Sabbath of the Land or Utopia of Work?

by Tom Walker


Sabbath of the Land or Utopia of Work? was funded by the Institute for the Humanities in May of 1997 to conduct research into utopian/apocalyptic views regarding the future of work and to develop learning materials and activities that respect the variety of opinions and that encourage people to reflect on that variety. The activities of the Sabbath of the Land project -- a survey and analysis of attitudes and the development of learning materials -- are parts of a broader project to develop policy options and promote policies for the more equitable distribution of work and work time.


The first part of the Sabbath of the Land project involved constructing, administering and interpreting an attitude survey regarding work and work time. I used a research methodology called Q-methodology which was purposely developed for the study of subjectivity.

Q-methodology involves having survey participants sort a collection of statements on the topic and then conducting a statistical analysis to identify factors that various groups of participants might have in common.

The statements

In Q-methodology, the collection of statements about a topic is called "a concourse".

The concourse for the Sabbath of the Land survey was collected from published newspaper articles and opinion pieces, government reports, magazine articles and books. In assembling a concourse, the objective is to try to represent as many different facets of the issue as are usually addressed in public discussion. Over 200 statements were assembled for the survey and a sample of 54 statements was drawn from the 200.

The concourse was sampled according to a matrix that first distinguished between statements made by advocates of reducing and redistributing work time and those made by critics of such schemes. Statements were further evaluated according to whether they primarily addressed issues of macro-economic performance, the organization of work at the level of the firm, the experience of unemployment or community identity/solidarity. Assignment of a statement to any particular box within the sampling frame was an expedient and doesn't connote fixing an interpretation to the statement.

The statements are listed in appendix A.

Sorting the Statements

Twenty-two participants sorted the 54 statements according to how strongly they agreed or disagreed, ranging from -5 (strongly disagree) to +5 (strongly agree). To facilitate sorting, the statements were printed on individual, laminated cards and a sorting template was provided that specified the degree of agreement/disagreement.

Participants in the study were recruited to represent a variety of informed and influential perspectives from labour, business, academia and government. Approximately one-third of the participants could be described as "experts" who are regularly called upon by the news media to comment on labour, economic and social policy issues.

Interpreting the results

A factor analysis of the completed sorts associated most participants with one or the other of two groups, referred to here as "sympathizers" (n=12) and "skeptics" (n=7) regarding proposals to reduce and redistribute work time. Using the criteria of simple structure, no third factor emerged from the analysis. These results only examine the relationships between the two identified views. They are not claimed to be representative of broader public opinion.

To assist in interpreting the results of the study, a composite sort was constructed for each of the two groups. The discussion that follows describes the two composite sorts and compares them. The numbers in parentheses following each statement are the weighted average rankings given to the statement by sympathizers and skeptics, respectively. The rankings ranged from -5, "most disagree" to +5, "most agree".

This interpretation identifies consensus statements and those statements to which there was strong agreement or disagreement from one group or the other.

There was a consensus among participants in the study that acknowledged social responsibility for economic outcomes and was optimistic about the motivations and behaviour of individuals. One group, identified as sympathizers, gave greater emphasis to cultural issues regarding hours of work. The other group, identified as skeptics, emphasized economic considerations. Controversy arose mainly in two broad areas: the assertiveness of the economic arguments and the attribution of views and motivations to opponents.

Those statements that didn't receive predominantly strong responses from one factor or another are not discussed further in this report. That these particular statements have been relegated to a kind of statistical limbo is not to say that they are uninteresting or even uncontroversial. For example, the following statement received apparently mild disagreement from both factors (-1, -1):

However, the aggregate score from skeptics concealed a great deal of variation among people who in general agreed on a preponderance of other statements. Similarly an apparently mild response to the following statement (1,-1) concealed considerable variation within each of the factors:

Although the results for the two groups were quite distinctive, the two were generally not polarized on particular statements. This can be illustrated by plotting the two sets of factor scores on a graph. The factors appear as orthogonal to each other with the majority of respondents falling in the quadrant between the co-ordinates for factor 1 and factor 2:

Consensus statements

Both groups agreed with the following statements, broadly acknowledging unemployment as an economic problem and recognizing an unspecified degree of social responsibility for addressing the problem:

Sympathizers and skeptics alike disagreed with the following statements:

In their responses to the above three statements, the consensus seems to reject the use of unemployment or long hours of work as an instrument to control the behaviour of workers, either on or off the job. Disagreement with the following two statements is more difficult to interpret.

Respondents could be saying that the advent of the 30-hour workweek isn't contingent on reaching a higher level of productivity or they might be saying that it isn't up to the average worker to decide. Disagreement with the last statement could be with the overt argument that people spontaneously limit their needs or with the underlying assumption of a mechanical link between needs and effort.

Taken as a whole, the consensus position appears to acknowledge social responsibility for economic outcomes and to reject pessimistic generalizations about the motivations and behaviour of individuals.

Sympathizers agree

Three of the statements with which sympathizers agreed strongly have already been identified above as consensus statements.

Of the remaining five statements with which sympathizers agreed strongly, skeptics also agreed or were neutral on four and only disagreed with the following statement:

Two of the statements with which sympathizers strongly agree reinforce the idea of social responsibility for economic outcomes but go on to suggest that government and corporate leaders are not doing all they could to meet those responsibilities:

Another statement that elicits strong agreement from sympathizers alludes to active resistance to redistributing work time and questions the consistency of the reasons given for opposing such proposals.

The issue of culture appears in another statement with which sympathizers strongly agree. This time dealing with education, skills and democratic participation.

Sympathizers appear to agree that there are important cultural issues regarding hours of work that cannot be reduced to considerations of economic performance. These issues include democratic participation, pressures to conform to corporate culture and the tangled nature of resistance to proposals for redistributing work time.

Sympathizers disagree

Three of the statements with which sympathizers strongly disagree have already been identified above as consensus statements:

Of the remaining five statements with which sympathizers strongly disagree, skeptics also disagree or are neutral towards four of them. Only the following statement received strong disagreement from sympathizers contrasted with agreement from skeptics:

The controversy over this statement may hinge on differing interpretations of what it means to "impose change" and on different points of reference within the legislative and collective bargaining processes. For example, one respondent could agree that it is economically unsound to impose change through, say, a strike threat while still accepting a collectively negotiated change as a voluntary reduction. The respondent who disagreed with this statement might argue that it is not economically unsound to impose change through a binding agreement arrived at through negotiations. The ambiguity of this statement may be useful for teasing out some of the perceived differences on the issue.

Three statements with which sympathizers strongly disagreed make highly assertive claims about "the real problem", people who "simply don't understand how the economy works" and "everyone who really wants to work". Sympathizers may be disagreeing as much with the assertiveness of the statements as with their contents.

A final statement with which sympathizers strongly disagree restates an often heard economic theory about the trade-offs between employment and inflation and between equality and efficiency.

In summary, most of the statements with which shorter work time sympathizers strongly disagreed also received little or no agreement from skeptics. Many of those statements dealt with economic reality in a particularly assertive way. It should be cautioned that a preponderance of statements critical of reducing and redistributing work time are framed as arguments about economic reality. Therefore, it was inevitable that sympathizers would strongly disagree with statements about economics. It may be, however, that sympathizers disagree most strongly with the assertiveness of economic arguments rather than with the analysis contained in those arguments.

Skeptics agree

The strongly held views of the skeptics were more touched with controversy than were those of the sympathizers. Seven of the 16 statements with which skeptics strongly agreed or disagreed were controversial, compared with only two controversial statements for sympathizers. However, three of those seven were only weakly controversial.

Skeptics agreed strongly with two of the statements identified above as consensus statements:

However three statements with which skeptics strongly agreed were controversial:

Much of the criticism of proposals for reducing and redistributing work revolves around claims about economic reality. These three statements are typical in that they argue for subordinating decisions about work time to economic considerations -- creating a confident business climate, raising the standard of living and maintaining economic growth. Controversy surrounding the three statements above could spring from disagreement about the predicted effects of shorter work time (e.g. slower economic growth) or from disagreement about the relevance of those effects vis a vis cultural issues such as democratic participation.

Less controversial were a pair of statements that addressed possible economic considerations of shorter work time without prescribing what criteria should guide decisions about work time:

The above statements cast doubt on the job creating potential of work sharing. But the neutral response to these statements from sympathizers may represent indifference to the analysis contained in them so long as the conclusion from that analysis isn't presented as a sole criteria for decisions about work time. It's possible that skeptics may give greater weight to these statements as minor premises within an argument in which a major premise (the prime importance of economic performance) is tacit .

Finally, skeptics agreed strongly with a statement asserting the need for managerial freedom.

Agreement with this statement, from a management perspective, would seem self-explanatory.

Skeptics disagree

One of the statements with which skeptics disagree strongly has already been discussed as a consensus statement:

Skeptics strongly disagreed with two statements that generalized about the attitudes and motivations of workers:

Skeptics doubted that union members would share their work hours to create employment or that a reduction in work time would lead to an increase in work effort. Sympathizers were neutral on the first statement but, in contrast to the skeptics, they expected an increase in work effort if work time was reduced.

Skeptics also strongly disagreed with a pair of statements that predicted outcomes for alternative employment strategies:

The first statement was mildly controversial, the second uncontentious. The symmetry of response on these two contrasting predictions calls for further investigation. For example, does disagreement with either of the above statements suggest agreement with its converse?

Skeptics strongly disagreed with two statements portraying the behaviours of management and of people who "glorify hard work":

Both statements are ambiguous. With regard to the first statement, disagreement could centre on the existence of a privileged elite or could acknowledge such an elite but take the position that many non-elites share their views. Similarly, one could disagree that management is preoccupied by control or one could argue that in spite of any preoccupation with control, management hasn't lost sight of organizational purposes.

The last statement with which skeptics disagreed strongly concerned the setting of hours of work by government.

Again, there is ambiguity in the response because disagreement could either be over the claim that many workers prefer to work excessive hours or it could indicate a dislike for government regulation even if such a preference does exist. The response is consistent with responses mention above to two other statements that juxtapose voluntary action with legislation:


A statement was considered controversial if one group agreed and the other group disagreed with the statement. The distance between responses of the two groups was taken as an indicator of the level of controversy. For example, a statement with which one group agreed +4 and the other disagreed -2 would be considered more controversial than one with responses of +2 and -1, respectively. Most of the highly controversial statements have already been identified above in the description of the two composite sorts.

One highly controversial statement fell outside of either group's "most agree" and "most disagree" categories. It's an intriguing statement because it involves a complex movement from intentions to policy focus to outcomes. It's also unique because it contains two categorical statements "despite whatever good intentions" and "it inevitably engenders":

Considering sympathizers' usual sensitivity to economic assertiveness, it's surprising that this doubly assertive statement rated only a -3 for that group. However, considering the complex and ambiguous structure of the statement, it's possible that participants had a particularly hard time decoding it.

In general, statements that attributed motives or beliefs to an antagonist were more likely to be controversial. Such antagonists included "proponents of work sharing", "corporate culture", "management", "organized labour", "politicians who blame 'corporate greed'", "a privileged elite" and "consumer society". Of 15 statements that portrayed an antagonist, 10 were controversial, accounting for nearly half (45%) of controversial statements. By comparison, the five non-controversial statements which portrayed an antagonist comprised only 16% of the non-controversial statements.

Survey conclusions

There was a broad consensus among participants in the study that acknowledged social responsibility for economic outcomes and was optimistic about the motivations and behaviour of individuals. One group, identified as sympathizers, gave greater emphasis to cultural issues regarding hours of work. The other group, identified as skeptics, emphasized economic considerations. Controversy arose mainly in two broad areas: over the assertiveness of the economic arguments and the attribution of views and motivations to opponents.

The survey findings did not confirm expectations that there would be identifiable millenarian or apocalyptic themes in the resulting factors. The consensus optimism about the motivations and behaviour of individuals discounted apocalypticism and the more idealistic, utopian statements in the sample generally ended up near the "no opinion" zero point. Both factors that emerged from the study appeared to express a kind of moderate, optimistic pragmatism.

Instructional materials developed from the survey results

Results of the survey were used to develop a workshop exercise. The exercise has been piloted in two workshops and will be presented again in a seminar scheduled for June 23 at SFU Harbour Centre.

A subset of 24 statements was selected to speed up sorting. The subset included statements that had received consensus in the survey or on which one group or the other had registered strong opinions.

A "ballot" was made up containing the 24 statements and 16 green and 16 red coloured adhesive dots were distributed to the workshop participants with instructions to vote by assigning up to three of the dots to any one statement. After the participants assigned their votes, they entered the totals for each statement on a separate coding sheet. The coding sheet contained staggered entry spaces to enable a quick and dirty "factor analysis".

That factor analysis was then used as a basis for discussion of the particular statements and the relationship between the predominant factors of sympathizers and skeptics. Participants discussed how contentious statements might be reframed to make them more amenable to negotiation.

One of the pilot workshops was conducted in April with members of a Toronto group that advocates for a shorter work week. Not surprisingly, there was a high degree of consensus among participants in their responses to the 24 statements.

All workshop participants correlated highly with one common factor, "sympathizers". Individual correlations with that factor ranged from .76 to .90. A correlation above .45 is considered statistically significant. The three highest ranking statements for Toronto workshop participants also happened to be consensus statements between the sympathizer and skeptic factors (from the survey).

The workshop exercise proved to be an effective way of launching an intense and conceptually sophisticated discussion of the issues (with the qualification that several of the participants were already highly articulate on the issue). Some participants had difficulty with the mechanics of filling out the coding sheet and adding up their results. The coding process will be modified for future workshops.