The Research Process: Looking for Conflict

Another post for those of you who are interested in the research process. This time I’m interested in the notion of conflict.

If any of you have seen the movie Half Nelson, you may remember that the lead character, Ryan Gosling, tries to teach his high school students about “opposing forces” or in the academic parlance, the dialectic. He uses the example of the Civil Rights movement, where ordinary people started resisting the dominant white order, and, in the process, changed institutions like lunch counters, the education system, and even the Supreme Court.

The dialectic — two opposing forces moving against each other — indicates where social change is happening. In this research project, on the one hand, workers are telling me that they work too many hours, that they are tired. They want more vacation, more time to think, more time to be creative.

But on the other hand, they are also telling me that they like to work. They want to put in long hours either to get ahead, or to simply solve interesting problems.

On the one hand, they resent that their companies use technology to beckon them back to work (either virtually or in person). But on the other hand, they welcome the use of the company issued laptops. They relish the ability to spend hours online for “work” purposes. They like the convenience of instant messenger.

Where are the conflicts? Between workers and the tools they are issued. Between the experience of work and the tracking of work time. Between the desire for fulfillment and the dominance of billable hours.

People engage in all sorts of practices that undermine the notion that billable hours actually matter. But they also pay homage to billable hours, with a nod and a wink. Does this mean that conflict is currently happening? Does this mean that social change is underway?

I want to know if any of these conflicts lead to meaningful change. My initial suspicion is that it does — but not on a grand scale. The dominance of the system of tracking billable hours is so entrenched and necessary to the success of the companies that it will likely not go away. But! That does not mean that everyday practice does not provide some room for change.

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