Resisting Work Degeneration in Collectivist-Democratic Organizations: Craft Ethics in a French Cooperative Sheet-Metal Factory

Organizational Imaginaries: Tempering Capitalism and Tending to Communities through Cooperatives and Collectivist Democracy

ISBN: 978-1-83867-990-3, eISBN: 978-1-83867-989-7

ISSN: 0733-558X

Publication date: 24 March 2021


Past research on collectivist-democratic organizations has attributed their distinctiveness to their socio-political goals and democratic decision-making and largely ignored their work processes. This ethnographic study examines how such organizations resist alienating forms of work even in the face of direct competition with for-profit companies. It focuses on Scopix, a French cooperative sheet-metal factory where the first author spent one year as a shop-floor worker. Cooperators there developed various practices to retain an emancipatory dimension to their work, regularly putting forward “craft ethics” as a counterweight to the sheet-metal industry’s drive to rationalize work processes. Drawing on the sociology of worth, the authors analyze how these practices emerged from the arrangements that workers made between the industrial world on the one side and the domestic and inspired worlds on the other. This study contributes to the literature into two main ways. First, the authors refine the sociology-of-worth framework by conceptualizing the emancipatory dimension of work as the result of ad hoc arrangements between different worlds. Second, the authors highlight the need for the literature on collectivist-democratic organizations to increase its focus on work, introducing the concept of work degeneration as a step in that direction.



Jaumier, S. and Daudigeos, T. (2021), "Resisting Work Degeneration in Collectivist-Democratic Organizations: Craft Ethics in a French Cooperative Sheet-Metal Factory", Chen, K.K. and Chen, V.T. (Ed.) Organizational Imaginaries: Tempering Capitalism and Tending to Communities through Cooperatives and Collectivist Democracy (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 72), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 55-79.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021 Emerald Publishing Limited

Periods of economic difficulty tend to renew interest in worker cooperatives and other collectivist-democratic organizations. Some commentators have argued that these organizational forms help build more resilient, sustainable, and inclusive economies because they embrace democratic processes of decision-making and pursue socio-political, rather than merely economic, goals (Cheney, Santa Cruz, Peredo, & Nazareno, 2014; Langmead, 2017; Rothschild, Chen, Smith, & Kristmundsson, 2016). However, less attention has been paid to how collectivist-democratic organizations provide their members with a work experience radically different from that offered by their for-profit counterparts (Kasmir, 1996).

Worker cooperatives are a good setting in which to study work processes for two reasons. First, from the beginnings of the cooperative project in the first half of the nineteenth century, the movement has promised to emancipate workers by enabling them to experience non-alienating work (Demoustier, 1984; Roelants, Eum, Esim, Novkovic, & Katajamäki, 2019). Second, it is common for cooperatives to engage in direct competition with traditional investor-owned companies within domains of activity where work processes are increasingly rationalized (Birchall, 2011; Webb & Cheney, 2014). This raises the question of whether and how this type of organization can fulfill its promise of an emancipatory work experience despite the economic constraints it faces. To answer this question, we draw on an ethnographic study of a French worker cooperative where the first author conducted one year of participant observation as a shop-floor worker.

Scopix has been doing sheet-metal work for more than 30 years, delivering small- and medium-sized production runs of metal parts to its exclusively local customers. 1 Cooperators there developed various practices to retain an emancipatory dimension to their work, regularly putting forward “craft ethics” as a counterweight to the sheet-metal industry’s drive to rationalize work processes. Drawing on the sociology of worth (SoW), we analyze how these practices emerged from the arrangements that workers made between the industrial world on the one side and the domestic and inspired worlds on the other. 2 In doing so, we demonstrate the significance of the inspired world for our understanding of craft, which to date has been subsumed within the domestic world. We also move SoW forward conceptually by illustrating how the emancipatory dimension of work stems not from specific worlds but rather from ad hoc arrangements between worlds. Our study contributes to the literature on collectivist-democratic organizations as well – first, by showing how their civic nature can allow for the coexistence of different worlds, and second, by introducing the concept of work degeneration as a way to focus attention on the nature of work in these organizations.

Emancipating Work in Collectivist-democratic Organizations

Whether collectivist-democratic organizations can fulfill their promises of emancipation depends above all on their ability to resist pressures to mimic conventional for-profit companies (Cornforth, Thomas, Lewis, & Spear, 1988; Rothschild et al., 2016). The term “goal degeneration” describes a collectivist-democratic organization’s shift, for example, from being politically or socially motivated to being motivated by profit-seeking (Langmead, 2017), whereas “organizational degeneration” describes the dwindling of the democratic participation of its members (Diefenbach, 2018; Storey, Basterretxea, & Salaman, 2014). Based on these two concepts, studies of the distinctiveness of collectivist-democratic organizations have largely focused on their pursuit of socio-political goals (rather than on delivering financial performance, which is the focus of for-profit firms) and democratic decision-making (rather than relying on investors and managers for guidance); they have rarely considered their ability to offer their members a distinctive work experience (e.g., Audebrand & Barros, 2018; Barros & Michaud, 2019; Kokkinidis, 2015). To this end, we propose the concept of work degeneration to describe situations where the work processes and related organizational routines of collectivist-democratic organizations begin to mirror those of for-profit companies.

From its start, an important objective of the cooperative movement has been to ensure that a non-capitalist form of ownership translates into non-capitalist modes of production. As Grey (1996) argues, state ownership may put an end to exploitation (the appropriation of a worker-created surplus by another class of people) but not necessarily to oppression (the persistence of situations in which workers are treated as means rather than ends). In former socialist countries in Eastern Europe, for example, the organization of production, and thus the oppressive nature of factory work, did not appreciably differ from what workers experienced in capitalist countries (Burawoy, 2012; Stark, 2009). In this sense, cooperation cannot be considered successful where oppression remains – that is, where work does not involve distinct modes of production that contribute to the emancipation of workers. At the same time, while other collectivist-democratic organizations are concentrated in sectors of secondary importance to the market economy (such as environmental protection or home care work) – or abandoned altogether by it (such as popular education, humanitarian relief, or work integration of the most vulnerable) – worker cooperatives frequently compete with traditional investor-owned companies (Birchall, 2011; Webb & Cheney, 2014). How, then, do worker cooperatives accommodate pressures for rationalization while avoiding work degeneration?

Few studies touch upon the question of work in cooperatives (Ouahab, 2018), but from the existing literature it is possible to identify some characteristics of these organizations that support the emancipation of work. For instance, many cooperatives avoid excessive labor specialization through job rotation and job sharing (Atzeni & Ghigliani, 2007; Cornforth, 1995; Hunt, 1992; Kokkinidis, 2015; Sobering, 2019), practices that ease the burden of performing repetitive tasks, prevent organizations from becoming dependent on members in key positions, and reinforce egalitarian values by overcoming the separation of intellectual and manual tasks (Clarke, 1984; Rothschild-Whitt, 1979). Worker cooperatives may also feature a slower pace of work (Atzeni & Ghigliani, 2007). However, some previous research on cooperatives – studies of the Mondragon Basque cooperative complex, for instance – suggest that workers in those settings do not perform their jobs in a meaningfully different way from their for-profit counterparts (Basterretxea, Heras-Saizarbitoria, & Lertxundi, 2019; Bretos, Errasti, & Marcuello, 2017; Cheney, 1999). 3 In fact, Kasmir’s (1996) comparison of a Mondragon factory and a local private factory of comparable size and sector of activity found that the former did not offer a better work experience than the latter. To explain these unexpected similarities, Clarke (1984) emphasizes how technology determines the nature of work: cooperatives that adopt technologies aimed at mass production, he argues, will experience the same degree of alienation seen at for-profit firms using similar technologies. Those that adopt “socially responsible” forms of technology, however, may find themselves “trapped within the confines of small-scale craft production” (p. 109), Clarke adds – thus linking work degeneration to questions of size and revenue.

With these tentative findings from the previous research in mind, our study aims to better understand how cooperatives facing competitive imperatives can avoid work degeneration. Past studies, for the most part, have not been based on detailed in situ observations of work, as this study is. And they do not draw on the SoW framework, which we now turn to.

The Sociology of Worth in the Workplace

Following the seminal works of Boltanski and Thévenot (1991), SoW has assumed an important position within the larger stream of French pragmatic sociology (Scott & Pasqualoni, 2014). This sociology of action aims to understand how collective action is coordinated when pluralism and uncertainty are defining features of social life (Boltanski & Thévenot, 1989; Stark, 2000); thus, this framework is particularly suited to the study of work practices. Organizations, then, are understood “not as unified entities characterized in terms of spheres of activity, systems of actors, or fields, but as composite assemblages that include arrangements deriving from different worlds” (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006, p. 18). Those “worlds” – also referred to as “orders of worth” – each embody an ideal-typical form of rationality and morality. They provide a singular definition of the common good, supported by specific principles of action and means of evaluation, and are populated by relevant subjects and objects (Cloutier, Gond, & Leca, 2017; Daudigeos & Valiorgue, 2010).

So far, eight worlds have been theorized and empirically identified: the market, industrial, civic, domestic, inspired, fame, green, and project worlds (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2005; Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006; Lafaye & Thévenot, 1993). We provide an overview of these worlds and their main characteristics in Table 1. The industrial world is particularly influential within the kinds of work settings we focus on in this study, given their drive toward rationalization. In this world, an emphasis on technical efficiency reigns. Productivity, quality, and cost control are optimized through the development of standardized processes and competences.

Table 1.

The Eight Worlds and Their Main Characteristics.

“Common worlds” Market Industrial Civic Domestic Inspired Fame Green Project
Mode of evaluation (worth) Price, cost Technical efficiency Collective welfare Esteem, reputation Grace, singularity, creativeness Renown, fame Environmental friendliness Connection, flexibility, adaptability
Test Market competitiveness Competence, reliability, planning Equality and solidarity Trustworthiness Passion, enthusiasm Popularity, audience, recognition Sustainability, renewability Transition from one project to another
Form of relevant proof Monetary Measurable: criteria, statistics Formal, official Oral, exemplary, personally warranted Emotional involvement and expression Semiotic Ecological ecosystem Reputation
Qualified objects Freely circulating market good or service Infrastructure, project, technical object, method, plan Rules and regulations, fundamental rights, welfare policies Patrimony, locale, heritage Emotionally invested body or item, the sublime Sign, media Pristine wilderness, healthy environment, natural habitat Project, networks
Qualified human beings Customer, consumer, merchant, seller Engineer, professional, expert Equal citizens, solidarity unions Authority Creative beings, artists Celebrity Environmentalists, ecologists High social capital, adaptable individuals
Time formation Short-term, flexibility Long-term planned future Perennial Customary part Eschatological, revolutionary, visionary moment Vogue, trend Future generations Time of the project
Space formation Globalization Cartesian space Detachment Local, proximal anchoring Presence Communication network Planet ecosystem Network

Source: Gond et al. (2015).

In its depiction of these eight worlds, SoW underscores the agency of individuals, who use these cognitive and evaluative frames to assess situations and identify relevant principles of action, ultimately enabling them to overcome uncertainty and achieve coordination (Pernkopf-Konhausner, 2014). While the worth of a particular action or object can be assessed in relation to a given world, something of high worth in one world may be of little worth in another (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006). For instance, from an industrial standpoint, a company might put value on limiting the amount of time that its equipment is idle, but from a market standpoint, this practice could have little worth (Lorino 2005). The appreciation of a job well done will therefore vary significantly depending on this vantage point (de Munck, 2011).

SoW assumes that employees can always mobilize different worlds and their associated hierarchy of values to make sense of a given work situation. Faced with these competing worlds within the workplace, organizations can guide individual actions through two types of arrangements (Cloutier & Langley, 2013; van Bommel, 2014). A compromise acknowledges the legitimate influence of two worlds by constructing a common interest or higher-level principle that encompasses them both and presents them as seemingly compatible (Reinecke, van Bommel, & Spicer, 2017). To stabilize such a compromise, actors can create composite tools and devices that are anchored in both worlds (Daudigeos & Valiorgue, 2018) – for example, the new machine that Boisard and Letablier (1989) describe in a camembert factory in Normandy, France, which was designed to increase productivity while maintaining artisanal features. Unlike a compromise, a provisional settlement draws from two worlds in a way that only momentarily satisfies the private interests of the actors (Girard & Stark, 2003). Huault and Rainelli-Weiss (2011) observe such an arrangement in their study of the (failed) creation of a financial market for weather risks. Rather than arriving at a genuine compromise between the market and green worlds, the promoters of weather derivatives in this case launched tailor-made securities that offered little tradability. Because a provisional settlement does not aim at a common good, it is difficult to apply broadly and much more fragile than a compromise.

To reformulate our research question in SoW terms, how do members of cooperatives engage in arrangements with the industrial world to avoid work degeneration and preserve an emancipatory dimension to their work? SoW has already been used in the study of cooperatives (Barros & Michaud, 2019; Jaumier, Daudigeos, & Joannidès de Lautour, 2017; Rousselière & Vézina, 2009; Wissler, 1989). These works focus on the interaction between the market and industrial worlds, which embody the economic dimension of cooperation, and the civic world, which embodies the socio-political and democratic dimensions of cooperation. Rather than focusing on goal-setting and decision-making, as most other scholars have done, we study work processes – with the expectation that such a focus may help identify the other worlds that operate within a cooperative context.

Data and Methods

Scopix became a worker cooperative in the early 1980s when the then-owner decided to close the business (see also Jaumier, 2015). For several months, the workers fought to keep their jobs, picketing the factory until they were allowed to take it over. The cooperative’s first years were particularly difficult, requiring members to sometimes work extra hours for no pay. The workers who stayed on embraced the organization’s culture of independence, equality, and autonomy – a culture that still characterizes Scopix today.

The cooperative processes sheets of steel, stainless steel, and aluminum to produce a wide range of metal parts, such as cabinets for toll booth machines, frames for electronic displays, and wood-burning stoves. It is located in the suburbs of a medium-sized French city, and all its customers are located no further than 50 kilometers from its premises. Scopix provides them with small- and medium-sized production runs, as large-scale runs are now done in countries where labor is cheaper. The added value offered by Scopix lies in its ability to develop complex parts, offer fast deliveries, and cater to specific needs. Three other sheet-metal factories in the area all offer similar services. These companies are owned by investors, however, meaning that the cooperative is in direct competition with traditional for-profit companies. Over the last 10 years, Scopix’s annual revenue (around 2.5 million Euros) has remained fairly stable, but its profits have fallen. Customers started negotiating lower prices after the 2008 financial crisis, and they now challenge their quotes more frequently as a result of pressure from their own customers.

Scopix has 25 workers, almost all of them member-owners. The cooperative’s governance model is more egalitarian than is usually found in French cooperatives of a similar size. Instead of a board of directors headed by a professional general manager, Scopix has a two-tier governance structure made up of a supervisory board and an executive board. These two governing bodies are mainly composed of shop-floor workers, and a look at their composition over time reveals frequent rotation. Fig. 1 shows Scopix’s organizational chart. If the cooperative seems to have a classic hierarchy on paper, its managers exert little power over those who are theoretically subordinate to them. Cooperators are very attached to their autonomy, and Scopix’s pronounced egalitarian culture makes it unlikely that workers will obey their superordinates whenever the latter issue instructions that go against the former’s own aspirations. Because traditional lines of conflict observed in capitalist workplaces do not apply – Scopix does not have a clear-cut division between management and workers – resistance to work degeneration is not the outcome of collective deliberations that become formalized through written rules and procedures. Instead, it is better understood as the outcome either of the ad hoc coalescence of different actors – who vary depending on the situation and may include board members, managers, or workers – or of individual initiatives that emerge in the course of day-to-day activities. We provide further insights into Scopix’s tacit governance of shop-floor behavior and the specific roles played by managers in other research (Jaumier, 2017; Jaumier, Daudigeos, Huault, & Pasquier, 2019). 4

Fig. 1. 
Scopix’s Organizational Chart.

Fig. 1.

Scopix’s Organizational Chart.

The shop floor has three main sections. The cutting section features two machines: an older stamping machine and a newer laser-cutting machine. Two full-time workers set up each machine by installing and tuning the appropriate tools depending on the metal used and the thickness of the sheet to be cut. They also retrieve the cutting program prepared by the programing technician based on the customer’s technical blueprints. Once the machine is set up, the workers load the metal sheet, make sure the cutting process goes well (in terms of lubrication, quality of the cut, etc.), and unload the parts and the leftover sheet skeleton.

In the bending section, a press brake is used to shape the parts. Scopix has three of these press brakes, including a large one for processing cumbersome parts. The section’s three full-time workers select the appropriate tooling for the machine, retrieve the bending program that is specific to the part (or write programs for new parts), fine-tune angle corrections, and then use their hands to manipulate the part while triggering each bend with their foot. Simple parts call for a single bend, but complex ones may necessitate eight to 10. Unlike cutting, which does not require any manual intervention once started, bending requires constant action from the worker. Medium-sized production runs of a few hundred parts can involve repetitive work and sometimes take up a worker’s entire day. Provided the machine is set up for them, though, temps can replace absent permanent workers or assist them when they are bending particularly unwieldy parts.

Finally, the assembly section is where the welding and finishing operations are performed. While some parts do not require it, welding is the cooperative’s primary activity in terms of labor hours, involving as many as seven workers using both metal inert gas and tungsten inert gas techniques. Welders are also responsible for polishing their welds with a grinder when needed. Three full-time workers handle finishing-stage operations in this section, which include tapping, milling, and the plugging of metal inserts and studs. Some parts also necessitate edge or surface polishing. Unlike welding, the finishing-stage operations require limited skills.

Fig. 1 displays the ranking of each of Scopix’s worker-members. 5 The distribution of the workload depends mostly on this ranking, with the parts involving the most difficult tasks being assigned to the most skilled workers. During the study’s observation period, only two cooperators on the shop floor (both who performed finishing-stage operations) were ranked as non-skilled. Skilled workers are ranked from P1, least qualified, to P3, most qualified. Workers from the cutting, bending, and assembly sections are normally ranked in one of these categories, with a higher proportion of P3s being found among the welders. An exception to this was Edmond, who had even been able to move from P3 to the honorary rank of technician because of his seniority: he was the only remaining worker-member who had participated in the founding of the cooperative. The foreman and office workers all had the rank of technician apart from André, the technical manager, who had an engineering degree and enjoyed the rank of cadre. 6

From September 2013 to September 2014, the first author worked on the shop floor as a part-time unpaid trainee. 7 For the first few months, he carried out some of the finishing-stage operations in the assembly section. Later, during medium-sized production runs, he regularly worked on the stamping and bending machines. During a permanent worker’s long-term absence, he became a quasi-regular worker in the bending section, where he was taught how to set up the press brake for simpler parts.


We begin our analysis by showing how cooperators tame the rationalization of their work processes – in SoW terms, how they set limits on the industrial world. Next, we describe the prevalent vision of craft that is nurtured by cooperators, which we relate to the domestic and inspired worlds. Finally, we examine the arrangements that are set up between these different worlds.

Taming Rationalization: Setting Limits on the Industrial World

Workers who had previously been employed in investor-owned metal factories (including one of Scopix’s three direct competitors) repeatedly asserted that work practices at the cooperative were significantly different. In particular, Scopix was much better than its for-profit counterparts, they insisted, at resisting the successive rounds of rationalization and standardization of work processes in most production settings.

While these impressions cannot be verified, one of our most striking observations about the nature of work at Scopix was the cooperators’ ability to tame rationalization and moderate its effects on the shop floor. Members paid particular attention to scientific management models that standardize production processes, apparently seeking to avoid the negative effects that such management methods could have on their working conditions. We describe several of these practices, which we interpret in SoW terms as cooperators setting limits on the industrial world – and thereby leaving room for arrangements to be set up with other worlds.

Drawing “red lines” on the further division of labor. In SoW terms, continual waves of Taylorist–Fordist rationalization over the decades reflect the growing influence of the industrial world, where scientific methods are used to bolster organizational efficiency. Scopix has not fully escaped this trend, and the workshop has greater division of labor now than it had 25 or 30 years ago. Roger, one of the oldest cooperators, described that earlier period:

It was a real job at the time. The sheet-metal worker did everything, from A to Z. He was in contact with the client, he had to imagine the developed blank, make his bends, and then do his welding and assembly operations. 8

Today, a sheet-metal worker at Scopix must closely follow the blueprints designed by the engineering departments of the cooperative’s customers; the factory’s cutting and bending sections feature more complex machines and more specialized production processes. However, the cooperators continue to resist the further division of labor, and their say over the organization of their work provides a first line of defense. In the assembly section, for example, the overall complexity of a part determines whether a more or less skilled welder works on it. 9 At Scopix, the worker is responsible for all the operations involved in producing the part, from the simplest to the most complicated; the simpler operations are not “subcontracted” to less skilled welders, as typically happens in the industrial world (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006, p. 209). This distinctive norm came up during shop-floor discussions about a product whose price at Scopix was well above that of its competitors. Everyone agreed with Kevin, the youngest member of the executive board, who observed that the competitor had a comparative advantage here because it separated its welding and surface-treatment operations and assigned weld polishing to unskilled workers. At no time during the conversation, however, did anyone mention the possibility of proceeding in the same way. This would have contravened the cooperative’s informal rule that a welder should handle a part in its entirety.

Here, Scopix’s workers were acting to reinforce a “red line” that must not be crossed, whatever the competitive pressure. Welders refused a further division of labor in order to maintain the integrity of – and the meaning attached to – the overall task performed. Doing so was seen as a sine qua non condition for their work to retain its emancipatory dimension. Although a few cooperators made clear to the first author that they did not necessarily agree with the drawing of this red line, it was striking that they did not argue against it.

Nurturing a creative space around one’s machine. Authors such as Adler (1992) and Clarke (1984) have analyzed technological evolutions as the main reason for changes in work organization. Within the SoW framework, this view is consonant with the industrial world, which insists on the importance of technological objects and how they condition action (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006). One might therefore think there would be less room for resisting rationalization in the cutting and bending sections, which rely on standard machines. However, the first author observed how workers there also acted to mitigate the negative effects of equipment standardization.

Bending workers normally create a bending program only when they process prototypes and new parts. Otherwise, they are supposed to retrieve the existing program from the hard drive of their press brake or from a set of diskettes. This standardized approach is meant to provide the efficiency and reliability deemed particularly worthy in the industrial world. However, Edmond (the founding member who worked in the bending section) would frequently choose to write a new program rather than resort to the library of existing ones. By doing so, he inserted additional opportunities for thinking and creativity into a job that was otherwise dominated by physical tasks. This practice not only helped to break up the monotony that Edmond had come to experience after working at Scopix for more than 30 years, but it also improved the job’s balance between conception (programing) and execution (bending), directly resisting one of the main imperatives of scientific management.

Like its competitors, Scopix possesses modern programable press brakes, which speaks to the fact that the cooperative, too, must standardize its production processes to remain competitive. However, there is still some scope for cooperators to develop creative practices around their machine and play around with production constraints, which raises questions about whether technology truly determines the nature of work to the extent envisaged by past scholars.

De-intensifying work processes. Another typical consequence of the rationalization of production processes is work intensification (Burawoy, 1979), which directly relates to the industrial world’s central concerns regarding productivity and efficiency. Again, this dimension of rationalization was mitigated at Scopix. Frequent coffee breaks and chats with colleagues eased the strain of carrying out physically demanding jobs, and individual workers were able to set their own working speed and sometimes redistribute their workloads. For example, a bending worker named Paul decided one day that some parts were too heavy and too cumbersome for him to bend on his own, even though this type of part had always been bent by a single worker. Over the objections of the technical manager, who was worried about the time being lost, Paul asked one of his colleagues, a temp, to help him process the batch. The shop floor is characterized by a masculine culture with a particular understanding of a job well done, and Paul’s colleagues mocked him for asking for help on the job. But this had no effect on Paul, either, even though this line of argument was usually more successful in influencing the behavior of cooperators than those grounded in the industrial world.

Cooperators who had worked in traditional capitalist settings favorably compared the work intensity at Scopix with the pace at their previous workplaces. For instance, Michel, the workshop’s programing technician, described the frenzied speed of production in the cutting section of his former employer, another local company: “It was super hard, the guys did not even have time to go pee.” In the middle of a chat with the first author and another worker on the shop floor, Roger pointed out, “The way we are talking right now, generally you cannot even do that in other companies … People have to stay at their machine.” In these sorts of ways, cooperators drew direct connections between their privileged situation and being a member of a cooperative.

Rejecting managerial control. Research on the evolution of capitalist modes of production has noted the growing pervasiveness of control systems, including those that specifically target work processes (Edwards, 1979). The development of such control systems reflects the dominance of the industrial world in that they “make it possible to see the world through data expressed in numbers … ready to be processed” (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006, p. 210). Another way that Scopix’s workers tamed rationalization was by rejecting these forms of managerial control and their associated tools. Indeed, the workers showed little consideration for the only real constraint imposed upon their post-production activities: their requirement to record the quantities produced and time spent on control sheets. Those orange forms often remained blank. One day, Olivier, the quality technician, was attempting to solve a quality problem related to the production of new cabinets, which are assigned to P3 welders due to their complexity. He proposed that the welder could use a control sheet to record the cabinet’s dimensions. Bernard, the foreman, immediately dismissed the idea: “A P3 must know how to control his work, with or without a control sheet – this is the ABC!” A similar resistance to managerial control cropped up during weekly executive board meetings. Michel, the oldest member of the executive board, would advocate a simple policy: “Let the guys just do their jobs, for shit’s sake!” (“Qu’les gars fassent leur boulot merde!”)

As described above, workers at Scopix attempted to tame standardization pressures through a range of strategies that went well beyond the practice of rotating jobs emphasized by the existing literature. If cooperators sometimes needed to go against the norms of their industry and even those of their own workplace, doing the work in their own way reaffirmed their autonomy as members. In SoW terms, their resistance to rationalization entailed putting limits on the encroachment of an industrial world that glorifies the rational pursuit of technical efficiency through the application of expert knowledge (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006). Of course, the industrial world still had a strong influence on Scopix’s operations through the various episodes of rationalization that the cooperative had already gone through, and clearly the cooperative would not have been able to compete with its for-profit counterparts without some industrial anchoring. At Scopix, however, the ways that workers interacted with their machines and informally adjusted processes with their coworkers placed boundaries on the expansion of the industrial world. This, in turn, left room for the mobilization of other worlds, which we will now discuss.

Nurturing Craft Ethics: The Influence of the Domestic and Inspired Worlds

The limits that cooperators at Scopix set on the encroachment of the industrial world went hand in hand with the development of a type of craft ethics, a perspective through which members affirmed their artisanal conception of a job well done. In the literature, the rigors of scientific management are summed up by the concept of deskilling, the destruction of traditional craft skills and the loss of meaningful work content that arises from the separation of conception and execution tasks and the fragmenting of execution tasks across multiple workers (Braverman, 1974/1998; Sabel, 1982). Workers can therefore resist rationalization out of a desire to preserve some of the traditional craft skills involved in their work. Indeed, in their study of medium-sized factories that still employ traditional craft methods, Bell and Vachhani (2019) show that craft can continue to exist within industrialized settings, contradicting the view that it has been stamped out by relentless waves of industrialization. We found this to be the case at Scopix as well, where a reliance on “standardized technical competence” – a central feature of the industrial world – coexisted with a reliance on “traditional and personalized ability in craft” (Blokker & Brighenti, 2011, p. 385).

Scopix’s craft orientation can be seen in the fact that the organization promotes the professional skills related to sheet-metal work and claims a mainly craft-oriented conception of such skills. We referred earlier to the expression “doing one’s job,” which was used by Michel during weekly meetings of the executive board as a way of dismissing the use of managerial control tools. This slogan could be heard frequently on the shop floor, where it summed up the philosophy of craft-based work valued by the cooperators. In the literature, a craft ethic entails knowing what one’s craft “mandates in particular situations” and following that mandate; it also implies that in the event of conflict, craft ethics “will regularly take precedence over other types of prescriptions” (Giampetro-Meyer, Brown, Browne, & Kubasek, 1998, p. 1731). We suggest that “craft ethics” is the best term for encapsulating the craft orientation of Scopix, where “the other types of prescriptions” that workers resisted largely came from the industrial world. For its part, the craft ethic borrows from the domestic and inspired worlds, as we describe in turn.

The domestic world. In the domestic world, worth ultimately depends on the capacity of actors to perpetuate tradition (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006). Appropriate behavior follows from the observance of habits that have become deeply ingrained in the body, rather than from following instructions, as is the case in the industrial world. Esteem, reputation, and trustworthiness are what ultimately confer value on actors (Gond, Leca, & Cloutier, 2015). Accordingly, in the domestic world, sheet-metal work would be understood as a trade that one learns through an imitation-driven apprenticeship with masters, followed by the accumulation of professional experience (Thévenot, 1983).

In our research, we were able to identify many features of the domestic world in the way sheet-metal work is experienced at Scopix. To start with, craft has a structuring effect within the cooperative, with the level of craftsmanship attained being the main determinant of a cooperator’s relative status and identity within the organization. On the shop floor, precedence is given to welding, which is unsurprising given that there are proportionately more P3s in that section than in the cutting and bending sections. Indeed, sheet-metal work is often conflated with welding in the minds of the cooperators, who often refer to welders with the word tôliers (literally meaning “sheet-metal workers”) rather than the proper word soudeurs.

At Scopix, there is also a broader dividing line between “the guys who are in the trade” (“les gars qui sont du métier”) and “the guys who are not in the trade” (“les gars qui sont pas du métier”). The former are those workers who were trained in sheet-metal work, particularly welding, before they joined Scopix – and who therefore meet Thévenot’s (1983) domestic definition of “craft” – and the latter are those workers who do not see sheet-metal work as their vocation. The “guys who are in the trade” start working as P1 welders, aiming to move up to P2 and P3 as they develop their craft. The “guys who are not in the trade” work for the first two or three years on polishing parts, and then typically move to tasks that are only slightly more valued, such as milling, drilling, and the plugging of metal studs; the lucky ones might land in the cutting and bending sections, doing activities that are more esteemed and offer the opportunity to achieve P3. Marc, a worker in his mid-30s with six years of experience at Scopix, is a good example of the “guys who are not in the trade.” He spent his first two years polishing parts before becoming the “king of the mill” – a largely pejorative title given to him by his coworkers. During his lunch breaks, he would try to learn welding. “I feel immediately more like a welder!” he said when the first author encountered him one day wearing his welding helmet. While he displayed a certain pride in that moment, Marc’s words also highlighted just how different he was from the genuine tôliers.

The domestic orientation of Scopix’s craft ethics also involves the correct positioning of workers in the hierarchies that confirm their status (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006), as we observed when the factory’s foreman was replaced. Having been recruited externally, the foreman showed limited knowledge of sheet-metal work and sought to garner respect through his managerial skills. This did not happen, though, and he was let go. Bernard, his replacement, was the best sheet-metal worker in the workshop. Like all the leaders at Scopix, he did not succeed in imposing any kind of managerial authority, but at least no one questioned his mastery of shop-floor processes.

While the workers’ P-rankings were supposed to closely reflect their level of craftsmanship, seniority – another quality deemed especially worthy in the domestic world – was also taken into account. This explains why Edmond, Scopix’s most senior worker, was awarded technician status, which he would not have normally been able to claim based on his actual skills. This also explains why the reputation of a sheet-metal worker ultimately rested on the appreciation of his workmates rather than on his P-ranking. As we explained earlier, there was little managerial control on Scopix’s shop floor, a situation that typically leads to some reinforcement of peer control (Daudigeos, Edwards, Jaumier, Pasquier, & Picard, 2019; Sewell, 1998). Indeed, the work of Scopix’s members was informally controlled by their coworkers to an extent that they said did not occur at their investor-owned competitors. Workers would formulate quasi-moral judgments about what their peers did. Praise – all the more meaningful for being expressed in understated terms – was given to high-quality work and the craft skills thereby demonstrated. Speaking about Gaël, the most able of the bending workers, René, the storekeeper, reckoned: “Yes, he knows how to work” (“Oui, il sait bosser”). Importantly, the cooperators believed that knowing “how to work” was not just about producing quality parts, but also about producing a certain quantity of parts within a limited amount of time. Combined, these two dimensions of good craftsmanship guarantee a satisfactory (rather than optimal, as in the industrial world) level of activity, thus securing the economic survival of the cooperative and further limiting its need for managerial control.

Conversely, shoddy and excessively slow work is criticized, and cooperators are quick to mock and even insult clumsy workers. One day, the first author overheard Olivier, the quality technician, criticizing Edmond for not hammering in the right place. A nearby worker, Aziz, piled on. “Ah, the mallet, Ed’s preferred tool!” he joked, implying that Edmond did not know how to bend and therefore had to use the mallet to straighten his parts. Then, pointing his finger at one of the images of the workshop on Olivier’s computer screen, Aziz added, “Look, this is Ed’s machine – I recognize the wrongly bent parts at the front!” Edmond remained silent, but it was obvious from the sad look on his face that he felt hurt.

As noted by Sennett (2008, p. 97), “the craftsman’s workshop is … a cruel school if it activates our sense of inadequacy.” Workers at times struggled with these feelings. For example, Jérémy, another favorite target of attacks by coworkers, insisted he did not “give a flying fuck” about the way he was treated, but the tremor in his voice when saying these words suggested that this was not true. In the domestic world, not being trustworthy means being held in low esteem by one’s peers (Gond et al., 2015), and this ostracism has psychological costs.

As a form of peer control, the stigmatization of deviant behavior also influences how workers act. Cooperators commonly hid their scrapped parts so as not to expose themselves to criticism. For instance, the first author noticed Paul one day becoming visibly nervous while working his press brake. He was making errors in correcting angles, but he chose not to rework his initial test parts as he was supposed to. Instead, he swiftly threw them into the bin for metal waste in order to shield himself from likely gibes. After just a few months of fieldwork, the first author found himself doing the same thing to protect himself from attacks from his workmates.

These behaviors suggest that craft ethics, in their domestic dimension, are only partly emancipatory. On the positive side, they tend to maintain the integrity of the task at hand and promote the autonomy of workers, valuing their embodied knowledge over the mere following of external instructions. On the negative side, they can trap workers in traditional chains of dependence – most harshly, through the stigmatization of workers for their inadequacies.

The inspired world. Within craft ethics there is an element of innate ability that is not an outcome of apprenticeship. Such innate ability is best described by the words “gift” and “talent,” which refer to something that one nurtures rather than learns (Thévenot, 1983). In this way, the sheet-metal work practiced at Scopix is partly anchored in the inspired world. In the SoW framework, the inspired world is paradigmatically associated with artistic activities. It attaches worth to expressions of singularity and creativity, by which actors demonstrate their ability to go beyond merely following industrial routines or domestic habits (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006). Passion, enthusiasm, and emotional investment are considered typical traits of such a world (Gond et al., 2015).

A phrase often used at Scopix, “having a sheet-metal worker’s eye” (“avoir l’œil du tôlier”), captures this dimension of craft ethics. It refers to being able to visually evaluate the thickness of a sheet, the straightness of an edge, or the accuracy of a right angle. For welders, it refers to being able to anticipate the reactions of the sheet and its deformations, which are themselves functions of the welding process, the sheet metal and filler metal being used, and many other parameters; it is not enough to weld straight to get a straight weld. The material has a life of its own and only chooses to reveal its secrets to those who take the trouble to become its custodians (Sennett, 2008). The virtuosity required came across in a compliment that Léo paid to his colleague Régis while the two of them – both P3 welders – were working in neighboring workspaces on toll payment cabinets. Léo was struggling to master the dimensions of the cabinet he was working on and had to use a hammer more than was reasonable. “How come he [Régis] never uses a hammer?” Léo asked the first author. “I’d like to know how he does it – he really must explain it to me!”

By developing a deep familiarity with their material, talented sheet-metal workers learn to “recognize and welcome what is … unnamable … or invisible” (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006, p. 160). To facilitate this, workers tend not to wear their personal protective equipment, even though doing so is compulsory. During an unannounced visit by government safety inspectors, the first author witnessed the swift distribution of gloves, goggles, and earplugs on the shop floor while the sales manager kept the inspectors in the office. A similar scene is unimaginable at Scopix’s competitors, where health and safety rules are more strictly enforced. Although cooperators also cited comfort and convenience as reasons for not abiding by health and safety rules, craft ethics appeared to be even more influential: working with their bare hands allowed them to feel the rolling direction of a metal sheet or the presence of burrs, they said, and adapt their actions accordingly. This is consistent with Bell and Vachhani’s (2019) study of various craft activities, which emphasizes how craft workers “come to know and understand materials” through their hands (p. 10); in the view of craft ethics, workers’ bodies become emotionally invested in their tasks, giving them inspiration beyond any possible calculation.

The inspired world can also be found in the cooperators’ promotion of uniqueness and singularity. Even parts that are produced in multiple units tend to retain some mark of their authorship, resisting the standardization inherent in an industrial perspective. For instance, although all three P3 welders were busy at one point producing the same toll booth cabinets, they were still able to immediately recognize their own cabinets, the shape of their welds serving as their signatures. Likewise, nothing is more highly valued on the shop floor than the creation of a complex prototype, which gives a sheet-metal worker an opportunity to demonstrate his creativity. A good illustration of this was when Régis, Scopix’s best welder at the time, took on a project for a design company to fashion a unique and particularly complex object out of aluminum, which is more difficult to weld than steel because it requires a higher temperature. In this case, relying on past experience and following habits or routines – characteristics valued in the domestic world – were obviously not enough to meet the challenge posed. Instead, Régis needed to reflexively engage with the various difficulties that arose during the creation of the object and propose original solutions to the customer – creative capacities seen as worthy in the inspired world. On this occasion, the first author witnessed the welder’s passionate investment in his task and his pride in his achievement as he frequently stopped fellow workers passing by his workspace to inform them about his progress.

Like its domestic dimension, the inspired dimension of craft ethics is not unequivocally emancipatory (for more on the dark sides of craft, see Bell, Mangia, Taylor, & Toraldo, 2018, and Land, Sutherland, & Taylor, 2018). While the expression of one’s talent and creativity is certainly liberating, talent, by definition, cannot be learned. As a result, the inspired world is also the realm of immutable hierarchies of worth (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2005). Hence, the emancipatory potential of work will depend more on the arrangements that are practically set up between worlds than on the presence of any particular world.

Quasi-compromises: Ad Hoc Arrangements between the Industrial, Domestic, and Inspired Worlds

So far, our discussion of the nature of work at Scopix has touched upon aspects of three worlds: how cooperators set limits on the encroachment of the industrial world into their work processes, and how the domestic and inspired worlds coexist on the shop floor through its craft orientation. Now we turn to how workers attempt to reconcile these worlds through arrangements. As explained earlier, SoW defines “arrangements” as settlements that succeed in putting an end – either momentarily (provisional settlements) or more sustainably (compromises) – to a conflict between worlds.

The need for such arrangements between the shop floor’s three worlds came across clearly in the recurring difficulties encountered by André, who had joined the cooperative a few years earlier as a technical manager. André’s long career in traditional settings had given him an expertise in scientific management methods and state-of-the-art techniques for boosting productivity and quality in the metal-working industry. Perhaps as a result, he viewed the workplace from the viewpoint of the industrial world, noting the wide gap between the cooperators’ practices and industry standards:

One has the feeling that people here do odd jobs at the back of their garage …. The problem is that each worker does it in his own way …. Manufacturing does not work like this! You have to follow instructions!

While he acknowledged that Scopix was different from its for-profit competitors, André repeatedly denounced its inefficient work practices: “There are things here that you would never see elsewhere!” However, his efforts to rationalize Scopix’s work processes had little effect on the cooperators’ actual practices. For example, he attempted in vain to get welders to make use of a welding table with clamping devices, a technical apparatus that ensures better reproducibility and productivity. “When I see Léo [a welder] welding on his bits of trestles …. Come on, we must produce at some point!” André complained. During his stay at Scopix, the first author witnessed many situations – both in formal meetings and on the shop floor – where André’s point of view was quickly dismissed by both workers and other managers because its industrial framing clashed with the cooperators’ widespread contempt for such exclusive expert logic. Rather than André’s theoretical solutions, they favored practical arrangements involving craft ethics – and its related domestic and inspired worlds – that emerged directly from the shop floor.

Some of the work practices to tame rationalization that we described earlier are best defined as provisional settlements. Edmond’s practice of writing his own bending programs, for example, was confined to a particular worker and his press brake, and no effort was made to have other workers in the section adopt his approach. In this case, the industrial world embodied by the press brake and the creative space nurtured by Edmond were simply juxtaposed rather than merged into a superior principle of action, making this type of arrangement particularly fragile.

Practices that de-intensify work and challenge managerial control seem at first sight to be of a different kind. As the first author observed, these practices were widespread on the shop floor and rapidly adopted by new recruits. Such power of generalization usually signals the existence of compromise. However, these practices were also regularly criticized – not only by managers, as one would expect, but also by some shop-floor workers, who felt that their colleagues abused them (like when Paul was mocked for needing a temp’s help to bend his parts). Such censure forced cooperators to engage frequently in the work of justification, one sign of a provisional settlement.

Another tactic for taming rationalization – drawing “red lines” on the further division of labor – displays even more features of a compromise. While the convention of having a welder deal with a part in its entirety was not necessarily supported by all cooperators, it was not overtly contested. This might seem to suggest the relatively stable coexistence over time (and within the entire welding section) of the industrial and craft-related worlds. However, for this practice to be a genuine compromise, it needs to articulate a higher-level principle (e.g., that Scopix has an identity as a “craft factory”), which would acknowledge the coexistence and legitimate influence of these multiple worlds within the organization.

In sum, it seems that Scopix has been able to set up what we can term quasi-compromises between the industrial, domestic, and inspired worlds. These arrangements have the same effects as compromises – stability and power of generalization – but do not display all their features – above all, the formulation of a higher-level principle. The importance of these quasi-compromises can be seen in their influence on the cooperative’s broader strategies. For instance, Scopix openly expresses its reluctance to significantly increase its headcount and revenue, as would naturally happen if it followed a purely industrial perspective oriented toward productivity and economies of scale. The cooperative calibrates its commercial activities to ensure the full utilization of its current workforce, and no more; it does not look further afield for sales unless they hit a long-term low. Maintaining a craft-like orientation in the cooperative is a major justification for this refusal to grow. 10 Scopix’s quasi-compromises between the industrial and craft-related worlds have achieved a certain stability, although so far the cooperative has not developed a strategic plan or commercial policy that formalizes a higher principle upon which these arrangements could rest.

Discussion and Conclusion

Our case study of Scopix identified a range of different practices developed by cooperators to retain an emancipatory dimension to their work. These findings contribute to existing scholarship in a number of ways. First, our research moves SoW forward conceptually. To date, studies of work that draw on this theoretical perspective have subsumed craft within the domestic world. This is probably because they have focused exclusively on manual work that involves the repeated execution of a single gesture, as in the preparation of tortellini (Arfini, 2019) or in the ladle-molding of traditional cheese (Boisard & Letablier, 1989). The mastery of such tasks requires the acquisition of what in French is called a “coup de main” – a habit ingrained in the body of the worker. In contrast, the sheet-metal work practiced at Scopix involves a much broader range of situations, and elements of the inspired world – namely, talent and creativity – often play a central role within them. Thévenot (1983) has highlighted the presence of inspired dimensions in the practice of a profession, insisting on the “natural ability” or “talent” that makes a medical doctor or a lawyer especially worthy. Our study of sheet-metal work demonstrates that similar possibilities exist for manual laborers. By showing how both the inspired and domestic worlds shape the practice of a craft, we also provide a more nuanced way of understanding the ways that craft is distinct from art (Rippin & Vachhani, 2018).

Another contribution of our study is that it challenges the view that any particular SoW world is inherently emancipatory or alienating. Even the industrial world, often singled out for its propensity to de-humanize work, can in some situations present liberating features – such as the formalization of knowledge, which may allow its broader sharing – while aspects of the domestic and inspired worlds can be experienced as alienating – such as the reliance on traditional chains of dependence and the immutability of hierarchies of worth. Work emancipation stems not from the presence of specific worlds, but from the concrete arrangements that cooperators set up between these worlds – which is why it is so important to study work practices in situ. At Scopix, emancipating work meant making room for different worlds to coexist so that sheet-metal workers could build their own arrangements. Going too far in the direction of standardization and rationalization (for instance, following the procedures that the technical manager André advocated) would have meant suppressing the freedoms that made it possible to play around with different worlds.

This finding that emancipation arises from a balance achieved between different worlds runs counter to a dominant view in the literature on collectivist-democratic organizations that associates it with the presence of the civic world – that is, the orientation toward collective welfare embodied in principles of equality and solidarity (e.g., Barros & Michaud, 2019; Jaumier et al., 2017). This does not mean, however, that the civic world is irrelevant at Scopix. The interests of the workers are well represented at the management level through their predominance on the cooperative’s supervisory and executive boards. This representation blurs the traditional lines of conflict between management and workers that can be observed in most organizations. Furthermore, it extends cooperators’ participation well beyond traditional understandings of cooperative governance (Jaumier, 2017; Jaumier et al., 2019). In this context, emancipatory work practices do not result from formal mechanisms of collective deliberation. Rather, as noted earlier, they emerge from individual initiatives (like Edmond’s rewriting of bending programs) or from the coalescence of different actors distributed throughout the organization (like the rejection of the control sheets aimed at recording the cabinets’ dimensions). Another consequence of this extended participation is that Scopix workers take very seriously their status as members of a cooperative, rather than viewing themselves as mere employees of a company. This pronounced sense of autonomy allows them to go against prescribed ways of working and do things their own way.

These practices stem from Scopix’s egalitarian and democratic nature – from the civic world, in SoW terms – and yet they leave room for the coexistence of other worlds. This, in turn, allows cooperators to draw from craft ethics and the kinds of work arrangements described in our findings. In other words, the civic world contributes to the emancipation of work practices at Scopix, but it does not entail the collective devising of work rules and procedures that protect cooperators against the risk of alienation, as past studies might suggest. Instead, the civic world operates here to create an extended polity – an engaged group of cooperators who see themselves as being autonomous in the conduct of their day-to-day work activities.

As a setting where the civic world allows members to set up ad hoc arrangements between other worlds, Scopix can serve as an extreme case (Chen, 2015) that informs us about work practices not only in collectivist-democratic organizations but also in more traditional workplaces. Employees at investor-owned workplaces, too, resist alienating forms of work (Ackroyd & Thompson, 1999; Hodson, 2001; Vallas, 2006), but in these spaces, the industrial world can exert overwhelming pressure on other worlds, making emancipation much less visible than it is in a collectivist-democratic organization like Scopix. Our choice of this empirical setting has therefore allowed us to show in concrete terms how workers tap multiple worlds to engage in ad hoc arrangements that alleviate their sense of alienation.

A final contribution of our study is that it fills a gap in the literature on collectivist-democratic organizations with regard to work. Since their inception, cooperatives have promised their members a work experience different from that offered by for-profit companies, and yet scholars have not systematically assessed whether this promise is being met. To this end, we developed the concept of work degeneration, which describes how a collectivist-democratic organization’s work processes and related organizational routines come to mirror those of their capitalist counterparts. Our concept complements similar ones used to assess how faithful collectivist-democratic organizations are to their socio-political objectives (goal degeneration) and democratic functioning (organizational degeneration).

Our empirical investigation of a sheet-metal workshop demonstrated that cooperatives can resist work degeneration through a range of practices that go beyond the job rotation and job sharing described in past studies. Specifically, Scopix responded to the sheet-metal industry’s drive toward rationalization by reasserting values anchored in craft. 11 It is important to note here that the model of the autonomous worker is not readily found in activities that, unlike metal production, do not rely on a strong craft or professional culture (Jacques, 1996); the nature of the metal industry is thus a necessary condition for the emergence of the kinds of arrangements observed at Scopix, which have limited need for management intervention. Future research could examine how collectivist-democratic organizations operating in other sectors are able to resist work degeneration. Workers in these contexts will likely devise arrangements between worlds that are different from those drawn upon at Scopix – for instance, the “project” world of adaptability and entrepreneurialism, which Boltanski and Chiapello (2005) characterize as a direct response to late-twentieth century critiques of workplace alienation, or the “green” world of environmental sustainability, which has already been identified as an important source of values for some cooperatives (Ouahab, 2019). In order to document the arrangements that can mitigate the threat of work degeneration in a variety of contexts, we reiterate the need for an ambitious research program that is on equal terms with those that already focus on goal and organizational degeneration. This is all the more necessary at a time when modern work life becomes ever-more regimented and devoid of meaning in a growing number of contexts.



The name “Scopix” is an alias, as are the names of the cooperators.


“Convention theory,” the “sociology of conventions,” “economies of worth,” and the “sociology of critique” are also frequently used to identify this stream of thought.


Mondragon is the name of a Basque town as well as the name of a vast complex of cooperatives founded in that town in 1956. Mondragon now has now more than 80,000 employees, with operations in 41 countries and revenues of almost €12 billion.


Scopix is best understood as a reverse dominance hierarchy – that is, an organization in which power is found at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid rather than at the top (Boehm, 1993). In this context, managers perform specific functions that are quite remote from the functions of power and authority usually associated with managerial positions. Their role in the cooperative mostly lies in their symbolic occupation of the locus of power, which contributes to preventing the emergence of informal hierarchies (Jaumier, 2017). They also serve as spokespeople to external stakeholders and as scapegoats (Jaumier et al., 2019).


Like raises, promotions to a higher P-ranking are awarded by the executive board. Here again though, the board is rarely able to take decisions that go against the shop floor’s dominant views (see Jaumier, Pasquier, & Joannidès de Lautour, 2018).


In the French context, the rank of cadre includes top and mid-level managers and professional experts. The status is acknowledged by collective agreements and entitles its holders to a specific pension scheme and other benefits. The historic construction of the corresponding social group (those who are called les cadres) is analyzed by Boltanski (1987) in The Making of a Class: Cadres in French Society.


At Scopix, shop-floor workers work 35 hours a week over four days (mostly from Mondays to Thursdays). The first author was normally on the floor on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and only came on Tuesdays to attend the weekly executive board meeting.


The developed blank corresponds to the pattern that needs to be cut into a flat sheet of metal; the cut metal is then bent to form the desired part.


When customer demand for complex parts is limited, as may happen from time to time, workers spontaneously adjust to such demand and work on parts that are less complex than those that correspond to their actual skills. As the first author observed, this adjustment does not need to be organized through any formal rules of work distribution.


There is also a democratic justification for Scopix’s refusal to grow, as cooperators believe that increasing the number of members will put Scopix at risk of organizational degeneration (see Jaumier, 2017).


Interestingly, this also connects to the origins of French worker cooperatives, whose appearance in the first part of the nineteenth century was instrumental in rebuilding professional communities of craft workers (Demoustier, 1984; Espagne, 2000).


Ackroyd, Thompson, 1999Ackroyd, S., & Thompson, P. (1999). Organizational misbehaviour. London: Sage.

Adler, 1992Adler, P. S. (1992). Technology and the future of work. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Arfini, 2019Arfini, E. A. G. (2019). The making of authentic tortellini: Aestheticization of artisanal labor and elite univorism in the case of local food. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 22(4), 433451.

Atzeni, Ghigliani, 2007Atzeni, M., & Ghigliani, P. (2007). Labour process and decision-making in factories under workers’ self-management: Empirical evidence from Argentina. Work, Employment & Society, 21(4), 653671.

Audebrand, Barros, 2018Audebrand, L. K., & Barros, M. (2018). All equal in death? Fighting inequality in the contemporary funeral industry. Organization Studies, 39(9), 13231343.

Barros, Michaud, 2019Barros, M., & Michaud, V. (2019). Worlds, words, and spaces of resistance: Democracy and social media in consumer co-ops. Organization.

Basterretxea, Heras-Saizarbitoria, Lertxundi, 2019Basterretxea, I., Heras-Saizarbitoria, I., & Lertxundi, A. (2019). Can employee ownership and human resource management policies clash in worker cooperatives? Lessons from a defunct cooperative. Human Resource Management.

Bell, Mangia, Taylor, Toraldo, 2018Bell, E., Mangia, G., Taylor, S. D., & Toraldo, M. L. (Eds.) (2018). The organization of craft work: Identities, meanings, and materiality. London: Routledge.

Bell, Vachhani, 2019Bell, E., & Vachhani, S. J. (2019). Relational encounters and vital materiality in the practice of craft work. Organization Studies, 41(5), 681701.

Birchall, 2011Birchall, J. (2011). People-centred businesses: Co-operatives, mutuals and the idea of membership. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Blokker, Brighenti, 2011Blokker, P., & Brighenti, A. (2011). An interview with Laurent Thevenot: On engagement, critique, commonality, and power. European Journal of Social Theory, 14(3), 383400.

Boehm, 1993Boehm, C. (1993). Egalitarian behavior and reverse dominance hierarchy. Current Anthropology, 34(3), 227254.

Boisard, Letablier, 1989Boisard, P., & Letablier, M.-T. (1989). Un compromis d’innovation entre tradition et standardisation dans l’industrie laitière. In L. Boltanski & L. Thévenot (Eds.), Justesse et justice dans le travail (pp. 209218). Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Boltanski, 1987Boltanski, L. (1987). The making of a class: Cadres in French society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boltanski, Chiapello, 2005Boltanski, L., & Chiapello, E. (2005). The new spirit of capitalism. London: Verso.

Boltanski, Thévenot, 1989Boltanski, L., & Thévenot, L. (Eds.) (1989). Justesse et justice dans le travail. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Boltanski, Thévenot, 1991Boltanski, L., & Thévenot, L. (1991). De la justification: Les économies de la grandeur. Paris: Gallimard.

Boltanski, Thévenot, 2006Boltanski, L., & Thévenot, L. (2006). On justification: Economies of worth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Braverman, 1974/1998Braverman, H. (1974/1998). Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century (25th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.

Bretos, Errasti, Marcuello, 2017Bretos, I., Errasti, A., & Marcuello, C. (2017). Ownership, governance, and the diffusion of HRM practices in multinational worker cooperatives: Case-study evidence from the Mondragon group. Human Resource Management Journal, 28(1), 7691.

Burawoy, 1979Burawoy, M. (1979). Manufacturing consent: Changes in the labor process under monopoly capitalism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Burawoy, 2012Burawoy, M. (2012). The roots of domination: Beyond Bourdieu and Gramsci. Sociology, 46(2), 187206.

Chen, 2015Chen, K. K. (2015). Using extreme cases to understand organizations. In K. D. Elsbach & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative organizational research: Innovative pathways and ideas (pp. 3344). New York, NY: Routledge.

Cheney, 1999Cheney, G. (1999). Values at work: Employee participation meets market pressure at Mondragón. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Cheney, Santa Cruz, Peredo, Nazareno, 2014Cheney, G., Santa Cruz, I., Peredo, A. M., & Nazareno, E. (2014). Worker cooperatives as an organizational alternative: Challenges, achievements and promise in business governance and ownership. Organization, 21(5), 591603.

Clarke, 1984Clarke, T. (1984). Alternative modes of co-operative production. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 5(1), 97129.

Cloutier, Gond, Leca, 2017Cloutier, C., Gond, J.-P., & Leca, B. (2017). Justification, evaluation and critique in the study of organizations: An introduction to the volume. Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 52, 329.

Cloutier, Langley, 2013Cloutier, C., & Langley, A. (2013). The logic of institutional logics: Insights from French pragmatist sociology. Journal of Management Inquiry, 22(4), 36080.

Cornforth, 1995Cornforth, C. (1995). Patterns of cooperative management: Beyond the degeneration thesis. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 16(4), 487523.

Cornforth, Thomas, Lewis, Spear, 1988Cornforth, C., Thomas, A., Lewis, J., & Spear, R. (1988). Developing successful worker co-operatives. London: Sage.

Daudigeos, Edwards, Jaumier, Pasquier, Picard, 2019Daudigeos, T., Edwards, T., Jaumier, S., Pasquier, V., & Picard, H. (2019). Elusive domination and the fate of critique in neo-participative management: A French pragmatist approach. Organization Studies.

Daudigeos, Valiorgue, 2010Daudigeos, T., & Valiorgue, B. (2010). “Convention theory”: Is there a French school of organizational institutionalism? 19ème Conférence de l’AIMS, Luxembourg.

Daudigeos, Valiorgue, 2018Daudigeos, T., & Valiorgue, B. (2018). On objects and material devices in the organisational responses to institutional pluralism: Insights from economies of worth. Management International, 22(3), 12128.

de Munck, 2011de Munck, B. (2011). Guilds, product quality and intrinsic value: Towards a history of conventions? Historical Social Research, 36(4), 103124.

Demoustier, 1984Demoustier, D. (1984). Les coopératives ouvières de production. Paris: La Découverte.

Diefenbach, 2018Diefenbach, T. (2018). Why Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’ is not an iron law – and how democratic organisations can stay ‘oligarchy-free’. Organization Studies, 40(4), 545562.

Edwards, 1979Edwards, R. (1979). Contested terrain: The transformation of the workplace in the twentieth century. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Espagne, 2000Espagne, F. (2000). Les coopératives ouvrières de production entre utopies fondatrices et idéologies concurrentes. Retrieved from

Giampetro-Meyer, Brown, Browne, Kubasek, 1998Giampetro-Meyer, A., Brown, S. T., Browne, M. N., & Kubasek, N. (1998). Do we really want more leaders in business? Journal of Business Ethics, 17(15), 17271736.

Girard, Stark, 2003Girard, M., & Stark, D. (2003). Heterarchies of value in Manhattan-based new media firms. Theory, Culture & Society, 20(3), 77105.

Gond, Leca, Cloutier, 2015Gond, J.-P., Leca, B., & Cloutier, C. (2015). An economies-of-worth perspective on strategy as practice: Justification, valuation and critique in the practice of strategy. In D. Golsorkhi, L. Rouleau, D. Seidl, & E. Vaara (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of strategy as practice (pp. 201221). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grey, 1996Grey, C. (1996). Towards a critique of managerialism: The contribution of Simone Weil. Journal of Management Studies, 33(5), 591612.

Hodson, 2001Hodson, R. (2001). Dignity at work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Huault, Rainelli-Weiss, 2011Huault, I., & Rainelli-Weiss, H. (2011). A market for weather risk? Conflicting metrics, attempts at compromise, and limits to commensuration. Organization Studies, 32(10), 13951419.

Hunt, 1992Hunt, G. C. (1992). Division of labour, life cycle and democracy in worker co-operatives. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 13(1), 943.

Jacques, 1996Jacques, R. (1996). Manufacturing the employee: Management knowledge from the 19th to 21st centuries. London: Sage.

Jaumier, 2015Jaumier, S. (2015). Pouvoir, contrôle et résistance dans les coopératives de salariés: Une ethnographie d’une coopérative ouvrière. Paris: Paris IX.

Jaumier, 2017Jaumier, S. (2017). Preventing chiefs from being chiefs: An ethnography of a co-operative sheet-metal factory. Organization, 24(2), 218239.

Jaumier, Daudigeos, Huault, Pasquier, 2019Jaumier, S., Daudigeos, T., Huault, I., & Pasquier, V. (2019). La démocratie organisationnelle autrement: L’exemple des hiérarchies à domination inversée. Revue Française de Gestion, 45(278), 1936.

Jaumier, Daudigeos, Joannidès de Lautour, 2017Jaumier, S., Daudigeos, T., & Joannidès de Lautour, V. (2017). Co-operatives, compromises and critiques: What do French co-operators tell us about individual responses to pluralism? Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 52, 73106.

Jaumier, Pasquier, Joannidès de Lautour, 2018Jaumier, S., Pasquier, V., & Joannidès de Lautour, V. (2018). Les pratiques de GRH à l’épreuve des valeurs coopératives: Réinvention des entretiens individuels d’évaluation dans une SCOP. Revue Française de Gestion, 44(276), 85103.

Kasmir, 1996Kasmir, S. (1996). The myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, politics, and working-class life in a Basque town. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Kokkinidis, 2015Kokkinidis, G. (2015). Spaces of possibilities: Workers’ self-management in Greece. Organization, 22(6), 847871.

Lafaye, Thévenot, 1993Lafaye, C., & Thévenot, L. (1993). Une justification écologique? Conflits dans l’aménagement de la nature. Revue Française de Sociologie, 34(4), 495524.

Land, Sutherland, Taylor, 2018Land, C., Sutherland, N., & Taylor, S. D. (2018). Craft as a contested term: Meaning diversities between entrepreneurs and consumers in the craft-brewing industry. In E. Bell, G. Mangia, S. D. Taylor, & M. L. Toraldo (Eds.), The organization of craft work: Identities, meanings, and materiality (pp. 15068). London: Routledge.

Langmead, 2017Langmead, K. (2017). Challenging the degeneration thesis: The role of democracy in worker cooperatives? Journal of Entrepreneurial and Organizational Diversity, 5(1), 7998.

Lorino, 2005Lorino, P. (2005). Contrôle de gestion et mise en intrigue de l’action collective. Revue Française de Gestion, 31(159), 189212.

Ouahab, 2018Ouahab, A. (2018). Shopping consent: Controlling the labour process in a new wave food coop. 34th EGOS Colloquium, Tallinn, Estonia.

Ouahab, 2019Ouahab, A. (2019). Contester et consentir: La mise au travail des membres d’une organisation alternative: Le cas d’un supermarché coopératif et participatif. Paris: ESCP Europe.

Pernkopf-Konhausner, 2014Pernkopf-Konhausner, K. (2014). The competent actor: Bridging institutional logics and French pragmatist sociology. Journal of Management Inquiry, 23(3), 333337.

Reinecke, van Bommel, Spicer, 2017Reinecke, J., van Bommel, K., & Spicer, A. (2017). When orders of worth clash: Negotiating legitimacy in situations of moral multiplexity. Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 52, 3372.

Rippin, Vachhani, 2018Rippin, A., & Vachhani, S. J. (2018). Craft as resistance: A conversation about craftivism, embodied enquiry and craft-based methodologies. In E. Bell, G. Mangia, S. D. Taylor, & M. L. Toraldo (Eds.), The organization of craft work: Identities, meanings, and materiality (pp. 21734). London: Routledge.

Roelants, Eum, Esim, Novkovic, Katajamäki, 2019Roelants, B., Eum, H., Esim, S., Novkovic, S., & Katajamäki, W. (2019). Cooperatives and the world of work. Milton: Routledge.

Rothschild, Chen, Smith, Kristmundsson, 2016Rothschild, J., Chen, K. K., Smith, D. H., & Kristmundsson, O. (2016). Avoiding bureaucratization and mission drift in associations. In D. H. Smith, R. A. Stebbins, & J. Grotz (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of volunteering, civic participation, and nonprofit associations (pp. 10071024). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rothschild-Whitt, 1979Rothschild-Whitt, J. (1979). The collectivist organization: An alternative to rational-bureaucratic Models. American Sociological Review, 44, 509527.

Rousselière, Vézina, 2009Rousselière, D., & Vézina, M. (2009). Constructing the legitimacy of a financial cooperative in the cultural sector: A case study using textual analysis. International Review of Sociology, 19(2), 24161.

Sabel, 1982Sabel, C. F. (1982). Work and politics: The division of labor in industry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, Pasqualoni, 2014Scott, A., & Pasqualoni, P. P. (2014). The making of a paradigm: Exploring the potential of the economy of convention and pragmatic sociology of critique. In P. Adler, P. M. G. Du Gay, & M. Reed (Eds.), Oxford handbook of sociology, social theory and organization studies: Contemporary currents (pp. 6486). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sennett, 2008Sennett, R. (2008). The craftsman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sewell, 1998Sewell, G. (1998). The discipline of teams: The control of team-based industrial work through electronic and peer surveillance. Administrative Science Quarterly, 43(2), 397428.

Sobering, 2019Sobering, K. (2019). The relational production of workplace equality: The case of worker-recuperated businesses in Argentina. Qualitative Sociology.

Stark, 2000Stark, D. (2000). For a sociology of worth. Retrieved from

Stark, 2009Stark, D. (2009). The sense of dissonance: Accounts of worth in economic life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Storey, Basterretxea, Salaman, 2014Storey, J., Basterretxea, I., & Salaman, G. (2014). Managing and resisting ‘degeneration’ in employee-owned businesses: A comparative study of two large retailers in Spain and the United Kingdom. Organization, 21(5), 626644.

Thévenot, 1983Thévenot, L. (1983). L’économie du codage social. Critiques de l’Economie Politique, 23–24, 188222.

Vallas, 2006Vallas, S. P. (2006). Empowerment redux: Structure, agency, and the remaking of managerial authority. American Journal of Sociology, 111(6), 16771717.

Van Bommel, 2014Van Bommel, K. (2014). Towards a legitimate compromise? Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 27(7), 11571189.

Webb, Cheney, 2014Webb, T., & Cheney, G. (2014). Worker-owned-and-governed co-operatives and the wider co-operative movement: Challenges and opportunities within and beyond the global economic crisis. In M. Parker, G. Cheney, V. Fournier, & C. Land (Eds.), The Routledge companion to alternative organization (pp. 6488). New York, NY: Routledge.

Wissler, 1989Wissler, A. (1989). Les jugements dans l’octroi de crédit. In L. Boltanski & L. Thévenot (Eds.), Justesse et justice dans le travail (pp. 67120). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.


We would like to thank the editors and the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and their clear guidance all along the process. We are also grateful to the organizers and participants of the Organizing Alternatives to Capitalism: Theories, Models and Mechanisms sub-theme at the 31st EGOS conference in Athens.

“What If” and “If Only” Futures beyond Conventional Capitalism and Bureaucracy: Imagining Collectivist and Democratic Possibilities for Organizing
Part I: Working: Enacting Collectivist-Democratic Practices Through Everyday Interactions
The Emotional Dynamics of Workplace Democracy: Emotional Labor, Collective Effervescence, and Commitment at Work
Resisting Work Degeneration in Collectivist-Democratic Organizations: Craft Ethics in a French Cooperative Sheet-metal Factory
Part II: Networking: Connecting Communities through Collectivist-Democratic Practices
Moral Community as a Yardstick for Alternative Organizations: Evaluating Employee Ownership and its Place within the Socioeconomic Order
The Iron Cage Has a Mezzanine: Collectivist-Democratic Organizations and the Selection of Isomorphic Pressures via Meta-Organization
A Matrix Form of Multi-Organizational Hybridity in a Cooperative-Union Venture
Economic Democracy, Embodied: A Union Co-op Strategy for the Long-term Care Sector
Part III: Reworking: Challenging and Transforming Capitalist Economies through Collectivist-Democratic Practices
Organizational Infrastructures for Economic Resilience: Alternatives to Shareholder Value-oriented Corporations and Unemployment Trajectories in the US during the Great Recession
It Takes More Than a Village: The Creation and Expansion of Alternative Organizational Forms in Brazil
Ownership and Mission Drift in Alternative Enterprises: The Case of a Social Banking Network
Participatory Democratic Organizations Everywhere: A Harbinger of Social Change?