The Concept of Work And Labor Research Paper

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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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