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Work is central to the panhuman existence. In the twin disciplines of sociology and sociocultural anthropology, the study of work has thus long been a central interest, and it pervades much of the disciplines’ published research. ‘Work’ has perhaps the widest meaning of any word in English. It is a culture-bound, scholarly concept, and folk idea regarding both a process and its accomplished state. In this article, the value-laden meanings and the dimensions of ‘work’ are examined. Also a brief history and salient conceptual issues of the sociology of work are reviewed.
1. A Brief History Of The Sociology Of Work
Few ethnographic monographs about nonwestern societies exclude information on work. In the twentieth century, the twin disciplines depicted the centrality of work in community studies in the USA and Canada. Employment and its access are a vital interest of the ﬁeldworker studying a community, often from an ecological perspective. Pioneering research on work and workers in North America apart from community studies includes that of Whiting Williams, beginning in 1918, on the human relations of employees and employer. With the advent of the experiments and observations regarding workers in the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric, by 1930, the twin disciplines entered their phase of industrial social science, often having a social psychological bent. Studies of work received legitimization in 1946, when the American Sociological Association formed its Section on Industrial Sociology and again, in 1951, when Delbert Miller and William Form wrote the ﬁrst textbook, Industrial Sociology. Work-studies are a variety of empirical emphases not having a characteristic conceptual framework or methodology. Workers display the ordinary range of social behavior. Organizations of work, from corporations to cliques on the job, are components of the greater human society. Nevertheless, in studying modern societies, work relations are part of most conceptualizations of social structures, and social information is most frequently collected in a workplace.
The research on work broadened to encompass many emphases and overlapping subtopics, from gender issues to division of labor. Work research gradated into investigations conducted across disciplines such as on organizations, social control, industrial relations, and role theory. What, then, is ‘work’?
2. Work As Culture-Bound Idea
Knowledge does not exist supra culture; thus, one must ﬁrst examine the Anglo-Saxon cultural context of work. Work is the broadest English word for both the process of doing something and the state of something done. Work is viewed ambivalently. It is a moral necessity and the deity’s curse of travail upon humankind (‘in the sweat of thy face…’). As etymologically rooted and in folk views, work is conceived broadly, as all endeavors.
Many social scientists, however, attempt an analytically useful narrowing of deﬁnition to the creating of goods and services valued in a society. But valued by whom? As Melville Herskovits explains, the phenomena of value regarding things exchanged are understandable only as a part of a speciﬁc culture or a subculture (Herskovits 1952). Adriano Tilgher informs, because economic value is always relative, so too is the work creating it (1958).
The social value of work then, depends upon the socialized view of the observer, varying even within a speciﬁc society. Managers of ante-bellum Southern railroads and their corporate slaves had differing views on the nature of value created.
As with other issues in the sociology of work for example, the management-oriented studies spawned by Hawthorne, deﬁnition of value in work resolves into whose ox is being gored, or fed (Carey 1967). A social disruption, however, could be eufunctional for at least part of a society. Thus an intensive strike after which workers lose their employment is not always dysfunctional to labor overall. Locomotive engineers and switchmen decisively lost the bitter strike on the Burlington road in 1888. Management’s ‘victory’, however, proved so costly to shareholders that other railroads quickly began recognizing the labor organizations of the on-train operating crafts. If not deﬁnable by value, work could be usefully viewed in various dimensions.
3. The Dimensions Of Work
Work has a personal dimension in deﬁning the self and obtaining positive affect from community members. This dimension has a strong hold on all humans, in nonmarket and market societies. In the Horn of Africa, the Wayto hippopotamus hunter seeks his village’s recounting of his prowess as a killer of game; the Qemant plowman seeks community recognition as a good husbandman.
For the street-corner man of Washington, DC, job experiences and consequent job fears constantly assault him. Terriﬁed of an opportunity to work, he stands defeated by experience, with self-worth destroyed and fear thereby validated. Work greatly affects the integration of personality.
Work also has a social dimension, concerning interpersonal relations’ as much as productive output. Many behaviors at work are comprehensible at the collective level. Individual self-interest is dampened by behavioral prescriptions including norms and etiquette. Moreover, in industrial society, with its atrophied bonds of kinship and limited ties of community, work in groups provides opportunities for the close interactions that all primates require, including humanly exchanging positive affect and releasing tensions in a ‘support group.’
Each culture structures work in its own particularized dimension of time. To coordinate industrial transportation, standard time zones were created. For modern production and communication, the microsecond was created. Even in so-called timeless foraging and agrarian societies, space cannot be used effectively without some kind of reckoning of time for coordinating activities. A number of temporal modes including frequency, synchronization, and duration time an industrial society. Without such timing, society’s work becomes dysfunctionally independent instead of functionally interdependent. The clock, more than the steam engine, was the serpentine machine in the garden of agrarian America.
Anglo-Saxon folk and intellectual thought about work exclude much laboring activity. Some activities are not considered work when the time and exertion seem sporadic and little planned, the activities are only somewhat or unrelated to an institutional product (purpose), or these activities are commonplace. For utility in theory, a concept of human work must be valid across cultures and not bound by Anglo-Saxon culture. Need work be purposeful and gainful, and how is livelihood cross-culturally viewed?
4. Work As Concept
Perhaps useful is contrasting a biological exertion involving energetic activity of motor acts and thought with their expression in culturally patterned work. A purely mental activity such as planning a task becomes work. Work, as solely a motor act apart from related thought probably does not occur.
Because work is social, even when done in isolation from other humans, it is enmeshed in the collective conventions of a society. A person’s work activities ordinarily intertwine with activities of others in role sets for producing, exchanging, and consuming goods and services. A work role is a cluster of attributes and expectations for a work status, a social position in a society occupied by a person. Even when work is performed apart from other persons in a set, it is enacted regarding a reference group for such activities. Shipwrecked, Robinson Crusoe remained a member of his tinkering British society.
Should exertion be purposeful to qualify as work? Purpose overlaps with relative social value. The issue remains, purpose from whose perspective?
Canadians each perform the same exertion in felling trees: an employed lumberjack, a thieving ‘timber pirate’, and a gang of vandals. In economic parlance, the ﬁrst two persons purposefully ‘add value’, the third group does not. To the extent that deﬁning work depends on purpose, this characteristic is (sub-) culturally relative.
Work could be deﬁned as gainful; a livelihood earned in a nonmarket, transitional, or market economy. Broadly considered, gainful work does not require market exchange or money. It could be coerced. The gain could be either an increment or a saving of something valued, incorporeal or material. A shaman reciprocates seances for sundry services from community members. A chief collects part of all produce and redistributes some to the chiefdom’s members in kind and some as political administration.
In modern societies, an individual has multiple gainful statuses of varying duration. A woman might be a monetarily unpaid homemaker, corporate executive paid in the market, communities volunteer given positive affect, and administrator of a food cooperative compensated in kind. Livelihood work thus supports a human’s life (one’s biological requisites) and life way (one’s sociocultural requisites). With such a broad conception of livelihood, less kinds of exertion become excluded as work.
5. Work In Modern Societies
Although a conception of work must be cross-culturally valid, much of its investigation concerns industrial and industrializing societies. In industrial society, few remain primary food or craft producers. Instead, people consume goods and services created outside their local community. They gainfully work mainly for increments and savings to enhance their standard of consumption. Devices enormously multiply exertion in work with a consequently great personal productivity. By hoe, a Plains Indian tilled 0.1 of an acre annually, but, with machines, a Plains farmer tills 2,000 acres annually. Although a concept of work does not depend upon money, in today’s market economy, it is the acme of activity. Sufficient money allows great independence from kinship bonds and community ties.
Because monetarily paid work is a central identiﬁer of the self; the characteristic used as a person’s overall social label and assessment is occupational status. After the ritualistic ‘How do you do?’ comes the meaningful, ‘What do you do?’ Work furnishes a person’s basis of social power and economic and other welfare.
In its concomitants, loss of work could mean the severing of one’s mooring in society. The largest medium of monetary savings, the house, can be lost. In the USA, vital health insurance is terminated and retirement credits are not accrued. Also concomitantly, the job delimits the kind of neighborhood along with the personal safety and property security obtainable.
It determines the quality of housing inhabited. It inﬂuences the kind of education and opportunity for children. It also restricts who will be friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Above all, the job allows a reassuring, predictable routine in an otherwise hectic life.
6. Social Control Of Work
Coherence in science rests on a central notion. In the twin disciplines, the notion might be social control, their most widely used concept but about which no agreed deﬁnition exists. The term could mean an underlying social process, a social mechanism delimiting behavior, or a scholarly model for analysis. Most conceptions, however, concern norms (a culture’s prescriptive ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’) and related sanctions, and the ways in which social organizations change while preserving some societal stability (Gibbs 1994).
Control maintains social relations not equally beneﬁcially to all the involved actors, depicted in the innumerable studies of work and reactions to controllers of work.
Industrial relations constitute contests for social control between employers and employees. Social control of work has a number of forms. These include bureaucratic, by formal rules and procedures; technological, by devices limiting or monitoring action; and occupational, by grouped workers deﬁning, in some part, the terms, conditions, and content of work. The pivotal question in studying control is, ‘in what ways are persons made to act in a manner not serving personal self-interest but, instead, society’s collective interest?’
6.1 Employee Participation
In the ‘new industrial relations’, the strong control of work by managers is reclad with ‘cooperative’ programs such as: quality circles, team concept, and employee involvement. For unionized workers, participation in the programs necessarily broadens the character of their labor-management relations. A cooperative program, if fully developed and controlled through bilateral negotiations, could foster mutual beneﬁts. Participation programs, however, are frequently created in trendy public relations, (naively?) overlooking the opposing goals and highly consequential exercises of social control in the relations between labor and management. A large business organization possesses great social power, alone and in coordination with similar ﬁrms united in associations having special access to government.
Unorganized employees, and sometimes those organized, are at a great disadvantage regarding power relations and abilities to exercise social control in the market. In its traditional adversarial role of countering union social control, through cooperative programs management can usurp union responsibilities and pose as a benefactor of employees. Cooperation could allow a transition from powerful collective to powerless individual bargaining for employees. A true employee participation means management must surrender some of its social control of workers. Genuine cooperation in work is fully bilateral, thus a partnership. It can only be effected by near equals in social control. This has not yet been the case. The global market pressures on wages and conditions of employment are inexorably downward.
6.2 Social Control Of Technological
‘Progress’ Business practice in North America, includes a sectarian, laissez-faire ideology promoting technological ‘progress.’ A tenet of such practice is a view that workers, their families, and fellow community members must suffer the consequences of progress without redress or complaint. Technology, however, is not a neutral force, or impartial hand of advance in an industry, for shaping society and inclining an individual’s life. Technological change for work receives guidance from visible hands, according to goals of private ﬁrms, public agencies, and other organizations including unions and advocacy groups. In business, only rarely does management effect social control solely through technology. Ultimate control comes through the bureaucratic mechanisms of a ﬁrm, thus from managerial norms. The high value North Americans place on technological change masks what seldom changes, the social controls shaping technology and its policy and, thereby, society.
In foraging societies, occupational Jacksand Jills-of-all-trades exist, respectively, hunters and gatherers. As technologies of plant and animal domestication free some persons from primary food getting, a true division of labor, with occupational specialization, develops in addition to the universal natural division of labor, by age and sex.
Despite a true division—including specialization of work technology within segments of a society or separation of a particular technology into its component techniques, or both—division of labor by sex remains everywhere.
A speciﬁc culture assigns to each biological sex a number of gender roles that are mainly learned culture. The roles are normative results of socialization, including for work. Not only do the conventional roles delimit what is ‘male’ and ‘female’, but also what is appropriate work for each sex.
Because a great overlapping range of somatic and mental characteristics exists for males and females, a similar range of tasks performed equally well by each sex obtains. Cross-culturally, almost no work roles are exclusively men’s roles. Among the Hopi, women do the construction of multistory houses; among the Dahomey, women were the assault troops; and, in many African societies, women have apical political statuses. Whatever a man can do a woman can do equally well, with few exceptions, mainly related to somatic strength.
Nevertheless, work-role and occupational sex typing is dominant even in industrial democracies. At Christmas time, a boy customarily receives a black doctor’s kit and a girl a pink nurse’s kit. Such socialization for conventional aspiring to statuses of work is multi-stranded, from throughout the fabric of a culture. Some feminist scholarship explores the relations among capitalism, patriarchy, and job segregation. Although these neo-Marxist studies are illuminating, they do not explain similar segregation in the patriarchal, plow-agricultural societies, which might additionally feature other sex typing such as, clitorectomies, inﬁbulations, and familial honor killings of females.
In industrial societies, occupational sex typing of women not only limits their kinds of work and levels of compensation allowable but also the range of beneﬁcial concomitants of work. Perhaps the overcrowding hypothesis accounts for the lower compensation achievable by women compared to men.
With large numbers of women channeled and competing in relatively small numbers of ‘pink-collar’ work statuses, their compensation rates are driven downward in the market. Restricted compensation opportunities foster women’s dependence on men, with increased exploitation by men.
Focus on the workplace ignores the importance of an unpaid wife at home supporting a successful husband at work. Such economic exchanges between social unequals are at odds with the folk category of the self-made man. Not only is the workplace a site of male exploitation of women, sexual and otherwise, but also it is a locale for behaviors from ﬂirting to consensual sex. Not just sexual harassment but additionally sexual pursuits have a workplace arena, not surprising among highly sexual primates. The full range of organizational sexuality, its relations to job beneﬁts and harm, and its resistance to social control are among little studied dimensions of work (Williams et al. 1999).
8. The New Nature Of Work
In late industrial societies, the future of work could include not enough of it for permitting the earning of middle-class compensation. Competition in the global market engenders a massive de-industrialization with the loss of adequate jobs for those with high-school levels of education or less.
American production workers must compete with Chinese prison and South Asian child labor. In today’s job market, employee loyalty has become a one-way street. Overnight, jobs can be eliminated in the thousands by a single ﬁrm. Some terminations are psychologically brutal.
The era of lifetime jobs gradually erodes, replaced by insecure contingent work, including part-time, contract and temporary persons—all workers who are not full-time with full beneﬁts. Conditions of employment not obtained by contingent workers include job training and career advancement with a ﬁrm. Such workers become employed only with an immediate demand for them. Of course, some persons desire contingent work. Automation and reorganization of work created a controversy about the existence of deskilling, under capitalism, a continuous lowering of levels of skill throughout a national economy, leading to an unskilled proletariat.
De-skilling in neo-Marxist theory is a form of social control of workers through a minute division of labor, with organizing work into simple, repetitive tasks involving few mental reﬂections. Although a good number of crafts and some professions were deskilled during the twentieth century, no deskilling throughout an overall industrial economy exists.
Trade unions contest management for social control in some workplaces. In America, for unionized employees in private industry, the overall pay is one-third higher and for blue-collar workers about 70 percent more than in nonunion companies. Unionization provides a wage advantage to workers.
The future of the labor movement, however, is clouded. In the USA and Canada, trade unions have diminished in union density, organizing success, level of labor actions, and political inﬂuence. Reasons given for this decline include: union sloth; the law as enacted and then interpreted by the courts; globalized competition; ‘cooperative’ programs; and a neo-liberal philosophy embraced by the large political parties. For union success, new forms and policies in the labor movement must be created including, multi-employer bargaining, removal of legal impediments to organizing, and coordination with community, advocacy, religious, and ethnic organizations to further mutual goals (Clawson and Clawson 1999).
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