Banana Time: Job Satisfaction and Informal Interaction

by DONALD F. ROY (1959)

Donald F. Roy (1909–1980) was a sociologist on the faculty of Duke University from 1950 to 1979. He is traditionally well known for his contribution to the labour process theory, workplace interactions, social conflict and the role of unions, but also for his very detailed descriptions of how workers experience time. Roy's work surveys much of blue-collar America (beginning in 1934 he took employment in around 24 menial jobs in 20 industries), and is of great importance to Marxist analysis back in the day.

One of the most famous ethnographic works, Banana Time: Job Satisfaction and Informal Interaction describes Roy's experience of working as a drill press operator (as in the picture on this page) for two months. Set against the backdrop of Taylor-inspired Scientific Management, the paper provides a thick description of the setting, the tools of work and, most importantly, behaviour and dynamics of the group of workers whom Roy was assigned to work with. The work group itself was fairly isolated in the factory, and supervision was infrequent. Roy initially experienced the work as “a grim process of fighting the clock”, and in this machine work, faced a “dismal combination of working conditions …[in the shape of] an extra-long workday, infinitesimal cerebral excitation, and the extreme limitation of physical movement”. In the early days of the job, he survived the experience by developing his own ‘games’ with the work (what Dmitrijs inadvertently referred to during the episode as 'playing with himself'), setting arbitrary goals and creating as much diversity in the tasks as possible. However, as Roy became aware of a whole range of social activities that were going on between the other members of the group, he became drawn into the social dynamic of the workplace. This paper is about his experiences of those dynamics.

While the paper itself is not particularly theory rich, it does a great job of provoking a great deal of thinking about different theories in those who know them, or have listened to this podcast. The thick descriptions of work and social interactions touch upon a great number of themes and foundational concepts in management, psychology and sociology. For instance, Roy alludes to, directly or indirectly (usually the latter), Scientific Managementesprit de corpsHawthorne Studies, motivation and self-actualization, time and motion studies, humour, play, and lived experience of time. To learn about all of these, and more, do join us for Episode 13 on Banana Time, by Donald Roy!