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The sociology of work takes one into the heart of sociological analysis. Humankind’s mediated relationship to the natural world is inescapably onto-logical to human life and interrelationships. From the artifacts of Homo sapiens’ early existence, through records found within all social formations including the texts of world religions, classical and contemporary thought and scientific and technological undertakings, one sees how work has occupied human thinking and created some of humanity’s most complex and significant questions and issues.
During structural-functionalism predominance in North America during the 1950s and 1960s, sociologists tended to study the ”sociology of occupations” but as Marxian and other continental perspectives entered mainstream sociology, the terminology and concerns shifted. The terms labor and work rose to prominence opening discussions of the labor process, labor history, paid and unpaid labor, segmented and dual labor markets, for example, while issues like alienation, collective action, power and resistance, class conflict, docile bodies, and power/knowledge pushed discussions of the occupational structure, hierarchies, status, mobility, career paths, and modernization theory from center stage.
The sociology of work centers on and expands outward from the employer/worker relationship. In the contemporary period, employers (private or public) hire workers to produce goods or services which others purchase for direct consumption or further processing. Through paid work, workers earn money to meet individual and/or domestic needs and wants. The struggle over wages is among the most obvious features of the employer/ worker relationship — but it involves far more. The employer/worker relationship occurs within and impacts upon numerous aspects of the social whole; three of the most important are the production, ownership, distribution, and control of social wealth; socio-historically created patterns and perceptions of consumption; the legitimation of existing social relations.
Employers hire workers for their abilities and capacities to perform work for a specified time-frame but employers cannot separate workers’ bodies from their labor capacities — the whole person is hired, creating important complexities. Living within society, workers are shaped by, and also perceived through, various socially constructed conditions and perceptual frameworks — e.g. class, gender, ethnicity, racialization, educational background, aspirations, and understandings of the world, in general, and work, in particular. These influence interactions among workers, employers, and supervisors and those interactions feed back into the larger society.
Employers possessing capital and resources and specific corporate, positional, and personal motives and interests offer workers money, certain intrinsic satisfactions, levels of (in)security, status and some form of employment record or career. Workers possess particular resources of skill, knowledge, physical ability, and capacity for learning along with specific motives and interests. In exchange for wages, workers surrender a significant measure of personal autonomy, give forth effort and suffer, in the process, various measures of impairment and fatigue. Issues concerning wages, the basis, size, history and trajectory of the wage gap existing between men and women, racialized and non-racialized groups, or normative and non-normatively constructed workers; part-time versus full-time work; career disruptions; and paid versus unpaid labor stem from this aspect of the employer/ worker relationship.
The numerous tensions within the employer/ worker relationship are usually managed within fairly specific parameters but the dynamic is a continuous source of pressure that can lead to small- or large-scale change.
Employers use encouragement, incentives, the wage-contract and possibly some (moderately) coercive practices and other forms of sanction to get work done. The ease or difficulty involved in putting workers’ labor capacities to work depends on the tasks to be performed (pleasant, intrinsically rewarding ones are easier than dull, routine, physically demanding, and/or dangerous work), workers’ social and economic situation, as well as their aspirations, motives, experiences, interests and subjective willingness to work. As a result, the quantity and quality of work is also subject to an ongoing, dynamic tension. Through work, products are released into the market linking work to consumption and all of the complex issues related to consumer society, immaterial production and consumption, globalized markets, and the ”McDonaldization” of society.
The tension between employers and workers is not usually overt but remains covertly present as an ongoing conflict of interests. Workers and employers strive to improve their position by drawing upon a wide array of personal and systemic resources. In that process a balance is established but it will be challenged and fluctuate over time.
Employers control the formal rules of the workplace and manage production demands but they do so within the context of a broader, increasingly globalized, market which pressures them to minimize costs and increase productivity through management strategies and technological innovation. Questions of scientific management, human relations strategies, Fordist mass production, lean production, technological innovation, surveillance, deskilling, docile and disciplined bodies, and work games all stem from this aspect of the employer/ worker relationship.
Workers are pressured to maximize their wages by the market, dominant cultural practices, various media images, personal ambitions, and conditions within their domestic household to care for dependents and educate children within a changing fiscal environment. As employers seek increased productivity, workers want better pay, greater control over and fulfillment through work, reductions in the physical costs and impairment of labor, and safe working conditions. These objectives tend to pressure workers towards collective action leading into questions about local, regional and national labor history; labor’s political affiliations and formal political involvement; the strategic and democratic differences among dialogical, consensual, or bureaucratic decision making processes within a collective bargaining unit; determining common interests among diverse, unionized workers with heterogeneous wants; and the willingness and ability to mobilize and sustain collective action all come into focus.
The two opposing tendencies — increased control by the employer versus that of workers — create a system of perpetual tension and change which extends beyond the immediate employer/worker relationship into broader social processes as a whole.
- Krader, L. (1979) Treatise on Social Labor. Van Gorcum, Assen.
- Offe, C. (1985) Disorganized Capitalism: Contemporary Transformations of Work and Politics. Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Watson, T. (2003). Sociology, Work, and Industry. Routledge, London.