No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Exploring the Industrial Subculture

Turner, B.A. (1971), Exploring the Industrial Subculture, London: Macmillan Press.


This book is Turner’s personal document that emerged from dissatisfaction with existing forms of organizational analysis. When he joined a research project, he believed that industrial sociology should focus on how individuals define their roles and life positions in industry, the symbols they use in these definitions, and the organizational consequences of these views. Turner's research data related to management control systems and sociologically significant data, which he found challenging to define or analyze. Turner eventually found a way out of this dilemma by adopting Glaser and Strauss's Grounded Theory. This approach allowed him to uncover the conceptual framework within his field data, connect it with existing literature, and make relevant observations. Turner aimed to develop a sociology that starts from the sociologist's own experiences and interactions with industry, with a loose thematic connection to Schutz's phenomenological sociology. The industrial subculture is introduced to highlight aspects of industry that sociologists should analyze rather than take for granted.


Chapter one – The Industrial Subculture

A subculture is defined by Turner as a unique set of meanings shared by a group of people whose behavior differs somewhat from that of the wider society. This distinctiveness is maintained through a process of socialization where newcomers learn the values of the group, generating common motives, reaction patterns, and perceptual habits. Sanctions are used to ensure that members adhere to appropriate behaviors within the subculture.


The industrial subculture is not a monolithic entity but rather has different manifestations in various industries and companies. It extends to subsidiary groupings like trade unions, manufacturers' associations, and professional bodies, contributing to and partaking in the subculture. Within industrial organizations, there are micro-cultures associated with different departments and work groups. Industrial subculture encompasses all these social groupings, because of the pervasive similarities found in industrial life.


The industrial subculture is segmental; it exists in a specific physical space, away from the participants' home and leisure areas. Within these physical boundaries, individuals exhibit behavior patterns associated with the subculture. When they cross these boundaries - usually at the end of the workday - , their behavior patterns often change. This results in a segmented existence, with discrete shifts in behavior over time.


The stability of the industrial subculture can be attributed to two factors:

  1. The industrial sector controls significant resources, helping it adapt to changes effectively;
  2. The integration of industry with bureaucracy further stabilizes the subculture. It not only remains stable but also extends its influence into other sectors of societal culture as industrial techniques and management practices spread into the public sector.


The world of industry consists of various groups, such as companies, trade unions, work groups, and management institutes, each with its unique social patterns and meanings. These groups may differ but are connected by their participation in the industrial subculture. The industrial subculture is maintained through socialization processes that encourage newcomers to adopt industrial values and behaviors. These processes also rely on a system of sanctions, ranging from reprimands to dismissal, to ensure conformity.


Industrial sociologists should begin their study by examining how the shared meanings within the industrial subculture are sustained. This involves understanding the communication mechanisms, rituals, and language used to convey these meanings. The sociologist should look into the social definitions of various aspects acknowledged within the subculture but not in the wider society. They also should explore how social and technical norms are communicated through linked social definitions. Finally, they should analyze the multiple levels of symbolic interpretations individuals use to attribute meaning to their industrial environment, including their understanding of themselves, colleagues, bosses, subordinates, organization, and the broader context.


Researchers should recognize the interconnectedness of factors when studying a subculture. Prematurely listing similarities and differences in values inside and outside the subculture should be avoided. A deeper exploration of the meanings individuals hold within the subculture is needed.


Chapter two – The attribution of meaning

An understanding of how individuals attribute meaning to their experiences and use symbols for communication is essential for studying subcultures and their shared meanings. When exploring the meaning patterns within a subculture, the distinction between immediate and wider social worlds is particularly relevant.  


Human beings constantly receive stimuli from their environment and take various actions in response. Meaning is attributed to experiences through a reflective process, where individuals ascribe significance to their encounters. Meaning doesn't reside solely in the act of receiving a stimulus but rather in the individual's interpretation of that experience. The individual needs to actively engage in the process of attaching meaning to information they receive; otherwise, it remains noise. Meaning attribution involves the individual attending to and grasping the experience. Without this reflective attention, information lacks meaning. This process of ascribing meaning occurs within the individual's consciousness, where one part takes note of something registered elsewhere in their consciousness. Over time, some meanings may be clustered together and related to one another, forming patterns of meaning. These patterns can be associated into larger structures, and the unity of meaning is conferred by reflective attention.


When considering a group of individuals within a subculture, each person receives stimuli, experiences events, and attributes meaning within their own consciousness. In situations involving more than one individual, each can become aware of the others' stream of consciousness, although not fully comprehending its content. Symbols play a crucial role in enabling communication between individuals. A symbol represents one object or situation (the symbol) and stands for another object or situation (the symbolized). Individuals can grasp the meaning of a symbol even if they haven't personally experienced what it symbolizes. Symbols facilitate the conveyance of both established and novel meanings, provided that both parties in the communication process understand the links between the symbol and the meaning it represents.


The study of a subculture should consider two broad distinctions in how individuals construct meaning structures. Firstly, there are differences in how people understand those in their immediate social circle, whom they have direct personal contact with, and those outside this circle. The former can be understood through direct experiences and interactions, while the latter are understood at a higher level of abstraction. Secondly, distinctions arise based on whether the experiences being attributed meaning are part of an overt symbolic system or lie outside such a system.


Two key distinctions in the processes of acquiring and transmitting meaning within a subculture are overt and covert symbolic meanings. Overt symbols, such as written and spoken language, enable direct exchange of meanings. There are limitations in communication, including cases where some meanings cannot be conveyed, disagreements on symbol interpretation, variations in agreement about symbol links, and inadequacies in the meaning system itself. Despite these limitations, language systems usually achieve a reasonable degree of understanding. People within a subculture don’t rely solely on written or spoken messages to understand their situation. They attribute meaning to a wide range of signals and experiences in their physical and social environment. This includes ascribing meaning to objects based on previous experiences, interpreting social actions, and seeking deeper meanings beyond the superficial. These interpretations may vary among individuals, leading to potential ambiguities in understanding events and situations.


Chapter three – Communication and Ritual

Ritual behavior is another way through which meaning is conveyed within a subculture. It does not neatly fit into either the overt or covert categories. Rituals involve structured symbolic elements that convey meanings, but they are not primarily designed for clear, direct communication. While they possess rich symbolism, their interpretation can be highly ambiguous due to the absence of a related overt communication code. Ritual behavior, unlike language, lacks a precise, well-defined communication code. It’s a non-linguistic form of conveying meaning within a subculture. Rituals, characterized by stylized and formalized actions, play a significant role in conveying meaning and fostering social cohesion within various cultures, including industrial settings. Ritual is not limited to magic or supernatural beliefs; it encompasses any behavior that is stylized and repetitive. The absence of elaborate belief systems in industrial rituals suggests that the meaning of these rituals should be understood through their situational context and the information they transmit. Rituals often use symbolic themes that reinforce their meaning, even if the justifications for these behaviors are not immediately apparent. Rituals can be anthropologically viewed as mechanisms for storing and transmitting information and symbolic meanings within societies. There are three key differences between primitive cultures and modern industrial subcultures: the presence of fully literate individuals, the continuous evolution of the industrial subculture, and the dominance of rational-technical belief systems.


There are various types of rituals within industrial organizations:

  • Rites of Passage: These mark significant transitions in an individual's career within the organization, such as promotions, transfers, or retirement. Rituals associated with retirement are analyzed, where individuals are celebrated as they transition to a new phase of life, emphasizing rest and leisure.
  • Rites of Intensification and Hierarchy: Rituals in industrial settings often symbolize group membership and hierarchy within the organization. Commensality, or patterns of eating together, is used to display unity and social structure. The text also mentions office parties and other celebrations, which reflect both informality and the persistence of hierarchical distinctions.
  • Patterns of Deferential Behavior: Rituals in industrial organizations can include stylized patterns of deferential behavior that emphasize legitimate authority and hierarchy. For example, the inspection tours of top executives are highly choreographed events involving extensive preparations to ensure that workers are seen to be working correctly.


Industrial organizations emphasize punctuality and regularity in attendance, which has its origins in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Employees are expected to arrive and leave work at specific times. This stress on punctuality involves various rituals, such as time clock punching, book signing, or register marking, as well as arriving before factory gates are locked.

Repetitive and formalized behavior is common in industrial settings, especially in performing tasks and during meetings. These behaviors are often considered rational and technical, driven by the need to achieve specific outcomes. But not all activities can be purely rational, and some may have a ritualistic aspect, either as an expression of a belief in punctuality or as a way to demonstrate the industrial hierarchy.

Rituals in industrial settings change over time due to accelerating change and the availability of rational-technical explanations. Rituals can give way to rational approaches when they conflict with the demands of technical efficiency. Turner also speculates that, in certain circumstances, new rituals may emerge as behaviors acquire new meanings and connotations.


Chapter four – Communication and Language

Language plays a crucial role in transmitting socially approved knowledge within the industrial subculture. Language can differ within the subculture compared to the parent culture, with unique names and terminology for objects, processes, roles, and technical aspects. The use of numbers and codes in place of words is also common. Learning this specialized language sensitizes individuals to perceive and interact with their environment in a way that aligns with the industrial subculture.


Language provides humans with the ability to manipulate reality by creating descriptions and categories for different aspects of it. This manipulation is particularly crucial in coordinating complex industrial tasks. Industrial organizations devote significant attention to devising and attributing technical names. Certain individuals or departments are responsible for establishing and maintaining these names or accepted definitions for technical aspects of the organizational task. Definitions used in industrial processes must closely align with the underlying material reality to achieve successful material transformations. The extent to which material constraints limit social definitions can vary, sometimes leading to disagreements or the adoption of conventional definitions. Different departments within a company may have varying conceptions of what constitutes a "product" or how to classify machines, leading to potential disagreements. Once a working definition is established, it can form the basis for organizational boundaries. Apart from naming, other language differences, such as differences in syntax, may exist within subcultures and the parent culture. Additionally, small pockets of workers in industrial settings may speak different languages. Large organizations tend to develop internal languages for discussing internal matters and decision-making. These languages can sometimes become distinct from everyday language and lose contact with reality, as seen in the concept of "Glacierspeak." Effective communication is essential within organizations, especially when different departments and hierarchy levels need to collaborate. Special languages emerge to facilitate communication within these micro-cultures. Language also serves to preserve meanings within organizations, creating a "transmittable tradition" that forms the basis of institutional knowledge. Language allows for the continuity of frames of reference and the transmission of fitting ways of acting. Joking allows for testing the atmosphere, softening messages, releasing tension, and easing uncomfortable situations. It often involves ambiguity and an acknowledgment that the spoken words are not meant to be taken at face value.

Workers in industrial organizations often engage in joking and humor, but it is typically done in a way that doesn't directly insult or offend clients. Joking can provide a means of expressing playful aggression and may include moral rebukes among the banter. Anthropological studies suggest that joking within industrial organizations can be structured and often takes place between specific joking partners. These partners are usually not part of the immediate in-group or entirely separate groups but occupy borderline positions within the organization. People in borderline relations, such as the maternal uncle in a patrilineal family or certain clans that pair with others as joking partners, can engage in joking behavior without damaging their authority within the group. Joking allows them to express playful aggression and sometimes includes pointed moral rebukes. Some ethnic groups may adopt habitual joking responses due to their marginal positions in industrial society. Comedy, including joking, can serve as a form of sanctioned disrespect, allowing individuals to openly discuss matters that are otherwise taboo or sensitive. Comedy provides a way to address social issues and challenges the norms upheld by those in power.


Chapter five - Socialization

New employees bring their existing cultural backgrounds and predispositions to the organization, but these are modified to fit the existing organizational culture. The presenting culture of newcomers undergoes modification as they adapt to the organizational culture. This process involves changes in both the individual and the organization, with a significant portion of the changes occurring during the early stages of their interaction. The organization often seeks to control these changes by either selecting individuals with suitable presenting cultures during recruitment or modifying the presenting cultures of new employees to align with the organization's norms. Recruitment processes, including formal tests and interviews, serve as means of selecting individuals whose presenting cultures align with the organization's values. There may be biases in recruitment based on factors like education, class, or background. Secondary socialization is the process by which existing members of the organization guide newcomers to accept their definitions of situations. This process helps newcomers understand and adapt to the organizational environment. Formal induction and training programs are becoming more common to provide newcomers with information about the organization's physical layout, procedures, and norms. These programs offer greater control over the socialization process.


Chapter six – Norms and social definitions

Social definitions play a crucial role in both technical and social aspects of industrial organizations. Technical knowledge and material aspects are influenced by the extent of agreement among individuals about perceptions and meanings within the organization. Culture, including subcultures within an organization, can be viewed as an aggregation of definitions of the situations that members expect to encounter. Social definitions affect the way individuals are treated in such organizations. Secretaries are often treated as non-persons in certain situations, despite the fact that their existence is acknowledged. This treatment includes not introducing them to other managers, speaking differently when introducing them, not formally acknowledging their presence at meetings, and neglecting their access to confidential documents.


Social definitions and norms are established and maintained within organizations. The initial decisions made during the formation of an organization influence the types of social control that will be exerted within it. Five broad classes of social definitions: (1) those established by top management, (2) those that seem to emerge from the environment, (3) those subject to negotiation, (4) those established by counter-centers of power, and (5) those that persist without agreements or commands.


Norms are forms of behavior that are considered desirable by group members. Norms are related to social definitions and they help individuals understand what is socially acceptable within the organization. Specific norms related to interpersonal interactions within industrial organizations include the importance of maintaining continuity in relationships, the practice of establishing common ground in conversations (often through trivial topics like the weather), and the principle of reciprocity in social exchanges. Reciprocal relationships are shown to occur between colleagues of equal rank, those in different hierarchical positions, and even between individuals in different organizations. Norms related to reciprocity involve considerations of stepping outside one's formal job role. They and may have economic implications as well.


Reciprocal relationships can involve the exchange of commodities or information. Blau and Scott's found that colleagues in a law-enforcement agency seek advice from peers rather than experts to avoid building up obligations. In these relationships, information is often the primary commodity exchanged, and sometimes, deference behavior is used as a commodity. Such relationships can be compared to economic analysis but acknowledges the complexity of incorporating moral and quasi-legal obligations. Malinowski's principle of reciprocity is that natives recognize it as good; it’s a system of exchanges for mutual advantage; and potential consequences for non-compliance are recognized. Reciprocal relationships can be implicit or explicit, short-lived or ongoing, and sometimes formalized in written contracts. Formalization may weaken the relationship. Ambiguity can arise in implicit relationships when one party is unaware of the obligations or the exchange's content. Situations where one party denies the existence of a relationship can lead to hostile reactions. Some reciprocal relationships are attached to job roles, especially those with opportunities for corruption. Newcomers must learn the rights and duties associated with their roles.


Chapter seven – Occupational roles, Organizational identity and Autonomy

Occupational roles, often referred to as job-roles, involve rules and expectations for behavior while performing a job. Individuals need training and induction to understand their job-roles, even in professions. Job-roles come with rights and obligations, and individuals have some autonomy within their defined territories. A foreman, for example, has authority over a shop floor territory. The extent of an individual's autonomy within a job-role can vary, and newcomers may influence the role's definition. Autonomy implies the right to intervene in the physical arrangement of objects within one's territory and in certain aspects of individuals' affairs within that territory. Job-roles are often formally defined, and their justifications may be charismatic, traditional, or rational-technical. Negotiation and interaction between parties within the organization often determine the boundaries of job-roles. Job-roles are not always fully outlined by job descriptions, and negotiation is common. The outcome of negotiations may include a blend of justifications based on different criteria. Individuals' explanations for the boundaries of their job-roles become part of their organizational biography and contribute to the organization's transmittable tradition.


Chapter eight – Authority and the Hierarchy

Authority within industrial organizations has to do with expectations placed on individuals in supervisory or managerial positions and the challenges they face in maintaining their autonomy while adhering to the organizational hierarchy. As individuals move up the career ladder, it affects their relationships with their former colleagues. Those in authority positions undergo scrutiny and assessment, both in terms of their qualifications and their manner of exerting authority.


The knowledge held by members of the industrial subculture about their work is not purely factual but is imbued with ethical elements. The ethical framework within this subculture influences how individuals perceive and conduct themselves in the workplace. The subculture within industry is partly influenced by the larger culture of society, but it also exhibits unique ethical characteristics due to the specific challenges and situations encountered in the industrial context.


Chapter nine – The Transmitted Moral Code

Individuals often find satisfaction in their work when they believe it contributes to a socially useful purpose. The nature of the work, its perceived social value, and the ethical considerations attached to it can influence a person's job satisfaction. In situations where there is a significant division of labor, some aspects of work may be more subject to ethical rules within the organization, while others may not be. For example, workers may be more inclined to exercise special care in tasks that have clear moral implications, like producing components for aeronautical purposes.

Ethical concerns within the organization can emerge when specific events or individuals bring attention to the moral implications of certain aspects of work. This can lead to discussions and deliberations about the ethical dimensions of work behavior.

Moral concerns can have an impact on individual employees and their sense of responsibility for the outcomes of their work. For example, a manager became acutely aware of the moral implications of poor quality and reliability in components used in deep-sea trawlers following accidents. Ethical concerns and moral values are communicated within the organization through personal experiences, anecdotes, and discussions among employees. These shared moral values contribute to the organization's moral code.


Job roles are closely related to a set of moral rules and can be examined from a moral standpoint. The principle of reciprocity works in a range from small social gestures to institutionalized bribery. Even the distribution of work among employees is subject to moral precepts, with expectations of fairness. Work distribution play a part in determining workers' rewards. Different belief systems exist regarding what aspects of behavior should be rewarded, and these systems are socially distributed within the industrial subculture.


The unauthorized use of company materials and time for personal purposes shows the distinctions made within the subculture between acceptable and unacceptable foreigners based on factors such as the availability of materials and the perceived motives of individuals. Some forms of foreigners are seen as a form of play or sociability within the workplace.


Individuals may engage in various forms of manipulation to achieve certain goals or objectives. These actions are viewed differently depending on the perspective of those involved and can be seen as either unethical or justifiable in specific contexts.


Chapter ten – Industrial Meaning Systems

Meaning systems within the industrial subculture are not uniform and may vary between companies and individuals. The attribution of meaning to actions and the ability to see one's actions from others' perspectives play a crucial role in understanding subcultural phenomena in industrial settings.


In some cases, when two organizations merge, they can continue to operate largely separately, retaining their own procedures, traditions, and meaning systems. This is akin to a federal or pluralistic merger where the two entities coexist without significant integration.

Sometimes, one of the merging organizations may effectively disappear as a coherent entity. Its employees may be dismissed or integrated into the other organization, and its procedures and traditions are considered inferior or inappropriate, leading to the eradication of its meaning system. In other instances, the two organizations may come together without the complete dismemberment of either. They coexist on a more equal basis, and both sets of legitimating mechanisms continue to operate. The outcome depends on factors such as the rate of change, the rate of personnel diffusion between the organizations, and the effectiveness of therapeutic mechanisms (the processes by which organizations accommodate new meanings). If there's significant personnel diffusion and rapid change, both meaning systems may coalesce into a new form. The events leading to mergers and takeovers often occur at a level removed from most employees. These events are experienced indirectly, and the effects gradually filter down to the everyday reality that employees experience directly. Mergers can significantly impact the culture and meaning systems within organizations, and the ultimate outcome depends on various contextual factors.


Mergers and acquisitions in organizations can lead to significant changes in employees' working conditions and perceptions. When two companies merge, employees suddenly find themselves working for a different employer, under new leadership, and within a different organizational culture. This change can result in shifts in management styles, communication boundaries, and the overall organizational culture. The merger not only alters the employees' working environment but also affects their understanding of the meaning associated with various aspects of their work life. As a result, employees start to interpret events and changes differently, often attaching new meanings or ambiguities to them. For example, changes in company facilities or employee movements may be attributed to the merger, even when there's no direct connection. This period of uncertainty and interpretation, often characterized by rumors and speculations, can create a clash of meaning systems as employees from the two merging organizations try to make sense of the new situation. The existing corporate culture and the newly introduced one collide, leading to various outcomes. These outcomes may include the preservation of separate meaning systems, attempts to suppress one system in favor of the other, or efforts to reconcile and blend the two systems. Ultimately, in a merger, the dominant meaning system imposed by top management becomes the accepted one. Managers control communication channels and employment decisions, allowing their version of events to shape the collective narrative. Aberrant interpretations of events may persist among certain groups, but the dominant narrative prevails. Anecdotes about key figures involved in the merger contribute to the rewriting of corporate history, further solidifying the new meaning system.


Chapter eleven – Manipulation of the Subculture

Boundaries and territories within the organization play a role in controlling behavior and social interaction. The establishment and manipulation of boundaries can impact autonomy, control, and segregation within the organization. Ensuring that all relevant parties have access to the necessary information is difficult. Better communication alone may not resolve all organizational issues, especially in situations with finite resources and inherent conflicts.


Individuals within industrial organizations possess varying sets of knowledge, and these knowledge distributions are related to social factors. When people within a group have identical knowledge about a specific topic, it forms an open awareness context. In cases where there are differences in knowledge, leading to unintentional misunderstandings, communication is desirable to resolve these differences. Knowledge within industrial organizations can be both in individuals' consciousness and externalized in various forms, such as publications, restricted files, and discussions at formal meetings. These two sets of knowledge are socially distributed, and many organizational processes involve transferring information between them or from one subgroup to another. In negotiations, knowledge can be formal or informal, and discussions at meetings often have hidden meanings. Awareness contexts are used to understand how people possess knowledge within organizations, but the complexity of industrial situations makes them more challenging to apply directly.

Attempts to manipulate awareness contexts within organizations include efforts to control the spread of information, especially in larger organizations. Different individuals and groups may influence the distribution of knowledge using their authority, manipulation of communication channels, or the creation of new channels.


Chapter twelve - Conclusions

Social reality within industrial organizations is complex. A phenomenological approach, involving qualitative inquiry and a focus on meaning systems, can be a valuable way to study and understand this complex reality. The development of a sociology of everyday industrial knowledge is an essential component of industrial sociology.