Social Memory and Future Prospects as Seen by Employees Following an Industrial Disaster
Posted: 13 May 2010
Date Written: December 15, 2007
This article examines the role played by social memory and previous work experience in the construction of relations with the company and prospects for the future as seen by employees who, as a result of an industrial disaster, were faced with the sudden closure of the chemical plant which employed them in the suburbs of Toulouse (September 2001). Faced with the sudden and unexpected loss of their jobs, employees in this plant must now choose between the different occupational reclassification choices that are being offered to them under a “Social Plan.” We presume that the development of career shift plans for these employees and, more broadly, their view of future prospects linked to the various spheres of their lives involve the activation or inhibition of memories which are shared within the work groups and which constitute a “social memory” of the company. A brief literature review of Maurice Halbwachs’s concept of social memory shows that the latter corresponds to a psychosocial construction which translates and expresses, through narratives and accounts, the events and experiences of a past history. As a support of the social identity of a given group of individuals, it is linked to a reflexive activity through which the subjects seek to redefine their perceptions of their past, present and future life trajectories inside and outside the organization.
Data were collected through semi-structured interviews conducted with a sample of 15 former plant employees. The themes addressed were: the individual’s life plan, previous work experience, memories linked to company history and the subject’s relations with the various spheres of his or her life. The interview data were analyzed using ALCESTE software to separate the corpus into categories of statements based on which the subjects’ representations could be captured and analyzed. These categories were characterized by the text segments they contained and by the occurrences of words within these textual units.
The results derived from the ALCESTE analysis highlight four forms of discourse (lexical and morphosyntactic) which reveal both differentiated relations with one’s personal and collective history in the company and specific outlooks on the future. The first form of discourse is characterized by an exploration of the future linked to the traumatic nature of the disaster. Suddenly faced with the prospect of withdrawal from working life, these subjects have difficulty constructing a new life plan because of the diverse nature of the opportunities offered by this early departure from the world of work. This exploration of the past, highly centred on the disaster, is oriented towards seeking to clarify the causes of an event which, to them, has remained largely unexplained. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that, for these subjects, the transition to retirement (which is contingent on the current choice of early retirement) will really only be achieved if they can make sense of the sudden end to their careers. The statements in the second category refer to discourses centred on the near past and the subjects’ current situation. The reported memories refer mainly to the painful event of the industrial disaster. Among employees undergoing retraining, this event gives rise to the perception of a radical break in their career path, and this perception is accompanied by a tendency to distance themselves from the company. Relatively disoriented by the traumatism experienced, these subjects are essentially preoccupied with their occupational reclassification and have great difficulty envisaging their future beyond the implementation of the Social Plan in which they are now actively involved. The third category of statements is characterized by discourses which evoke an occupational past, essentially perceived by the subjects as a continuous progression marked by a succession of work experiences and training actions. In formulating their retraining plan, these subjects wish above all to make the most of the knowledge acquired from their previous work experiences. For them, the proposed occupational reclassification is seen as an opportunity to make use of the transferable skills they developed while working in the plant. The statements in the last category mainly refer to the company’s industrial activities and the technical components of the trade. This form of discourse appears to reflect the importance of an identity related to the trade and memories relating to the subjects’ collective life in the company.
Correlatively, these subjects have a hard time projecting themselves into the future and view occupational retraining as a trial to be overcome and a source of great uncertainty. To sum up, through discourse analysis, two main forms of association can be differentiated, that is, on the one hand, the ways the subjects incorporate social memory and, on the other hand, their outlooks on the future. The first form, made up of the first two categories, brings together the lexical contents essentially focused on the industrial disaster and the following transition phase. They express a feeling of disorientation among the subjects as well as the difficulty they experience developing new plans for the future. The second form, represented by the last two categories, is characterized by recollections of the trade practised and a valuing of the technical components of company activities. Perceptions of a future reclassification, seen in a more or less favourable light, are based on recollections of one’s experiences in the company. On the whole, the results of our study show that the development of plans for the future among these employees faced with the sudden loss of their jobs cannot be reduced to rational choices solely in response to the “objective” conditions defined by the reclassification mechanism. The development of such plans can be better understood through an analysis of the memory processes of recalling, valuing and forgetting a history which is both individual and collective, involved in this career transition.
JEL Classification: J28, J60
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation