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The concept of work has at least three different but complementary meanings in contemporary Western societies. As an action, it refers to the content and the performing of an activity; as a product, it is part of the organization of capitalist societies; ﬁnally, as a status, it constitutes a linchpin of social organization. Work, as the mainspring of economic activity, is also at the crux of the functioning of the political and social world. Affecting the slightest aspects of life in society, it can be viewed as a ‘total social fact’ (Mauss 1966). This pivotal position has made work a notion that has long been taken for granted as universal, to the detriment of its variability in time and space (Kocka and Offe 2000). Yet the contemporary meaning given to the concept is the result of an eminently historical process, including in capitalist societies in which work constitutes the yardstick. Although various meanings of the word ‘work’ existed in the nineteenth century (Cottereau 1994), it is on the particularly restrictive concept of labor, in the sense of quantiﬁable productive activity, that Western capitalist societies have been built.
The development of the concept was concurrent with the evolution of the social sciences. Labor, conceptualized in political economy after Adam Smith in terms of value, came to be seen as the mediator between the individual and the collective. It thus became a focal point of sociological analysis. The transformations of productive activity and their consequences in industrial society have certainly contributed to shaping the main directions of development in social sciences, but the descriptive as well as prescriptive discourse of the latter has also played an essential role since the early twentieth century in establishing the social sphere on the basis of work.
The history of the concepts of work and labor will be examined from this angle of a dual process in which the social sciences and the societies they study mutually engender one another. Thus delimited, the history will not be a total one, but situated in time and space, that is, conﬁned to the question of the reduction of the concept of work to the concept of labor in capitalist European societies from the nineteenth century onward. This rather Eurocentric history is also the history of the statistic and legal codiﬁcation of labor into a social status, providing access to citizenship within the welfare state. Finally, since the 1970s it has been the history of re-examining the concept, closely tied to a reassessment of paradigms of action in the social sciences.
1. The Semantic Reduction Of Work To Labor
Labor, more precisely wage labor, a dominant form in social–economic relationships in today’s societies, has not always had this value as a standard. In the Middle Ages, when idleness was the privilege of the aristocracy, labor was synonymous with poverty and social devaluation. Without going back over the history of work, it is important to underline the contradictory heritage that characterizes the notion in the nineteenth century. On the one hand, work was associated with the idea of alienation. This association ﬁnds its origins in the Greek conception of slavery, the function of which was to satisfy the vital needs of reproduction of the human species (Arendt 1958). It was further developed by Marx’s critique of wage labor, a modern form of alienation through work. On the other hand, work rhymes with accomplishment and self-expression. This opposite aspect, based on the Protestant formalization of an occupation (Beruf ) as a vocation (Weber 1930), drawing on the Hegelian conception of work as the essence of man (Hegel 1977 1805), considerably fed the ideology of the welfare state. This tension between alienation and liberation was to mark the concept of labor in the long term and run through theoretical debates in the social sciences even until today (Meda 1996).
1.1 The Invention Of Abstract Work
The opposition between work considered as the essence of human existence and the reality of alienating labor provided, in particular, the basis of the Marxist critique of the political economy (Marx 1968 1867) that marked a major turning point in the conceptualization of work. Political economy, of which labor is a key concept, produced an initial swing of the concept of work toward that of labor. This swing occurred in the context of liberalization of work, consecrating the idea of the market through the promulgation of a set of legal provisions abolishing hereditary dependency, establishing the free circulation of individuals, freedom of commerce and free competition. On the theoretical level, Adam Smith’s work (1776) some years earlier consecrated labor as a value, as a source of national wealth, and saw freedom of work as the means to maximize this wealth. From Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill, British theorists of political economy made labor a product, a commodity sold according to the laws of supply and demand, on a market held to be the dominant form of regulation. Determined by the principles of economic liberalism, this conception associates work with a manifestation of individual freedom, it is a speciﬁc commodity having an exchange value. Boiled down to a commodity that each person theoretically should be able to sell as he wishes by way of freely agreed contracts, work became, through contractual mediation, a general legal and abstract category, separate from the individual who produced it. This was the invention of abstract work, quantiﬁable and measurable in time and money; this was labor, a founding principle of capitalism (Biernacki 1995).
Marx embraced this conceptualization of abstract work, but introduced at least two new elements. The ﬁrst was labor power. Marx viewed labor less from the perspective of the resulting product but from the angle of the labor power (Arbeitskraft) required to achieve it. Biernacki (1995) sees in this shift the expression of the structuring nature of the German work culture on the development of Marx’s thought. But beyond cultural speciﬁcities, taking into account labor power provokes a considerable shift in the problematics of work. Work is no longer reduced to the mere economic dimension of selling and circulating goods, it is henceforth associated as well with the condition of the producer in a capitalist market system. The second contribution of the Marxist critique is the introduction of nonwork, a notion previously absent from political economy (Marx 1982, p. 208). Seen from the angle of the economic dependence of the worker, who can only meet his needs through the sale of his labor power, labor cannot be envisaged independently from nonwork and its different individual consequences. Marx thus contributed to a conceptualization of labor as dependent work, that is, seen from the producer’s rather than the product side. This Marxist critique of political economy was to be, in the second half of the nineteenth century, a fertile ground for the development of the social sciences. Their particular contribution was, among others, to objectify nonwork by breaking it down into categories of social organization such as old age, disability, illness, unemployment, etc.
1.2 Wage Labor: A New Expression Of Dependent Work
The concept of work mobilized in this endeavor for social objectivation meets the dual criteria of quantiﬁcation and dependence. The reformist social sciences of the early twentieth century and the new categories they contributed to producing thus reinforced the process of dissociation between on the one hand work /œuvre, characterized by the independence of the producer and the quality of the product, and on the other hand abstract work associated with dependence and quantity. This social differentiation grew more marked up until World War II, accompanied at the same time by an increased hold of abstract labor over work to the point of assimilating Work with Labor, to the detriment of other possible meanings of the concept. This process went along with the spread of wage labor which was legally codiﬁed—in the form of a contract or through labor legislation—and statistically codiﬁed—in the form of socio-professional categories—as a response to standardization and mass production in economic activity.
The concept of employment, at the heart of the legal codiﬁcation of labor, is informed by a dual meaning: from a macroeconomic standpoint it means trading a given quantity of work for a given salary on the market; from the political and social standpoint, it means exchanging individual subordination for security, that is, the worker’s subordination to his employer and the security offered by labor legislation and social protection. From this standpoint, employment is not so much determined by the nature of economic activity as by the nature of the social relationships that frame this activity. Employment can thus be deﬁned as socialized labor, insuring protection for the producer, in response to the Marxist critique. But this protection is highly variable geographically, reﬂecting the different avenues of society building around the integrative virtues of work (Esping-Anderson 1990). As Biernacki (1995) has shown in the case of England and Germany, the historical forms of economic objectivation of labor speciﬁc to each country—as a product for the English, as labor power for the Germans— affect the way in which the concept of labor has been mobilized in the production of the political and social order.
2. Labor And The Constitution Of The Social World
Labor has become the nerve center of the social world. As participation in the common good, it was used at the end of the nineteenth century in the deﬁnition of a link that could bind together individuals in the broadened framework of the nation-state. Consequently, it was codiﬁed as a vector of individual belonging to the collective, thereby insuring the group’s cohesion. But although the social world reﬂects the actual organization of the group, it is also the fruit of competing endeavors at formalization and cannot be apprehended independently from the discourse and knowledge that institute it. Social science discourse as it was institutionalized at the turn of the century is in this respect exemplary. It played an essential role in indexing the social world on labor and in deﬁning labor’s relationships to the public concern (Durkheim 1964, Weber 1930). During the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century, this scholarly activity focused on the production of general categories to organize the industrial society on the level of the nation-state. In other words, it was an activity mainly aimed at stating principles of homogenization and generalization, as if the transformations of the late nineteenth century had at the same time generated social sciences with strong holistic orientations and the organization of society on a large scale, on the basis of principles of standardization referring to labor within the framework of national institutions.
2.1 Labor As A Status
The close connection between work and social status is one of the main features of the concept of labor. This type of connection doubtless already existed in feudal societies and guild organizations in cities, for instance, but its speciﬁcity lies in its relation, since the late nineteenth century, to demands of social justice, political equality, and democracy. Labor has thus become the democratic means of access to social status and political integration, a function that for centuries was ensured by property and heredity. As a provider of income and the principle on which the redistribution of wealth is based, labor has become the central social relationship in capitalist societies. A powerful determining factor of each person’s position in the social hierarchy, it helps produce individual identities and shapes the ways in which citizenship is exercised. This link between work and politics, in the sense of organization and production of the society on the whole, was not, however, a foregone conclusion even two centuries ago (Arendt 1958). But it has become such a natural fact within the European nation-state that it today seems to be taken for granted historically (Zimmermann et al. 1999).
2.2 Labor, Class And Nation
The socialization of work and nonwork, based on the critique of a strictly economic conception of labor, has been held up to be the promise of the nation-state’s order and political legitimacy. This conjunction between providing security for wage-labor—through social protection and labor legislation—and consolidating the nation-state has led to a considerable growth of the social value attached to paid work. The established expression ‘social security’ suggests to what extent the socialization of nonwork is as much a question of collective as of individual security. This collective security is based on the capital/wage labor dichotomy, in a framework where the social regulation of labor is a partner of economic regulation of the market more than a substitute for it. The encounter of the nation-state, economic organization and labor institutions under the auspices of the welfare state thus appears as the fruit of a historical compromise between capital and labor. This compromise, at the basis of Fordism, is founded on the norm of full employment taken to be a constituent principle of the social world. From such a perspective, the social world can be seen as a collective order produced on the basis of wage labor and codiﬁed by a set of rights and duties attached to the salaried class (Castel 1995).
The history of this collective order is, from 1890 to 1960, one of establishing a coherence between individual identities and economic and political practices on the basis of the principles of class and nation (Wagner 1994). It is a movement of widespread standardization aiming to reduce uncertainty as well as the variety of possible actions and interpretations. Statistical and legal methods were the preferred instruments of this standardization and establishment of equivalences. Through the institution of nomenclatures, they gave shape to a national body made homogenous that can be observed and planned thanks to the objective nature of ﬁgures. By granting social and political rights guaranteed by the state, they stipulate individual belonging to this body. But today these standardization principles are put to the test by the demands of ﬂexibility and the multiplication of work statuses.
2.3 Transformations In Work And Reconﬁguration Of The Social Sciences
The quest for generality a century ago has been replaced by the quest for diversity. This holds true for economic and social life as well as for the ﬁeld of social sciences. Over the past few years, the issue has been one of producing new equivalencies between situations and persons, able to place increasingly individualizing practices into a collective order that guarantees equity. The demand for ﬂexibility provides an exemplary illustration. Whereas for the employer it is a powerful tool for dealing with the ups and downs of the economy, for the employee it introduces an uncertainty that the rhetoric of risk and predictability at the basis of social protection (Evers and Nowotny 1987) can no longer necessarily control. One of the current challenges is thus to make individual careers secure in the new context of uncertainty that weighs on work (Supiot 1999). But the categories established on the norm of full employment and the model of society that goes with it are having difficulty integrating these imperatives for diversity and ﬂexibility. It is more generally the reduction of the concept of work to that of labor that should be incriminated, to such an extent that an examination of the ongoing transformations entails a need to rediscover the diversity of meanings of work.
In 1958, Arendt undertook a radical critique of this reduction that led to labor invading the political sphere, eventually crushing it in favor of the ‘social.’ Against the institution of labor as a general category of human action, Arendt reminds us that it is merely one aspect among others of Vita acti a. She emphasized the major historical differentiation between:
(a) labor, an activity of anima laborans governed by the human race’s needs of subsistence and reproduction, producing ephemeral things destined to be consumed;
(b) work, an activity of homo faber, producing lasting objects aimed at stabilizing human life;
(c) action, praxis, which produces things that are inseparable from the actor and which only occur through interaction. Action thus constitutes the eminently public and political aspect of Vita acti a.
Whereas Arendt deplored the progressive absorption ﬁrst of work, then of action, by the reductionist concept of labor, the topicality of the question of the relationship between work and action has since been renewed.
Along the lines of the revival of action theories in the social sciences, the concept of work has opened up toward action. Until the 1960s, continental European sociology of work was mainly concerned with the status conferred on individuals by their jobs. Today it has developed the issue of work as action, mobilizing a broader signiﬁcation of the concept of work. The paradigms of action lead to taking into account a greater diversity of meanings of work (women’s domestic work, voluntary and civic work, for instance). They also lead to envisaging work from the perspective of the interactions and conventions that preside over coordination among agents (‘L’economie des conventions’ 1989). Such an approach indicates a return to work in itself, to work as an action that refers to particular people and situations (Boltanski and Thevenot 1989). After the major movement of standardization that characterized the history of the concept of labor and sealed its hegemony, the concept of work today is being redesigned to integrate the quality of products and people’s capacities, and has opened up to the plurality and diversity of conﬁgurations of action (Salais and Storper 1997, Boltanski and Chapiello 1999).
By the same token, the uncertainties that weigh on national employment institutions today, under the pressure of globalization and the constitution of supranational political entities (Habermas 1999), have found considerable resonance in debates on postmodernity that run through the social sciences. After the supremacy of the national level, today new scales of regulation and organization of the collective sphere are being explored, both from a practical and theoretical standpoint. Here again, the connection between economic and political transformations and paradigmatic changes in the social sciences is a close one. To such an extent that, where some see the end of work (Rifkin 1995) or the nation-state approaching, others announce both the end of society and the social sciences. But far from this alarmist diagnosis, today seems rather to be an era of revising both the categories of organization of society built around work and the nation, and their principles of intelligibility as they were deﬁned by the social sciences.
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