This book provides a critical overview of the myriad literatures on"work," viewed not only as a product of the marketplacebut also as a social and political construct. Drawing ontheoretical and empirical contributions from sociology, history,economics, and organizational studies, the book brings togetherperspectives that too often remain balkanized, using each toexplore the nature of work today.
Outlining the fundamental principles that unite social sciencethinking about work, Vallas offers an original discussion of themajor theoretical perspectives that inform workplace analysis,including Marxist, interactionist, feminist, and institutionalistschools of thought. Chapters are devoted to the labor process, toworkplace flexibility, to gender and racial inequalities at work,and to the link between globalization and the structure of work andauthority today. Major topics include the relation between work andidentity; the relation between workplace culture and managerialcontrol; and the performance of emotional labor within serviceoccupations.
This concise book will be invaluable to students at all levels asit explores a range of insights to make sense of pressing issuesthat drive the social scientific study of work today.
Steven Peter Vallas is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University.
Social scientists of widely varying persuasions – from Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Max Weber to the Chicago School of sociology – have long acknowledged the centrality of work in all social and cultural life. They confronted the industrialization process, and were keenly aware of the ways in which industrial capitalism gripped the working lives of peasants, artisans, landowners, and merchants. As it did so, it remade the social landscape, refashioned the temporal rhythms of human experience, and redefined the way that authority, community, gender, and domestic life were all defined. Indeed, it might be said that classical social theory was one sustained debate over the division of labor modernity had wrought, and how it was likely to shape the character of human life.
What of our own era? How are the withering away of manufacturing industries, the spread of digital media, the rise of financial models of work and organizations, and the global mobility of production processes combining to transform our everyday working lives and identities? Has the wish for full-time employment in a stable career now become an exercise in nostalgia? Has a new, “post-Fordist,” regime of work emerged, with instability and uncertainty constituting permanent features of the economic landscape? And which (if any) of these developments can be submitted to democratic choice rather than to the blind forces of the marketplace? To pose these questions is to acknowledge that long-established assumptions about the nature of work have been disrupted, and that the very concept of “work” now warrants close and careful deliberation.
Of course, there is no shortage of discussions about work. Yet in the USA, especially, managerial assumptions have proven so powerful as to sideline unsponsored inquiry into the forms that work is beginning to assume. Indeed, at their most extreme, managerial statements about work have become minor industries in their own right, as in the case of Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence (which has spun off multiple small businesses), Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? (now available in a special edition for pre-teens), or Daniel Pink’s Free Agent Nation (which invites its readers to regard themselves as their own CEOs). For their part, policy analysts often do address workplace issues, but commonly adhere to a formulaic montage of well-worn solutions. Should unemployment insurance benefits be extended? How will increases in the minimum wage affect the labor market? Dare we consider public works programs, or paid family leave? Unasked are questions about the forces that govern the structure of work organizations, why some jobs are valued so much more highly than others, how stereotypes of the most “appropriate” workers for a given occupation influence the distribution of opportunities at work, or whether work might begin to reflect the wishes of those who perform it. All too often, questions of agency and choice in the economic realm have been relegated to the personal advice columns in the business section, which unfailingly school their readers in how to compromise with one’s boss. Images of muffled dissent and cynicism find expression in such outlets as Dilbert and The Office.
If discourse on work in the United States is a function of the political and ideological characteristics of US society, it should not surprise us that the market for workplace analysis displays a family resemblance to that which governs tabloid TV talk shows, rewarding writers who can make the most spectacular claims about the trends gripping our working lives. Hence we find Jeremy Rifkin (2004) declaring the “end of work,” Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio (1995) alluding to the “jobless future,” and Ulrich Beck (2000) holding forth on the collapse of the “work society.” Such sensationalism is of course counterbalanced by careful and deliberate social scientific analyses of work. But these are usually sequestered within academic journals far removed from the public eye. Worse, perhaps, they are subject to a division of labor that carves work up into a welter of competing trades that enjoy little coordination. Thus sociology of work coexists uneasily alongside parallel literatures devoted to the study of organizations, occupations, labor markets, professions, and economic networks. Since each trade favors its own conceptual tools and jargon, little fruitful discussion ensues across the boundaries that demarcate each field.
In this book, I try to put at least some of the pieces back together. Three goals seem especially crucial here. One involves the labor of integration – that is, an effort to pull together, in a succinct and thoughtful manner, the disparate strands of thought that scholars have generated with respect to “work” in recent decades. A second objective involves the labor of critique – that is, to interrogate the main lines of scholarly work that have developed, in an effort to open up analytic paths that seem especially likely to advance the frontiers of the field. A third is to sketch out a view toward work that might spill over academic fields, engaging issues that ought to be on the agenda for public debate.
Work is a primordial part of the human condition; like the biblical poor, it will always be with us. Yet the specific form that work assumes has varied enormously across historical periods and national boundaries. This is certainly the case today, as many of our conceptions of “work” have grown contested and ambiguous. We ought therefore to reflect on what the term “work” means, how that meaning has shifted in recent years, and why.
At the most abstract level, we can define work as any expenditure of human effort aimed at producing a socially valued good or service. This is a deceptively simple definition, however, and one that requires several provisos. First, few workers get to choose the institutional system in which their labor will be expended. Rather, we must typically conform to the dominant institutional structures that define how work must be performed. A related point is that the institutional structure that is most familiar to us – work as paid employment, performed in exchange for a wage or salary – is only one of several types that have developed over time. Indeed, the dominance of wage-labor in relation to the labor market is a recent construct, and one whose triumph often required the exercise of cultural and political power, and even military force.
Moreover, although we have come to view paid employment as the only “real” form of work, in fact work has been defined entirely outside of the labor market for the great bulk of human history. This is certainly the case with unfree or “forced” labor – slavery, serfdom, prison labor, child labor, and other forms of servitude – which persists in many societies (including our own) to this day.1 An equally important form of non-market labor is that of domestic or household work, performed in order to reproduce one’s daily life. Farming communities that provided their own food, clothing, and other material goods had little need for any labor market; family members were expected to shoulder the daily tasks required to eke out a living from the land, producing goods for sale only at the margins of their daily lives. More familiar to us are the many forms of work required in our own families, in the form of cooking, washing, cleaning, and caring for young children – certainly, work by any definition.
So dominant has the labor market become in our own society that we have come to view paid employment, or wage labor, as the only “real” form of work. This would have struck our predecessors as a most unusual point of view. As the American historian Jacqueline Dowd Hall (2000) reports, when cotton mills first began to appear in the American South, farming families often referred to factory work as “public work.” They viewed work outside the bounds of one’s farm as a strange phenomenon – one that engulfed unfortunates who had lost their land to the banks, and had few alternatives but to enter the labor market. Moreover, for much of the nineteenth century, protest against wage labor – operating with the notion of the independent artisan who owned “his own competence” – construed it in terms of “wage slavery.” How much has changed.
And change continues to happen, for paid employment is not a static thing. The boundary between work in this sense and “non-work” has become an increasingly difficult line to draw in recent years. This is obviously the case for professional or sales employees tethered to their jobs by their trusty smartphones and portable PCs: here the boundary between the job and private life begins to break down (Fraser 2002; Orlikowski 2007). It is also the case in a growing number of ambiguous situations, such as those that are familiar to graduate students, participants in workfare programs, and, increasingly, to unpaid interns as well. Indeed, graduate students have begun to assume so many teaching obligations that they have sometimes sought to form unions as a matter of self-defense, only to have courts deny them legal status as workers (they have ruled that graduate students are not workers, but students in professional training programs). For their part, workfare participants often seem to be half workers and half public wards. Like workers, they must be...