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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Before the Surrogate of Motivation: Motivation and the Meaning of Work in the Golden Age of the American Whaling Industry Part 1

In an earlier paper, 'Beyond the Surrogate of Motivation', the author posits that the fragmentation of organizational work has led to the loss of meaning and thus to the invention of motivation in the second half of the 20th century. In this paper, the focus is on the meaning of work in organizational contexts during early US industrialization, specifically the American whaling industry, before motivation was invented as a management tool. The paper will explore how and to what extent the meaning of work was ultimately lost and 'perverted' in whaling, when the industry turned from a profession into a capitalist business that reached its peak by the early 1840s. The paper is written from a socioanalytic perspective and based on the working hypothesis that while organization studies, and psychoanalytic ones in particular, focus predominantly on contemporary organizations and their respective working conditions as their objects of study, the dramatic changes in the American whaling industry during the late 18th and the first half of the 19th century provide insight into the conscious and unconscious dynamics underlying the transition from an organizational reality based on the relatedness of members of a community to one driven exclusively by profit. In the whaling example, this change can be understood partly as one from a profession into a business that finds its expression in the increasing alienation of the work force, its exploitation by ship-owners and captains alike and the exclusive pursuit of money and wealth by ship-owners. (Part 2 will contain some further reflections on the relatedness of meaning and motivation at work in the whaling industry.)