Applying a social shaping of technology approach to the future of work debate: An examination of food retailing during the Coronavirus pandemic

  • Abbie Winton

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines processes of sociotechnical change in food retailing in the context of the future of work debate and the Coronavirus pandemic. Food retailing has undergone significant change since the mid-twentieth century, as the UK's socio-political, economic and technological context transformed. However, despite calls for greater academic focus on retail work, food retailing has been largely neglected within the work and employment literature. Instead, future of work commentators have adopted retail as an archetype of the 'fourth industrial revolution' and predict that the need for human labour in retail will be eliminated by the use of new technologies. However, it is important to note that often the cost of technology can be higher than the cost of labour. Thus it is believed that some employers may choose to drive wider profit margins by minimising labour costs, as opposed to investing in productivity-enhancing technologies. Consequently, retail work today remains characterised by challenges such as income (in)security, increased work intensity and blurred work-life boundaries. In recognition of these challenges and the current debate, it can be argued that attention is better directed towards the current nature of retail work which can often be overlooked within technology-focused commentary. This thesis aims to address some of these issues, by first examining how processes of sociotechnical change are shaping food retail and, second, by assessing whether the pandemic led to a revaluing of labour in the sector. The objective of this research is to apply the Social Shaping of Technology (SST) approach to demonstrate how sociotechnical change and the broader context are shaping the nature of work in food retailing. This demands a theoretical framework that shows how the use of SST can broaden the current debate by adopting it as an anti-determinist lens through which other complementary theorisations of work and employment can be viewed. To enrich the SST approach, this thesis draws on critical approaches to employers' strategies and the debate surrounding the value of labour to further inform the analysis of current issues shaping the nature of work. The resulting integrated framework is applied to the case of food retailing. The research questions demand that social phenomena are understood from the perspective of the people who are experiencing it and so a qualitative approach is deemed the most appropriate. Thus, this study draws on 37 interviews with retail stakeholders (operations, HR and store managers, trade union officials and customer assistants) and an analysis of newspaper articles published over a 12-month period (covering 277 articles). The use of different sources provides a multi-level and longitudinal narrative of sociotechnical change within the sector throughout the pandemic. The research findings show that there is little evidence of an overarching strategy shaping food retailing and the work available. Employers looking to boost their profit margins may favour a cost minimisation approach to labour management. Therefore, if current conditions persist, the quality of retail work is likely to remain problematic within the sector. This evidence supports the emergent view in the critical future of work literature that the declining quality of work may pose more of an immediate concern than the indiscriminate elimination of work in retail. The research also found that, despite the pandemic providing an opportunity to revalue food retail labour, the narrative surrounding the value of key workers did little to derail the low-road approach to the management of labour that is commonly adopted by retailers. This finding contributes to the broader analysis of the sectoral case study by adding an understanding of the extent to which the nature of food retail work changed throughout the pandemic. With these contributions considered, this thesis concludes by arguing that significant changes will be needed in
Date of Award31 Dec 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorDebra Howcroft (Supervisor) & Jill Rubery (Supervisor)


  • supermarkets
  • Coronavirus
  • qualitative research
  • sociotechnical change
  • value of labour
  • retail work

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