Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies: Itinerant Experts in a Knowledge Economy

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9780691127958: Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies: Itinerant Experts in a Knowledge Economy

Over the last several decades, employers have increasingly replaced permanent employees with temporary workers and independent contractors to cut labor costs and enhance flexibility. Although commentators have focused largely on low-wage temporary work, the use of skilled contractors has also grown exponentially, especially in high-technology areas. Yet almost nothing is known about contracting or about the people who do it. This book seeks to break the silence.



Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies tells the story of how the market for temporary professionals operates from the perspective of the contractors who do the work, the managers who employ them, the permanent employees who work beside them, and the staffing agencies who broker deals. Based on a year of field work in three staffing agencies, life histories with over seventy contractors and studies of workers in some of America's best known firms, the book dismantles the myths of temporary employment and offers instead a grounded description of how contracting works.


Engagingly written, it goes beyond rhetoric to examine why contractors leave permanent employment, why managers hire them, and how staffing agencies operate. Barley and Kunda paint a richly layered portrait of contract professionals. Readers learn how contractors find jobs, how agents negotiate, and what it is like to shoulder the risks of managing one's own "employability."


The authors illustrate how the reality of flexibility often differs substantially from its promise. Viewing the knowledge economy in terms of organizations and markets is not enough, Barley and Kunda conclude. Rather, occupational communities and networks of skilled experts are what grease the skids of the high-tech, "matrix economy" where firms become way stations in the flow of expertise.

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"If we are lucky, once a decade or so a classic ethnographic study comes along that captures the essence and the interesting nuances of an emerging, strategic occupation or work group. Barley and Kunda's Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies is destined to be our classic for this decade. No one should be allowed to write about these itinerant professionals or propose new policies or labor market institutions to regulate or serve them unless they first read this book!"--Thomas A. Kochan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"This important book is the best account so far of the new and growing world of contract labor."--Peter Cappelli, University of Pennsylvania

"Few developments have been as heavily hyped and as poorly understood as the trend towards 'contingent employment' among the professional/technical/managerial classes. We know from statistical studies that many professionals, especially technical professionals, are hired as temporary, contract workers--but we have known very little about why they work this way or about the conditions of their labor. Barley and Kunda put flesh on the bones of these skeletal figures, exploring the diversity of motives and working conditions, as well as regularities in how they evaluate jobs, build careers, and navigate tricky relationships with employment agencies, high-tech firms, and professional peers. Gurus significantly expands our understanding of what is sometimes called 'the new economy,' exemplifying the value of organizational ethnography and, especially in its superb account of life in labor markets, contributing distinctively to economic sociology. Moreover, the authors' prose is so clear and graceful that Gurus should become the book of choice for teaching sociology and organizational behavior to budding engineers and natural scientists."--Paul DiMaggio, Princeton University

"This is social science at its best: Barley and Kunda's ethnographies of itinerant technical contractors provide nuanced and compelling insights into the changing nature of work and employment today, and a revealing glimpse into the organization of the knowledge economy."--AnnaLee Saxenian, University of California, Berkeley

About the Author:

Stephen R. Barley is Charles M. Pigott Professor of Management Science and Engineering and Co-Director of the Center for Work, Technology and Organization at Stanford's School of Engineering. Gideon Kunda is Associate Professor in the Department of Labor Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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