‘Liberating’ journalistic work or ‘democratising’ the media enterprise?

Versatility versus collegiality
in two French newsrooms

Valentina Grossi[1]

The new forms of organisation of media companies seem to have taken on board the criticism traditionally levelled at the Taylorian system of work organisation, which is accused of forcing employees to carry out monotonous and segmented tasks, and of gradually drying up their commitment to work (Friedmann, 1956). For several decades now, we have been witnessing a restructuring movement within newsrooms. This involves a shift in work organisation from a model based on division into functional specialities and sequencing of activities, typical of industrial assembly lines, to what might be called ‘agile’ or ‘liberated’ work organisations. These small structures, where positions are not totally defined and the journalists’ versatility and adaptability are central, are similar to the organisational model of the start-up. There are fewer hierarchical levels and the boundaries between departments and professions are not defined in advance, allowing greater mobility and versatility.

Web newsrooms seem to be a particularly good place to observe these organisational changes. On the one hand, because of their recent creation, they have adopted more quickly managerial innovations that are difficult and slow to implement in older newsrooms. On the other hand, by integrating into their workforce young journalists, who have developed new forms of sociability and other ways of relating to work, they are expected to respond to slightly different expectations of self-fulfilment and self-actualisation compared to the previous generation of newsrooms. This is why they can be considered by managers as a ‘laboratory’ for the journalism of the future (Estienne, 2007), and by sociologists, as an observation post for identifying trends and possibly trying to predict future developments.

In the case of a ‘cultural industry’, such as the press enterprise, this movement of work flexibilisation and ‘liberation’ seems to be all the more inescapable since the tension between the industrial structuring of the activity, on the one hand, and the aspirations for autonomy and authenticity carried by the ‘cultural worker’, on the other, has been pointed out as the reason for the latter’s structural dissatisfaction (Morin, 1961). Hence the question we will ask here: under what conditions are these new journalistic work organisations really vectors of democratisation and empowerment? Through a comparison of two differently structured newsrooms, we will try to understand whether the liberation announced and promoted by these new forms of journalistic work organisation is actually accompanied by a democratisation of the press enterprise and whether it responds adequately to the aspirations for autonomy of the journalists who work there.

1. Preliminary definition and method

Before tackling these questions, a prior definition of what is meant by ‘democracy’ at work is necessary. It is essential to specify the meaning of this term from a sociological point of view to avoid adopting definitions from other disciplines (and, therefore, potentially incompatible with a sociological investigation) without retranslating them and to establish descriptive criteria that delimit what we will be paying attention to on an empirical level.

The centrality of the issue of self-regulation and control over the purposes of the activity is reflected in the definitions proposed by some philosophers. For the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, ‘what “democracy” means is that the individual should participate in determining the conditions and purposes of his own work’ (Dewey, 1903, p. 197; translated by Cukier, 2017). But the importance of workers’ control over the norms and purposes of their activity is also mentioned by sociologists. Without necessarily speaking of democracy at work, but emphasising the collective dimension of self-regulation, interactionist sociologists such as Everett Hughes or Eliot Freidson have placed at the centre of their analyses the processes by which professional groups or segments manage, through interactions between colleagues and with surrounding social groups, to establish control over the aims of their activity and to elaborate in a relatively autonomous manner, in relation to external demands, the norms of ‘good work’ (Hughes, 1996; Freidson, 2001). It is this definition of ‘democracy’ at work –control over the norms and purposes of the activity that the actors have the capacity to elaborate collectively in the course of their interactions– that we draw on in the present work.

But at what level should the analysis be placed in order to observe whether workers actually have such a hold, beyond managerial claims of work ‘liberation’ and streamlining? How can we establish criteria that will allow us to concretely observe processes of democratisation (or, conversely, of ‘de-democratisation’) at work? Once again, we will pay particular attention to daily interactions and to the activity in progress. Without neglecting the contributions of research on employee representation mechanisms, their participation in the company’s governing bodies, or their involvement in think tanks in parallel with their day-to-day work, the level of activity seems to us to be of primary importance. It is indeed necessary to take into account how players manage to elaborate from their practices, the actions they perform, and the interactions which weave their daily life –and not in abstracto– a grip on the standards and purposes of their activity (Bidet, 2011).

In line with a Durkheimian pragmatic sociology (Lemieux, 2018), we will start from the continuum hypothesis that the activity, the problems it raises, and the interactions that the actors produce to resolve them give rise a priori to reflexivity instances that lead these actors to discuss the norms of ‘good work’ and to arbitrate between different aims (Lemieux, 2009), enabling them to develop a grip on said norms and aims. This lends a certain ‘political thickness’ to the activity, to use a term coined by sociologist Marie-Anne Dujarier (Dujarier, 2017, p. 35). However, while this tendency towards reflexivity is observable everywhere, certain work organisations do not facilitate such process –or even hinder it. In certain situations –the contours of which we will have to elucidate–, it becomes more difficult for actors to question, renegotiate, re-elaborate, or consolidate the norms and purposes of their activity in the course of daily interactions between colleagues and with the social groups with which they are confronted (in the case of journalists, the ‘public’ or ‘sources’, for example).

However, we will not only be interested in the level of interactions and practices. The organisation of work will be considered here as a determining factor insofar as it may encourage or discourage this reflexivity. Indeed, the capacity to develop a reflexive relationship with work is not so much to be sought at the level of the ‘cognitive capacities’ of the individuals observed as in the way in which the activity is organised and in the interactions that it makes possible, since it is from these very interactions that the instances of reflexivity take place. The attention paid to work arrangements (material organisation of spaces, division into groups or professional segments, frequency and intensity of contacts, links maintained with the outside world, etc.) will therefore enable us to question what, at the organisational level, encourages or hinders the reflexivity of the actors and their grip on the norms and purposes of work.

This paper analyses the journalistic activity in two French newsrooms, where work is organised differently. One is the print editorial office of a national daily newspaper, where the division between departments and professions remains central. The other is the web editorial office of a news magazine, where the work organisation breaks with that of the print editorial office observed, in which the individual becomes the basic production unit instead of providing a service or working as a professional. Within this light structure, positions are less defined and the mobility and versatility of journalists is greater. One might therefore expect greater control by individuals over the aims and standards of their work. But are we really dealing with a democratising work organisation, in the sense mentioned above?

Before going into a more detailed analysis of the two cases presented, it should be noted that the data collected comes from two four-month ethnographies in each of these newsrooms. In the framework of our thesis (Grossi, 2018), we observed the production, selection, and publication of news images by a multiplicity of actors (photographers, editors, writers, photo editors, illustrators, documentalists, etc.). Focusing on one particular activity –the production and publication of photojournalistic images– allowed us to observe how a plurality of segments belonging to the professional group of journalists are brought to work together, and how their specific contributions are regulated by the organisation of work. The collaboration raises the question of their constant interaction, the resolution of conflicts and the increase in reflexivity allowed – or hindered– by the different organisational structures.

2. A grip on the standards of ‘good work’ made possible by collegial confrontation

The organisation of work in the newsroom of the print national daily newspaper under review is characterised first of all by the importance of the division into functional specialities. This is manifested in a division into ‘departments’ corresponding to well-defined professional segments (although they all belong to the professional group of ‘journalists’), each of which is headed by a ‘department head’. The boundaries between the competences of writers (in turn divided into sections), editors, illustrators, photographers, layout artists, and editorial management are clear and correspond to a pre-established division of activities of each of these professional segments. These activities are supposed to complement each other, none of them being independent of the rest. The departments must work closely together throughout the day to produce the final product: the printed newspaper.

The importance of the coordination required to produce the printed newspaper at the end of the day can be seen in the frequency of the formal and informal interactions that take place in the daily life of each of these professionals. The days are punctuated by a series of more or less institutionalised meetings: at 10 a.m. the editorial conference takes place, in which all the company’s employees can take part, regardless of their status, and where the main news items to be prepared for the next day’s newspaper and their ‘angles’ are discussed. This conference is followed by meetings in each of the departments, where they begin to prepare collectively for the concrete implementation of the topics discussed at the editorial conference. Around 11 a.m., meetings are held to plan the different sections of the newspaper in a more precise and concrete way, bringing together a small group of professionals (writers, layout artists, editors, illustrators and at least one member of the editorial management) who will be working on a particular section (‘World’, ‘France’, ‘Economy’, etc.). At 2.30 p.m., the ‘editing’ meeting takes place, attended by all editors, layout artists, some members of the editorial management and one or two illustrators. This meeting is used to check that the different sequences of the newspaper fit into the page layout, but also to understand the newspaper from a global point of view and to ensure a certain overall coherence. Finally, a ‘front page meeting’ is usually scheduled around 5.30 p.m. to discuss the concrete form, in terms of images and headline, that the front page of the newspaper will take. This meeting is attended by at least one of the editorial directors, the layout artist and the editor in charge of the front page that day, the head of the photo department or one of his assistants and, more randomly, the head of the section that has carried the ‘Events’ pages (‘World’ if it is international news, ‘France’ if it is national news, etc.) or other editors who have collaborated in its production. For the various professionals involved in the activity, these different meetings constitute a reminder of the collectively developed horizon of meaning and help them to place their activity within it. The printed newspaper is therefore the result of intense negotiation between professionals who, while sharing a common horizon of expectation, are collectively recognised as having specific skills, and from whom a very particular contribution to the final product is expected, depending on which department they belong to.

It should also be mentioned that, in addition to the formal meetings, numerous informal exchanges, facilitated by the spatial proximity between the various departments, take place throughout the day and are essential to the smooth running of the work. Observation of the meetings and informal exchanges shows that the specialities of each department are collectively recognised. Each department, corresponding to a particular professional segment, is given a certain authority through interactions with the others, accompanied by a collective responsibility[2] for particular parts of the work. For example, illustrators, who are in charge of organising photo productions with photographers and selecting images, may be congratulated at the editorial conference when the previous day’s newspaper is collectively recognised as ‘beautiful’ by the professionals. Conversely, cases where the combination of text and images is collectively recognised as less successful, this same professional segment reconsiders the strategy employed, particularly at the time of the internal department meeting.

Excerpt from observation no. 1: ‘When you have an image as a complement and not as an illustration, you’ve done your job’.

Internal meeting of the photo department. Auriane [assistant head of photography] moves her chair to the left of Cécile’s [assistant head of photography] and starts talking about the day’s topics. Eric [head of photography] interrupts her: ‘First, I’d like to say something about today’s paper. We have to be careful. For example, we have two large photos here, Lyna [illustrator] had already said: we don’t know whether to look at this one or that one […]’. Eric opens a double page on the exclusion of the FN unions from signing a text on the Republican march of 11 January, signed by all the other unions. Pointing with his finger to the two images, one on the right-hand page and the other on the left-hand page, he says: ‘And this is the same…’.

Auriane: There are the unions [she points to the photo on the right showing one of the 11 January processions], and this [pointing to the photo on the left] is Fabien Engelmann, the FN mayor of Hayange, who has been expelled from the CGT, and they talk about him in the paper.

Eric: Yes, I know, but you have to try to be less literal, to be able to extract yourself from what is said in the paper. We are one of the most widely-read newspapers.

Auriane: But we made the captions somewhat accordingly…

Eric: Yes, but it’s difficult to understand. You understand it because you’ve read the paper…

Auriane: The problem is that they’re doing four-handed papers… The editors had asked us to include something about the unions at the time of Charlie Hebdo, but there was almost nothing on Charlie and the unions… On societal and political issues, they’ll adopt a news-anticipation logic, and then, danger! [she makes a grimace]. We’ll have to review production and processing, we’ll have to change the production logic…

Anne [illustrator] nods in agreement.

Eric: No, but then we’re returning to a more illustrative trend. Whereas we had managed to find the right point and distance ourselves. Here we’re illustrating the text.

Auriane: It’s certain that when you have an image as a complement and not as an illustration, you’ve done your job.

Eric: We’ll have to be more careful, not let ourselves be carried away by the flow…

Auriane: This page has been discussed a lot by editors, writers… They’re articles that arrived at 5 p.m., not edited…

Cécile: But what I don’t understand is the subject. Is it the unions against the FN?

Auriane (pointing to Engelmann’s photo): He, if you like, is the symbol of the excluded FN union member.

Cécile: Oh, right, I didn’t understand.

Auriane: As we said with Lyna, there are too many images in the pages, what can we do?

Cécile: I find that the images are varied, I like it.

Eric: Yes, it’s just an alert to keep doing well.

What emerges clearly in this extract, as well as in other moments observed, is that the illustrators can admonish each other, and thus consider themselves collectively responsible if the work has not been carried out in accordance with certain professional standards. But what is also seen is that the norms of the work, as well as its purposes, are not conclusively defined outside the professional segment. Within each segment (and in this sense the internal meeting of each department is a crucial moment), the intense interactions between professionals constantly contribute to questioning and defining what can be considered as good or bad work. These moments of collegiality lead the actors to admonish each other, while at the same time clarifying, reformulating, and consolidating collectively the norms of ‘good work’: in short, to become more reflexive, questioning their role within the organisation and redefining the meaning of their activity.

These instances of reflexivity are also what allow the segment to develop a definition of the activity that is partially autonomous and slightly out of step with what is asked from outside. For example, in the sequence quoted, one of the assistant heads of the photo department recalls that the editors’ demand was to have photos that corresponded as closely as possible to the writers’ texts (‘The editors had asked us to include something about the unions at the time of Charlie Hebdo, but there was almost nothing on Charlie and the unions’). But the interaction that ensued between members of the photo department led to the recognition that the main thing was to find ‘an image to complement and not to illustrate’, without necessarily sticking exactly to the requests of the other departments of the newspaper.

This partially autonomous definition of work standards is what allows each department member to admonish others for not respecting them. Far from being an ‘accountability’ that comes from above, this mutually agreed form of accountability is also what allows them to forge a form of collective resistance to requests from outside (from the hierarchy or from other departments) when these are not in line with the standards developed internally. While not going as far as a ‘right of veto’ on the decisions of the editor-in-chief, these collectively developed norms allow them at least to criticise, reformulate, or negotiate the injunctions that professionals consider incompatible with their definition of ‘good work’, as we can see in the following interview extract:

Q: And do you have any examples of disagreements with the editors about the photos?

Yeah, once, at one point, on the story of… He didn’t understand, although it was quite simple. It was about a photo of Thibault Arthus on night trains, on the cancellation of night trains in fact, because the SNCF tends to cancel night trains because it’s too expensive, and so we had used a production that we had made […]. About that general topic, there was a photo like this, at night, in which only the railways could be seen, something quite… typical of travelling. All you could see was night and a railway, not much more, and he didn’t understand it. But I somewhat asserted myself, saying look, the meaning is there, it’s beautiful; there was a whole group of editors who didn’t understand the image, who didn’t feel it. It happens. (Interview with the head of the photography department)

From this interview, and more generally from the ethnography carried out in this newspaper company, it can be seen that the actors are aware that the development of relatively autonomous norms can potentially lead to conflicts with the hierarchy or with other segments that do not share the same conception of ‘good work’. But friction and conflict with colleagues is not necessarily seen as a problem to be solved. The actors themselves see it as part of the activity and as a way of testing their own conception of good work through confrontation, at the cost of ‘fighting for’ or ‘imposing’ it.

3. Versatility and rotation making it difficult to increase reflexivity

Let us now turn to the case of web writing. The organisation of the web newsroom is very different from the one we have just described. First of all, the number of staff members is smaller: about forty people work here, compared to 160 journalists in the print newsroom we observed. The small size of the newsroom means that the journalists are less specialised and can change jobs and tasks as needed. There are many instances when professionals physically change jobs or roles to take over tasks usually assigned to other journalists in the newsroom. For example, we have seen the front page editor (the person in charge of the Home page) occasionally take over the work of the community manager; an illustrator and a journalist specialising in international news come to reinforce the ‘hot news desk’ (taking on ‘hot’ news); or the journalist specialising in video occasionally intervene in the management of the Home page. In the newsroom, flexibility and the ability to manage multiple activities with fluidity and ease are valued skills, defining the figure of the ‘virtuoso’ journalist. The comparison already brings out an important point: the possibility of taking over the tasks carried out by a professional belonging to another department is something that does not seem conceivable in print journalism, where the professional segments are collectively considered as making a very specific contribution to the final product, to which both a certain authority and certain responsibilities are attached.

Another characteristic of web writing is the greater versatility of the journalists, who take on a much wider range of activities than their print colleagues, even when they are supposed to do only their main task and do not hold several jobs at once. For example, a web writer usually does all the writing of an article, image research, editing, headline writing, keyword choice, etc., on his own. Each journalist no longer has to coordinate with a multitude of professional figures the creation of the final product but can personally take charge of creating an autonomous information product, if he or she is versatile.

This partial erasure of functional specialisations goes hand in hand with a simplification of the work organisation and a less hierarchical division. On the one hand, while it is still possible to attach each journalist to a speciality (writing papers on ‘international’ or ‘politics’, producing slideshows or videos, etc.), the professionals are not inserted into ‘departments’ as such. As departments no longer have any real consistency, we are moving from a three-stage ‘professional-department-editor’ model to a bipolar ‘professional-editor’ model. Furthermore, as department heads no longer exist, journalists are directly confronted with the editorial management, to whom they are also closer.

Taking into account these organisational characteristics, we could ask ourselves whether we are not, in the case of web editing, facing a democratising organisation of work, leaving more room for freedom of movement, individual decision-making and flexibility, and making it possible to reduce the conflict linked to interactions between a plurality of segments with distinct professional visions. Moreover, if we take into account that the actors take charge of more stages of production than in print editing, we could conclude that their professional autonomy should be increased, because they are no longer confronted with a strong segmentation of work, often pointed out as the cause of reduced margins of manoeuvre for the actors.

But the analysis of the ethnographic records collected seems to contradict this statement. First of all, by working in greater isolation from their colleagues, the professionals do not always take the measure of their specific contribution to the final product, the web newspaper. This relative isolation also prevents them from developing, in the discussion with others, the standards defining ‘good work’, which in the print edition were constantly redefined, questioned, and at the same time consolidated within each professional segment. Here, on the other hand, everyone tries to have even a minimal grip on work standards, but these are fragile, with little collective recognition. This is because the instances of reflexivity are not encouraged by moments of institutional or informal confrontation within or between different professional segments. The actors struggle to find a space for action in this context, as we understand from this extract from an interview with the front page editor, who is responsible for managing the content on the first page of the site (the Home):

With pixelated photos, you have those who are utterly rebellious, I mean, I know that some people… For example, I know that when such and such a person goes to work in the morning at 7 a.m., that means that he’ll be assigned to the Hot news desk, and I know that all day long, until 4 p.m., until he leaves, I’ll have to deal with pixelated photos. And every time I’ll say ‘Ahhh… well, that’s a shame, it’s pixelated!’ And that’s that, no reaction. It’s because this person doesn’t have to, so he’s annoyed at having to look for a photo. So he prefers to take the automatic photo in the database. […]

Q: But in fact, it’s tiring even for him to be told every time…

I’m not saying anything anymore, I don’t want to… I mean, I’m not the boss, you know? It’s delicate. (interview with the front page editor)

Here we see a major difference from the organisation of work in print journalism described above. Whereas in the latter the conceptions of ‘good work’ held by the various professional segments were considered by the actors to be both unsurpassable and indispensable for the production of the final product, here the expertise of the front page editor –like that of the other editorial staff– is not collectively recognised as authoritative. For her part, the front page editor does not seem to accept that the writers do not have exactly the same definition of a well-done job as she does. But the impossibility of referring to standards collectively defined by a professional segment and recognised at the level of the editorial staff as a whole puts her in an uncomfortable position. She does not understand why the writers should listen to her, since she is not in a position of hierarchical superiority, while at the same time she has to intervene in a personal capacity on their production, and without being able to rely on collectively shared standards.

As will become clear as the ethnography progresses, fairly violent individual conflicts between colleagues can thus arise, as professionals have difficulty defining the space in which they intervene. They also have difficulty in depersonalising the disputes between them and their colleagues. Indeed, instead of considering them linked to each person’s functional speciality, conflicts between different conceptions of ‘what should be done’ are often interpreted by the actors themselves as interpersonal conflicts. We are witnessing, in the words of sociologist Danièle Linhart, a form of ‘personalisation’ of work, rather than a rise in reflexivity that would allow actors to refer to ‘professional logics validated by peers’ (2015, pp. 10-11).

This looser work organisation also confronts employees with a dual relationship to the hierarchy, without the mediation of a professional segment or a department head. Indeed, the editors and the manager do not have to take into account, as in print journalism, the fact that each segment has the claim to a form of self-regulation. They interact with each professional in a much more individualised way, which makes the directives much more explicit and also less contested by the person receiving them. Observation of the accountability process, and therefore of reciprocal admonitions, reveals that these come less often from colleagues (that is, peers) than from the hierarchy. The latter formulates more explicitly than in the print version the objectives and standards of ‘good work’ for each individual employee, partly removing them from collective discussion.

Excerpt from observation 2: ‘Adrien wants value for his money’

It is midday on a Friday. Axelle [editor-head illustrator] and Rémy [editor-head illustrator] are sitting at their desks in front of their computers. I’m sitting next to Remy. Axelle to Rémy: ‘There are lots of slides on Le Bon Coin’. I then get to know that Adrien, the editorial director, had asked Axelle to make a slide-show on ’The jewels of the Le Bon Coin web site’, in which funny and offbeat ads are listed. […]

12:16 p.m. Axelle laughs alone, looking at her screen. After a few minutes, to Rémy: ‘I’m not putting Merah’s “well ventilated” flat where you can see the holes’.… Rémy smiles. Axelle:‘’I found lots of stuff, come and see!’. Remy gets up to look at Axelle’s screen. The two of them laugh while looking at the different ads on Le Bon Coin. Back at his desk, Rémy sends Axelle an email with links to find ‘funny ads’ on Le Bon Coin, adding in the body of the email: ‘Don’t hesitate to look for lots of them… Adrien wants value for his money’. Axelle and Rémy, each in front of their computer, start to look at the ads that appear on the sites Rémy has indicated. They laugh. Remy, referring to an advert for a smashed car: ‘That would be a great first image!’ Axelle, about a picture of a stuffed squirrel: ‘I’m sending this to Adrien to get myself fired: “I can’t stand seeing this stuff anymore”…’. They laugh. Rémy, about a photo of a stuffed squirrel used as a bottle: ‘If you want to get fired, you put this as your first image’. They laugh. Rémy: ‘Adrien is going to make a fortune…’, and then: ‘I still have to finish what I was doing…’ [a slideshow about the Cannes Film Festival].

1 p.m. Axelle to Rémy: ‘In fact, it’s a bit depressing to work with the ads on Le Bon Coin, don’t you think?’. Rémy smiles and doesn’t answer. After a few minutes, Axelle laughs alone, looking at her screen. She hides her face with her hands, excited, and exclaims: ‘This is too much!’

As can be seen in this extract (and, more generally, throughout the ethnography), the work norms as well as the objectives set are formulated in a fairly precise manner by the editorial director, who, in this case, individually asks one of the two editor-illustrators to produce a slideshow on offbeat ads published on the Le Bon Coin website. The appropriateness of doing such a job is not discussed collectively. It therefore becomes a ‘task’ to be carried out, and the editor-illustrator does not have, individually, the means to challenge it, as she cannot rely on collectively defined standards of ‘good work’. It is also noticeable that the positive or negative admonitions anticipated by the two photo editors during their work stem not from their peers (journalists working in the same newsroom, or in the newsrooms of competing newspapers), based on a collective definition of ‘good work’, but from the newsroom manager, based on criteria whose definition eludes the actors.

Although an ironic and sometimes openly critical tone is apparent throughout this sequence, it is also clear that the interactions between colleagues do not lead to the more ‘positive’ formulation of standards alternative to the injunctions coming from the hierarchy. Indeed, these moments of interaction are necessary for even a minimal criticism to be expressed; however, being sporadic and lacking a collective that allows to institute them, they are not sufficient to transform this criticism into a collegial process of redefining the aims and standards of the work.


Are the promises of work liberation embodied in new ‘light’ organisational structures, close to the start-up model, actually realised in the particular case of journalism? Are the freedom of movement and versatility of journalists accompanied by a real democratisation of work? We wanted to ask these questions based on a conceptual redefinition of ‘democracy’ at work, understood as the actors’ control over the norms and purposes of their activity, developed through interactions. Empirically, paying attention to the processes of attributing responsibility (Fauconnet, 1928) enabled us to analyse this normative activity in its development, at the level of the practices themselves, and to observe the degree of reflexivity to which it gives rise.

The comparison between two different organisational structures shows that, although accountability processes are always detectable, they take very different forms depending on how work is organised. In the print newsroom observed, where the organisation gives an important place to collegiality and work groups (‘departments’ or professional segments) maintain a certain consistency, the actors have the possibility of shifting, even if only in a minimal way, the definition of ‘good work’ and its aims. As the norms are expressed and reformulated collectively, each actor develops a grip on them, and can eventually mobilise them to admonish his peers if they deviate significantly from them. In contrast, in web writing, this normative activity is much less distributed. By working in a more isolated way and no longer being expected to coordinate with colleagues within or between different departments, professionals cannot develop and consolidate the norms defining ‘good work’ in the course of the action, in discussion with colleagues. This results in a loss of collective reflexivity on the part of employees, by confronting them with a dual relationship to the hierarchy, which tends to set and naturalise the aims of the activity. If, in one case, empowerment can be a vector of democratisation, this is much less true in the other, where individual responsibility for meeting the organisation’s expectations is not accompanied by collective responsibility for defining ‘good work’.

The lesser participation in the elaboration of norms and aims of work is therefore linked to the absence of groups that are stable enough to serve as a sort of intermediary body between individuals and the enterprise, intermediary bodies that constitute the places of normative elaboration essential to the maintenance of a certain ‘political thickness’ of work. What seems to us to be at issue in processes of ‘de-democratisation’, therefore, is not so much versatility or rotation in themselves as the absence of a collective they can entail, when used (knowingly or not) to diminish moments of collegiality and deliberation which are essential for the elaboration of a partially autonomous definition of the norms, aims and meaning of work.


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  1. University of Strasbourg, CUEJ, SAGE.
  2. We use the term ‘responsibility’ here in the sense developed by Paul Fauconnet (1928). Fauconnet emphasised in his pioneering study that the sociological analysis of responsibility and the entities to which it is attributed can only be undertaken on the basis of a concrete observation of positive or negative sanctions, which make visible who is considered responsible in a given situation and to what degree.

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