Sociology of Work Research Paper

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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.

7.    Gender

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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History of Working Classes Research Paper
History of Work Research Paper


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