Songs of the Factory: Pop Music, Culture, and Resistance, by Marek Korczynski

Les Gofton admires an ethnographic study exploring how workers escape the daily grind

January 29, 2015

When I was teaching agriculture undergraduates, our yearly treat was the field trip into the Northumbrian and Border countryside: a series of visits to farms and food processing works, ending up in Edinburgh with a night of revelry such as made our faculty notorious. The one that really sticks in the mind, however, was the time we were banned from the chicken factory.

On the second day, our first stop was a food factory in Glasgow. We were ushered on to a factory floor consisting of a series of conveyor belts and moving overhead lines. The workers, dressed in white coats and headscarves, were almost all young women. Suddenly, the chickens – all identically white, like the women, all exactly the same size and, as we knew from the books, the same optimum age according to the logic of their weight-gain pattern and the economics of the market – were released on to the line and walked into the first group of workers. The women seized them by the legs and attached them to the moving overhead line, all the while singing along to the Bay City Rollers’ Bye Bye Baby on the radio. The squawking chickens were taken down the line to a covered area where they were stunned with electricity and soaked with hot water. In the next covered area they were mechanically eviscerated and their feathers and heads removed. They went finally through a freezer to emerge, polythene wrapped, on to a conveyor belt to be labelled and crated up by the final group of workers, still singing.

My students, farmers’ sons and daughters, were aghast. During the furious question and answer session afterwards we were told to leave, and not to come back. Personally, I was proud of them.

The experience reminded me less of a factory and more of Fania Fénelon’s memoir of her time as a member of the orchestra at the Auschwitz death camp. Marek Korczynski would have argued that the factory women, like the workers he considers in Songs of the Factory, were “musicking” as a form of resistance against the alienation of the workplace. Korczynski contends that the window blinds factory workers he studies “use radio music” to resist the alienating effect of Taylorist working practices. He sees pop music, and the ways that workers engaged in boring, repetitive work use it, as an escape from the time passing on the work clock by transforming the durée of clock time into the stopped time of imagination.

This book is a skilful ethnographic account of the various forms, as Korczynski sees it, of “resistance” to the experiences of the workplace, whether singing along or swaying in time to the Bee Gees, or the swagger that represents the defiant expression of class identity. Its traditional analysis follows in a well-trodden pathway, from the seminal work of Elton Mayo, through Donald Roy’s workplace ethnographies, to Huw Beynon’s critique of Fordism. It is nicely done, with good use of participant observation and interesting theoretical diversions.

Nevertheless, I suspect that its use of song titles for the chapter headings and some of the book’s theoretical turns will lose their flavour rather quickly. Moreover, ethnography that focuses on the ways that workers resist and escape from their tasks surely risks some kind of Hawthorne effect when, as here, they know what the researcher is up to. I’m pretty sure our chicken factory girls were not acting up for us. But I can’t really be certain…

Songs of the Factory: Pop Music, Culture, and Resistance

By Marek Korczynski
ILR Press/Cornell University Press, 240pp, £46.50 and £15.50
ISBN 9780801451546 and 479977
Published 12 February 2015

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