends. The relative growth of the share of the employees within the public sector, however, is determined not only by changes in the function of the modern state but also to a large extent by the political will either to expand or to restrict the spread of particular privileges attached to the status of civil servant (Beamte). Such privileges are, for example, the protection against dismissal and pension schemes, etc.
As recent social data show, even in the most advanced contemporary industrial societies the expansion of white-collar jobs has not yet come to an end. But there are clear signs that the rate of expansion slowed down signiﬁcantly in the second half of the twentieth century. As with all social growth, the creation of white-collar jobs as a strategy to tackle problems arising from the development of economy and society as a whole is subject to the law of diminishing returns. While in the early stages of industrial capitalism white-collar employees were instrumental in the process of rationalizing production—a fact that caused widespread resentment among manual workers—in further stages they were themselves subjected to strategies of cost-cutting and rationalizing. This development began very soon after the turn of the twentieth century with the introduction of speciﬁc office machines as the typewriter, the Hollerith-machine—an early form of large-scale data-processing—and other changes in the structure and organization of office work. This process deﬁnitely has gained a new quality in recent years. In particular, the spreading of the computer, the communication revolution, and the integration of office work into controllable networks has opened new chances for quantitative control of employee activities once considered to be typical only for manual work. Whether this tendency is outweighed by other trends towards ‘lean management’ and more autonomy on the job remains to be seen.
4. Status And Privilege
The Swedish–German sociologist Croner (Croner 1951) developed his ‘theory of delegation,’ according to which most early white-collar jobs in industry emanated through a process of division of labor and of delegation out of functions originally performed by the employer. This theory has been questioned by empirical research. Especially in modern industries many tasks performed by white-collar workers actually represent new functions without any historical precedent. It seems highly questionable that all early functions classiﬁed as white-collar carried with them high prestige. Especially, in the area of small-scale shop-keeping there existed extremely exploitive working conditions for clerks with low pay, no job security, long working-hours, etc. (Anderson 1976, Crossick 1977). Nevertheless, it holds true that many white-collar occupations enjoyed at least some form of privilege in comparison with manual workers, and continue to do so. Some of the differences resulted from the speciﬁc nature of their work that could not be subjected easily to quantitative methods of control. One of the traits that distinguished most—not all— white-collar jobs from blue-collar functions was a ﬁxed income, the ‘salary,’ that, at least in principle, did not vary with working hours or the amount of work carried out. Because of the fact that knowledge of business transactions within the speciﬁc ﬁrm constituted the main qualiﬁcation of many white-collar employees, the accumulation of such individualized knowledge gave members of the group a higher job security than manual workers, especially in the early stages of industrialization. Even in later days, the office never became the place for a general ‘hire and ﬁre’ climate. As many positions of white-collar workers were integrated into large, delicately differentiated bureaucratic hierarchies, aspirations for upward mobility never vanished completely. Besides, in many countries there were, traditionally, legal privileges attached to certain white-collar occupations. These entitlements included protection against dismissal, paid vacation, continuation of wage payment in the case of illness, company pensions schemes, etc.
The idea that the class of white-collar workers as a whole would face ‘proletarianization,’ as put forward especially by writers in the Marxist tradition, has given way to a much more nuanced picture. At earlier stages of the development legal privileges attached to certain types of white-collar workers were generalized among larger groups. Moreover, the French sociologist Michel Crozier has argued that the consequences of rapid rationalization were often absorbed by the constant inﬂux of female workers. Though the equation ‘proletarianization-feminization’ does not come out, there is some degree of truth in it. New styles of management—the movement towards ‘lean management’ since the 1980s, for instance—have ampliﬁed autonomy and reopened scope, at least, for certain groups among the white-collar population. On the other hand there can be no doubt that a process of narrowing and even blurring of differences between blue-collar and white-collar workers took place in the course of the twentieth century. Important groups within the white-collar population, especially clerical workers and sales personnel, have been overtaken by skilled manual workers in terms of income, jobsecurity, even prestige. Many of the rights once attached exclusively to certain white-collar positions have, step-by-step, been granted to the workforce as a whole, making white-collar workers, at least in some countries such as Germany, important, if involuntary, harbingers of the modern social state. Though, on average, white-collar workers still appear to be privileged in relation to the manual workforce, the ‘average’ white-collar worker largely has become a statistical ﬁction due to the immense variety of positions and professions that nowadays characterize these categories.
5. Organizational Behavior
Depending on the structure of the trade union movement within the respective countries, white-collar workers tend to organize exclusively or are integrated into general unions (Behringer 1985, Bain and Pollins 1965, Bain 1972; Jenkins and Sherman 1979). In most cases union membership among white-and blue-collar workers overlaps at least to a certain degree. The main area in which both groups differ is trade union membership in general. White-collar workers are considerably less well organized than manual workers with the one exception of the public sector. Hence, their growing weight among the workforce represents one of the most important factors in the crisis of the trade union movement in developed countries in general.
6. National Differences And Pecularities
While in most industrialized countries the division between white- and blue-collar workers was never clearly marked or valid only in regard of relatively small groups, in some European countries such as Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and Germany until the middle of the twentieth century, blue- and white-collar workers constituted distinguished entities, separated in many aspects, legal as well as organizational and ideological. Social legislation, especially pensions schemes, had been enacted before and after the First World War. They had an important impact, strengthening existing differences between white und blue-collar workers. The dividing line between the two groups structured large parts of the fabric of these societies—legislation, trade union movement, self-help organizations, political affiliations, etc. By the 1950s, the distinction between white and blue collar had begun to erode gradually, a development that was supported by the expansion of former white-collar privileges to the general workforce. Another important aspect in which German-speaking countries before the Second World War differed from other societies was the sheer size of the legally deﬁned white-collar population which included sales personnel as well as general managers.
7. Social Theory
White-collar workers were introduced into the realm of modern social science at the end of the nineteenth century. The starting point was twofold: (a) the notion of a growing number of occupations, employments, and functions that shared many traits of the working-class while at the same time differing in important aspects from manual workers as well as from the higher social strata; (b) the exceptional rapid growth of these categories in the decades around the turn of the century which even outdid that of the manual workers.
The most intensive debates on white-collar workers took place in German-speaking countries from about 1890 up to the 1930s against the background of the formation of strong labor movements (largely blue-collar) and of a political system, dominated by conservative elites eager to defend the status quo and in search of numerically important allies among the general population. In the ﬁrst stage of the debate, which took place before the First World War, status quo-oriented scholars identiﬁed white-collar workers as part of a new socially stable and conservative ‘middle estate’ and, at the same time, encouraged the state to engage in a social-protective policy (e.g., white-collar speciﬁc insurances and labor laws) while Marxist theorists predicted a general proletarianization of these groups. The 1920s saw a convergence of opinions, reinforced by the sceptical notion that the ‘new middle class’ in German-speaking countries seemed to ﬁgure prominently among the mass base of National Socialism. The label of a potential for rightwing extremism has stuck to the group ever since, not least through the intellectual inﬂuence of German social scientists, many of whom were forced to emigrate in the early 1930s (Fromm 1984, Speier 1986). The notion showed up again in many theories of Fascism developed in the 1950s and 1960s, generalizing what was seen to be the experience of the interwar years (Lipset 1960). In contrast, social historians who took up the debate in the 1970s tried to demonstrate the pecularities of the German and Austrian experience (e.g., Kocka 1980) while latest research has challenged the notion of a predominantly right-leaning, ‘new middle class’ in the 1920s altogether (Falter 1991).
The debate over the role of white-collar workers in the mass base of National socialism represented the climax and at the same time a turning point. Interest in interpretations of the white-collar group as a whole has subsided (but see Schulz 2000) in Germany as well as in other countries where it never ﬁgured prominently.
Not surprisingly, with regard to the heterogeneity of the group, social science attributed contradictory attitudes and social functions to these groups, often departing from speciﬁc traits of subgroups. One important theme over the decades has been the impact the expansion of white-collar occupations has had on the emancipation of women, whether it offered new opportunities for social mobility or whether it only helped to reproduce traditional inequalities (Suhr 1930). There has been much research on the impact of rapid technological change on office work through the decades, some with more pessimistic, others with more optimistic overtones. Studies of the service sector, for instance, stress its relative resistence to change as a result of the need to maintain a workforce even when there is no constant demand, a fact which has been labeled ‘guard labor.’ Other scholars have pointed to the partial regain of autonomy on the work-place as part of the automation movement in the 1970s which was said to have led to the formation of a ‘new worker’ (Mallet 1963). Actually, the debate referred to members of the technical staff supposedly holding key positions for potential labor disputes. Another important context was the rise of modern consumer society since the First World War in Europe and the United States. The concentration of large numbers of white-collar employees in larger cities led to the identiﬁcation of them with the urban population as a whole, regarding them as pioneers of modern consumption and new forms of leisure (Coyner 1977). This notion dates back to the inﬂuential study ﬁrst published in 1924, of the German social writer, Siegfried Kracauer (Kracauer 1998) and translated into many languages ever since. It has been taken up in various studies of the historic development of modern consumption and leisure, leaving out, with regard to the white-collar population, those members of the group living in smaller and middle-size cities.
Though, in the second half of the twentieth century, interest for white-collar employees in the social sciences has ﬂared up from time to time, there seems to be no future for any revival of a wholesale white-collar worker sociology as it developed in some European countries during the interwar years. One of the most important prerequisites, the existence of a self-conscious socialist working-class, no longer exists. With its disappearance the interest of social science, policymakers, and the different groups that make up this strata to develop a broad deﬁnition based upon the distinction between ‘us,’ the ‘white-collar,’ and ‘them,’ the ‘blue-collar workers,’ seems to have vanished. What remains is a remarkable gap between the numerical importance of the group in question and its relative neglect by social scientists in the last decades.
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