In psychology, the maintenance of the integrity of the self , said to be lacking where (for example) the individual is excessively conformist or suffers from a behavioural disorder such as hysteria or multiple personality. In Kantian philosophy it refers to the doctrine that the human will carries within itself its own guiding principle. Political scientists use the term in reference to the right or power of self-government (for example an ‘autonomous state’). In sociology, it is usually applied in contexts where the writer has in mind a rational, self-determining social actor , who is not subject to some form of determinism but expresses his or her own goals and interests .
Research suggests that lack of autonomy at work is related to mortality and morbidity. For example, the ‘Whitehall Studies’ of British civil servants show that illness is grade-related-that is, people working in senior administrative jobs enjoy lower rates of sickness absence, lower susceptibility to ill-health, and lower risks of death from a wide variety of pathological conditions, than do those employed in routine clerical grades-and that ‘less sense of control over one's work, lower use of skills and less variety on the job’ are crucial to the explanation of these relationships (see, ‘Social Differentials in Health within and between Populations’, Daedalus, 1994). Similarly, the major cross-national comparative analysis of the relationships between social structure and personality undertaken by Melvin Kohn and his colleagues concludes that (among other things) the associations between social stratification, values, and orientations can be explained ‘largely in terms of the close relationship between social stratification and conditions of work that facilitate or restrict the exercise of occupational self-direction’, so that occupational self-direction (by which is meant ‘autonomy in the work-place’) forms the ‘crucial explanatory link between social structure and personality’ (see, for example,, Social Structure and Self-Direction, 1990).

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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