November 07, 2011

The Sociology of Work

image By Matt Vidal

Kings College, London

Since his recent untimely death, Apple co-founder and design guru Steve Jobs has been exalted to the level of a cult hero by an outpouring of fans on social media and many commentators in the traditional news media. Under Jobs’ direction, Apple launched a series of hi-tech products that were not only trailblazing but also retained both a coolness factor and a user-friendliness that rival companies have yet to even mimic, let alone surpass.

The narrative of Jobs-the-entrepreneur helps reaffirm the dominant American narrative of individualism and meritocracy. This is a thoroughly free market narrative: Clever, hard-working individuals drive innovation in the economy, and in the end everyone wins.

A sociological perspective would question this story. Sure, Jobs was a genius at designing consumer electronics. But didn’t he build on the ideas of others, catching a technological wage at just the right moment? Weren’t iPhones and iPads the result of billions of dollars in investment and the collective labor of Apple’s research and development teams?

The individualism-and-free markets narrative is seemingly supported by the discipline of economics, and the latter tends to dominate discussions about work and occupations, in part because it aligns so neatly with the dominant narrative. But even ostensibly basic issues about how the economy works are highly contested, and many scholars analyze the economy from outside of mainstream economics. There are a variety of sociological perspectives on the economy. A central area has historically been the sociology of work, occupations and organizations. (For those who want to learn more, check out a new blog for the Organizations, Occupations and Work section of the American Sociological Association.)

The sociology of work goes back to the classic sociological theorists: Marx, Durkheim and Weber. Each considered the analysis of modern work to be central to the incipient field of sociology.

Sociology is a fundamentally historical discipline. Whereas economists has theorized an ahistorical market society – indeed, a so-called pure and free market that only exists in their imaginations and textbooks – each of the classical sociological theorists began with the historical transition from traditional feudal society to the emerging market-based society. In particular, they were all concerned in one way or another with the development of the modern labor market, where individuals buy and sell their labor for a wage in an open market to an employer.

Marx was the first social theorist to seriously examine the conditions of work in the new factories that were popping up all over England during the industrial revolution, examining how the transition from independent craft work to working inside a factory for a boss resulted in deskilling and alienation. The Marxist tradition continues to look at power dynamics in the workplace and different forms of managerial control of labor.

Durkheim was more concerned with how societies achieved stability based on traditions, customs and norms. He saw that traditional society, composed of peasants and lords, had a very homogeneous set of customs and norms based around feudal obligations and familial relationships. As these traditional relationships and related norms begin to dissolve during the industrial revolution, Durkheim wondered what would be the basis for social stability under the new market norms of individualism and competition. He thought that various industrial and occupational associations could provide such a basis. We see such associations today across the economy: medical associations, lawyers associations, community associations and the like. Durkheimian sociologists thus study the development of professions (and their associations) among other things.

Weber also focused on the transition from traditional to modern society, but his emphasis was on the development of new forms of rationality and how they provided a basis for new types of authority as vested in modern bureaucratic organizations. Specifically, he distinguished forms of authority in traditional society from an emerging form of rational-legal authority.

Traditional authority rested in holders of powerful positions (e.g. priests or lords) whereas charismatic authority was based on loyalty to an individual person because of their personality or charm. In contrast, rational-legal authority derives from one’s position within a bureaucratic organization: someone holds a legally established office (a boss or a public servant). Rationalized bureaucracies are managed by rules (rather than arbitrary power of a traditional leader) and individuals hold offices because of their qualifications (rather than kinship or class). Weberian scholars thus focus on forms of bureaucracy and forms of authority. For an interesting Weberian analysis of Steve Jobs and Apple, see a recent blog post by Kieran Healy.

The research traditions built on the analyses and insights of the classical scholars have been incredibly vibrant and productive. Much of this research has been qualitative in nature, and it has generated a richly nuanced understanding of workplace dynamics and labor market institutions, in stark contrast to economics which for decades considered the business firm to be nothing more than an equation relating inputs to outputs. Today it is still rare for an economist to actually look inside organizations to understand the dynamics of the social relations inside them. Sociologists have examined things like racial and gender discrimination in the workplace, the role of different cultural understandings in shaping managerial strategy, and the role of power relations in shaping the organization of work. One example would be And Donald Tomaskovic-Devey’s classic Gender and Racial Inequality at Work.

Much sociology of work is comparative, looking at differences in employment relations and organizational forms across societies (as well as over time). Among other things, sociologists look at why Americans work on average more than 150 hours per year more than Germans. To answer this question, sociologists would examine how institutions in the economy vary across countries, such as the role of unions and the government, without assuming that economies with less union or state intervention are “freer” or even more efficient. More generally, the qualitative sociology of work and organizations has consistently demonstrated that culture, social and political institutions, and power relations remain fundamental to a full understanding of work life, organizational behavior and, indeed, the functioning of the market.

Returning to Jobs, the sociological lesson would be that despite the dominant narrative of individual entrepreneurship, much of what Jobs has been given credit for is actually the result of vast amounts of collective labor, often of teams (not individuals) working in massive R&D labs (not garages), shielded from market competition. For more on Jobs and Apple, see my post “The Mythology of Steve Jobs.”


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Stumbled upon this article whilst looking for a general overview of "Sociology and Work" - Interesting breakdown of arguably the three founding fathers; Will certainly help with my impending exam :)

Well put. The sociology of occupation, organization and work aids in understanding how these seemingly individual cases are indeed insightful into the social structures that in fact facilitate their credibility and 'success.'

See my papers on Durkheimian theory at:

Great post, it's good to know that the narrative of individual entrepreneurship doesn't have everyone hoodwinked. If you're interested, I've recently written an article about how self-checkout machines are transforming managerial practises in the workplace which can be found at:

Thank you, “The Mythology of Steve Jobs.” ==> link is not working

thank you for this blog.

Thanks for this great work

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