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• Intro self, major (why?), fun facts –

– Past work experiences? Working now?
– Blogs
• Why study work?
– Professional, civic & personal reasons
Introduction to Course
• The “21st Century workplace”
– What is distinctively new about the work that
people hold in 2017?
– What is not so new about people’s jobs?
– What might be the causes of such shifts?
– How might trends affecting work create difficulties
in US society?
– And how might such difficulties be addressed?
Topic I. The Sociology of Work:
Principles and Perspectives
What is “work”?
How can we study it?
What schools of thought have
Hidden Importance of Work for
Many Public Debates
• Welfare policy (now: work requirements for Medicaid
and public housing?)
• Educational policy and charter schools
• Immigration policy and the labor market
• Trade policy...
...All have the nature of workplace life at their core
• Yet we have few forums for systematic discussion
about work
• Hence need for social scientific thinking
– Labor economics, labor history, I/O psychology,
organizational behavior… and sociology of work
How approach work then…?
• Sociology’s Promise
– De-mythologize commonly held beliefs
• Especially the notion of the freely acting individual
– Uncover the ways in which groups, organizations,
and institutions shape our social lives
• By understanding how social structure
influences our thoughts, feelings and
behaviors, we can act back on our
How put sociology to work?
• Begin by defining “work”
– Broadly: expenditure of effort to meet some socially valued goal
– This incorporates both market and non-market forms of labor
• For the broadest part of history, non-market labor has been
the norm
– Anthropologically: primitive tribes lack an economy
– Rural societies and the invention of “public” work
– Paid employment as “wage slavery”
• Today: “work” has become ambiguous
– Workfare?
– Graduate students?
– Interns?
– Care work at home?
The terrain of paid employment
• The need for theory (our first task in the course)
• Indispensable…
– Helps us pose key questions about work
• Why are some occupations defined as men’s or women’s work?
• Why has work evolved toward temporary or “contract” work (the “gig”
• Why are some occupations paid so much mor highly than others? And how do
pay disparities affect worker motiviation?
• Why do employers seem more concerned with the firm’s reputation in the
eyes of the public than with the concerns of their own employees?
• How is the 21st century workplace redefining our society –and perhaps even
our personalities and identities?
• What features of the workplace can be submitted to democratic decision-
• Hence our first topic: principles and perspectives
1. Work Matters
• The “primacy of production”…
– …for individual life
• “Homo faber” –man the creator
• Marx, Hughes, and work as a “master status”
• Evidence? (Kohn, literature on health, students…)
– …for social life
• E.P. Thompson: industrialism and the rhythms of daily life
• Piven and Cloward, Wilson: When work disappears
• Many scholars: “work society”
• Now? (What happens when firms don’t “anchor” us?)
• Do our jobs still define us, still provide a
“central life interest”?
– Skeptics: the sphere of consumption, media,
leisure have overwhelmed the world of work
– True?
– What trends have counteracted this alleged
– Considerations: working time, labor force
participation, rise of new services
– Hochschild, “The Outsourced Life”
2. Work is a Social Construct
• Key: not reducible to the law of supply and demand
– Smith’s conception of human nature
– Polanyi:
• custom and tradition have long defined economic activity
• The “self regulating market” is a myth
– The Hawthorne studies and the human side of work
– Robert Thomas and ROI as a veneer
– Differences in culture and social structure shape work in
vital ways
• Hence differences between Japan, Europe and the USA
• Law, political systems, religion, social movements all make
themselves felt quite beyond the market
3. The Hidden Underside of Work
• “It is written… but I say unto you”
– Key: informal norms and subcultures often deviate
from official rules and expectations
• Corrections officers and informal understandings with
inmates (Sykes, 1956)
• Chemical workers and their machines (Halle 1984)
• Police and the use of violence (Weigel 1982)
• Photocopy technicians and their “community of practice”
(Orr 1996)
• Casino dealers and the shifting of the odds (Sallaz 2002)
• Paper workers: informal knowledge and “authority contests”
in manufacturing (Vallas and Beck 1996; Vallas 2006)
Theoretical Perspectives:
Review each and discuss: strengths? Weaknesses?

1. Marxism
– “je n'suis pas Marxiste” (Marx)
• Capitalism: a socio-economic system based on
commodity production
• Labor time itself becomes a commodity
– This is the only property workers have –hence the hollow
nature of “free labor”
– The sale of labor time is a peculiar exchange, since the
seller continues to possess his/her commodity even after
selling it
– Hence the struggle over its use; spirals of control and
resistance (p. 20)
Marx and Marxism, cont’d
• Market competition forces capitalists to exploit workers with growing
– “Anarchy in the market begets tyranny in production”
• Employers use technology to reduce their dependence of workers’
– “Every capitalist process of production has this in common, that it is not the
workman who uses the tool, but the tool that uses the workman”
• “Unity and coordination” are indispensable, yes…
• But capitalism also requires the labor of “surveillance and control”
– features of work that would disappear under worker control
• Marx’s twin legacy:
– The theory of alienated labor (see assignment)
– Labor process theory (discussed in ch. 2)
• Critique: utopian? Obsolete?
2. Interactionism
• Chicago school of sociology:
• E. C. Hughes:
– Work is “fateful… in the one life that we have to live”
– Studied the “knitting of racial groups” at work
(construction of boundaries between in-groups and
out-groups that the misperceptions these create)
– Focused on the social dramas that play out within
work organizations, and in the society at large
– For example: Hughes approach toward “humble” and
“proud” occupations
Interactionism, cont’d
• By the proud occupations, meant the professions (doctors,
lawyers, economists, etc)
• These occupations must convince the public of
– their unique ability to solve social problems (mental
health, economic policy, etc.)
– their distinct expertise and standing
• Hughes rejects both claims
– Professions are not neutral –they are often involved in the
“production” of problems (think psychiatry)
– Claims of the distinctive nature of “proud” occupations
are often misleading
2. Interactionism, cont’d
– Hughes’s task: Debunking the pretensions of elite
occupations, grasping the social drama in which all
occupations are engaged
• All occupations involve “dirty work” –tasks best kept out of public
view (lawyers inflating their invoices, doctors covering up patient
• Because the practitioners of the “humble” occupations lack power, we
can see how they try to hide their dirty work
• Hence, sees a similarity between the chemist and the worker in a
pickle factory, the lawyer and the hit man, etc.
– Key:
• uncovering the meanings workers attach to their jobs,
whether at the workplace or in the public eye, and
• focusing on the hidden drama in which workers are often
3. Feminist perspectives toward work
• Truly influential in their own right
• Arguments:
– Other theories address the manager/managed
– Also key: gender inequality, a key axis of inequality
• Five arguments seem key to most feminist
• Like Marxism, feminism is based on the critique of a social binary
– Not managers/managed, but men/women, viewed as a conflictual relation
– Many variants of feminism, some radical, some less so
– All apply the heretical notion that women are people too
• More formally: five arguments

1. Gender is an arbitrary feature of work --Not biological, and often not

– Lorber and the Marine Corps
– Variations even in the same industry (Salzinger 2003)
2. Gender differences almost always imply inequality
– Occupational sex segregation only partially uprooted, takes an enormous toll
– The “motherhood penalty”
3. Gender is ubiquitous, or omnipresent
– Most workers labor in jobs involving workers of their own gender
Feminism, cont’d
4. Gender is resilient
– Milkman and auto plants in WWII
– Women’s employment fosters importation of
immigrant care workers –essentializes caring for
children, globalizes gender inequality
5. Gender inequality is complex
– Gender intersects with class and race
– The meaning of gender differs for people in
different racial and class groups
4. Institutionalism
• One variant –
– Central theme: organizational environments shape the structure of the
– Powerful pressures exist toward “isomorphism” –firms must conform
to established, legitimate patterns or they pay a price
– Conformity means increased sales, prestige, and confidence on the
part of the public –hence, provides resources
– But the actual benefits of specific innovations (team systems, diversity
management) are often mythical
• Often, a tension arises between what the environment requires and
what internal operations demand (result: “de-coupling”)
• Implication: Firms are often more responsive to reputational
threats than to the concerns of their own workers
Institutionalism cont’d
• A second variant:
– Uncertainty in the environment forces companies to adopt new
organizational structures that may be socially beneficial
– Powell: Markets, hierarchies… and networks
– Especially where environments are turbulent, firms avoid
investing in centralize hierarchies and internal staff
– Instead, they form partnerships and network alliances that are
more flexible (rather than rigid)
– Permanent employment goes by the boards...
– But freelancing, independent contracting, the free agent
economy become possible
– “Free agents” grow as a proportion of the labor force
– True?
Taking stock
• Marxism, interactionism, feminism,
– Each has limitations
– Scholars seek to combine insights, the better to
understand how the structure of work is evolving
over time
• Next topic (ch. 2): how management controls labor)
• Then (ch. 3): the question of workplace flexibility
• First: Historical background –and the
importance of scientific management