Guide to the vibrant and



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are women’s studies and gender programs all over

the world. In future, one of the challenges of

women’s and gender studies will be how to overcome

ethnocentrism and develop ways to overcome

the tension between the universal goals of

feminism – equal respect for women and men –

and the particularism of women’s situation in

different contexts. B IRTE SIIM

work and employment

Paid and unpaid work of many varieties constitute

defining experiences of individual identity, group

life, and, indeed, societies as a whole. Work refers

to a set of tasks that people carry out, often for a

wage, to produce goods or services for others. This

simple definition, however, merely scratches the

surface of the myriad forms of work and employment

relationships under contemporary global

capitalism. What makes both work and employment

important is that they have direct implications

for nearly all subfields of sociological

inquiry. From poverty to our access to health

care systems, consumption, gender and race relations,

families, social psychology, social movements

– all are conditioned by the ways in which

societies organize their systems and relations of

work. At an individual and group level, particular

types of jobs or careers shape our lifechances.

They shape the rewards that are available to us,

our experience of dignity, and the trust and loyalty

we feel towards corporate and political

leaders.


The study of work in industrial societies has

been central to the discipline of sociology since

its inception. Karl Marx, whose influence on sociology

has been considerable, posited that the

terms and social relations of labor are the point

of departure for studying societies, historically

and contemporarily. For Marx, the most essential

fact about the human species is our capacity to

engage self-consciously in the act of collective

labor. Our species being – that which makes us

distinctly human – is most fully realized when we

collectively plan what we make, how we make it,

how we work together with others, and how we

distribute the products of our efforts. Under the

capitalist mode of production, humans experience

a deep-rooted alienation from that essence. We sell

our capacity to labor to others, are subjected to

systems of control that diminish our autonomy,

and experience spiraling exploitation as capitalists

engage in a never-ending search to cheapen

the costs of production and to reduce human

input to little more than a mechanical factor of

production. The material and psychic injuries of

capitalist social relations, according to Marx,

would create irreparable class conflict, leading

workers collectively to overturn capitalism as a

mode of production. Marx’s critique of capitalism

remains one of the most influential perspectives

in contemporary sociology.

Max Weber infused Marx’s critique of capitalism

with a theory of a specific process that he

considered to be inevitable in modern western

society: rationalization and its manifestation in a

particular political/economic mode of organization,

bureaucracy. Weber’s ideal-type bureaucracy

embodies many features we find in contemporary

capitalist workplaces, such as division of labor,

hierarchy, the proliferation of formal rules and

regulations (and clearly specified rewards and

punishments for adhering to or disobeying

them), and the centralization of authority and

power. In Weber’s view, rationalization and bureaucratization

provide capitalists ideal tools of

control and power over the workers they employ

in industrial factories.

Whereas Marx believed that marginalized and

deskilled workers would develop a critical class

consciousness and lead a political revolution to

overturn industrial capitalist society (leading to a

classless society in the form of socialism, then

Communism), Weber pessimistically argued that

rationalization, the consolidation of elites, and

the silencing of the political voice of those

work and employment work and employment

676

excluded from the ranks of the powerful, would



simply become more intransigent, even under socialist

society. A colleague of Weber, Robert

Michels, coined the term the iron law of oligarchy

to describe this trajectory.

The insights of these classical theorists remain

central to the study of work and employment in

the economy of any advanced industrial society.

Core concepts raised in their scholarly work continue

to thread throughout the literature on work

and labor. As industrial capitalism has been transformed

into postindustrial and global capitalism,

however, it has become apparent that other dimensions

of work, aside from exploitation and

alienation, are salient to working people. These

dimensions have complicated and undermined

Marx’s prediction of a working-class revolution

based on the premise of naked and intractable

exploitation.

When we work, for example, we often derive

intangible but important rewards. How we feel

about our jobs can depend on nonmaterial factors

such as the feeling of inherent pleasure or gratification

that we derive from our work, or the worth

we assign to our laboring activities. One example

illustrates that how people feel about their jobs

does not always follow from extrinsic factors such

as wages or prestige. Child-care workers are

amongst the lowest-paid workers in the United

States and the occupation is not highly attractive,

judging by a perpetual shortage of workers and

the rates of high turnover in the field. Yet these

workers often feel their work is valuable and

derive intrinsic satisfaction from the occupation

because they are nurturing and teaching small

children, tasks that arguably constitute the very

basis of social order.

Our collective work relationships and sense of

membership in a community often counterbalance

feelings of exploitation. Many people regard

their job as their most important source of sociability

and humanity. We receive self-validation as

well as validation of our moral values in the

course of working with others. We take pride in

jobs well done. Work is often a place where a

variety of personal needs are met. Co-workers celebrate

birthdays, holidays, births, and weddings

together; people take their work relationships

beyond the factory or office door, into public

spaces such as bars, political organizations, or

places of recreation. Generations of family

members have followed each other into the same

factory, giving rise to cultural and oral traditions

that become central to the definition of family

itself. More than simply deriving job satisfaction,

then, what we do in the workplace with others

constitutes our very identity.

Other collective activities emanate from the

workplace which are constitutive of the self and

provide opportunities for personal growth and

fulfilling group interaction. Workers form mutually

supportive “cultures of solidarity” in response

to collective perceptions of injustice on the part of

their employers. Randy Hodson, in Working with

Dignity (2001), points out that workplaces are sites

in which we enact norms and procedures of organizational

citizenship. As organizational citizens we

engage in constructive actions and relationships

that improve our place of work in ways that

exceed what we are required to do by managers

and employers. Participating in unions and in

labor movements is both a way to advance material

and political interests and an important communal

nexus in a world in which collectively

oriented public life appears to be in decline. For

these reasons, workplaces in contemporary capitalist

society are terrains of ambiguity, of unequal

power and subordination, on the one hand, and

experiential gratification and positive meaning

on the other.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century,

work and employment form a complex kaleidoscope

of experience. Paid work takes place where

we most expect to find it: in factories, offices, and

fields. But sociologists and other social scientists

also have found that people work for pay on the

streets, in their homes, in the skies, and in the

bowels of the earth. Institutional and industrial

context matters immeasurably. For example,

knowing the job tasks any individual carries out

does not reveal the full story about that individual’s

job, work experience, or social status.

Exactly the same type of work can vary based on

the sectoral setting; a person who assembles

mother boards for computers can do so in the

employ of a major core corporation, earn a living

wage, enjoy job security, and receive benefits,

while a different person who assembles these

boards in precisely the same way might do so

working as a temporary laborer for a small peripheral

firm, earning low wages, and lacking job security

or benefits. The first might be labeled a

manufacturing worker while the second might

be considered a mere assembler.

Revolutionary technological innovations have

emerged in the era of globalization and the transnational

corporation, innovations that facilitate

the movement of information, knowledge, raw

materials, finished products, and capital. Thus, it

has become increasingly common that workers

work and employment work and employment

677

serve and produce for customers who are located



literally on the other side of the planet, embedded

in production systems and relations of inequality

that have been configured at similar global

remove.


Since Marx and Weber made their observations

of early industrial capitalism, sociologists have

introduced many new concepts and identified

new forms of employment relationships. They

have broadened the scope of their research to

adjust to the fact that the modal form of economic

organization under capitalism is far more varied

and global than was the period of early capitalism

on which Marx based his theory. They also have

acknowledged that work cannot be viewed as onedimensional,

but must be viewed as multi-faceted,

with exploitation and disenfranchisement often

co-existing with pleasure, gratification, and community.

Four major approaches to creating work

systems have developed in industrial and postindustrial

capitalist societies. An understanding of

each is important, for each one holds differential

implications for material well-being, power, and

subjectivities. We find evidence of all these approaches

today, depending on the type of work

and the sector of employment and industry we

study. With the globalization of production, corporations

have imported these approaches to recently

industrializing societies as well. The first

major approach is scientific management, also

referred to as Taylorism after Frederick Taylor, an

engineer who lived in the United States at the

turn of the twentieth century. Because he viewed

autonomous workers’ initiative, know-how, and

social relationships as obstacles to productivity

and efficiency, Taylor formulated a set of principles

by which managers could rationalize and

de-skill the labor process, undermining worker

autonomy and control.

Scientific management relies on the use of time

and motion studies, in which efficiency experts

analyze and measure workers’ movements and

their tasks. They determine ways in which those

tasks can be broken down into simple parts to

increase efficiency, mechanisms by which the

knowledge required for these tasks could be removed

from workers and into the files and records

of engineers and managers. Such deskilling and

control can be exerted personally, through the

efforts of a supervisor, or impersonally, through

technology such as assembly lines that simplify

tasks and regulate their pace or through computers

that measure every key stroke and generate

reports on the quality of workers’ efforts. This

system of control – which isolates workers and

reduces their skill, autonomy, and dignity – historically

has led many workers to form trade

unions to organize collectively against employer

domination. Scientific management, as an organizing

principle, persists today in many work settings,

primarily where costs of worker training are

minimal, and employers care little about turnover

and actively discourage worker attachment to the

firm.

A second approach to the organization of work



and employment is the human relations model

which was influential in the United States from

the late 1930s to the 1960s. Tracing its origins to

American industrial psychologists Elton Mayo,

Fritz Roethlisberger, and William Dickson, the

human relations paradigm focuses on maximizing

the creativity and loyalty of workers rather

than marginalizing them, as the scientific managerial

model would call for. These researchers,

ironically much in the same way as Marx, theorized

that what was most important to humans

was their social relationships. Their goal, however,

was to coopt those relationships. They also posited

that workers respond positively to managerial initiatives

to cultivate and acknowledge their employees’

value.


Human relations theorists would design

methods for taking advantage of workers’ desire

to be social, methods that would create workers as

loyal and committed organizational participants

who would view their interests as being in synch

with those of managers. Such methods include

soliciting workers’ input, giving them opportunities

to determine how to carry out their tasks,

and rewarding them for their accomplishments,

although human relations theorists would not, in

fact, advocate that management yield structural

power to workers. The human relations approach

has appeared in different forms over the last century

and is extremely pervasive in the world of

management today.

A third orientation to organizing work is bureaucratic.

In a bureaucratic control system, as

outlined by Weber, power is embodied in the organization

itself, rather than directly in supervisors

or managers. As Michel Foucault has

argued, power in modern bureaucratic institutions

is ever-present and pervasive, yet invisible

as it is embedded in rules, ranking schemes,

and organizational structure. Bureaucratic control

systems are built on hierarchy, clearly

specified avenues of vertical advancement that

serve to motivate workers and elicit their consent,

and on centralized and impersonal power. Nearly

all work organizations are bureaucratically

work and employment work and employment

678

organized to some degree but bureaucratic control



is most fully developed in public-sector institutions

and in the employment systems of large,

monopolistic corporations. In a bureaucratic

system, those working at the lowest levels are

most likely to be disempowered and their work

rationalized. Often, these workers lack access to

formal ladders of mobility into the higher reaches

of the bureaucracy. On the other hand, workers in

the middle ranges of the work organization historically

have had access to internal labor

markets, characterized by employment stability

and in which career ladders are well defined and

workers are expected to move up them continuously.

This type of control system has prevailed

where employers wish to encourage the attachment

of their workers to the firm and they do so

by offering implicit guarantees in the form of

upward mobility and job security.

Finally, a fourth approach to organizing work in

the contemporary economy is decentered control.

Researchers have identified this approach with

many labels, including coercive autonomy, unobtrusive

management, cultural control, and concertive

control. The key element of this system is that

power and control are located throughout the

organization, in many different sites, and in the

hands of groups other than managers. It is subtle

to the participants of the work organization and,

indeed, successful decentered control systems

depend on workers who regulate themselves and

their co-workers. As is clear, decentered control is

similar to the impersonal, invisible control made

possible by bureaucratic control systems.

The main organizational mechanisms which

make a system of decentered control possible include

worker participation schemes, team-based

production methods, cultural manifestos, and organizational

decentralization. Since the mid-

1980s, more employers have relied on building

positive corporate cultures, designing flexible

work systems (flexible specialization) that rely on

greater employee participation and self-management,

and shifting responsibility down into the

hands of employees, in order to create more profitable

work processes. Much in the spirit of the

human relations tradition, the goal behind the

adoption of these new work systems is to align

workers’ interests with the firm, to capitalize on

worker expertise and knowledge, and to increase

workers’ awareness that the firm’s success

depends on their own efforts.

In a simultaneous counter-trend that marks a

clear and deleterious departure from corporate

practices of the mid twentieth century, however,

corporate managers increasingly are unwilling to

offer security and prosperity in return for greater

worker involvement. The late twentieth and early

twenty-first centuries have been marked by unpredictability

and insecurity for working people

across the occupational spectrum. Firms have

near-complete latitude to close down operations

and move them overseas. There, they can find an

abundant supply of cheap labor, minimal environmental

and labor regulation, and generous subsidies

from governments eager to attract United

States and other first-world operations to their

own countries. Top managers, responding to

global competition and to pressure from stock

market investors to improve their bottom lines,

eliminate corporate divisions and lay off workers

with little notice. To an increasing degree, firms

outsource their operations, externalizing specific

functions to other business enterprises around

the world. Companies that, during the era of monopoly

capitalism, offered their workforces lifelong

employment, have reneged on that promise,

leading to huge numbers of layoffs and the erosion

of the stable employment contract.

Specifically, internal labor markets of large,

bureaucratic corporations have eroded since the

mid-1980s, as corporations have downsized and

restructured in their pursuit of greater profits

and becoming more globally competitive. Even

workers who were believed to be immune to layoffs

and job insecurity – white-collar professionals

and managers – have been subjected to job loss,

longer terms of unemployment between jobs,

downward mobility, and underemployment. The

studies of American sociologist Rosabeth Moss

Kanter, published in Men and Women of the Corporation

(1977), and employment relations specialist

Paul Osterma, in Securing Prosperity (1999), show

the two extremes of managerial and professional

employment over the last thirty years. Workers

in most advanced industrialized societies have

encountered these contradictory trends. For these

reasons, social theorist Richard Sennett and others

worry that the erosion of the secure employment

relationship will lead to a broader erosion

of commitment to and trust in society itself.

Employment relationships are related to yet

distinct from work itself, and the nature of the

employment relationship has significant ramifications

for individual and group well-being. Anyone

can carry out the exact same work in a variety

of sectors and under a variety of employment

conditions. The majority of workers hold jobs in

the formal sector of the economy. Workers are

engaged in formal employment relationships

work and employment work and employment

679

when they receive a wage or salary from an employer



in a stable economic organization and

when their employment relationship is regulated

by the state. Sometimes they have secure, ongoing

employment contracts. Both full-time and parttime

employment, and self employment, characterize

work in the formal economy.

Workers also participate in the formal sector,

yet in sporadic employment relationships, when

they are paid only upon completion of a project or

a batch of products produced in a home, or are

hired by a temporary staffing agency to go into a

firm and fulfill a temporary production need. One

of the most notable trends cross-nationally at the

end of the twentieth century was the growth of

the contingent work force, a different temporal

approach to hiring workers. The contingent

category includes workers across the occupational

spectrum who are employed on a short-term, unpredictable

basis, such as temporary, contract,

and seasonal workers. Its expansion has been

fueled by employers’ drive to remain competitive

and profitable. The theory behind the use of contingent

workers, especially temporary workers, is

that employers only need to have workers on their

payroll when they need them, and can release

them when they do not.

Fine-tuning the size of corporate workforces in

this flexible way provides some economies, such

as minimizing payroll expenses and administrative

costs as human resource management of temporaries

is transferred to temporary help agencies.

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