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The concept of work designates certain human activities; however, those activities that are considered to be work and those that are not, vary among different cultures and epochs. Each historical society has its own deﬁnition of work, and a variety of different conceptions are juxtaposed to one another within each society. How work is deﬁned is closely associated with the value placed on it, and this in turn is connected with workers’ positions in society. The history of work must therefore bring together two themes: the history of the meaning of work and the history of work as a practice. The relation between gender and work cuts across these two themes and shows how strongly they are connected.
1. History Of The Concept Of Work
The state of research on the history of the concept of work and the meaning of work suffers from three shortcomings. First, it is based upon the reﬂections of intellectual elites. The ways in which other social groups—above all, the workers themselves—understood and evaluated work have not left much of a trace in historical source material, nor has much research been done on this tissue. The history of the concept of work is a history of ideas, and—in a very few approaches to this ﬁeld—a history of mentalities as well (Le Goff 1980). Second, research has tended to ascribe a unitary—or, at least, a predominant— concept of work to the respective historical society under investigation. Contradictory or conﬂicting attitudes have been almost neglected. Third, the history of the concept of work has remained eurocentric. Despite the pronounced interest in the work ethic of non-European cultures and religions that was already evident in the work of Max Weber, and in spite of the growing interest in global history, a systematic intercultural comparison remains a desideratum (Godelier 1980).
1.1 Concepts Of Work In Pre-Industrial Societies
The history of the concept of work in Western historiography begins as a rule with the great philosophers of Greek Antiquity (Aristotle, Plato) (Conze 1972). They employed the term work ( ponos, poiesis) to designate work done manually, and described thereby activities that required physical exertion and strength, that presupposed the use of tools, and the aim of which was to turn out a particular product. The meanings which coalesced to deﬁne the word ponos included labor, toil, hardship, and suffering. This concept of work had a parallel in the Indo-Germanic languages, which as a rule contain several terms for work and working: labor and opus in Latin, travailler and ouvrier in French, labor and work in English. The ﬁrst word stem means great effort, travail, and affliction, activities dictated by necessity or constraint. The second word stem refers to the results of this effort—the attainment of a certain goal, the creation of a product.
Most historians agree that philosophical and political thought in Antiquity was characterized by contempt for work. Work was an evil, the activity of slaves, while the elite engaged in art, philosophy, and politics. The connection between abhorrence for manual labor and slavery is conﬁrmed by the contrast provided by non-European cultures. Slave labor did not play an important role in the historical societies of East Asia, in whose great religious-philosophical systems—foremost among them Buddhism and Confucianism—work (the ﬁeldwork of peasants and the handiwork of artisans) had a positive connotation. But European Antiquity was also characterized by contradictory attitudes toward work. Critical schools of thinking such as the Cynics esteemed physical and mental labor and contrasted them to idleness, which they regarded as a vice. In ancient Rome as well, particularly during the Republic, peasant farm work performed by free men was not seen in a totally negative light.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the ambivalence of the concept of work is expressed with particular clarity. In the Old Testament God himself appears as a worker, and man was originally meant to care for God’s creation. ‘And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it’ (Genesis 2:15). However, with man’s fall from grace, work became penance and punishment: ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.’ (Genesis 3:19). The New Testament carried forth this ambivalence. Christian writings of the Middle Ages constitute an ‘ideological arsenal containing weapons for the de- fence of every position, in favour both of labour and nonlabour (…) ranging from (…) contempt and condemnation to a tendency to respectful evaluation’ (Le Goff 1980, p. 77). From the tenth century on, a new trifunctional or tripartite social schema took hold; it divided society into ‘priests’ (oratores), ‘warriors’ (bellatores), and ‘workers’ (laboratores). This model assigned all working people to the lowest level of the social hierarchy, but nevertheless made them an indispensable segment of society. The Reformation strengthened the tendencies to enhance the status of work. Luther and Calvin understood work as serving God. The work that each Christian performed was considered a ‘calling’ or a ‘divine calling,’ and thus assumed a quasi-religious character. The adherents of certain Protestant denominations—above all, the Puritans—regarded success they achieved in their work as conﬁrmation that they numbered among God’s elect. Since the publication of Max Weber’s study (1904–5) it is generally accepted that the higher valuation of work during the Reformation legitimated and promoted the spread of a bourgeois work ethic, even if it has important roots in medieval thought.
1.2 Concepts Of Work In Modern Western Society
In early modern Europe, work was redeﬁned in two respects. The ﬁrst deﬁnition exhibits anthropological traits. Work came to appear as active human intervention in nature for the purpose of assuring the ongoing existence of the human species. At the same time, work appeared to be a social process based upon collaboration among human beings. This new idea of work played a central role in Enlightenment philosophy and the writing of cultural history done during this period. Man was seen as ruling over nature; division of labor and cooperation as the foundation of human socialization; and increasing domination of nature and further division of labor as the very epitome of social progress. Tools were considered the basis upon which human dominion over nature rested. Man thus appeared to be the ‘tool-making animal,’ as Benjamin Franklin put it. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and other thinkers of the early Industrial Age carried on this intellectual tradition. In his classic formulations in Volume I of Das Kapital Marx described this dual character of work: ‘Labor is, in the ﬁrst place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature (…) By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature’ (Marx 1867, p.192).
The second redeﬁnition originated in the seventeenth century in the ﬁeld of political economy, which linked the concept of work with the idea of value. Work was deﬁned as an activity that created value, and value-producing activities were considered to be all those that were for pay or that generated income. This led to equating work with paid labor. In industrial capitalism, paid labor became the very epitome of work.
These new deﬁnitions were associated with the greatly enhanced status of work. ‘The modern age has carried with it a theoretical gloriﬁcation of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole society into a laboring society’ (Arendt 1958, p. 4). Paid labor became the basis of self-esteem, social recognition, and political participation—in short, the admission ticket to civil society. However, attitudes toward work were ambivalent in modern society as well. The classic works of political economy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, beginning with Adam Smith, feared the brutalizing and stultifying effects of extreme division of labor and repetitive mass production. For Marx, work in capitalism was exploitation and alienation; his communist utopia vacillated between self-realization by means of work and liberation from it. These ambivalencies were expressed in increasingly multifaceted views of work. The esteem accorded to work referred to a speciﬁed type of work in contrast to its polar opposite, which was assessed negatively; mental vs. physical work, planning and supervision vs. actually performing tasks, skilled vs. unskilled work, a steady job vs. ‘casual labor,’ ‘proper’ work vs. housework. A complex hierarchy of work is an essential component of the modern concept of work.
2. Work As Practice
Which activities were taken into consideration by scholars compiling the history of work as practice is closely connected to the development of the concept of work. Three perspectives emerge in the historiography of work: work as production and application of technology; work as economic activity; and work as culture.
2.1 Work As Production
The conception of work as dominion over nature that had emerged in the seventeenth century began to exert an inﬂuence on the history of work in the nineteenth century. Benjamin Franklin’s characterization of man as the ‘tool-making animal’ was cited approvingly by Marx. Tools, or, in more general terminology, instruments of labor, were for Marx, fundamental to the periodization of history and a yardstick of human progress: ‘It is not the articles made, but how they are made and by what instruments, that enables us to distinguish different economic epochs’ (Marx 1867, p. 194). Proceeding on this basis, Marxian historians and archeologists developed a world historical perspective on work that focused on two (or three) ‘revolutions in the forces of production’ (Childe 1936, Bernal 1954).
The ﬁrst of these was called the Neolithic Revolution. Its point of origin was the Near East (Southern Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Jordan Valley) and between about 8000 BC and 3000 BC it spread over large portions of South, East, and South-east Asia, North Africa, Europe, and Central America. The essence of this revolution was the transition to agriculture and animal husbandry as the most important basis of human existence, and in the emergence of agrarian (farming) societies. According to this view, this was the beginning of goal-oriented human intervention in nature and was thus, in an alternate formulation, the beginning of work. ‘Early men did not work at all in the true sense (…) real work, steady work, labor for one’s livelihood, came into being when agriculture was invented’ (Williams 1976, p. 335).
The second great revolution in the forces of production was, from this perspective, the Industrial Revolution, which began during the second half of the eighteenth century in Western Europe and encompassed large parts of the world over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Now, the tools employed in performing work were no longer operated manually by the human hand, but rather by a machine that was driven by artiﬁcially produced energy. Thus, production became independent of the skillfulness, endurance, and physical strength of human beings. In capitalist fantasies, as in Andrew Ure’s Philosophy of Manufacturers, 1835, machinery even functioned as the most perfect means to control and to discipline the workforce, as the ﬁnal victory over the obstinate spirit of the workers. Factory, mass production and conveyor belt became the symbols of work in industrial society.
The increasingly important role played by micro- electronics and the computer in industrial production since the 1960s appeared, in this perspective, as the third great revolution in the history of work. Now, human beings withdrew from the process of con- trolling production and turned over mental activities as well to a machine, the computer. Automation, or ﬂexible communication between humans and computers—a ‘man–machine dialog’—seems now to be the deﬁning characteristic of a new world of work. The amount of human labor necessary for direct production is on the decline. The production process is increasingly becoming the activity of a ‘collective worker’ (Marx), in which technology and science play an important role.
This ‘grand narrative’ was subjected to critique and developed further by scholars working in the history of technology, a ﬁeld that became over the course of the twentieth century an independent academic sub- discipline (cf. History of Technology). Its early practitioners were engineers and technicians with their own narrow understanding of technology, who were not interested in human agency, but in the interaction of material objects. As early as the 1930s (Bloch 1967) though, economic, social and cultural historians were beginning to get involved in this ﬁeld, and making the effort to conceive of technology as an integral part of society, and thus to conceive of work in an all-encompassing sense. In contrast to Marxist ‘history of the forces of production,’ they emphasized the numerous small technical innovations made in all historical epochs. An evolutionary perspective predominated in the history of technology. What the two approaches have in common is the tendency to represent the history of work as developing along a path rising in linear fashion, and as the history of progress.
2.2 Work As Economic Activity
At around 1900, with the newly awakened interest in economic and cultural history, there was also increased demand for a history of work, which then proceeded to emerge as a not-very-clearly delimited subdivision of general economic and social history of various different cultures and epochs. Since then, the history of work as an economic activity has been focusing on work as wage labor; on working hours, wages, and working conditions; and on the history of the modern work ethic and work discipline.
Wage labor was widespread in many pre-industrial societies. In Europe, it took on increased signiﬁcance from the late Middle Ages. Over the course of the Early Modern Period, the population became increasingly dependent upon wage labor. In the economically most highly developed regions of Europe, the ‘proletarization’ of the populace was a pre-condition and not a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. In the industrialization process of the nineteenth century, wage labor in its ‘pure’ form ultimately established itself as the predominant type of labor relationship. Among the features that typically characterized it were the standardization and regulation of work, including a high intensity of labor, a regular working rhythm, and a highly pronounced working discipline; a high degree of specialization of work along occupational lines; a clear demarcation of time spent at work and time off (over the course of a day, a week, a year, and a lifetime); the separation of the workplace from home; and a complex system of institutional and legal regulation.
The developmentf wage labor, however, was not a linear process. Recent research has shown that diversity of labor relationships was characteristic of the period from the late Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. A growing number of men and women earned their daily bread from a combination of agriculture, crafts and trades, and commercial activities, and by combining self-employment with wage labor. A high degree of ﬂexibility and increased readiness to undertake labor migration were preconditions called for by this mixed economy. Flexibility, however, was not only a voluntary practice, but was enforced by the instability of the economy, by necessity and misery. The French historian Fernand Braudel suggested that commercial capital and industrial capital, small workshops and large-scale enterprises, rural home industry and centralized manufacturing during this period should not be regarded as sequential phenomena, but rather as a pool of possibilities, as co-existing labor relationships and modes of production, among which men and women could choose and switch.
An ongoing point of discussion is the question of why men and women of the Early Modern Period increased the intensity of their work. Was this attributable to the exigencies of hardship in an increasingly polarized or proletarianized society, as mercantilist economists of the seventeenth century presumed? Was it the capitalist entrepreneurs who used shop regulations and penalties to turn up the pressure upon their employees? (Thompson 1967). Was the transformation of the world of work simply a part of a general disciplining process—including workhouses, prisons, and schools—to which men and women were forced to submit (Foucault), or to which they—as part of the process of civilization (Elias)— subjected themselves? Or was it the transformation of material culture—namely, the brave new world of consumer goods that expanded so rapidly in the Early Modern Period—that made working harder acceptable, or even desirable? Are the beginnings of consumer society thus also the historical roots of the laboring society? (de Vries 1994). Which role was played by the changing perception of time, by which—from the fourteenth century on—Europeans began to adapt to the abstract rhythm of mechanical clocks? No matter how these questions are answered, it is clear that the role of the Industrial Revolution and mechanized factory labor as factors giving rise to the modern world of work have been devalued, whereas more emphasis is now placed on the long history of capitalism.
The industrialization process, too, became a ﬁeld of revisionism. As it is conceived now, it was not represented by the factory alone; handicrafts, skilled work done by hand, and small-scale enterprises continued to play a key role (Sabel and Zeitlin 1997, Samuel 1977). The diverse branches of the service sector, such as transportation and shipping, retailing, education, entertainment, and the widely varied world of office work would very soon be employing more men and women than the manufacturing sector. In most industrial states, a majority of the workforce has never been employed in the secondary (industrial) sector. And ultimately, factory work has proved to be more varied than it had long appeared to outside observers.
The concentration of research on the ‘ideal type’ of paid labor in modern society has caused too little attention to be paid to forms of labor that deviate from that model. This applies, for instance, to various forms of unfree or forced labor. In European history since the Middle Ages, slave labor has not been widespread, but as a basis of the Atlantic economic system from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, it was indeed an essential component in the emergence of industrial capitalism. However, forced labor was widespread in the totalitarian political systems of the twentieth century. Seen from a global perspective, ‘free’ and ‘pure’ wage labor has (still?) not become the predominant form of work. Today, both agriculture as well as a combination of different activities and forms of work—as was characteristic of European history during the Early Modern Period—provides work and a living to a majority of the world’s population.
2.3 Work As Culture
Since the 1980s, a new way of looking at the history of work has become widely accepted. A growing number of historians consider work as culture. As far as the concrete practice of research is concerned, this means a micro-historical perspective focusing on the workplace itself. Particular attention has been paid to two types of workplaces: ﬁrst, the small workshops of artisans in the Early Modern Period and in the nineteenth century, that represent, on one hand, ‘traditional’ work, and, on the other hand, their increasing integration into capitalist relationships of production (Kaplan and Koepp 1986); and secondly, the factories of industrial enterprises of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as symbols of the modern industrial world of work (Ludtke 1993). The chief focus of these microhistorical studies is upon day-to-day working processes themselves and on social relationships in the workplace. They show the enormous diversity of practical labor and thus constitute a much-needed corrective to the generalizations yielded by the macrohistorical perspective. Scholars investigating the cultural history of work have also attempted to reconstruct the meaning of work for, ‘common, everyday people’ by using ‘ego documents’ such as autobiographies and diaries; iconographic and pictorial sources; and oral-history interviews (cf. Passerini 1982).
There has also been great interest in the symbolic and ritual forms in which solidarities and conﬂicts are carried out and resolved on the workplace (cf. Darnton 1984). In investigating these phenomena, the micro-historical perspective also extends beyond the immediate conﬁnes of the workplace. Work gives rise to social relationships that retain their signiﬁcance beyond the workplace, the term ‘world of work’ is used to connote this expanded meaning.
Often, work’s signiﬁcance becomes clearly evident only when it is absent. The implementation of the working norms of industrial capitalism also led to a redeﬁnition of being out of work. Between 1880 and 1910, a new term describing involuntarily not working, became widespread: unemployment (Arbeitslosigkeit, chomage) (Topalov 1994). The ﬁrst microanalysis of work and unemployment that became one of the classics of twentieth-century social science is the study Die Arbeitslosen on Marienthal. In this small Austrian factory town in 1932, the textile mill that dominated the village’s economic life shut down, so that practically the entire population was thrown out of work overnight. As a result, the rhythms of everyday life became slower and slower, and the unemployed were able to summon less and less energy for activities that they had previously pursued enthusiastically during their free time (Jahoda et al. 1933).
This draws attention to the fact that leisure is, on one hand, the antithesis of labor, though on the other hand, it is also part and parcel of the world of work. In pre-industrial societies, there was no strict dividing line between working and not working. The peasants of the Occitanian village Montaillou, who in about 1300 were interrogated by envoys of the Inquisition about their way of life, interrupted their labors at the slightest opportunity—to chat with neighbors, to hang around the village square, to have some fun playing a game (LeRoy Ladurie 1975). It was only Industrial Society that drew a clear distinction between working and not working, thereby changing the character of not only the world of work but of leisure as well. The concept of leisure refers less and less to merely not working and rather more to an ensemble of activities pursued by speciﬁc classes at certain times, such as games, sports, watching TV, going to bars or symphony concerts. In this sense, leisure seems to some historians to be a cultural practice that was not ‘invented’ until the Early Modern Period (Burke 1995).
3. Work And Gender
The relation between work and gender is a ﬁeld of scholarship in which the reciprocities between the concept and practice of work, between work as economic activity and as culture, can be seen with particular clarity. Early studies of women’s work conducted up into the 1970s almost exclusively treated gainful employment on the part of the women. Initial interest was focused upon factory labor, and then increasingly on ‘speciﬁcally feminine’ occupations like maid, governess, midwife, teacher, secretary, and salesgirl. The aim of this research was to reintegrate women into the male-deﬁned world of paid labor. Beginning in the 1970s, feminist historians increasingly criticized the prevailing modern concept of work. Housework became the subject of theoretical discussions and of empirical investigations. Increasingly, studies on the history of women’s work focused both on gainful employment and domestic activities (Tilly and Scott 1978, Simonton 1998).
The issue of the division of labor between the sexes has become a much-favored ﬁeld of interdisciplinary research. Anthropologists, historians, and sociologists have shed a great deal of light on the variability of the division of labor. One and the same activity can be a typical man’s job in one culture and woman’s work in another. Which work is done by men and women does not depend on the ‘nature’ of their respective sex, but upon socially constructed gender roles. Recent theoretical approaches oppose biological or ‘biosocial’ as well as cultural determinism. Emphasis is in the variety of options taken in the sexual division of labor and the contesting deﬁnition and redeﬁnition of norms.
In European history of the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, the economic signiﬁcance and the symbolic meaning of the respective activities assumed decisive explanatory power. One research approach emphasizes the exclusion of women from market-oriented activities in agriculture, crafts, and trades. Work that promised to yield proﬁts, was learned and practiced according to formalized rules, coalesced into formalized occupations and had organized politically along occupational lines became the domain of men. Early ‘classical’ studies of women’s work and some recent research proceed under the assumption that up to the beginning of the modern period women also took part in artisanal market production and were organized in guilds—either in exclusive women’s guilds or mixed guilds (Wiesner 1989). According to this perspective, it was not until later that there occurred a gradual exclusion of women, be that as a consequence of ‘male bonding,’ the spread of capitalism, or the Industrial Revolution. Other historians have stressed the continuities of the gender-based division of labor since the twelfth century, which placed women in the domestic sphere or in low-skilled, low-status and low-paying occupations (Bennett 1988). Most historians emphasize the ﬂuctuating boundaries between men’s and women’s work, which are continuously redeﬁned and renegotiated (Honeyman and Goodman 1998).
Another research approach emphasizes the cooperation between men and women. In this perspective, the ‘working couple’ formed the economic backbone of the agrarian and the artisanal economy (Pahl 1984, Wunder 1992). This can be seen even more clearly in the ‘family economy’ of the lower classes. Women played a central role in efforts to exploit and combine as many of the available income opportunities as possible. The ‘industrious revolution’ which preceded the industrial one in the view of many historians, was based on the cooperation of men and women in the family economy (de Vries 1994). Conﬂict and cooperation are not necessarily antagonistic but rather complementary perspectives on the gender-speciﬁc division of labor in pre-industrial Europe.
With respect to the nineteenth century, the focus of research has been on the ‘male breadwinner model’ and the emergence of ‘separate spheres,’ which made paid labor the exclusive domain of the male and, conversely, explained domesticity and care of children as being appropriate to the female nature (Janssens 1997, Hausen 1981). This was an effective model, even if there are diverging assessments of its effective range and the extent to which it actually did determine practice. Indeed, it was a short-lived model. The proportion of women pursuing paid labor began to climb again in the 1960s, including highly qualiﬁed professional work and lifelong careers. The history of the division of labor between the sexes shows that ‘the division of labor is an effect of the social hierarchy, not its cause.’ (Godelier 1980, p. 170).
The feminist critique of the concept of work in modern society has considerably widened the boundaries of the history of work. Since generally applicable deﬁnitional criteria are not in sight, they have to be developed from case to case. ‘In this widest sense’ the English historian Penelope J. Corﬁeld wrote, ‘‘‘work’’ is whatever people consider as work (…) the boundaries between ‘‘work’’ and ‘‘non-work’’ are in practice very often obscure’ (Corﬁeld and Keene 1990, p. 208).
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