Hanging Tongues

In the article “Hanging Tongues: A Sociological Encounter with the Assembly line” Thompson (1983) there are many connections between the Physical structure of the beef processing plant and the social structure of those working within it. The layout, design and decor of the beef plant both directly and metaphorically impact on the social structure within the plant, pertaining to (among other examples) a sense of isolation, hierarchies, formalisation and standardisation.
The physical layout of the beef processing plant appears to be similar to many other assembly line factories, the ‘kill floor’ as Thompson refers to it, being a large open space with work stations located around the area. Thompson describes an “Overhead stainless steel rail… curved its way around every work station in the plant. ” We see that although physically all the different work stations on the ‘kill floor’ are connected, the connection is mechanical, part of the layout of the factory. Despite the open plan space in the factory there is much isolation among the workers, even though they are all working on the same production line.
Although most workers know each other on sight, it is unlikely that they would know more than first names due to the nature of the work they are doing. Each worker on Thompson’s ‘offal’ station was expected to handle 187 tongues per hour, plus cleaning of racks and trays. This is quite a high work rate and there is little time for small-talk with co-workers. This rate required from workers creates a division between the workers who have little time to stop, besides designated breaks and management who seemingly ‘sit behind their desks all day’.

Also concerned with the layout of the factory was the separation of the ‘kill floor’ with the executive offices. This layout in the factory underlines the hierarchy of the social structure within the plant. At the bottom of the ladder we have the workers. They work on the ‘kill floor’ which is the dirtiest, most dangerous and most monotonous job. The Management and executives of the company are at the top of the hierarchy, they are separated physically from the ‘kill floor’ as they cannot be seen to get dirty themselves. This would make them subordinates to their ‘equals’ in the business world.
Little is noted of the management in “Hanging Tongues” except that they “Rarely ventured” to the ’kill floor’ where Thompson’s research took place. Their offices are separate, keeping them isolated from the dirty, dangerous work on the factory floor. The other physical separation in the beef plant was between the inspectors and the workers. There is understandable animosity between the two groups. As they start the inspectors are on a lower wage than the workers. This is presumably because the nature of the inspector’s job is a lot less dangerous, and less physically demanding than that of the ‘beefers’.
The only interaction between inspectors and workers is of a negative nature, as the inspector will be telling the worker that the work is not of a high enough standard, this slows the progress of the workers and causes resentment towards the inspectors. Due to this negative interaction, inspectors are kept separate from workers eating “in a separate lunchroom” according to Thompson. The design and decor of the beef processing plant also contribute to the social structure of the workers. Almost everything on the ‘kill floor’ is made of stainless steel, the benches, knives, tubs etc.
This sterile equipment makes a sterile working environment, which makes the workers feel that their workplace is even more impersonal. Some other aspects of decor and design also lead the workers to this isolated mindset. Sealed cement floors and Ceramic tile walls are cold and impersonal. Everything is cleaned down at every break and shift change, as if the workers had never been there. There is no sense of individualism for the workers, instead we see in action the “metaphor of the organisation as a machine” Morgan (1998).
Whereby the workers are not considered as individuals, but as functioning parts of a machine, objects that do their part in order to create a finished product (in this case a butchered cow). Another example of the decor observed by Thompson was that of the safety posters plastered over the walls, reminding workers that they should be wearing safety equipment, and working carefully at all times. This decor around the workspace (where we can imagine that management have pictures of their families instead) creates another division between “us” (the workers) and “them” (management).
The posters also serve to remind the workers that their jobs are undeniably dangerous, workers being forced to face the fact that every day they are working they are in physical danger from the jobs they do. One last observation about the decor in the factory is the lack of clocks. Management try to control certain aspects of the workers day, this is one way in which they do it. By not letting workers know that their break / end of shift is going to arrive management are trying to avoid the inevitable ‘slacking off’ before the end of a shift, or ducking out early.
This control is one thing that workers have tried to regain, as the person at the start of the production line starts “clanging his knife against the metal” when the break in the line appears. The knife banging gets passed from station to station and Thompson said he knew that “it was exactly 35 minutes until the end of the line would reach me”. Even though it is really just a symbolic way of gaining some control back, it is an important form of communication between the normally isolated workers.
Formalisation, pertaining to rules and procedures implemented at the beef processing plant are an important dimension of organisational social structure. Hatch (2006), states that “formalization tends to reduce the amount of discretion employees have in performing their work tasks”. The physical structures that the beef plant has that connect with this statement are numerous. The posters about wearing safety equipment are one example; the sterile, dangerous equipment they use is another. Formalisation, according to Hatch, also helps to determine pay levels.
In Thompson’s “Hanging Tongues” we see a specific example of this in the reference note stating that the ‘shackler’ is paid 10cents per hour more than the workers because of the more dangerous nature of his job, dealing with flying hooves, and hooks and chains. Standardisation is a dimension of organisational social structure that is inherent in Thompson’s “Hanging Tongues”. Much mention is made of the monotony of the work. The workers do the same job, in the same way, day after day. Their surroundings and equipment are always the same. It is this ombination of standardised work and surroundings that connects the social and physical structures in this beef plant. The work may be efficient, but the monotony and the dangerous aspects of the job are crucial factors in the high turnover of staff in assembly line jobs. There are many connections between the physical and social structures of the beef processing plant that Thompson has studied. Hierarchies and divisions of labour are common practice in social structure, as in many organisations they are the easiest way to get work done effectively.
The same is true of physical structures based upon keeping management away from the dirty work, or ‘kill floor’. What is important is that we can see how these structures impact upon each other making the business what it is. References Hatch, M. J. (with Cunliffe, A) (2006). Organisation Theory: modern, symbolic, postmodern perspectives. (2nd Ed. ). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Morgan, G. (1998). Images of organisation: The executive edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage pp 3-13. Thompson, W. E. (1983). Hanging Tongues: A sociological encounter with the assembly line. Qualitative Sociology 6 (3), 215-237.

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