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Cover of the book Moral Gray Zones

Moral Gray Zones: Side-Production, Identity, and Regulation in an Aeronautic Plant

(Princeton University Press, 2008)


Anyone who has been employed by an organization knows not every official workplace regulation must be followed. When management consistently overlooks such breaches, spaces emerge in which both workers and supervisors engage in officially prohibited, yet tolerated practices--gray zones. When discovered, these transgressions often provoke disapproval; when company materials are diverted in the process, these breaches are quickly labeled theft. Yet, why do gray zones persist and why are they unlikely to disappear? In Moral Gray Zones, Michel Anteby shows how these spaces function as regulating mechanisms within workplaces, fashioning workers' identity and self-esteem while allowing management to maintain control.

The book provides a unique window into gray zones through its in-depth look at the manufacture and exchange of illegal goods called homers, tolerated in a French aeronautic plant. Homers such as toys for kids, cutlery for the kitchen, or lamps for homes, are made on company time with company materials for a worker's own purpose and use. Anteby relies on observations at retirees' homes, archival data, interviews, and surveys to understand how plant workers and managers make sense of this tacit practice. He argues that when patrolled, gray zones like the production of homers offer workplaces balanced opportunities for supervision as well as expression. Cautioning against the hasty judgment that gray zone practices are simply wrong, Moral Gray Zones contributes to a deeper understanding of the culture, group dynamics, and deviance found in organizations.

Advance Reviews                         

"In this sparkling book, Michel Anteby challenges managerial images of polished efficient organizations that relegate employees' personal relations and private goals to a controlled periphery. As he focuses a skilled ethnographer's attention on the production of unauthorized personal objects within a French aeronautical factory, Anteby gradually reveals a profound truth about paid labor for others: workers make labor contracts bearable for themselves by creating space for their own creativity and relations to fellow workers." —Viviana Zelizer, author of The Purchase of Intimacy

"Moral Gray Zones is superb. Rich, judicious, and well written, this trenchant portrayal of how control really gets done, moves the sociology of meaning forward."

Harrison White, author of Identity and Control

"Moral Gray Zones brings classical mid-twentieth-century social theory into the twenty-first century. This lively look at a dying trade--craft workers in the modern factory--has relevance to almost any work world today. In fine detail, Anteby makes it clear that beneath surface performance contracts and economic exchanges at work lies a rich if hidden interaction in which laborers seek dignity and respect for what they do from coworkers and managers. That they succeed more often than not makes for a terrific tale of considerable interest--dramatically and theoretically. A marvelous book."

John Van Maanen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"The book channels the spirit of industrial sociology of the 1950s, when students of work and organization encountered the shop floor up close and came away understanding how everyday behaviors formed the woof and warp of industrialization's social fabric. Anteby's use of the production of homers for understanding relations between workers and managers is ingenious."

—Stephen R. Barley, Stanford University

"Moral Gray Zones is first-rate qualitative organizational analysis. Effectively organized and cogently argued, I was impressed by Anteby's marshalling of diverse streams of evidence. The extension of his ideas through the vast literature on multiple occupations is particularly stimulating."

Calvin Morrill, University of California, Irvine


"Moral Gray Zones is a sophisticated and thought-provoking work. Among other things, it raises fascinating questions about the relationship between moral ambiguity, public enactment, and occupational identity. For instance, under what conditions can occupational identities be carved out without venturing into gray zones, and under what conditions do they depend heavily on gray zones? Consider an academic carving out an identity as a conscientious scholar and mentor, for instance. Though this would appear not to require gray zone activity, without a space to demonstrate such commitments, the occupational identity may be hard to sustain. Anteby’s point that moral gray zones are powerful because they allow actors to enact their occupational identities for an attentive audience may ultimately be his most important contribution... the book should be of great interest to those studying status-ordering in organizations, the informal organization of work, or the intermingling of identity and control."

Tim Bartley, American Journal of Sociology

"The deep and lucid writing style and clear structure of the book make it enjoyable reading. By a careful and patient analysis, informed by multiple sources such as interviews, archival data, court records, and even union leaflets (see p. 113), Anteby slowly uncovers a complex web of social ties and interdependencies within and between different occupational groups. The complex system of meaning woven around homer activities provides a rich answer to one of the core questions presented by the book: What can explain the persistence of gray zones in work organizations? ... While constantly engaging with recent studies in the sociology of work, Anteby makes an important contribution in bringing together in the final chap-ters an impressive body of theoretical literature from diverse sources to highlight the social embeddedness and social construction of the homer economy. Though the theoretical leaning of the author is clearly interpretive theory, when he relies mainly on French and American scholarship, he also engages in his analysis with neo-Marxist approaches such as labor process and critical theory. Anteby weaves together literatures from both sides of the Atlantic and from opposed theoretical schools, and the result is a rich and creative analysis of organizational gray zones... The book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the social system of production, the interface between vertical and horizontal forms of work, and of the centrality of creativity and self- expression even in large bureaucracies."

Asaf Darr, Administrative Science Quarterly

"Scholarly research on this subterranean aspect of workplaces has ebbed and flowed over time. Every now and then, a book appears that renews interest in this subject, from Men Who Manage to Moral Mazes; yet theoretical advances on this feature of organizations have lagged more than they should. Anteby advances theoretical analyses that will help scholars conceptualize and establish a better understanding of moral gray zones in organizational studies. In this regard, Moral Gray Zones is an important book for scholars of organizations to be aware of and read, especially to continue building empirical knowledge of the subterranean administration and underlife of workplaces."

David Schulman, Contemporary Sociology

"Moral Gray Zones is an innovative text based on an empirically rich study of organizational practices in an Aeronautic plant in Pierreville, France... A particularly interesting aspect of this study is that the aeronautical company barred Anteby from officially doing research within the plant. Undeterred, Anteby pursued the study of homer-making by other means. Interviews with Pierreville retirees, observations at locales where retir- ees were known to frequent, a survey on retirement homers with retirees, and company and union archives were the main sources of data. Many noteworthy findings developed from this indirect approach, showing that shadowing in organizations and interviews with current employees are not the only useful methods in organizational studies... Moral Gray Zones is a wel- come addition to the library of anyone interested in the sociology of work and organizations. As it is the first text to singularly treat gray zones and homer-making in organizations, scholars interested in work and organizations will find this book invaluable."

Dale Spencer, Canadian Journal of Sociology

"When I was growing up in Liverpool in the late 1950s and early 1960s, my dad would occasionally bring back presents from work, including a small motorized boat that we would sail at the local park on a Sunday. He was foreman in a large factory, and these toys and other items were made by fitters, either for themselves, each other or their bosses. The most elaborate he ever saw was a complete model railway system... Such behaviours are the subject of Michel Anteby's book Moral Gray Zones. What workers at my dad's factory called ‘fiddles’ are here described as homers or ‘unauthorised personal objects’. It is an unusual book in that it is based on observational work by a US-based academic in a French aeronautics plant... In this study, homers are undertaken by craft workers such as blacksmiths, fitters and welders. Neither they nor the author conceive of such activities as theft. While it may be unauthorized, it is neither immoral nor irrational. This ‘recycling and transformation of company material’ is simultaneously part of the skill development of such workers and moral means of demarcating occupational boundaries."

Paul Thomson, British Journal of Industrial Relations

"I recommend this book to anyone interested in workplace behavior and worker control and for use in undergraduate and graduate courses on work--not only for what it reveals about organizational gray zones but also for what it offers students: opportunities to apply Anteby's logic to what they have observed in their own workplaces and to use what they know about industrial segments, occupational divides, gender segregation, and other topics to answer some of these questions for themselves."

Martha Crowley, Work and Occupations

To purchase a copy of this book, please go to Princeton University Press, Amazon, or an independent bookstore

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