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Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

Organisational control as cultural practice—A shop

floor ethnography of a Sheffield steel mill
a,* b
Thomas Ahrens , Massimiliano Mollona
Accounting Group, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK
Anthropology Department, Goldsmiths College, University of London, New Cross, London SE14 6NW, UK


Field studies of management control and accounting have tended to study organisational meaning through practices.
We identify three strands of practice research on organisational control (viz., governmentality, actor network theory,
and accountability) and propose a forth: cultural practice. The study of control as cultural practice is grounded in
observation because it conceives of cultural knowledge as practical and largely extra-linguistic. It conceptualises organ-
isational control as an effect of the actions and ideas of organisational members beyond the ranks of management, thus
widening the field of empirical inquiry. It also makes studies of steady state organisations more attractive thereby open-
ing the possibility that the assemblages of people, purposes, and technologies, which give rise to specific forms of organ-
isational control, may be understood as less ephemeral than, particularly, studies of governmentality and actor network
theory have suggested. Our ethnography of a steel mill in Sheffield is based on 11 months of participant observation on
the shop floors of the hot and cold departments. We argue that the subcultures of different shop floors were constituted
in practices of control which enabled organisational members to pursue diverse objectives that were related to their var-
ious wider cultural aspirations. Organisational control practices relied on diverse accountings and accounts of organ-
isational actions and purposes. Whilst we found considerable diversity between subcultures, we also found that
individual subcultures, and the tensions and contradictions within them, exhibited much continuity. The ability of stud-
ies of organisational subcultures to bring out the diversity as well as continuity of practices holds considerable potential
for our understanding of organisational control.
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Technologies of control, like accounting and

Corresponding author. Tel.: +44 247 657 2953.
other information and planning systems, can have
E-mail addresses: (T. Ahrens), diverse organisational effects because their uses (M. Mollona). depend on the particular ways in which they

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306 T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

become part of organisational practices (Schatzki, meanings and the highly specific, localised uses of
2005). Practices as collective action are self-refer- accounting (e.g., Ahrens & Chapman, 2002; Briers
ential. They are activities that are ordered by their & Chua, 2001; Ogden, 1997). Few field studies of
practitioners’ intentions to contribute to those the relationships between accounting control and
same practices (Barnes, 2001). Practices are recog- organisational meanings have drawn explicitly on
nisable as projects with general applicability, such theories of culture (e.g., Dent, 1991).
as activity based costing, that adapt to specific At stake in the conception of control practices
contexts by meshing with the intentions of organ- as cultural is the dependence of organisational
isational practitioners and organisational mean- control on systems of symbolic significance.
ings more generally. Control technologies, and Anthropological studies of organisations (Janelli
the practices through which they come to have & Yim, 1993; Ouroussoff, 1993; Rohlen, 1974)
organisational effects, are therefore inherently have lead us to expect symbolic systems to be
meaningful. New or modified accounting control rooted in diverse aspects of organising, including
systems, for example, can become implicated in work processes and their technologies, organisa-
profound changes of organisational strategies tional members’ values, beliefs, and social rela-
and their members’ perceptions of organisational tions, and the strategies and formal controls of
purpose (Czarniawska-Joerges & Jacobsson, 1989; management. The task of the study of control as
Dent, 1991; Kurunmäki, 1999; Roberts, 1990). cultural practice lies in exploring the relationships
Those perceptions, and organisational mean- between those and further sources of organisa-
ings more generally, belong to the symbolic realm tional culture, organisational practices, and organ-
of organising. Through, for example, language, rit- isational control. Conceived as an effect of the
ual, and attire (Van Maanen & Barley, 1984), but symbolic organisation of practices, control is
also technologies (Gell, 1992; Harvey, 1997; dependent on, but also influencing, the spectrum
Mauss, 1973), the symbolic expresses organisation of ambitions of organisational members. The cul-
and its structuring effects. Thereby, the symbolic tural analysis ought to shed light on the sources
aspects of organisation themselves take on system- of those ambitions, the extent to which they are
atic characteristics. They become symbolic systems shared or in competition with one another, and,
amenable to cultural analysis. The notion of sym- thus, how they contribute to making some prac-
bolic systems has served as a definition of culture tices unremarkable, taken-for-granted, and subject
for anthropologists as diverse as Bloch, Geertz, to objective ‘‘technical’’ discussions, and others
Malinowski, and Sahlins. It characterises cultures contentious and subject to ongoing struggles over
as meaningful orders that become part of the organisational purposes and, possibly, the nature
social fabric insofar as they relate to practices, of organising itself (Van Maanen & Barley, 1984).
thereby giving rise to culturally meaningful, but This paper presents an ethnography of organi-
ultimately unpredictable actions (Rosaldo, 1993; sational subcultures and control on the shop floors
Sahlins, 1995; Schatzki, 2002). Organisational of the hot and the cold departments of a steel mill
cultures provide the frames of meaning for organ- in Sheffield, a northern English industrial town
isational continuity and change alike (Martin, once famous for its steel works. Based on detailed
2001). observations of shop floor activities it gives a com-
Even though the practices that engage technol- parative account of the steel mill’s subcultures and
ogies are potentially of great cultural significance, how they were constituted by distinctive practices.
few studies have addressed the cultural dimension Following a review of the relationships between
of organisational control technologies. Field stud- culture, meaning, and control in the accounting lit-
ies of control and accounting, for example, have erature, we discuss anthropological approaches to
tended to study the meanings of control with refer- the study of organisational control. We present the
ence to various practice frameworks but not sym- ethnographic method used in this study and pro-
bolic systems. They have shared a concern with the vide some information on the mill. We then pres-
dispersion and temporary nature of organisational ent the first part of the ethnography of the
T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331 307

smeltery and the grinding bay of the mill, after of studying the relationship between accounting,
which we offer some reflections on the ways in control, and specific organisational cultures, cul-
which management strategies and production ture has frequently been framed by a functional
technologies can affect the control practices of conception of organisation. Anchored in general
the different organisational subcultures. The sec- blueprints of the functioning of organisation, cul-
ond part of the ethnography is followed by a dis- ture was held to affect organisational members’
cussion of how the social relations between perceptions of technical controls, which meant
organisational members and their social back- that different national or organisational cultures
grounds can give rise to different cultural practices might ‘‘require’’ different controls (Birnberg &
of control. We distinguish between ways of know- Snodgrass, 1988).1
ing productive processes qualitatively and through
Culture has two important effects on the
measurements, discuss possible implications for
MCS (management control system) process.
the fragmentation of the symbolic systems of
It can affect the choice of stimuli to which
organisations, and reflect on organisational con-
the individual attends, or it can affect any
trol as cultural practice more generally.
value judgements about the stimuli (Birnberg
& Snodgrass, 1988, p. 449).
Culture, meaning, and control in the accounting Studies of this kind proceeded from definitions
literature of generic organisational control subsystems
(e.g., planning, monitoring, evaluation, and
The accounting literature on culture has, on the reward (Birnberg & Snodgrass, 1988, p. 447))
whole, adopted an objectivist stance and shied whose functioning could then be postulated as
away from developing an ethnographic (Jönsson more or less effective depending on the psycholog-
& Macintosh, 1997; Power, 1991) understanding ical dispositions (cultures) of their users (organisa-
of accounting. Conversely, field studies that were tional members).
grounded in the everyday reality of accounting Accounting field studies which, by contrast,
practices (Tomkins & Groves, 1983) did not draw sought to unearth the ways in which accounting
on theories of culture or anthropological methods. constitutes specific organisational processes have
In view of the significance accorded to the study of rarely drawn on concepts of culture. With the
accounting in action (Burchell, Clubb, Hopwood, notable exception of Dent (1991), they have tended
Hughes, & Nahapiet, 1980; Hopwood, 1987) this to conceptualise accounting as part of organisa-
comes as a surprise because ethnography, the tional and social practices rather than in relation
anthropological method (and genre) for the study to organisational cultures. We distinguish three
of culture, can be very useful for producing longi- influential strands of practice studies (cf. Ahrens
tudinal observations of organisational everyday & Chapman, forthcoming).
life through which the functioning of accounting Studies of governmentality have theorised a
and control can be most fully appreciated (Hop- concept of practice rooted in the disciplinary pow-
wood, 1976, 1983). The promise of studying the ers of accounting. It has been based on the analysis
everyday functioning of accounting in this way of specific cases of emerging programmes of gov-
would be deeper and more detailed insights into ernment as diverse as new forms of management
the ways in which accounting makes possible and freight pricing at the Pennsylvania Railroad
and, ultimately, constitutes specific forms of in the 1850s (Hoskin & Macve, 1988), invest-
organisation. ment decision making and the reorganisation of
Even though the constitution of organisation
through accounting has been an important moti- 1
See also the extensive accounting literature on Hofstede’s
vation for studying accounting in action, much nomothetic concept of culture (Hofstede, 2001) and, particu-
accounting research on culture and control has larly, his exchange with Baskerville (Baskerville, 2003; Basker-
turned this line of argument on its head. Instead ville-Morley, 2005; Hofstede, 2003).
308 T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

manufacture at Caterpillar Inc. in the 1980s and replace them with anonymous forms of con-
(Miller & O’Leary, 1994), and the contemporary trol (Roberts, 1991; Robson, 1992). Private and
managerialism of UK water companies (Ogden, public sector studies have explored in detail the
1997) and efficiency audits in Canada’s public sec- organisational processes and, in particular, the
tor (Radcliffe, 1998). For studies of governmental- managerial strategies employed to position anon-
ity, organisational control is an effect that arises ymous forms of control such that they are taken
out of the temporary combination of programmes seriously throughout the organisation (Ahrens,
of government with diverse technologies, such as 1996; Ahrens & Chapman, 2002; Frow, Margin-
accounting. The technologies are characterised by son, & Ogden, 2005; Llewellyn, 1998; Roberts,
specific programmatic ambitions, giving them par- 1990).
ticular forms and making them operable, yet leav-
ing the actions of individual actors indeterminate
(Miller, 2001). Actors are left with choices that Anthropological approaches to organisational
are conditioned but not determined by the disci- control
plining effects of programmes and technologies.
A second strand is actor network theory All three strands have been concerned with
(ANT). An important point of contact with gov- exploring the constitution of accounting through
ernmentality lies in the concern of ANT to trace organisational practices and vice versa. They have
the generative paths by which programmatic ambi- sought to trace the emergence of discourses of
tion combines with the actions of humans and accounting and, to some extent, its specific organ-
non-human actors (like computer software, isational meanings through an examination of key
machines, or materials, for instance) to produce events in the case histories on which they were
assemblages capable of making a difference, of based. Those objectives distinguish them from
leaving an imprint for the ANT researcher the case studies of management control and cul-
(Latour, 1987, 1999; Law & Hassard, 1999). For ture of the organisational symbolism school
ANT, any such imprint is the result of heteroge- (Dandridge, Mitroff, & Joyce, 1980; Turner,
neous networks that are instantiated by the 1989), which have frequently ignored the social
actor-like qualities of its human and non-human dynamics of organisational relationships. Organi-
components. Accounting researchers have, for sational symbolism has tended to subscribe to
example, drawn on ANT to delineate the genera- the textual notion of culture that emerged in the
tive paths of responsibility accounting in the Brit- context of American cultural anthropology during
ish (Bloomfield, Coombs, Cooper, & Rea, 1992; the 1980s and that has undergone a major critical
Preston, Cooper, & Coombs, 1992) and Australian review (Asad, 1983; Fox, 1991; Ortner, 1999;
(Chua, 1995) health sectors and shown the idiosyn- Roseberry, 1982). Geertz’ seminal collection of
cratic emergences of new accounting systems in essays, The interpretation of cultures (1973),
private sector companies (Briers & Chua, 2001; defined culture as a public text that is constituted
Quattrone & Hopper, 2005). by a system of symbols, anthropology as a science
A third strand of field studies of accounting of interpretation, and ethnography as the search
and control has theorised organisational practices for meanings through the informants’ interpreta-
with reference to notions of accountability. It has tions. Geertz’ textual turn eventually undermined
focused on the systematic relationships between the validity of fieldwork as a research technique
accounting systems and systems of accountability through a reflexive framing of the relationship
‘‘[. . .] analysed as institutionalised forms of inter- between the subject and the object of anthropolo-
dependent social practices’’ (Roberts & Scapens, gical research. It led Marcus and Fischer (1986) to
1985, p. 446). Of particular interest to the claim that anthropology should first and foremost
accountability literature has been the potential be literary critique, progressively involved in tex-
of accounting control systems to disembed per- tual analysis, rather than the study of social
sonal and face-to-face notions of accountability institutions.
T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331 309

Critics of Geertz have stressed that analysing mologies does not deprive those who share those
cultures as public texts gives rise to ‘‘timeless’’, cosmologies of pragmatic action. Rather, their
‘‘over-coherent’’, and ‘‘bounded’’ notions of cul- practical solutions are interpreted through their
ture (Fox, 1991; Ortner, 1999). In reducing actions cultural schemes, just as the cultural schemes are
to signs, they claimed, Geertz had collapsed cul- realised through pragmatic action (Sahlins, 1985,
ture’s material and symbolic aspects and obscured 1995).
matters of power and conflict (Roseberry, 1982). The use of cosmologies and cultural schemes
Social relations are denied historicity and, thereby, has been criticised as motivated by a search for a
specificity. The organisational symbolism school is superior ‘‘catch-all’’ explanatory strategy that
susceptible to the same critique. Early contribu- can afford to ignore the explanatory potential of
tions to the organisational symbolism literature power, gender, biology, technologies and material
sought to ‘‘read’’ working practices as part of fan- arrangements, etc. (e.g., Bonnell & Hunt, 1999;
tastically coherent and unchanging organisational Ortner, 1999). We agree that all of these sources
belief systems (Schein, 1985), not unlike the dimen- of social orderings can exert powerful influence
sion ‘‘belief system’’ in Simons’s (1995) ‘‘levers of on symbolic systems. Studies of cultural practice
control’’ framework. But even the critics of static must account for them in order to avoid overbur-
and unitary conceptions of organisational culture dening symbolic explanations (Biernacki, 1999).
within the organisational symbolism literature What distinguishes the researcher who seeks out
(e.g., Gregory, 1983) have, often following symbolic systems that are generative of the mean-
Geertz’s textual approach, studied organisations ings that are ‘‘the socially constructed understand-
as bounded communities, isolated from broader ings of the world in terms of which people act’’
historical, political and cultural processes, whilst (Roseberry, 1982, p. 1016) is an insistence that
claiming at the same time that they ‘‘signify’’ (or people’s actions are intelligible with reference to
replicate) society on a smaller scale (e.g., Jermier, symbolic systems. The nature of those symbolic
Slocum, John, Fry, & Gaines, 1991). Organisa- systems, however, is not a matter of dogma but
tional actors were presented as captives of organi- research. Just how coherent, fragmented, shared,
sational cultures and subcultures, much as they or, indeed, stable they may be, becomes only clear
may have defined themselves in opposition to them in the course of the fieldwork.
(Kunda, 1991). Alvesson and Berg’s (1992) review Anthropology’s long-standing interest in sym-
showed that the organisational symbolism litera- bolic systems stems from their potential to connect
ture has sidestepped the deeper sources of power interpretations of what people say and do in
and conflict, and ignored the ongoing social diverse spheres of social life, for it is through peo-
changes that emerge from the social relations in ple’s actions that existing logics-in-use are con-
and around the organisation. firmed or modified and new ones created.2
Rather than smother organisational dynamics Culture is practical and ideational at the same time
with reference to unitary organisational cultures, because meanings do not exist independent of
a number of organisational ethnographies by practices. Meanings can neither determine acti-
anthropologists have highlighted that organisa- vities nor can they simply be ‘‘attached’’ to them
tional cultures are rarely homogenous spheres of because meanings and practices are co-produced
meanings, beliefs, and values (Kim, 1992) and that (Rosaldo, 1993). From this vantage point culture
they are made up of subcultures that emerge as symbolic system is never a reified set of values,
around specific locations, products, and work
practices (Janelli & Yim, 1993; Rohlen, 1974).
Such studies have been instrumental in bringing Our account of social and cultural anthropology’s concerns
to organisational research an insight that has tout court is seeking to draw out broad strands of anthro-
pological thinking from the early insistence on observation in
emerged over decades of anthropological studies, fieldwork, over the interpretive turn and its critical reception,
namely, that culture is not deterministic and that up to contemporary discussions of the anthropology of
the anthropological description of distinctive cos- emancipated subjects.
310 T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

beliefs, and assumptions but always a result of isational accounting knowledge. The far greater
practical activity (Ortner, 1984).3 It cannot be read part of organisational accounting knowledge is
like a text that exists at one remove from practices, practical. It is accounting as understood by organ-
but its interpretations spring from the stuff of isational members through their diverse activities
social activity that alone contains the conscious (Ahrens, 1997).
understandings of actors and the shared imagina- Secondly, the study of control as cultural prac-
tions that may be so taken for granted as to tice is suggestive of a conceptual and empirical
make them inaccessible to actors’ reflection and shift from managerial to organisational control
articulation (Bourdieu, 1977). Defining cultural practices, insisting that organisational control is
knowledge an effect of the actions and ideas of organisational
members beyond the ranks of management. The
[. . .] as that which needs to be known in
majority of practice studies cited above were con-
order to operate reasonably efficiently in a
cerned with management control. They reported
specific human environment (Bloch, 1991,
on management plans to change control practices,
p. 183)
often with limited insights into the responses of
we focus on the construction of distinctive world- other employees. It is possible to conduct excellent
views through organisational practices and iden- control practice research even where management
tify three contributions of the study of control as forbids research access to workers, as shown by
cultural practice to the existing body of practice re- Mouritsen (1999, p. 35), for example. However, a
search on management control and accounting. more inclusive approach does hold the potential
Firstly, the study of control as cultural practice of novel insights and a changed research agenda.
is grounded in observation because of the empha- A key theoretical problem in this regard is the
sis on action in the definition of symbolic systems. relationship between the ambitions and activities
Many of the practice studies cited above could not of many different practitioners and their practice.
draw on observation of organisational action, The notion of ‘‘practice as collective action’’
which made it harder for the researcher to study (Barnes, 2001) has emphasised the meaningful
taken-for-granted aspects of organisational prac- ordering of activities over the presence of identical,
tices on which organisational members could not or routine, activities. The idea is that practitioners
report and to exploit the revealing tensions contribute to a practice by using their understand-
between what organisational members say and ing and practical experience of the practice to
do. Moreover, organisational practices are com- guide them in the course of further contributing
prehended through discourses as well as activities. to it. This means that practitioners must be able
Knowledge of them can be conceptual as well as to apply certain rules but, above all, in pursu-
‘‘embodied’’ or ‘‘practical’’ (Bloch, 1991; Lambek, ing objectives related to their practice as they
1993). For example, what, superficially, often understand it, they must know how to use their
passes for accounting knowledge—the discursive discretion to decide when to bend or abandon
schemes, such as accounting theories and conven- certain rules. Through the use of discretion prac-
tions, to which accountants in particular make tices remain adaptable to new ideas, materials,
frequent reference—are only a small part of organ- demands, etc., without having to change labels.
Practice as collective action defines practitioners
through a general and evolving description of cer-
An anthropological collection that may be of interest to tain activities combined with their intention to
accounting scholars in this respect is Parry and Bloch’s Money contribute to the practice in question. This notion
and the Morality of Exchange (1989). Through a comparison of of collective action is inherently political because it
exchange practices among different peoples, they show that defines as members of the collective all those who
money does not belong to an amoral ‘‘economic’’ sphere with
an abstract rational force of its own, but that money becomes
wish to contribute to the practice, irrespective of
embedded in more general symbolic systems that have partic- their potential differences over what the best ways
ular logics for exchange relationships. of contributing might be. Barnes’ (2001) notion of
T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331 311

practice mirrored important anthropological con- action (Jönsson & Macintosh, 1997). In the
cerns with respect to the definition and portrayal anthropological tradition the participant observer
of the knowledge and activities that characterise immerses in the lives of the ethnography’s subjects
members of a culture (Fox, 1991; Hastrup, 1997; by living in their communities, learning their prac-
Rosaldo, 1993). tices, and studying their culture and social organi-
Thirdly, studies of control as cultural practice sation. In-depth participant observation and
offer an argument for the study of steady state extensive fieldwork show institutions and organi-
organisations, which is unlike the bias towards sations as systems of meaningful practices that
studies of change in the extant control practices are historically and politically contingent, and
literature. The changes usually gave the impetus, socially structured, yet open to change (Ortner,
if not for the studies, then for the published narra- 1999; Rosaldo, 1993).
tive. Studies of change have probably yielded most Underlying the ethnographic method thus
of the present knowledge of control practices, but understood is a concept of culture which recog-
this may have biased existing notions of control. nises that the distinctions between social and
Governmentality and ANT studies, in particular, cultural anthropology are not absolute. The partic-
have emphasised the ephemeral nature of the ipant observer has no unmediated access to the
assemblages of humans and non-humans which meanings that may constitute organisational sub-
give rise to specific control practices. This may cultures. She imagines the representation of those
be a general feature of organisational control, meanings by observing social interaction that con-
but its prominence may also be a consequence of stitutes social organisation through practices.
studying control practices in the context of organ- For many ethnographers the tracing of culture
isational change. Without more studies of steady through practices is not just an issue of methodo-
state organisations it is difficult to know. The logy because they take meanings to exist in prac-
study of control as cultural practice may identify tices (Schatzki, 2002). Cultural knowledge, in
at least some elements of control practices that Bloch’s (1991) terms, is too complex to be articu-
exhibit continuities, such as cultural dispositions, lated within the constraints of language and there-
class, education, etc. This is not to exclude organ- fore resides in practices themselves (Ortner, 1984).
isational change from the agenda of cultural prac- The implications for the study of organisational
tice studies of control, especially since change is to cultures are considerable. Whereas folk psycho-
some extent endemic to organising (Ahrens & logy insists that knowledgeable actors ‘‘know what
Chapman, 2002, pp. 156–7), but simply to point they do’’, which is taken to mean that they can
out that change is not a priority. also articulate what they do, the participant obser-
Using those three contributions to define stud- ver cannot trust their accounts in isolation but
ies of cultural practices of control, it would appear must place them in the context of observed
that Dent’s (1991) analysis of the cultural transfor- practices.
mation of a railway company does not qualify. It
relied mainly on interviews, not observations, Thus when our informants honestly say ‘this
emphasised management, not organisational con- is why we do such things’, or ‘this is what this
trol, and focused on the relationships between means’, or ‘this is how we do such things’,
symbolic meaning and change rather than the cul- instead of being pleased we should be suspi-
tural significance of day-to-day activities. cious and ask what kind of peculiar knowl-
edge is this which can take such an explicit,
linguistic form? Indeed, we should treat all
Ethnographic method explicit knowledge as problematic, as a type
of knowledge probably remote from that
The ethnographic method, which privileges par- employed in practical activities under normal
ticipant observation through extensive fieldwork, circumstances (Bloch, 1991, pp. 193–194,
has been suggested for the study of accounting in emphasis in original).
312 T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

Grounded in detailed observation of daily prac- of the observed, a group’s symbolic systems, by
tices, organisational ethnographies have the poten- showing how they play out in practice. The present
tial to reveal as interested or ideological some of paper makes use of direct speech simply for illus-
the folk theories (of organisational practices) that trative purposes and to improve readability.
are spread through organisational discourses. Our concepts of culture and practice go some
Compared with interview based studies of control way to guard against naı̈ve accounts of empathetic
and accounting in ‘‘action’’, ethnographies can lay ‘‘understanding’’ of informants by the participant
more credible claim towards studying organisa- observer (Hastrup, 1997). We should be equally
tional practices. wary of presenting cultures as all-too-neat ‘‘sys-
However, a key difficulty for the ethnographer tems’’. Critiques of the anthropological tradition
of cultural practices is the fact that, unlike dra- to cast observations of the natives in regularities
matic performances, ethnographic texts are not and taxonomies have suggested that ethnographies
themselves action (Hastrup, 1997). Underlying instead bring out the active nature of the practices
those texts is, however, a period of shared practical through which the subjects of ethnographies create
experience between the participant observer and and negotiate cultural order (Bourdieu, 1977; Ort-
the ethnography’s subjects during which they had ner, 1984; Rosaldo, 1993). The wealth of observa-
occasion to share at least aspects of a way of life. tion which underlies the ethnography, and which is
partly presented in the published work, should not
Fieldwork has been defined in various ways,
be misread as supporting claims to interpretive clo-
but it boils down to living another world.
sure of accounts of organisational practices. More
There is, of course, a lot of systematic work
field material supports more complex interpreta-
involved, a lot of method and questioning,
tions but it does not absolve authors and readers
but the essence of fieldwork is to learn
from challenging the argument with alternative
another world by way of experience (Hast-
interpretations (Hastrup, 1997). Anthropological
rup, 1997, p. 356, emphasis in original).
research has often been concerned with the
I found it useful if I wanted to understand
detailed documentation of social action above
how and why Africans are doing certain
and beyond what is needed for the author’s imme-
things to do them myself: I had a hut and
diate purposes of theorising (Evans-Pritchard,
byre like theirs; I went hunting with them
1956, p. 254).
with spear and bow and arrow; I learned to
The ethnography of the present study is based
make pots; I consulted oracles; and so forth
on the practical experience of Massimiliano Mol-
(Evans-Pritchard, 1956, p. 243).
lona, who worked at UNSOR,4 a steel company,
Ethnographers comprehend action by way of for 11 months, between January and December
their own action in the cultural space under study. 2000. He spent 7 months as a helper at the furnace
In order to convey the participant observers’ extra- in the hot department and 4 months as a helper in
linguistic cultural knowledge in linguistic form, the cold department. During 3 days every week he
ethnographies have often made use of detailed worked on nightshifts (from 8 pm to 7 am) in the
descriptions of sights, sounds, smells, sensations, hot department and on day shifts (from 8 am to 5
and tastes as part of the layered descriptions of pm) in the cold department. During weekends, he
observed activities with little or no direct speech met the steelworkers in the local pubs and joined
reported (Evans-Pritchard, 1976; Lambek, 1993; their snooker matches and fishing expeditions. Ini-
Lan, 1985; Leach, 1954; Levi-Strauss, 1974; Parry tially, he took extensive notes on the shop floor.
& Bloch, 1989). Where direct speech was used it As the research unfolded, he interacted with the
should not be mistaken as proof of the argument workers without taking notes on the shop floor,
because after months and years of observations it transcribing key observations and bits of conversa-
would be easy to report direct speech selectively.
Rather, the ethnography’s credibility rests on its
ability to convey important meanings in the lives 4
A pseudonym.
T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331 313

tions after work. Altogether he collected more announced 60 redundancies and started operating
than 2000 pages of notes on UNSOR during the the furnace, the billet mill and the rod mill on one
fieldwork. shift only.
In February 2001, Corus doubled the price of
raw steel directed to the domestic market whilst
The UNSOR steel company, 1994–April 2001 cutting the price for special steel sold in the Euro-
pean market. UNSOR’s high margin sales of spe-
UNSOR was formed in 1994 through a buyout cial steel in the European market became
by Mr. Turner and Mr. Armitage, who were the suddenly unprofitable. For a short while UNSOR
chief electrician and the marketing director of was able to raise the prices of its domestic raw steel
Umro Steel, the engineering division of a multina- and concentrated on the production of high vol-
tional corporation based in Pennsylvania, USA. umes of low quality steel. UNSOR needed sales
The two new owners of the company main- volume because increasing sales were a condition
tained the manufacture of high quality special of one of its bank loans. In the long run, however,
steels to the aerospace, mining, and automotive the strategy of concentrating on sales volume and
sectors whom they supplied with high carbon quantity, rather than on product quality and high
and high speed bars, billets, and wire rods. They margins, was unsustainable for UNSOR’s small
also diversified into the low quality production of productive capacity. In March 2001, the com-
rods, bars, and wires for the building and indus- pany’s pension schemes were frozen and the firm
trial engineering industries, and for household went into administration.
and sanitary appliances, thus combining the large In April 2001 the smeltery, billet, and rolling
profit margins from high quality products with a mill were closed and the company reduced its
steady supply of orders from the lower quality operations to grinding and coating coils. The old
products. owners, Mr. Armitage and Mr. Turner bought
UNSOR could pursue this diversification strat- what was left of their former company and contin-
egy because of its totally integrated production ued production only in the grinding bay with a
process. Unusual for the British steel industry, it small team of young and flexible workers.
was designed as a minimill that could melt, roll,
and finish steel in-house. UNSOR operated one
30-t electric arc furnace in a batch production pro- Comparative ethnography of production on two shop
cess.5 Besides allowing prompt response to cus- floors
tomer orders, UNSOR’s technical integration
insulated it from the price fluctuations of its inter- The smeltery of the hot department is located in
mediate products, i.e., billets, bars, and rods. Par- a dark corrugated aluminium structure that
ticularly for the production of special steels, those encloses an immense space approximately 200 m
fluctuations could be extreme. long and 30 m high.6 It is dominated by the 30-t
In 1999, some German, Belgian, and Spanish electric arc furnace and the crane, which is used
steel-makers consolidated, and British Steel to load the furnace and, when the steel is ready,
merged with the Dutch Hoogovens into Corus, teem it. Preparations for the nightshift begin in
the then fifth largest steel producer in the world. the morning. The furnace manager, Mr. Beat, col-
UNSOR’s position in the European market weak- lects the production orders from the quality
ened and its profit fell from £259,000 in 1998 to department and uses red chalk to write the list of
just £5000. In November 1999, UNSOR’s owners
In this paper, we use the ‘‘ethnographic present’’ (Clifford &
UNSOR’s output was small by comparison with its British Marcus, 1986) for the ethnographic description. We are aware
competitors who tended to use much more expensive contin- that the use of the present tense throughout the text gives the
uous casting furnaces that would melt around 150–250 t of steel descriptions an unwarranted timelessness, but we feel that it
in one batch. improves overall readability.
314 T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

alloys and scrap required for the three ‘‘heats’’7,8 labourers lay thick linings of clay and sealing
of the nightshift on the blackboard of his office around the joints.
together with the budgeted costs of electricity. Once the smelting process has begun, Phil and
Leaving the judgement of the precise quantities Dave inject oxygen into the furnace with a long
of alloys and scrap to be used to the smelters, he pump that they fit in the opening of a steel screen
only writes down the total of their allowable costs behind which they hide to protect themselves from
as calculated by the quality control department. the fire’s violent bursts that shower them with
Roger, the smeltery supervisor, arriving around heavy drops of steel. They are also protected by
half an hour after Mr. Beat, reads the notes on their thick blue clothes, green anti-dazzling
the blackboard and drives the battered forklift screens, and asbestos gloves. They load their shov-
truck between the warehouse and the furnace to els, weigh the alloys, and throw them into the
gather the right alloys for the nightshift. During ‘‘steel bath’’, standing, in turn, in front of the fire,
the day he also directs Pete, the crane driver, to and departing from it, following circular trajecto-
assemble the right amount and quality of scrap ries in order to avoid each other and the ‘‘spits’’
by the scrap basket next to the furnace. of steel. Their heavy protective clothes make their
The one remaining nightshift in the smeltery ‘‘shovel dance’’ in front of the furnace slow and
starts at 8 pm when three labourers, Tom, John measured. As the carbon content of the steel rises,
and Ian, and the two smelters, Phil and Dave, the movements of the steel bath inside the furnace
gather around the pit. Phil and Dave begin their become violent and unpredictable, and sparks and
work by checking the condition of the refractory large drops of steel shower the smelters’ bodies.
bricks inside the furnace and the functioning of While they perform this physically wearing and
the furnace roof. They direct the work of Pete, dangerous task, they have to think constantly
the crane driver, control the degree of humidity about the level of the bath and the ‘‘holes’’ on
of the lime, keep an eye on the temperature of the surface of the molten steel where the alloys
the furnace, and empty the slag cabin by lifting have to land, the condition of the furnace roof,
the thick steel plate that covers the floor surround- and the activities of the crane driver above. During
ing the furnace with the help of the crane driver. most of the shovel dance, the noise and their face
During this operation, they hang suspended over protection prevent them from speaking. Phil and
a red mountain of solid slag whose heat would Dave communicate their observations, measure-
suddenly cross their faces causing red flushes and ments, and reckonings only with nods and hand
trickles of sweat. signals, leaving the details of their judgements
Meanwhile the three labourers are preparing unarticulated. As Phil explains it, ‘‘I don’t really
the moulds inside the pit. The pit is about 15 m think, right, now I should add another shovel of
long, 3 m wide and 2 m deep. John and Ian lay this alloy, because of the colour and electricity
heavy steel plates at the bottom of it and fit hol- absorption or whatever. I more, like, just see all
low-squared refractory tiles into long pipes around of that and then just do the next thing’’. Often
the four runs of the bottom plates by hand. They the smelters manage to turn out the night’s pro-
keep climbing into and out of the pit hole with duction with less alloys then budgeted, an achieve-
piles of tiles and wet clay in their hands. With ment in which they take much pride. When they
the help of the crane driver, moulds are stood up need more alloys than budgeted they use their
in the pit, narrow end down, and fitted onto the ‘‘bin’’, a small store of powdered alloys which they
clay pipe. Balancing their bodies with one leg on sweep off the shop floor after each nightshift.
the ground and the other on the mould, the The large clock on the factory wall usually
shows 10:30 pm or thereabouts when the crane dri-
ver drops the second 10-t charge of scrap. Dave
Following ethnographic convention we use inverted com-
and Phil continue their close observation of the
mas for native terms. surface and colour of the steel bath, its noise,
Their term for one batch of molten steel. and the height and density of the smoke in order
T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331 315

to assess the carbon content of the heat. They fre- results in considerable savings of time, and thereby
quently mount a new measurement tip on the end electricity costs, because they generally ‘‘get the
of the 2-m pole of the temperature gauge and care- heat right’’ before the ‘‘Polivac’’ finishes its time-
fully insert it all the way into the steel bath. The consuming testing procedure. The ‘‘Polivac’’ is a
last measured temperature remains displayed on large quality control machine located in an adja-
the large analogue display next to the furnace. cent building with banks of indicators and dials
During one bath, the colour of the steel changes that reads the carbon content of steel samples by
from ‘‘blood’’ and ‘‘cherry’’ (700 °C) before the refracting light waves on its surface. Two tests
crane driver drops the second charge of scrap, to are taken during most heats. The test readings
‘‘orange’’ and ‘‘yellow’’ (1000 °C) just after the are automatically transmitted to the smelters’ por-
third one, and finally ‘‘dirty white’’ (1500 °C) when table computer in their break room. Usually, how-
ready to be teemed. After the third and last 10-t ever, the smelters tap the steel into the moulds
scrap charge has been released Phil and Dave con- before even looking at the second reading.
tinue to make small adjustments to the level and After the tapping, the crane driver carries the
composition of the bath by shovelling more alloys ladle over the first cluster of four moulds. One of
and lime, occasionally using the scale next to the the labourers, the ‘‘pit-man’’, operates the handle
furnace to check that they have enough alloys to release the stopper at the bottom of the ladle
for the remaining two heats of the nightshift. All and the molten steel flows out through the clay
the while, they keep an eye on the large dial that pipes and into the moulds from the bottom. After
indicates the furnace’s electricity absorption. Elec- the teeming all the moulds are filled and sparkle
tricity absorption should be held constant, set at with small flames on their surface. The labourers
the level that heats the steel bath at the right speed run to the corner where the clay is lined, load
to obtain the required quality of steel. two bags of sand and clay on their shoulders,
Eventually, the fire is ‘‘killed’’ and the move- and throw them into the bottom of the pit to pre-
ments of the steel inside the furnace become pre- vent the moulds sticking on the pit ground. For
dictable. The bath moves in long horizontal every bag thrown into the pit a small explosion
waves, its noise is low and rhythmical, and its col- covers them with sparks. The labourers wear only
our almost white, ‘‘like milk’’. When the steel bath T-shirts, and are not protected against the sparks.
‘‘looks ready’’9 to be tapped into the basket, usu- They dislike the protective clothes and helmets of
ally around 12 midnight, Phil activates the alarm. the smelters because they make movement difficult
The crane driver lowers the ladle into the furnace and restrict personal interaction. Equally, how-
pit and Dave tilts the furnace so that the molten ever, protective clothing is a marker of status,
steel runs out into the ladle. The labourers, who which the labourers do not possess. Whilst throw-
have little opportunity to observe the cooking ing bags of sand and clay into the pit and getting
steel, look at the molten steel now running into covered in sparks, the labourers move quickly
the ladle in silence, trying to guess the quality of back and forth, bumping into each other, laughing
the heat (and the company’s ability to sell it expen- and swearing under the flying sparks.
sively) from the colour and consistency of the fall- After the first heat, the smelters check the brick
ing steel. The smelters, too, fall silent and watch. lining inside the furnace and the state of the elec-
For a few seconds, the workforce stands still as trodes, the labourers strip the old moulds and lay
if hypnotised. new ones, and the crane driver begins to gather
Phil and Dave’s ‘‘hand melting’’ without the use scrap with the big magnet. During a nightshift,
of automated alloy-injecting pumps, and time-con- the 11 workers of the smeltery produce 348 ingots
suming chemical laboratories to test the properties of steel in three heats of 30 t each. The tapping of
of the steel before its final pouring into the moulds the second heat takes place at 3 am and the last
one at 6 am, when the first rays of sunlight shine
through the big holes in the smeltery’s corrugated
For an ethnography of skilled vision see Grasseni (2004). aluminium walls.
316 T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

During the day, the 14 workers of the rolling 100 m long and divided into three bays, is located
mill roll the ingots into billets on two shifts. After in a Victorian red-brick building about three min-
having been left in the cooling bank for at least utes walk from the dark structure of the smeltery.
2 h, the billets are checked and rough ground by The temperature in the cold department is often
the six workers at billet conditioning and sent to below zero during the winter and very high during
the rod mill. Here, Chris, the quality supervisor the summer, because the old Victorian tiles on the
checks the chemical properties of the billets and roof had been replaced with plastic screens.
their adherence to customers’ specifications. In The cold department processes the rods that are
the rod mill, 20 workers roll billets into rods on produced in the hot department or purchased as
two shifts. After having been hardened, some of semi-finished goods from other steel mills. In bay
the rods are coated and stored in the warehouse 1 the rods are coated. Steam of sulphuric acid,
and others are turned into coils for external phosphate, stearate and lime solutions fills the
customers or further processing in the cold space with yellow and pale magenta clouds. Three
department. workers stand suspended by the 5-m-high tanks,
Work in the smeltery revolves around the elec- plunging coils in them with the help of cranes.
tric arc furnace, and is implicated in competing The coils coated in bay 1 are sold. A final quality
visions of its costs, efficiency, production stan- check on the finished products is made by the
dards, and physical dangers. The smelters possess chemical engineer before they are packaged and
great tacit knowledge of the furnace operation. loaded by the fork lift drivers, weighed and regis-
Their daily reconciliation of the instructions that tered at the gatehouse, and driven away by Bob,
appears on the computer with their qualitative the lorry driver.
assessment of the requirements for the nightshift’s Other rods are transferred by crane and forklift
‘‘heats’’ reproduces the familiar tensions between truck to bays 2 and 3 where they are processed fur-
product-oriented metallurgists (UNSOR’s quality ther. The six workers in bay 2, supervised by Alan,
control department) and process-oriented engi- transform rods into wires in the Schumag
neers (the smelters) (Grasseni, 2004). By supple- machines, flat spinning drums that hammer rods
menting their impressions of the ‘‘heat’s’’ colour, into small dies by percussion. White lubricating
sounds, smells, surface movements, ‘‘holes’’, and soap for the dies (aluminium and sodium stearate)
smoke with various measurements of tempera- and coating powder cover the floor of bay 2. In
tures, electricity absorption, timings, and the bay 3, the grinding bay, two Windsor machines
weights of alloys, the smelters know practically straighten rods into bars that three operators and
when to discharge what kind of scrap into the their supervisor grind on three separate grinding
‘‘heat’’, when to blow how much oxygen onto its machines, producing silver particles of steel that
surface, when to add what quantities of alloys, cover the floor of the grinding bay. Four operators
and when to use how much electricity for how pack them and the forklift truck driver takes them
long, in order for the steel to fulfil the quality con- into the yard. A wide door that opens automati-
trol department’s technical specifications. Produc- cally under the weight of the approaching forklift
ing the intended output at a reasonable cost trucks connects bays 2 and 3. Forklift trucks
depends on their experience. speedily cross the shop floor, beeping at the work-
In contrast to the hot department’s organi- ers in their way.
sation of work around big machines and their Unlike the work in the smeltery, production in
technological imperatives, workers in the cold bays 2 and 3 of the cold department is not organ-
department work more independently from one ised around one dominant machine but around
another. Instead of the smeltery’s predictable daily several machines, which have different functions.
sequence of planning, materials provision, and The work processes in bays 2 and 3 are not tightly
production, work in the cold department is dic- coupled because the machines are designed to be
tated by the composition of customer orders. The operated by single workers and because work in
shop floor of the cold department, approximately progress inventories act as buffers between the dif-
T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331 317

ferent stages of production. They allow some flex- them to concentrate on their highly skilled tasks.
ibility in the timing of the stages of production, In the cold department, the contrast between the
unlike the furnace’s steel bath that must be pro- steady rhythm of work of the ‘‘men’’ and the fren-
cessed as one batch in one coordinated sequence zied activity of the boys reflects the fact that,
that Phil and Dave determine for everyone on unlike the ‘‘men’’, the boys are paid bonuses based
the smeltery shop floor. Also, in the cold depart- on their production. They lift bars onto the grind-
ment the length of individual production runs var- ing machines, sometimes with the aid of the ‘‘men’’
ies with the sizes of customer orders, whereas in and a crane, tighten the various hand wheels, and
the smeltery it is determined by the furnace capac- set about making adjustment to improve the cylin-
ity and the physical processes through which the drical accuracy of their work piece.
steel is transformed. Customers can only order The company classes the boys’ operations in the
30 t of a type of steel or multiples thereof. grinding bay as skilled whereas the wire making
Those technological differences have implica- work in bay 2 is classified as unskilled. With regard
tions for the regularity of the working days in the to recruitment policy, the company requires a min-
cold department. Instead of the smeltery’s predict- imum of four GCSEs10 of applicants for grinding
able daily sequence of planning, materials provi- jobs and only ‘‘physical strength’’ for the workers
sion, and production, the labour process in the in bay 2. Grinders earn between £7 and £9 per
cold department is dictated by the composition of hour, and the workers in bay 2 between £6 and
customer orders. Production schedules in front of £7 per hour. The average age in the grinding bay
each machine and inside each loading space in the (including the older workers in the packing sec-
cold department are constantly updated by Chris, tion) is 30, most of the boys are under 30 years
the quality controller, and by the production plan- old. For comparison, the average age in bay 2 it
ners. Because of the owners’ strategy of expanding is 35. The boys at the grinding machines work
the cold department’s output, the working day is between 50 and 55 h per week without complaint
without beginning or end. Production is continu- or absence. The other cold workers work a mini-
ous in three shifts, punctuated only by the break mum of 48 h a week. In the grinding bay, the
times and the handovers between different shifts. ‘‘men’’ are all members of the same metal trade
In the grinding bay there is very little interac- union, the Iron and Steel Trade Confederation
tion between workers. The ‘‘men’’, as the grinding (ISTC), but none of the boys is. By contrast, in
bay’s older workers are known, perform repetitive bay 2 all the workers are members of the ISTC
packing operations. During any one shift, four of and the bay supervisor is also the company health
them are busy packing bars of finished steel and and safety representative. (Incidentally, none of
moving the cranes along the shop floor. Like small the hot department workers are ISTC members,
mechanical extensions of the crane, they move on regarding it as ‘‘too bureaucratic’’ and ‘‘not con-
the grinding bay sideways, never talking to one cerned with real shop floor issues’’.)
another or releasing their bodies into unplanned The boys’ production output can be measured
movement. without recourse to qualitative judgement. After
The three grinders and their supervisor in bay 3, grinding, the measurement of the finished bars
known collectively as the ‘‘boys’’ (from now on covers all of their relevant characteristics: their
without inverted commas), move back and forth dimensions, the evenness of their surface, their
between the two Windsor machines that are used strength and resilience. The boys’ liking for the
to straighten rods into bars and the three grinding objective, factual character of their work can be
machines with which they give the bars their spe- observed in the keenness with which they use the
cial surfaces and tensile strength. Altogether, bay micrometer to measure the width of bars before
3 employs 13 young grinders working around the removing them from the grinding machine.
clock in three shifts. Their work pace at the grind-
ing machines is frantic. Their earmuffs shut out the
noise of the machines surrounding them, allowing 10
British intermediate school leavers’ qualification.
318 T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

Adjusting the three ball pens that are clipped to department and overstretched the cold depart-
the chest pocket of his overall, Sean (25 years ment, cutting costs in the former and increasing
old) comments, ‘‘we like to work with facts and overtime in the latter. Their human resource policy
quantitative information. We don’t need to chat was to hire young, multi-skilled grinders with for-
and socialise on the shop floor . . .’’. When com- mal engineering qualifications who could also
pleted, the bars are stacked next to the grinding operate ground-operated and travelling cranes
machines for the forklift trucks to take them to and fork lift trucks, thereby increasing their inde-
the quality control stations. pendence from the auxiliary workers. The boys’
The formal accounting system is central to the greater technical autonomy was reflected in the
management of the grinding activities. Based on higher formal authority of their supervisor, com-
a standard batch costing system, targets for quality pared to the hot department supervisors, and in
and time are set for each production batch and the lack of a dedicated shop floor manager in the
variances are analysed upon completion by the grinding bay (see Fig. 1). Working in shifts of four
quality control department. The most significant operators, one of whom acted as supervisor, the
controllable costs are labour and waste. Manage- boys were effectively operating in self-managing
ment seeks to keep the costs of unproductive teams. Relying on the cost standards, overtime
labour low by offering the grinders relatively mod- and bonus payments of the formal accounting sys-
est hourly wages combined with the opportunity of tem and on the self-managing capabilities of the
performance related pay (see Fig. 2). As a conse- teams on the individual shifts, management pur-
quence the grinders themselves incur considerable sued a technocratic stance to efficiency control
opportunity costs when they do not manage to (Saravanamuthu & Tinker, 2003). By contrast,
produce the bars according to specifications the workers in the hot department had been with
(thereby wasting raw materials). They are then UNSOR for longer periods of time. The smelters
unable to achieve the targets based on which they were on relatively modest wages but stayed with
earn ‘‘bonus’’ payments. the company because they enjoyed practicing their
Bonus payments are calculated as a percentage craft. The other hot workers were regarded as
of the revenue, known as the ‘‘value’’, of the order replaceable. Many were laid off as a consequence
on which the grinders work, and they are paid in of shrinking the hot department’s operations.
addition to the hourly wages at normal and over- The subcultures of the grinding bay in the cold
time rates. Bonus payments can be considerable. department and the smeltery in the hot department
Even though the formal wage structure (see were influenced by those business and human
Fig. 2) of the firm is flat and polarised between resource strategies. The subculture of the boys,
management and the manual workforce, if over- who worked independently on dedicated
time and bonuses are considered, the grinders of machines, relied on their own skills, and were paid
the cold department receive greater remuneration individual bonuses, revolved around the maximi-
than the furnace manager in the hot department. sation of the value of their individual output. For-
The division between management and workers mal accounting information had immediate
in terms of basic payments turns into a division relevance for them because they regarded com-
between hot and cold departments when the total pany profit as tantamount to increased output
remuneration including overtime is considered. and greater overtime and bonus payments for
themselves. Competitive and individualistic in out-
look, they welcomed the intensification of their
Reflections on control, strategy, and technology work. By contrast, the workers of the hot depart-
ment valued friendship and cooperation. Its mem-
Management strategy bers were hired from the factory’s immediate
neighbourhoods. Hiring policies, remuneration
The owners and managers pursued a strategy of plans, production planning, and budgetary control
progressively subcontracting the work of the hot thus contributed to the contrasts between the sub-
T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331 319












Fig. 1. UNSOR organisation chart.

cultures by dividing the workforce into the literate, dependence on the smelters’ tacit knowledge of
young, well-paid workers of the cold department, production. Different managers contributed to
and the less qualified, older, badly remunerated UNSOR’s management practices depending on
workers of the hot department. their particular expertise and objectives (Saravan-
This is not to paint an unduly homogeneous amuthu & Tinker, 2003).
picture of the individual managers’ and owners’ Relating in this way the management strategy
priorities. The quality control department tried and objectives, as borne out by human resource
to stabilise the production standards, the general policies and the uses of other management con-
manager to minimise overall electricity costs, and trols, to the workers’ practices, understood as
the owners to grow the sales of cheap, low quality ordered meaningful activities, begins to outline
steel. Seeking to accommodate whom he regarded organisational control as cultural practice.
as irreplaceable workers (Saravanamuthu & Tin-
ker, 2003), the smeltery manager frequently gave Technology
in to the smelters’ preference for higher electricity
consumption in the execution of production. At Work in the smeltery revolved around the elec-
the same time the owners’ moves to expand the tric arc furnace, and was implicated in competing
output of low quality steel and to substitute fur- visions of its costs, efficiency, production stan-
nace production through the purchase of semi-fin- dards, and physical dangers. The smelters pos-
ished coils had the effect of reducing UNSOR’s sessed great tacit knowledge of the furnace
320 T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

operation. Their daily reconciliation of the instruc- tion to put their strategy to the test, the smelters
tions that appeared on the computer with their resigned to a position of opposing owners and
qualitative assessment of the requirements for the managers and the boys whom they regarded as
nightshift’s ‘‘heats’’ reproduced the familiar ten- their accessories to ruining the company. This
sions between product-oriented metallurgists made the smelters an important source of a them-
(UNSOR’s quality control department) and pro- and-us culture of class division in UNSOR further
cess-oriented engineers (the smelters) (Misa, strengthening their defence of ‘‘our’’ furnace oper-
1995). By supplementing their impressions of the ations against ‘‘management interference’’.
‘‘heat’s’’ colour, sounds, smells, surface move- Whereas the craft character of steel production
ments, ‘‘holes’’, and smoke with various measure- in the smeltery rendered the extensive use of for-
ments of temperatures, electricity absorption, mal, quantitative information for management
timings, and the weights of alloys, the smelters control ineffective, the grinding operations in the
knew practically when to discharge what kind of cold department were susceptible to detailed pro-
scrap into the ‘‘heat’’, when to blow how much duction planning. Its output could be measured
oxygen onto its surface, when to add what quanti- and rated in every aspect, bringing into view
ties of alloys, and when to use how much electric- UNSOR’s management control systems as another
ity for how long, in order for the steel to fulfil the significant aspect of technology. UNSOR prepared
quality control department’s technical specifica- monthly variance analyses for the heads of depart-
tions. Producing the intended output at a reason- ments, based on annual operating and capital bud-
able cost depended on their experience. gets. For the smeltery the daily variable costs of
The smelters’ sense of how to go about making scrap and alloys were planned and controlled in
a good heat was a source of frequent irritation for aggregate and electricity costs separately. The
the smeltery manager whose priority was to mini- quality control department’s standard costing sys-
mise electricity costs. Yet management could nei- tem only afforded management relatively global
ther codify the smelters’ work nor insulate them output measures of the smeltery’s performance.
from the work processes surrounding them to By contrast, the grinding practices were mutually
achieve greater control over the smeltery. The dif- independent and individually paced, thus enabling
ferent groups of workers in the smeltery were tied the measurement of each worker’s performance.
together by the sequential and interdependent The boys’ culture of work was individualistic and
organisation of production practices of the hot tied to the company’s formal accounting systems.
department, the sequence and speed of which Grinding followed the pace set by the bonus
was determined by the heating times of the fur- system.
nace. Similarly, the activities in the hot depart-
ment’s rolling mill were determined by set rolling
sequences. Technology determined that the hot Comparative ethnography of social relations on two
workers work collectively within the spaces defined shop floors
by the interdependencies between the machines
and it made UNSOR dependent on the craft The differences in the physical appearances of
knowledge of the smelters without whom the hot the smelters’ and the labourers’ break-rooms are
department would have come to a standstill. striking. The labourers call their break-room the
The cultural consequences of the smelting tech- ‘‘donkeys house’’. It is located outside the shop
nology were to strengthen the smelters’ craft orien- floor and faces a big field with a canal at the end
tation through their control over the process of of it. On a table by the door stands a microwave.
smelting and the activities of the labourers. Their A smell of baked beans, eggs, and cigarettes hangs
craft orientation helped them outline a commercial in the air. The labourers eat at the table in the mid-
strategy of high quality steel production that they dle of the room, often joined by Roger, the smelt-
regarded as an alternative to the volume strategy ery supervisor. Most days the room is very cold.
of the owners and managers. Not being in a posi- Sometimes, when the crane driver is reloading
T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331 321

the furnace, the labourers sneak out of the shift for is cut short by Ferrell. ‘‘The more steel we make,
a short nap on the wooden bench by the wall. the more we earn. To us it makes no difference if
The relationships between the smelters and the it’s special steel or scrap [low quality steel]. Scrap
labourers are fraught with mutual distrust and steel saves us labour. With special steel we have
conflicting outlooks on work. The smelters’ expert to reinforce the seals on the moulds, put extra
knowledge and control of the chemical properties clay on the pipes, sweat to strip them out, and
of the steel gives them also control over the labour- spend an extra hour loading the scrap basket.’’
ers’ movement around the fire. Unlike the smelt- Armstrong rebukes the researcher’s objection that
ers, the labourers fear the fire and do not like to ‘‘Phil and Dave like doing a good job’’. ‘‘A good
‘‘play with it’’. For the labourers, the steel bath job is a job where labourers don’t sweat blood!
is unpredictable because they cannot see it from Phil and Dave are more concerned with the bricks
their usual places of work. They get showered by in the furnace than with our safety. On that shift
sparks, for example, when oxygen is pumped. Also that Ferrell fell into the pit hole, Phil kept watch-
when producing high quality steel, Phil and Dave ing the furnace lining as if nothing had hap-
direct the labourers to throw bags of additives into pened’’. ‘‘Ferrell was bloody drunk’’, replies
the steel bath, causing explosions that leave them Roger, the smeltery supervisor, who often joins
covered in sparks. The labourers resent and pri- the labourers in their break-room. Ferrell starts
vately account for the additional work that is cackling. But Roger, too, is critical of the smelt-
caused by high quality steel as much as the dangers ers’ ‘‘hierarchical’’ way of running the smeltery.
of moving closer to the fire. As one of them puts it, ‘‘For God’s sake! Phil thinks he can read the car-
‘‘each bag of sand weighs 2 kg. It takes more than bon content of the heat better than the bloody
20 s to walk from the protective screen to the fur- Polivac!’’
nace. In these 20 s we have to run towards the fur- According to Phil, the labourers work ‘‘like
nace without protective clothes, exposed to donkeys’’, never searching a ‘‘deeper meaning’’ in
sparkles and fire. Phil and Dave don’t realise that their repetitive actions. The smelters’ break-room
each of their ‘small adjustments’ costs us hard and contains a desk on which a computer and a kettle
risky labour’’. face each other at the two opposite corners, and
The labourers’ resentment against the smelters three chairs. It is located on the shop floor, over-
takes a variety of forms. One evening in the looking the furnace with two big windowpanes,
break-room, Armstrong, one of the labourers, one of which is protected by a steel grate that is
says, ‘‘the whole story of the danger of the fur- constantly hit by the sparks coming out from the
nace is an invention by Mr. Beat and the two furnace. The heavy panel near the side window
melters to control the melting shop, raise their contains electricity switches, indicators, and the
wage and exploit us.’’ The labourers are aware levers to tilt the furnace and to open the roof.
that the owners and the quality control depart- From the panel, the smelters can also look at the
ment are pushing the smeltery to produce lower back of the furnace through a lorry window mir-
quality steel faster and cheaper and they fully ror. The three chairs are for Phil, Dave, and
endorse this ‘‘philosophy of work’’. ‘‘Who do Roger, their supervisor.
they think they are?’’ Ferrell, another labourer, More often, though, the supervisor’s chair is
joins the discussion. ‘‘Only because they stand occupied by Mr. Beat. Married without children
in front of the furnace, smell a bit of smoke, for 40 years, he often pops into the smeltery at
and get a few scars, they think they can run the night from his home, in slippers and with tousled
business!’’11 Observing that ‘‘from up there their hair, ‘‘to stay with the guys’’ and ‘‘to control the
jobs look very dangerous’’, Pete, the crane driver, heat’’. He has a special relationship with the smelt-
ers with whom he shares the same fundamental
Notice the inconsistency with the view that the labourers’
values: respect for hierarchy and discipline, and
own 20 s runs to the furnace with bags of sand were ‘‘hard and a strong distaste for such superficialities as
risky labour’’. ‘‘money’’, ‘‘career’’, and what they regard as the
322 T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

exaggerated technical and economical language of the cooking steel and the height and density of
the top management. Even though he is formally the smoke floating above the furnace.
the manager of the smeltery Mr. Beat feels closer In summary, the smelters oppose the owners’
to the smelters’ subculture than that of UNSOR’s strategy of obtaining large orders for low quality
management. steel that debase their skills and deteriorate the
Nevertheless Phil and Mr. Beat can often be firms’ largest tangible asset, the furnace. They
seen arguing on the shop floor of the smeltery regard the flexible production of quality steel as
about how to deal with specific heats. Phil and UNSOR’s main strength and the decision to com-
Dave’s concerns for the refractory bricks and the pete with Corus’ cheap steel as ‘‘ruinous’’. They
electrodes of the furnace, and their awareness that distrust the short-term financial calculations that
a ‘‘good heat never boils’’, lead them to seek stabil- make the owners’ strategy appear profitable.
ity in the heat, whereas Mr. Beat’s concerns for the Their own accountings of production are rooted
electricity costs leads him to use the furnace’s in notions of craft production and quality
power unevenly (high with high quality steel and products.
low for low quality) thus damaging the electrodes The boys, too, are dedicated to quality produc-
and making the steel more dangerous to work with tion and practical expertise even though the status
and, according to Phil, ‘‘always at the edge of of craftsmanship is of little consequence for them.
being burnt’’. They support the owners’ strategy because it helps
Mr. Beat’s efforts to keep electricity costs to a them make ends meet. With more than half of
minimum sometimes come at the expense of the their income made up of bonus payments (see
furnace and the smelters’ safety, for instance, when Fig. 2), the boys have strong incentives to contrib-
he instructs the crane driver to load more than 10 t ute to UNSOR’s sales success. They are keenly
of scrap in the basket for a single charge. ‘‘If we aware of the market values of the different batches
divide the scrap in two loads [of 15 t each] we on which they work. For them, timely production
can reduce the cooking time by about 20 min of quality output with a minimum of wasted
and reduce [electricity] absorption by 5–10% . . . labour time and material are priorities.
Depends on the grade of steel we’re making.’’ Lar- Ultimate responsibility for the management of
ger scrap loads speed up production but Phil finds the grinding bay lies with the general manager pro-
this ‘‘irresponsible’’ because excessive scrap duction, Mr. Bell. He can often be seen walking
charges can damage the furnace electrodes (for around the grinding bay, the earmuffs on his hel-
the maintenance of which the smelters are formally met sticking out laterally like insect antennae, dis-
responsible). cussing the hardness, flexibility, and tensile ratios
Phil and Dave’s ways of assessing the quality of of the bars with the bay’s shift supervisor and
the steel differ from Mr. Beat’s. Mr. Beat relies on Chris, the quality control supervisor. Chris, too,
the electrodes’ electricity absorption indicated spends a lot of his time in the grinding bay, away
on the control panel inside the control room and from his office, bringing new customer orders,
the readings of the ‘‘Polivac’’. According to Phil changing old instructions, and checking the qual-
and Dave, Roger, the smeltery supervisor, for fear ity of the bars that the grinders produce. Mr. Bell’s
of getting too close to the furnace, often takes the and Chris’ direct involvement underline the signif-
sample for the Polivac too close to the surface, icance that UNSOR’s management accords to the
which makes the Polivac readings inaccurate. They grinding bay’s activities.
also complain that Mr. Beat’s insistence on mini- The boys’ efforts at self-management are sup-
mising electricity costs makes the use of electricity ported by the detailed accounting information
so uneven that one can hardly infer the steel’s car- and general management information that they,
bon content from the electricity absorption. They unlike any other group of workers within
therefore prefer to assess the quality of the steel UNSOR, receive through their supervisors. The
inductively, through their close observation of supervisors take part in the cold department’s
the surface and colour of the bath, the noise of weekly management meeting. Also present are
T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331 323


Weekly Remuneration, £

400 Payment

300 Including



Bell Managers Beat Admin. Fitters L.D. Melters Crane Bay 3 Bay 2 Billet Rod Labourers
Staff support Mill Mill

Fig. 2. UNSOR remuneration.

usually the general manager of production, Mr. The boys are all married, apolitical, well edu-
Bell, and the production manager of the hot cated, moderate in their views on working at
department. Here the supervisors receive informa- UNSOR, and balanced in their judgements. They
tion on and discuss UNSOR’s order book, the avoid the working class rhetoric of ‘‘them-and-
production schedule for the week ahead, and the us’’. According to Sean (25 years old) almost all
short term financial performance, including cash of his friends outside UNSOR are ‘‘managers or
flows and debt. The most significant costs in the self-employed’’. ‘‘It doesn’t really matter if they
cold department are labour and waste. Quality are managers, owners or workers, since we all live
problems that entail waste of labour and materials in Park Hill, we all drink at the Red Lion12 on Sat-
and require rework are a major cause of cost over- urday night, and we know each other since we
runs and are therefore discussed in great detail. were kids.’’ Sean is unusual in that he lives near
Finding ways of enhancing quality is an important the factory in Park Hill. Most of the other boys
objective of the meetings, as a result of which, for live with their young families in mortgaged houses
example, two maintenance engineers have been in the newer suburbs to the southeast of Sheffield.
dedicated to preventative maintenance in the cold They seek to keep away from the centres of the old
department. Other important topics of discussion industrial and mining towns in the area, thus dis-
in the cold department’s weekly management tinguishing themselves further from the other
meetings are trends in customer specifications UNSOR workers.
and sales forecasts, forecasts for overtime work, For Sean ‘‘[the] problem in UNSOR is that
and health and safety updates. Also sourcing strat- there are too many old men with old ideas about
egies such as the purchase of coils from Spain and work, rights, and socialising on the shop floor. I
Germany in order to increase the cold depart-
ment’s output independent of the hot department
are discussed here. A public house.
324 T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

don’t come to work to socialise but to work! And Reflections on control as subcultural practice
to work fast because I don’t know if this place will
be open tomorrow’’. For him the social relation- Accounting for social relations
ships on the shop floor are closely related to the
ways in which workers go about their tasks. Like- Management’s efforts at dividing the workforce
wise, Willie (26 years old) reveals his instrumental into the older workers involved in the capital-
orientation to work during a break: ‘‘My interests intensive production processes of the hot depart-
and the interests of the owners are the same: to ment and the younger workers performing labour
make money’’. He does not want to get involved intensive tasks in the cold department had come
in organisational politics because he cannot see to structure the workers’ understandings of
the point. The boys agree with the general man- UNSOR’s social relations. The different groups
ager production that ‘‘employees are creators of of workers characterised their own (and other
value’’ and ‘‘profit makers’’, and not just simple workers’) relationships with the owners’ and man-
manual workers. They reject the hot workers’ agers’ strategies through highly specific uses of
‘‘philosophy of work’’ based on seniority and accounting terms (‘‘cost’’, ‘‘profit’’, ‘‘asset’’, ‘‘cap-
friendship, and their mixing of leisure and work ital’’) and more general commercial assessments
on the shop floor. (‘‘profitable’’, ‘‘ruinous’’).
‘‘Men’’ and boys are not only distant on the Their opposition to the owners’ and managers’
shop floor, but also during break-time. The boys strategy allied the smelters with the men from the
spend their break-times in isolation from one cold department’s packing bay and opposed them
another. They sit behind the cardboard screens to the boys from the grinding bay. They claimed
and wooden cupboards they have built around that the boys had become capitalistic in outlook
their machines and decorated with postcards, because they valued short term ‘‘profit’’ before
drawings, letters and calendars. They drink tea ‘‘personal relationships’’ and ‘‘craftsmanship’’.
and use their mobile phones to speak with their For the smelters and the men from the cold depart-
friends and family. In contrast to the workers in ment’s packing bay the boys’ craft was tainted by
the hot department and the ‘‘men’’ in the cold their reliance on and responsiveness to financial
department, the boys, with the exception of Sean, incentives, undermining the dignity of the boys’
do not socialise with their workmates, neither craft and marking them as industrial proletariat.
during break-times, nor outside the factory. Mean- They said that the boys were ‘‘greedy’’ and being
while the ‘‘men’’ spend their breaks in the co-opted into the owners’ ruinous strategy of pro-
break-room used by the workers of bay 2, accusing ducing low quality steel.
the boys of being co-opted in the firms’ strategy of Notwithstanding their agreement with the own-
maximising the firms’ profit at the expense of the ers’ commercial objectives, the boys thought of
workforce. They have become ‘‘capitalists’’. For themselves as labourers proper because they regu-
Tom, one of the men, ‘‘they [the boys] are like larly worked overtime in the most labour-intensive
the owners. They see this place only as a place part of UNSOR’s production. They accused the
where they can make money, and not a place smelters of being the real ‘‘capitalists’’. After all,
where they can improve as persons’’. He has a the smelters controlled the most capital-intensive
low opinion of the boys, saying that ‘‘all the boys phase of production and they were the ones with
care for is their mortgages and their nice cars to pretensions of ordering about the labourers in
show off at the weekends’’. The boys see them- their department.
selves not as capitalists but, on the contrary, as Lastly, the semi-skilled labourers who worked
the hardest working labourers in the company. in the smeltery tended to agree with the general
According to Willie, ‘‘we don’t do real money. manager’s objective of containing the labour costs
We don’t deal with the expensive assets, like the in the smeltery, and the company’s overall strategy
melters [who control the electric arc furnace]. They of favouring the production of low quality steel.
are the ones who really run this place’’. For them low quality steel required less wearing
T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331 325

and dangerous work at the pit and less interaction cially an ethnography of different organisational
with the smelters during the smelting process. Low subcultures ought to address in how far the social
quality steel was generally ordered in greater vol- backgrounds of their members can shed light on
umes and therefore often resulted in higher wages their motivations for seeking out, and acquiescing
for them. ‘‘We get more money in less time and to, their subcultures—those specific combinations
with less danger.’’ They did not share in the smelt- of working conditions, manual and automated
ers’ gratification from working hard and produc- technologies, social relationships and shared out-
ing better quality steel, but opposed the smelters’ looks, statuses, remuneration, and opportunities
attempts to exercise control over them (and the to control one’s own work and that of others.
smeltery manager) as ‘‘capitalist’’. In the case of UNSOR, the extent to which
Curiously, but consistently, all of those groups members of particular subcultures shared similar
of workers—smelters, packers, grinders, and social backgrounds and aspirations turned out to
labourers—saw themselves in opposition to a set be striking. A clear distinction could be made
of ‘‘capitalists’’ whom they defined in their own between the boys in the cold department’s grinding
ways. For the smelters and packers, capitalists val- bay on the one hand, and the older smelters and
ued accounting profit over the greater values of men in the cold department on the other. The
quality craftsmanship and worker solidarity. They older men and smelters had already independent
contrasted their own notions of personal growth children and no monthly mortgage payments to
with what they called ‘‘capitalist greed’’. In their make. They were economically relatively self-suffi-
day-to-day work, the smelters tended to act in cient, claiming that they worked for self-gratifica-
ways that prioritised their specific notions of qual- tion and that the wage was only a small part of
ity production over financial cost. By contrast, the their motivation to work. The smelters and most
grinders and labourers had an instrumental orien- of the other hot workers were recruited locally
tation to work and used accounting cost and profit through friendship or kinship connections and
measurements to orient their preferences and prac- had longer personal and family occupational his-
tices. The labourers suspected that the smelters tories in skilled trades (smelting, forging, rolling)
used their alternative benchmarks of craftsman- and longer experience of the UNSOR factory than
ship to tighten control over them. The grinders the boys. They valued the fact that the company
saw the smelters’ control over the electric arc fur- was located close to their homes and that they
nace and the smeltery labourers as the hallmark could cultivate friendships and their manual skills
of the capitalist. on the shop floor. Their relative economic inde-
The different cultural practices, and the com- pendence from UNSOR constituted an important
plex social relations in which they were implicated, resource for the maintenance of their subcultures.
contributed to the uneven impact of the company By contrast, the boys were recruited for their
strategy on the company’s subcultures and gave formal engineering skills (which, at the time of
rise to distinctive control practices on the different the study, were generally in greater demand than
shop floors. The social relations also emphasised the skills of the other workers) and their willing-
the political nature of cultural practices. ness to work long hours of overtime. The boys
were economically dependent on the firm’s wages
Social backgrounds and aspirations and worked intensively to maximise their income,
which they had used to obtain mortgages and
An ethnographic study of control as cultural houses in the newer suburbs to the southeast of
practice does not a priori accept the formal bound- Sheffield. The fact that the boys’ cultural practices
aries of the organisation as the natural boundaries accounted for the value of their production using
for fieldwork. The ethnography should selectively the criteria of the formal accounting systems were
include those aspects of the ‘‘private’’ lives of thus rooted in their personal circumstances as well
organisational members that shed light on their as their training and employment histories. The
organisational practices and preferences. Espe- boys showed no emotional attachment to UNSOR
326 T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

and left the factory as soon as more lucrative jobs abandoning the quality market to increase the
become available. sales of low quality steel. They saw one source of
The smeltery labourers’ social backgrounds did the labourers’ ‘‘greediness’’ in management’s
not fall easily into one or the other category. Mid- materialistic values, which ‘‘trickle down onto
dle-aged and, like the boys, mostly with children at the shop floor’’. According to Phil and Dave, the
home and mortgages to pay, their economic strat- managers’ high wages and expensive company cars
egy was different from the boys. Much as they, as a pushed the workers into conspicuous consump-
group, sided with the views of the owners, manag- tion, mutual competition, and distrust. Mr. Beat,
ers, and boys and against those of the smelters, too, thought this was true. After the last redun-
and much as they had a purely instrumental out- dancies, he had agreed to link his salary to the out-
look on work, their willingness to over-work was put of the smeltery, ‘‘like all the other workers’’,
limited. The labourers did not seek self-gratifica- thereby effectively reducing his income.
tion in their job and pragmatically avoided extra
efforts or taking extra risks. They measured and
assessed their work quantitatively, in terms of the Discussion
number of ingots produced and money earned
during each shift. Most of them had a second Little is still known about the ways in which
day-time job besides their nightshifts at UNSOR. organisational subcultures may be characterised
Arriving at work already tired, they tried to econo- by specific cultural practices through which eco-
mise on effort, for example, by finding opportuni- nomic and technical measurements are communi-
ties to nap on the wooden bench in the ‘‘donkeys cated, and labour and management processes are
house’’ in between heats. Whilst eating during negotiated. As part of those processes diverse cal-
their breaks, the labourers’ jokes often revolved culations, estimates, reckonings, etc. become
around the arguments between Mr. Beat and Phil mobilised through, but also shape, the cultural
about the furnace’s temperature, or the ‘‘hierarchi- practices of an organisation. The uses of numbers
cal mind’’ of the smelters and their ambition to and measures has particular effects on organisa-
organise ‘‘the company’s business’’ better than tions and their cultures (cf. Crump, 1990). Mea-
the owners. sures that were used in UNSOR’s labour and
Mr. Beat, even though a member of manage- management processes included weights, dimen-
ment, shared the smelters’ social background and sions, temperatures, and chemical compositions.
crafts outlook. Having started his career in the Using measurements rather than qualitative
R&D department of Firth Brown more than forty descriptions of colours, consistencies, sounds,
years ago, he later trained in metallurgy and and smells, can characterise activities as part of
became a manager in one of the firm’s smelteries. specific symbolic systems and thereby affect the
As he put it one night, ‘‘even if I was a metallurgist ways in which labour and other organisational
and a theoretician, I have always thought that the processes are communicated and culturally
work of the guys on the shop floor was more conceived.
important than the work of the managers’’. When In the cold department measurements were used
he was a young manager, he was especially to define tasks through abstract control concepts
attracted by the smelters’ ‘‘sense of dignity and ele- and precisely defined objects. Measurement sym-
gance’’ and by their ability to enforce discipline bolised objectivity and made statistical aggrega-
and a ‘‘sense of hierarchy’’ on the shop floor. tion and analysis possible. It engendered a
This shop floor discipline, Mr. Beat and the culture of technical specifications and financial
smelters agreed, had been lost at UNSOR due to budgets, in which the defined bonus payments
the labourers’ lack of involvement in their job for each customer order completed on time and
and their ‘‘narrow interest in money’’. To them on budget acted as a great incentive for the boys.
the instrumental work attitude of the labourers Since the boys and their managers agreed over
reflected the company’s short-term strategy of the accounting for determining its success, grind-
T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331 327

ing, as a practice defined by collective action and alloys. Finally, for the semi-skilled labourers
(Barnes, 2001), exhibited comparatively great uni- who prepared the pit, a good job was ‘‘quick and
formity of organisation and objectives. Negotia- easy’’. They assessed their job in terms of number
tions were confined to practical details such as of ingots prepared in each shift and their pay.
who would fulfil which customer order when. Their tasks were repetitive and labour-intensive.
The manner in which such matters of production Their main concern was to save physical effort.
planning were negotiated marked them as ‘‘techni- The symbolic fragmentation of smelting as a
cal’’, that is, with little potential to disrupt the practice was marked by the different notions of
symbolic order of the practice. In turn, the pres- what ‘‘a good heat’’ was according to the smelters,
ence of a technical realm thus defined marked the furnace manager, the quality control manager,
the practice of grinding and its related managerial and the labourers. They used different knowledge
practices as culturally relatively unified. Grinding’s of the production process, and different ways of
symbolic significance was shared amongst its prac- accounting for its quality and costs. With respect
titioners and stable. to the subcultures of UNSOR and their symbolic
By contrast, the smelters’ conceived of their systems, it made a difference if the steel was
labour process as dominated by qualitative deemed ready for teeming when it had reached a
insights and tactile skills. Their concerns lay with measured temperature and carbon content, or
the processes of crafting a quality product. The when its colour had become ‘‘like milk’’ and its
smelters considered a ‘‘good job’’ one that was surface ‘‘moved in long waves’’ because this differ-
dangerous and hard, like the smelting of special ence mapped onto distinctions between industrial
steel for aerospace applications. It had the highest and crafts cultures (Ingold, 2000), and thereby
carbon content and was therefore lighter, whiter, the ways in which technologies mediated the orga-
and more ‘‘unsettled’’ and unpredictable in its nisation’s priorities and strategies as well as its
movement inside the furnace than ordinary steel. social relations. Technical considerations did thus
The smelters preference for quality steel and their not function as arbiters of practice because they
concern with the firms’ largest asset, the furnace, were themselves products of the different symbolic
conflicted with the smeltery manager’s preoccupa- systems that organised the different organisational
tion with electricity costs. For Mr. Beat, ‘‘electri- members’ practices and marked them as cultural.
city’’ was not only a measurement of cost but also Despite deep-seated disagreements over how
of quality, and he frequently sought to lower the smelting should be practiced, controlled, and
quality of the heat to the quality control depart- judged, smelting persisted as collective action in
ment’s specifications in order to save electricity Barnes’ (2001) sense because its various practitio-
costs. Chris, the quality control manager, wanted ners acted in ways that sought to contribute to
to standardise the properties of the steel and the the production of steel ingots and were recogni-
production process through the use of the portable sable as doing so. Ingots were ordered, produced,
computer located on the smelters’ desk and the and delivered through collective action and there
‘‘Polivac’’ measurements. His reliance on standard was agreement that this happened. Since the activ-
measures and protocols stood in contrast to the ities performed by practitioners in the course of
smelters’ practical knowledge. According to Phil making the ingots were ordered by competing
the quality department’s output specifications symbolic systems, the social relations of the practi-
ignored the steel’s molecular structural transfor- tioners were characterised by tension and coercion,
mations during smelting. ‘‘Hardness and resil- as was the practice of smelting. Phil and Dave
iency’’ could not be set with reference to coerced the labourers and, most of the time, Mr.
standard carbon content because the character of Beat into their preferred sequence of activities
each heat was unique and could not be fully repro- whilst making sure that Chris obtained ingots of
duced. Also, Chris’ concern to stabilise production (at least) the carbon content he had specified. At
conflicted with Mr. Beat’s attempts to speed up the same time Phil and Dave found themselves
production in order to cut the costs of electricity with fewer opportunities to impose their will as
328 T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331

senior management increasingly purchased ingots their reasons for seeking out, and acquiescing to,
from other steelworks. particular organisational subcultures.
By conceiving of the various organisational The concept of organisational culture (and sub-
members’ practices of control as cultural practices cultures) holds much potential for understanding
we could show the differences in motivations and in greater detail the elements of organisational
understandings between them and why those differ- control and their practical functioning. By con-
ences persisted. The many activities of UNSOR’s ceiving of culture as a set of values that are merely
members were ordered by specific motivations complementary to enduring social structures, the
and understandings and formed distinctive organi- complexity and dynamism of culture, which allows
sational practices. The practices constituted the organisational members to entertain diverse
two subcultures of the hot and the cold department understandings of organisation, goes unnoticed.
and their subdivisions, all of which were character- Organisational members are denied agency. By
ised by distinctive symbolic systems. The cultural conceiving of organisational culture as dependent
representations of practices were shown to be dee- on practices whose meaningful ordering in turn
ply political. Each symbolic system was continu- depends on the organisational subcultures’ sym-
ously re-enacted in meaningful practices through bolic systems, attention is drawn to the interrela-
which members of the subculture made sense of tionships between diverse formal and informal,
their production technology, social relations within practical and conceptual, human and non-human
the organisation, their own social backgrounds, elements of control.
and management objectives and policies. Control In this study we did not take the formal man-
practices mobilised, but also depended on, particu- agement control systems as the starting point of
lar accounts of what was profitable and what our research, nor, indeed, for the rendition of
costly, what represented UNSOR’s most signifi- our findings. Nor did we organise our paper
cant capital, and how best to maintain and exploit around the implications of organisational pro-
it in the pursuit of diverse commercial, occupa- cesses for management control. Instead, we used
tional, and social ambitions and concerns. Organi- our ethnographic record to develop a more encom-
sational control could thus be seen as an effect of passing notion of cultural practices of control in
the managers’ and workers’ combined cultural the context of organisation. By exploring the
practices in the various departments. ambitions and concerns of different groups of
workers and managers and the practices through
which they sought to pursue them, we sought to
Conclusions develop the notion of organisational control to
be more inclusive than management control. We
The cultural practices underlying the different thereby sought to substantiate our claim that con-
ways in which the workers at UNSOR conceived trol practices can be constitutive of organisational
of and talked about their work and its control culture generally.
were structured by their membership of particular Organisational members can be shown to enact
shop floor groups. The boundaries of those groups organisational subcultures through practices of
did not follow neatly from the managerial demar- control by combining heterogeneous materials
cations between organisational subunits, for and bodies of knowledge. Our account, whilst
within the cold and the hot department further emphasising the significance of spatial arrange-
subdivisions could be observed. They coincided ments, technologies, material constraints, and
with the distinctive subcultures that arose from other non-human elements, remained focused on
the workers’ tasks and shop floor practices, skills the human actors and their symbolic systems and
and occupational histories, the technologies they group identities. The practical nature of organisa-
used, their broader outlooks on work and organi- tional subcultures is revealed through the ways in
sational membership, and, significantly, those which their members actively reconstitute their con-
aspects of their social backgrounds that clarified trol practices by drawing on them as a shared
T. Ahrens, M. Mollona / Accounting, Organizations and Society 32 (2007) 305–331 329

resource. Considering, in particular, organisational Ahrens, T., & Chapman, C. S. (forthcoming). Theorizing
members’ access to formal accounting information, practice in management accounting research. In C. S.
Chapman, A. G. Hopwood, & M. D. Shields (Eds.),
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