In a matter of min­utes, Steven Vallas had observed the power the mill man­ager wielded.

Shortly after Vallas sat down at a small-​​town restau­rant with his lunch com­panion, a man who man­aged the 3,000 employees of a local forest-​​products fac­tory, the governor’s wife walked over to their table. She wanted to chat with the manager.

Her hus­band was up for re-​​election,” Vallas recalls, “and this man­ager held real sway. It’s hard for city dwellers to under­stand, but many of these men are like Cae­sars in rural communities.”

Vallas is used to seeing his studies in flesh-​​and-​​blood action. The newly hired chair of Northeastern’s soci­ology and anthro­pology department—and the author of a new book, “The Soci­ology of Work: Struc­tures and Inequalities”—has had a long affinity for observing the micro­cosms of the work­place and charting the dynamics between employers and employees in an ever-​​changing work force.

Appro­pri­ately, his own career his­tory has been wide-​​ranging. “I’ve worked as a line cook. I’ve loaded trucks. I’ve been a social worker, and a labor union orga­nizer,” he explains. All these expe­ri­ences have illu­mi­nated his research spe­cialty: under­standing the com­pli­ca­tions of work in America under con­stantly changing circumstances.

In his new book, as well as in many arti­cles pub­lished in pro­fes­sional jour­nals, Vallas covers work­place trends, ranging from the rise and decline of labor unions, and trans­for­ma­tions in man­age­rial practices.

He also studies evolving orga­ni­za­tional par­a­digms. As Vallas writes in his book, in a chapter titled “The New Amer­ican Work­place,” “Employees today often face a bewil­dering set of shifts in every aspect of their jobs. Cell phones, PCs, PDAs, Black­Berry devices, and web­cams now make it pos­sible for employees to per­form their jobs almost regard­less of the time or place. This is of course a mixed blessing, as some orga­ni­za­tions have begun to expect their workers to be avail­able at all times of the day or night.”

Long fas­ci­nated by the employee-​​manager rela­tion­ship, and sen­si­tive to what he calls the “finely tex­tured mat­ters making up work­place life,” Vallas at one point immersed him­self in a study of forest-​​products fac­to­ries in America, working under a large 1999 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

He exam­ined the way new tech­nology and reor­ga­ni­za­tions were being intro­duced to employees and inte­grated into com­pany life and cul­ture. He focused on how tra­di­tional plants tried to empower their workers by adopting team-​​based systems.

What I found was that cor­po­rate plans for worker empow­er­ment that seemed to make sense in com­pany head­quar­ters just didn’t hold together when they were actu­ally intro­duced,” he says.

From a macro­eco­nomic per­spec­tive, Vallas believes that bureau­cratic orga­ni­za­tions have largely reached a “point of dimin­ishing returns,” and cannot fully uti­lize workers’ skills.

The com­pa­nies he ana­lyzes are often seeking new ways to moti­vate employees and estab­lish higher levels of worker com­mit­ment, a key goal. “Espe­cially in an era of glob­al­iza­tion,” he says, “U.S. work­places must main­tain high levels of worker involve­ment.” Yet, he’s found, “this is often just not pos­sible using cen­tral­ized, bureau­cratic forms of work organization.”

Cur­rently, Vallas is studying how sci­en­tific study in the academy is merging with com­mer­cial, or for-​​profit, research, thereby “breaking down the tra­di­tional boundary between aca­d­emic and com­mer­cial sci­ence,” he says.