History of Work Research Paper

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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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Sociology of Work Research Paper
The Concept of Work And Labor Research Paper

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