On violating the standards of one’s occupation

There are some things that you don't do in an occupation. This might be using lots of glue instead of dowels for a carpenter or nesting several windows into each other if you are an interface designer. These things might be rationally explained: The carpenter might say they want to be able to take the chair apart and the designer might say that all the nested windows are confusing. Other people working in the same field do not demand an explanation though, since it is “obvious” that you do not do these things. If people from different professions do not feel they have knowledge at all about the discipline, they won't question these rules either. But if they assume they do have some insight, they might demand to do something which is “wrong“ to do.

The person who is (unwittingly) asked to violate their standards might decline outright to do it. If they are not in the position to decline, they might try to negotiate a compromise, alleviating the worst offenses of the suggestion. They might also be that much lower in an (implicit) hierarchy that they need to comply despite their discomfort.

Their violation in a single situation might seem unproblematic for people not from the occupation doing—and not wanting to do—what is “wrong”. What is easy to overlook is that the occupational standards might not necessary have strong inherent rationality on their own. But this does not mean that they are irrational or unhelpful obstacles. Standards are relational and part of a system: They shape what can be expected, what is normal and what you can safely assume to not happen. This is very useful, as it allows to work in a routine and well practiced way. It also eases to work with other people who know these standards. These people might have the same occupation and pick up the work started by someone else, or it might by outsiders to the occupation but still can use the professional standards of it to shape their expectation. This means that, all things being equal, a carpenter can refurbish a cabinet build by another carpenter and that any programmer can expect certain behaviors and preferences by an interface designer as these occupations have (implicit) standards which ensure this.

When these standards are violated such expectations are also violated, leading to surprises while working and breaking the routine flow of work. It can also mean that sources of errors go unnoticed since the attention is not attuned to the problems in a standard-violating environment.

Some disciplines can defend their standards well. Programmers, being much needed and well payed, despite having a worker-like status 1, have a lot of well-transportable rules. Via the web they can easily spread lists-of-things-to-do (or not), discuss them and publicly commit to support these standards. Programmers, being asked to do something, often have a document to point to, created by other programmers, saying that they should or should not do so. Other disciplines are in more of a struggle. Much furniture produced today is hard to take apart and to refurbish, properties that, as I understand, are not much liked by carpenters. However, cheap industrial production pushed these standards aside. Other disciplines might be able to defend their standards by officially letting others control their work, but continuing to use the suggested course of action only sometimes2.

Any occupation with some power over their own work will develop standards. Although one can give good reasons for such standards, their main advantage is not that every single rule is scientifically validated. Their value is that following these standards creates an environment in which you can do routine work and collaborate based on standards as the expectations of the participants in the work environment are satisfied. Conversely, violating the standards, even if it seems to have immediate advantages, can destabilize the environment making collaboration and error correction hard and full of surprises. Collaborating with others, people are asked to violated their occupations’ standards and thus will try to defend them. Some disciplines have the power and infrastructure to do so, while others struggle.

  1. Ensmenger, Nathan L. The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012. 

  2. Orr, Julian E. Talking about Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job. Collection on Technology and Work. Ithaca, N.Y: ILR Press, 1996. — One assumption of the company (or some distant superior) is that the photocopy machines can be repaired by simply using the steps proposed in the maintenance manual. The technicians sometimes used these manuals, but very often they don't because some problems can't be solved by them and other would take a long time to solve when using the method the manual suggests.