Contracting: A new form of professional practice

Stephen R. Barley*, Gideon Kunda

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

148 Scopus citations


Contract work and outsourcing represent widely acknowledged manifestations of the groundswell of economic change that is shaking the foundations of work and employment in the United States. While these emerging forms of employment have become harbingers of new ways of working, they remain poorly understood; efforts to explain their emergence and significance have suffered from an excess of ideology and a dearth of data. Stephen Barley and Gideon Kunda undertook an ethnography of technical contractors to produce a detailed, balanced, and accurate depiction of how contractors structure and interpret their experience. Their study documents the social dynamics of skilled "contingent labor," a term economists and sociologists now use for an array of short-term work arrangements. Their goal was to understand how employment relations were changing at the dawn of the 21st century. Closely studying contractors' everyday lives provided a strategic vantage point for viewing, evaluating, and perhaps even shaping changes taking place in the U.S. and global economies. As they set out to explore the world of technical contracting, Barley and Kunda were confronted with an unexpected profile of contractors: these were itinerant experts and social pioneers who partook of a way of life and a culture of work that challenges the prevailing theories and entrenched practices of employment. After an account of the exigencies of technical contracting, Barley and Kunda discuss contingent work within the context of the American industrial landscape and in light of institutionalist and free market perspectives. They also discuss contingent labor as it relates to the way in which professions and occupations are organized. Specifically, they argue that contracting directs our attention to a resurgence of occupational organizing in the wake of bureaucracy's retreat and the free market's advance. They suggest what a renewed appreciation for occupational dynamics could mean for individuals, firms and public policy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-66
Number of pages22
JournalAcademy of Management Perspectives
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2006


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