The desk: a symbol of bureaucratic rule?

Posted by hi29 at May 08, 2014 01:15 PM |
What does the desk mean to you? And what has it meant through history? Professor Gibson Burrell from the School of Management argues that the desk is much more than a work surface, and in fact signifies changes in power relations from the past to our contemporary world.

You are probably sitting at a ‘desk’ as you read these few words. It may not strike you as an interesting object because of the relatively mundane functions that it performs, and it is true that one origin of the term comes from the old Italian ‘desca’ meaning table or butcher’s block. Yet the desk is a crucial device of the contemporary world. Perhaps 1 billion people upon this planet live fully under ‘the rule of the desk’- which is what the modern day term ‘bureaucracy’ means.

The desk symbolises shifts in power relations and in work roles: in effect, the decline of the ‘glitterati’ from the 18th century (church, aristocracy, monarchy) and the subsequent rise of the ‘literati’ (the educated middle class). But middle class rule by the desk was bitterly opposed by those aristocrats who saw it as ‘a giant power wielded by pygmies’.

By the mid-19th century, the collective work tables of 18th century institutions such as The Bank of England had been replaced in new insurance companies by individual desks, relying upon the technology of pen and ink. Male clerks were hired for their calligraphic skills and often sat next to the owners’ desks. 50 years later the numbers of US clerical workers had grown tenfold but were employed in routine tasks, in which the desk was the major organisational instrument. Illumination was primarily by daylight so that no desk could be more than 24 feet from any window, a physical limitation that governed corporate architecture in office buildings for decades. Desks were often made of steel with restraining struts enclosing the worker into her/his work ‘station’- a term which precisely denotes the immobilisation of those with ‘desk jobs’.

In the 21st century, the opposite has come to prevail so that the mobility of the clerical worker is seen as a good thing and staff are meant to ‘hot desk’ – sometimes in a chair warmed up for them earlier by someone else’s bottom.

At the other end of the social spectrum the desk has also played a part in everyday life. The wealthy of Britain had been interested in their elaborate Chippendale and Gillow desks on which accounts were perused, letters written and servants paid. The doyen of all desks perhaps is to be found in the St Petersburg’s Hermitage, currently occupied by the museum director, which is made of onyx. It is horseshoe shaped and is about 9 metres in diameter. It is lit from below to show off its patterning and colouration because this is how the Tsar wished to see it. But Tsarist Russia was not a full bureaucracy and the desk was much more of an ornament to demonstrate the carver’s craft than a working piece of furniture.

Similarly, in the 20th century, there was a view that senior managers had better things to do than ‘push pens’: the executive who was a believer in ‘Management By Walking About’ had little need for ‘stationary stationery’. Yet across the planet today, many societies require people to sit at desks in offices, factories, call centres and increasingly their own homes to make their lives work for them and you.

Imagine your life without one - and then you will glimpse the impoverished lives of 3 billion people who today still don’t have access to either desks or the benefits of bureaucracy.

By Professor Gibson Burrell - School of Management, University of Leicester

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The Social Worlds project ran from March 2014 to November 2015. This site is no longer being updated but provides an archive of all the articles which were created as part of the project.

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