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Theoretical Perspectives

Towards a Contemporary Theorization of Work

In industrial capitalism, a narrow view of work as economic activity took hold, with other forms of work (e.g. domestic or family-related work) being further marginalized and almost becoming “invisible work.” Credits: (left picture) Creative Commons; (right picture) ILO Asia-Pacific. Some rights reserved.

November 05, 2021

In sociological terms, work may be understood as a purposeful human activity using physical strength and psycho-physical skills. The fact that other criteria (effort, utility, tools, wages, etc.) are often additionally invoked as primary aspects indicates that the category as such is far from unequivocally defined. Even though work is performed by individuals, it is at least indirectly always integrated into and shaped by constantly changing social contexts that are based on a division of labor (cooperation, organizations, etc.).

What is work?

Like almost no other concept, the notion of work has been subject to historical change both scientifically and particularly regarding social practice. More recently, there have been fierce controversies over the question of what work actually is or is supposed to be. What follows are a few reflections on how to define work more clearly.

One long-standing question is whether work is above all a “burden,” or whether it can also provide “pleasure” - as a result of the sense of achievement it gives people - and offer important opportunities for positive self-development. There are two distinct perspectives hidden in this differentiation. One sees work as the basis of human existence constituting an indispensable opportunity for experience, the absence of which implies a veritable denial of essential human needs or even human dignity. Concrete historical manifestations of work, however, have been (and continue to be) associated with burdens and hazards for many groups in society, leading to ever new forms of the disutility of effort. This is expressed, for example, in the difference between the Latin words “labor” (travail, or hardship) and “opus” (creation; what has been created), which is also mirrored in the difference between the English words “labor” (including denoting the act of giving birth) and “work,” and which is furthermore captured in the German difference between “Arbeit” and the less frequently used German word “Werk.”

Fairly widely known, of course, is the distinction made by Karl Marx (but also by Adam Smith, and even by Aristotle, the latter of whom used the terms oikonomia and chrematistics) between two aspects (“the double character of work/labor”): the creation of practical “use values” through “concrete” productive labor, on the one hand, and the generation of economic “exchange values” through “abstract” labor on the other. The development of this contrast, the argument runs, is systematically facilitated under capitalism, thus leading to an increasingly significant social contradiction.

Although the assumption that the activity of working people in advanced societies is predominantly geared towards earning money (“gainful work”) went unquestioned for a long time, today, a more broadly conceived concept of work reflects the increasing recognition that work has assumed a great diversity of forms historically, differing not only with regard to its substance, but also its social perception. This also suggests that the specific form work takes has always been and still is subject to constant change. Alongside the income-oriented forms (for the majority varying types of dependent wage labor, and for a small number of people, a substantial number of forms of self-employment), there is a remarkable diversity of other manifestations of work: “volunteer work” or “civic engagement” (usually without the aim of earning money); “mandate-based” or “political work”; “domestic work” (shopping, cooking, cleaning etc.); “family-related and care work” (child-rearing, nursing, care of old persons etc.); “self-sustaining work” and “subsistence work” (the direct production of goods, including for self-sufficiency); “forced labor” (performed by convicts, conscripts, slaves etc.).

Similarly, for a long time, work was regarded quite straightforwardly as a primarily material “productive” activity, which turned out to be a rather inaccurate description of reality in many ways, however. It was gradually conceded that even “unproductive” work is very important (e.g., administrative work, knowledge-based work) and that “services,” which were poorly understood for a long time, are increasingly gaining in importance (e.g., directly/indirectly personal, informational, financial, and technical services).

And, equally significantly, it was reluctantly acknowledged that there are more than just a few variants of work that are explicitly “destructive” (war-related work, violent criminal activity, damaging modification and/or the outright destruction of the natural world). The latter illustrates that work always denotes a constant modification of forms, creating a new form (e.g., a chair) while destroying an existing form (e.g., a tree).

Furthermore, the assessment of the much-invoked “utility” of work can differ quite strongly, depending on the respective vantage point: what may appear advantageous in some contexts can turn into substantial disadvantage in others; what may be useful in the short term can cause large-scale damage in the long term.

What is also being raised in a new form today is the question of whether work is an inherently human feature and thus an evolutionarily exclusive core characteristic of humans as “species-beings” or Gattungswesen (Marx), or whether other living creatures perform work as well. More recent ethnological findings show that work-like activities, the random isolated use of rudimentary tools, and even certain forms of production are not exclusive to placentals, leave alone to humans. Marx in fact already conceded that animals perform work and even use tools. He asserted that human labor, then, is characterized by the production of tools, but, above all, by a controlling consciousness, which is what distinguishes even the “worst architect” from the “best bee,” to reference an image Marx uses. Today, we would have to add the (sometimes rather unsettling) question: To what extent might complex machines and processes actually perform work as well (e.g., flexible automation, robots, artificial intelligence)?

Historically changing conceptions of work

Such conceptual tensions show that the highly diverging notions of work throughout its historical process of change represent an inherently sociological concern. To illustrate this, let us take a brief look back at history:

  • In Greco-Roman antiquity, the fabrication (today, conceived of as “labor”), through physical activity, of goods for everyday practical life was primarily the task of unfree slaves and women, while the activity reserved for the full (male) citizen was political or philosophical intellectual work and, to some extent, military service. The craft (techne) of artisans represented an intermediate form.
  • In the early Christian feudalism of the European Middle Ages, the common notion of work was that of a physical, for the most part agricultural, activity performed mainly by unfree individuals. Besides this, there were the “free” activities pursued by elites (nobility, clergy). What is significant is the continuously negative construal of physical tasks as divine punishment for the Fall of Man in Paradise. What was highly valued, by contrast, was actual religious practice (“worship service”). This understanding of work gradually moved towards a more positive view of practical physical activities, which subsequently came to be regarded as reflective of divinity and even as God’s will. In the monasteries, a work culture emerged in which productive work, although still not equal to religious service, was explicitly appreciated (ora et labora).
  • Against the backdrop of the foundation of towns, the combination of an expanding crafts culture, cross-regional trade and technological advances increasingly facilitated not only a high valuation of productive work, but also an orientation towards earning income that was explicitly de-tabooed for good. Luther and the Reformation assigned gainful work the status of an almost divine ordinance (a “calling” or Berufung). Max Weber emphasizes this in his Protestant-ethic thesis by identifying the “restless effort” to search for signs of divine chosenness, inherent in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, through the aspiration of professional success as the crucial foundation of Western (“Occidental”) capitalism. The Renaissance and Enlightenment simultaneously emphasized the importance of work as the foundation of individual self-fulfillment, if not as a natural human right.
  • In industrial capitalism, an even narrower view of work as economic activity took hold, with other forms of work (e.g. domestic or family-related work) being further marginalized culturally and almost becoming “invisible work.” Formally recognized forms of work were considered to be specialized activities on the basis of an increasingly focused acquisition of relevant skills. The majority of the population (including, as is still the case in some regions, children) were inescapably dependent on obtaining the now required monetary means of subsistence through the paid sale of their labor capacity on specialized markets (“labor market”). Individuals who were denied or who lost this opportunity were regarded as the “unemployed,” people “without work” (which they were not).

The actual history of work unfolds in parallel to the evolving social concept of work, but the two are not the same. The dominant viewpoint in each case always captures only a snapshot of the range of relevant work activities. Many socially important tasks, by contrast, are systematically ignored and thereby devalued. Added to this, the actual history of work is also always a history of “tools” and thus a history of the interaction of humans as “natural beings” with their natural living conditions and their “inner nature” (Marx). In this sense, the history of work is, on the one hand, a history of astonishing developments of human abilities and skills, technological possibilities, and the use of the potential of nature. At the same time, it is also a history of the destruction of natural and cultural values, the exploitation and alienation of humans, and ceaselessly recurring forms of the disutility of effort. This remains valid to this day, and increasingly so the greater the distance is from the centers of modern capitalism. And this includes not least the history of those people who are systematically excluded - both locally and on a global scale - from work and thus from employment opportunities that would allow them to sustain themselves. Since the novel kinds of mass immiseration that emerged during the early years of industrialization have been mitigated through the establishment of (limited) social security systems in some regions, the hazards associated with the deregulation of social security systems and employment relations are once again increasing everywhere. To the occasional surprise of many, there is frequent evidence of the fact that work-related illnesses manifest not only physically, but also as severe psychological conditions even in the welfare states of the Global North.

Sociological theorization of work

Sociology has dedicated itself to the subject of work time and again (albeit often only rather selectively). In the process, sociologists have drawn on concepts from different disciplines. But it was only after the turn of the twentieth century that sociological theory formation became more broad-based. The following examples illustrate this:

  • Georg F.W. Hegel, with his idealistic subject philosophy, is the most influential early modern theoretician of work. He considers work to constitute an intellectually guided “externalization” (and, at the same time, self-“alienation”) of human beings, as the basis for the latter to see themselves reflected in their products and attain “self-consciousness” through the subjective “appropriation” of these products.
  • Karl Marx proceeds from Hegel, yet conceives of work not as “purely intellectual,” but also as “sensuous human activity” and as predominantly economic productive activity. He develops his initially generally positive view on work and expands it into a comprehensive analysis and critique of labor under capitalist social relations, referring to the common form of work under capitalism as alienated “wage labor.” According to Marx, people can only exist if they sell their “labor power,” i.e., their capacity to work, as a commodity. Work that is integrated into controlled and monitored processes in a workplace context constitutes the basis of economic exploitation for the generation of “surplus value” and economic “profit.” The possibility of a self-determined human experience of work, plausible from an anthropological perspective, is thus systematically distorted and ultimately undermined.
  • In one of his early writings, Émile Durkheim develops a model of social differentiation. To him, the “division of labor” implies a categorization of society’s capacities into specialized professional functions. Historically, he sees a transition from a poorly developed “mechanical” division of functions to similar social units (a “segmental division of labor,” with a “solidarity” ensured through collective values) towards a differentiated “organic” distribution of functions to increasingly dissimilar units (with a novel kind of social cohesion arising from functional dependencies).
  • Hannah Arendt distinguishes between fundamental forms of human activity. Proceeding from the Aristotelian terms poiesis (make, produce) and praxis (activity of free people or the soul) she develops three categories: “labor” as the activity that serves the continued material existence of the species, implying not freedom, but the absolute imperative to sustain life. This is contrasted with “work,” the physical production of durable things for everyday life, complete with the consequential emergence of an all-encompassing “artificial” world that humans experience as alien to them. “Action,” as the third category, Arendt argues, pertains - in analogy to the Aristotelian praxis - to the formation of a social plurality through understanding. The individual can survive without performing “labor” or “work,” but, as a social being, is existentially dependent on political “action.”
  • Jürgen Habermas contrasts two types of human activity: “instrumental” activity in the form of labor, geared towards functional material production, and “communicative action,” the production of sociality. In historical terms, he considers socially indispensable understanding-oriented action in the social “lifeworld” to be threatened by the instrumental action executed mainly within efficiency-oriented “systems” (economy, society).

Even though “work” (in the broader sense) characterizes a substantial proportion of human activity, human existence cannot be reduced to it. Human beings are not (as some still seem to believe) predominantly acquisitive, work-obsessed creatures in a “work-centered society.” Such a view fails to capture the distinctiveness of many other important human activities. Categories such as “rest,” “recreation,” or “sports” all seek to incorporate this “other” - sometimes encountering the same difficulties when trying to formulate accurate definitions (such as regarding work aspects of sports and play). The task at hand with respect to the concept of work is overcoming a binary view based on a static truth claim. What would be far more relevant is a relational understanding based on flexible parameters in order to identify the particular ways in which “work” features in distinct activities. Only in that way can the above highlighted diversity of modern forms and notions of work be fully understood.


G. Günter Voss, Professor Emeritus, Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany <info@ggv-webinfo.de>

December 2021

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