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Situating service work in action: A review and a pragmatist agenda for analysing interactive service work

Anna Schneider, Dilip Subramanian, Jean-Baptiste Suquet & Pascal Ughetto (2021)

International Journal of Management Reviews, Online first

Abstract. Research on interactive service work has paid close attention to how organizations and frontline employees deal with the inherent complexity of the customer–employee–employer triangle. This raises questions about the agency of interactive service workers with respect to the indeterminacy of service interactions. Our meta-narrative review finds that the theorization of worker agency in service interactions remains underdeveloped in the two dominant research streams of mainstream management and labour process theory studies. Implicitly or explicitly, these streams either subsume agency under managerial prescription or view it through the binary polar of control and resistance. There has been less focus on service workers’ efforts to overcome practical difficulties in everyday service interactions. To address this lacuna, we offer a conceptual framework that draws on a less prominent, third research stream, which we label pragmatist. This stream includes scholarship largely unfamiliar to the international English-speaking community, published mainly in French and German academic journals. We propose three contributions in this paper. First, we contribute to the interactive service work literature by mapping the theoretical plurality within and beyond the English-speaking community. Second, we problematize established streams of research by articulating the intellectual axes of the field; this allows us to present a new research area to account for the concrete dynamics of service interaction and to capture frontline employee agency. Third, we propose a pragmatist research framework coupled with a future research agenda more attentive to the embeddedness and materiality of frontline workers’ situated actions. This way, we address the indeterminacy of interactive situations.

Extract: “More generally, the intellectual climate in France during the 1990s witnessed a shift from Marxism and Bourdieu’s thinking towards theories acknowledging the significance of individual and collective actions. The pragmatic turn (Schatzki et al., 2001) was embodied in the French context by emerging theoretical currents, such as the economics of conventions (Boltanski & Thévenot, [1991] 2006; Salais, 2001), also referred to as ‘French Pragmatism’ (Brandl et al., 2014; Cloutier et al., 2017). It addresses questions related to action and coordination and the underlying sociomaterial conditions.” (p. 10)

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