Shunters at work creating a world in a railway yard
Sammanfattning: Skills, and particularly manual skills, are often seen as acquired through unquestioning practice and drill. This is an ethnographic account of a group of railway workers, called shunters, who are occupied with the manual task of assembling carriages into trains. It is here claimed that the acquisition of shunting skills is conditioned by the apprentices' preconceived ideas of 'male', manual, outdoor work and by the dynamics of master-apprentice relations. Two different types of learning strategies, adopted by female and male apprentices respectively, are identified. It is claimed that these strategies lead to differential success in advancement at work. In contrast to approaches which see skill as individual mastery of given tasks it is argued that conceptions of skilful work are subject to social construction.Since cooperation calls for communication, the communicative aspects of skill come into the fore in this type of high-risk work. Card-playing is studied as an arena for expression of skills related to handling risks at work.Team-work, marked by cooperation and uninterrupted fluency, here called 'flow', is ideally based on informal relations and an egalitarian ethos. It is simultaneously thought to presuppose a structured hierarchy of well defined work roles. Team-work is also seen to demand a collective spirit, although idiosyncratic work styles and individualistic behaviour are encouraged. The treatise demonstrates how such contradictory understandings are expressed and mediated in practice, and how they are reconceptualized during a period of uncertainty caused by reorganization and change.The work is based on participation as well as participant observation in one of the largest railway yards for passenger trains in Sweden.
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