To Hive or to Hold? Producing Professional Authority through Scut Work

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Author: Ruthanne Huising

Publication: Administrative Science Quarterly

Abstract:
This paper examines how professionals working in bureaucratic organizations, despite having formal authority, struggle to enact authority over the clients they advise, transforming their right to command into deference to commands. Drawing on a comparative ethnographic study of two professional groups overseeing compliance in university laboratories, I identify how choices about their task jurisdiction influence each profession’s ability to enact authority over and gain voluntary compliance from the same group of clients. One group constructs its work domain to include not only high-skilled tasks that emphasize members’ expertise but also scut work—menial work with contaminated materials—through which they gain regular entry into clients’ workspaces, developing knowledge about and relationships with clients. Using these resources to accommodate, discipline, and understand clients, they produce relational authority—the capacity to elicit voluntary compliance with commands. The other group outsources everyday scut work and interacts with lab researchers mostly during annual inspections and training, which leads to complaints by researchers to management and eventual loss of jurisdiction. The findings show the importance of producing relational authority in contemporary professional–client interactions in bureaucratic settings and challenge the relevance of expertise and professional identity in generating relational authority. I show how holding on to, not hiving off, scut work allows professionals to enact authority over clients.

Read full article: Administrative Science Quarterly, November 25, 2014