views updated May 11 2018


Work as a unitary experience, set off in time and place from the rest of life, is a concept bound in the culture of wage labor (see especially Thompson, 1967, on disciplined promptness and time regulation accompanying factory work). Only when effortphysical and mentalis turned into a commodity sold to an employer who then monitors and controls it can we discern an abstract concept of "work." Other concepts stand outside of that context, such as "a work" being a finished product of a craftsperson or artist, or work divided into concrete activities of particular peoplewarrior, farmer, smith, and so on. The situation where productive activities blend into the overall flow of daily life especially challenges our commonsense notion of work. In the recent past of the Dobe Ju/'hoansi of Botswana, women, men, and children sporadically gathered plant foods and hunted small animals, interspersed with visiting, eating, and relaxing. Hunting large animals, performed by men, stood out from the rest of life because meat was desired and was the basis for much social interchange. But although the ethnographer Richard Lee could designate specific activities as "work" in his own cultural terms, and count the hours and minutes spent in them (surprisingly little time was needed to produce quite satisfactory subsistence), no clear concept equivalent to abstract work emerged from the Ju/'hoansi themselves.

Many cultures do distinguish activities requiring disciplined effort and focus to produce a concrete result, however. Among farmer-fishermen living by Lake Titicaca, Benjamin Orlove found that the general word work (Spanish trabajo or Quechua llank'ay ) was used only in conjunction with a specific activity. This demanded concentrated effort, often physical but sometimes mental, and produced a tangible product, so that fishing was "work" while repairing nets while sitting, chatting, and relaxing was not. The richest study of work embedded in culture is Bronislaw Malinowski's ethnographic classic, Coral Gardens and Their Magic (1935), which focuses on the rituals of birth, growth, and death and the magical control over chance that envelop South Pacific farming and fishing. Although there is a long tradition of considering labor to be the defining human characteristic (e.g., Karl Marx, discussed below), when looking across cultures we see instead a pattern of alternation between disciplined routine and vibrant, expressive release. Both qualities, then, must be part of our understanding of humanity.

Another methodological concern in studying work is that upper-class intellectuals have produced most of the texts. There are two serious problems with writing a history of the idea of work based solely on these authors, who may or may not have personally experienced or carefully observed nonintellectual labor. First, they represent the interests, perspectives, and biases of their social origin and position. Second, they often take the articulate words of intellectuals to be the sole or characteristic voice of their era or place. But these authoritative sources do not necessarily represent the full range of ideas within a complex and unequal society, even if they do influence the notions of others. Thus in a society dominated by men, we often hear little about women's ideas of work; in a society of landowners, artisans, and slaves, we often hear little from the latter two groups. How are we to rectify this? We should locate and listen to working people's voices as directly as possible, through novels and diaries (e.g., Levi), or at least such voices mediated by careful and sympathetic observers (e.g., Mintz; Nash). And we should be imaginative in uncovering evidence about the conceptual lives of nonintellectuals, paying attention to folklore, jokes, inscriptions on products, and so on.

Pre-Capitalist Civilizations: The Incas, India,
and Classical Greece and Rome

Getting beyond the articulate voices of intellectuals is especially a problem for understanding civilizations before the era of widespread printing and literacy. However, cross-cultural comparison allows us to highlight similarities and differences. This article compares concepts of work from three widely separated world regions: the Inca empire of the Andes before the Spanish conquest, the Indian subcontinent (South Asia) before British colonialism, and the Greek and Roman world before the Christian era. In the Andes, archaeological evidence from the epoch before the Incas shows that large public works (walls, temples, canals) were constructed by multiple communities each working on its own small, essentially equivalent segment. There was no division of labor by task, but rather by community. Similarly, in the Inca period, people paid the principal taxes to the state not in the form of money or goods but as collective labor service, as communities or segments of communities (e.g., all young men of an area would serve as imperial message runners). Conceptually, this labor service took the form of reciprocity between unequal social ranks, from village to regional lord to emperor; for example, harvesting the lands of the emperor and his official religion, the cult of the sun, was reciprocated by extensive gifts of cloth and corn beer. In the late empire, however, what had started as a system of independent agricultural communities giving tribute to the state was radically transformed with new forms of labor that were disarticulated from the local community, and turned into permanent labor forces at the service of the Inca aristocracy.

In South Asia, we see a similar pattern of unequal reciprocity. Under the jajmani system, local caste groups owed a variety of work services and products to each other, from tanning to weaving to conducting rituals. Indeed, it is plausibly speculated that castes originated as hereditary occupations. At the level of ideas, work was not thought of as a unitary subject performed by a free (if socially grounded) individual; instead, group productive roles existed, marked by highly unequal but also reciprocal qualities of ritual purity, such as the work of tannersconceived as pollutingwhich inter-locked with the putatively pure work of Brahmin priests. Clearly, this was an ideology that explains and endorses inequality, though it also allowed space for change (as local castes maneuvered for changed work roles with improved ritual rank) and resistance (as groups dropped out of the system by conversion to egalitarian religions like Buddhism or Islam).

We notice a pattern in these precapitalist class societies in which the idea of work was differentiated into concrete products or tasks associated with specific collective groups, in turn synthesized into a functioning economy through unequal exchanges, mystified as mutual and reciprocal in nature. Though group membership was envisioned in various ways, cultural, linguistic, religious, and so forth, it was often the case that groups consisted of or were identified with a specific kind of work, and that such work carried denigrating or exalting qualities.

With this in mind, we can better situate Greek and Roman ideas about work, which constitute in part the roots of the Western intellectual tradition. The early Greek oral traditions of Homer and Hesiod idealize the work of the farmer, as do early Roman stories about Cincinnatus, the patriotic farmer-general. These "farmers," however, were owners of large estates and masters of extensive households in which women, slaves, and other subordinates labored, so these ideals highlight not hard work in general but the hands-on management of rural production. By contrast, classical Greek thought turned against work, especially for others (self-sufficient farming was still esteemed). The ideal in Plato (c. 428348 or 347b.c.e.) and Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) was the man free of necessity, with leisure to engage in politics and contemplation. There was particular disdain for merchants, who made money by trade rather than production from the land, and for artisans, who crafted goods with their hands. The productive and reproductive work of women was largely ignored. The classic Roman authors, such as Cicero (10643 b.c.e.), held roughly the same views. This constitutes a characteristic inversion of the social reality surrounding such authors: they lived in commercially vibrant cities whose wealth came from extensive long-distance trade in farm and handcraft products. The idle rich, with time for political and natural theory, drew income from this economy, while distinguishing themselves by denigrating its key actors: slaves, foreigners, and craftsmen.

Unlike the Inca and South Asian examples cited above, in the Greco-Roman case there seems to be no specific mandate to reciprocity (however unequal) between direct laborers and intellectual elites. Perhaps this difference is the result of the greater division of labor and differentiation of roles in the rich commercial Mediterranean, creating more conceptual separation between urban authors and direct producers. The brief glimpses we have of the idea-worlds of artisans differ significantly from the famous classical writers; numerous inscriptions on pottery express pride and status in well-made handcrafts. Also, there were in Rome collegia, large clubs of craftsmen, with a rich mythological and ceremonial life. Though inarticulate in the sense of bequeathing to us extended texts, these represent alternative views of work from the famous disdain of Plato or Aristotle.

European Ideas from the Late Roman Era
to the Industrial Revolution

Early Christianity turned away from Roman and Greek elite arrogance toward work. Jesus and the Apostles were peasant-craftsmen, and though early Christianity spread among wealthier urban populaces, there was in its communalism little room for denigration of merchants, slaves, and workers. St. Paul, a tentmaker, used the expression, "my fellow workers." St. Augustine (354430) extolled work as a means of moral perfection and saw it as an expression of human genius, thereby glorifying God. This line of thought found practical expression in Christian monasticism, which prized hard, focused workforest clearing, agriculture, manuscript illumination, and so forth. Monks did not value labor in itself, but insofar as it offered dedication and discipline to God, and supported the more important role of prayer. The church viewed non-monastic human work as being in the image of God's work, a generally favorable attitude to labor that would continue in Catholic thought to the present.

The medieval concept of "estates," much like the castes of India, organized society by collective work functions, duties, and rightsnobility, church, and peasantry/laborersbut relegated the direct producers of society to the lowest order. However, towns were different. They had merchants and moneylenders, the antecedents of capitalism, and also the craft guilds. Guilds embodied an ideal of gradually accumulated knowledge and dexterity, culminating in personal mastery of the entire production process, including control of the materials, tools, and markets for finished goods. This concept of control and mastery was manifested in group rules and rituals that marked guild members off from nonmembers.

The rise of Protestantism, in conjunction with growing commercialization in cities, transformed Western ideas about work. Martin Luther's (14831546) concepts reflected medieval social orders, in which everyone worked according to the trade in which they were born. However, he rejected the Catholic doctrine of higher and lower "callings" in favor of a singular, individualistic notion of "calling," a strong incentive to action. More importantly, John Calvin (15091564) forged a radically new vision of work. He saw success in life as a sign of God's predestined favor to the person. In a curious, but profound way, this doctrine that denied free will ended up strongly motivating labor and profit-making, since the individual cherished hard work and success as signs of heavenly election. Consistent with its roots in rising commercial centers, Calvinism also considered trade, profits, and finance as of equal value with direct production. This represents a distinct break with a long previous tradition of disdain for money-making in favor of farming.

Surveying this history, the great German sociologist Max Weber (18641920) argued that Protestantism stimulated the rise of European capitalism during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, but significant criticisms have emerged. First, Weber overstated the asceticism of early capitalists and underestimated the role of consumption as a stimulus to work and economic growth. Second, mercantile capitalism arose first in Catholic regions of northern Italy and southern Germany. Weber focused on a somewhat later period in its development. Likewise, a distinctive east Asian form of capitalism has taken hold in the twentieth century in a world region without deep Christian traditions (Japan, China, and Korea). It is debatably linked to Confucian and other east Asian worldviews that emphasize group orientation and profound feelings of duty (as opposed to Western individualism). Weber did, however, seem to catch a broadly applicable aspect of the thinking of rising capitalists, their breaking with agrarian traditionalism concerned with protecting inherited class privileges and old-fashioned luxuries. For intellectual history more generally, his work pioneered the exploration of ideas as causes and not just reflections of social change.

The concept that labor was the singular source of value in goods, the ultimate basis of wealth, now emerged in a context of rising landowner-capitalists dedicated to transforming traditional means of production. Unlike in later eras when this "labor theory of value" would serve to highlight conflict between workers and capitalists, the early version emphasized the new landlord's role, taking private property out of the shared state of nature by adding the specific element of organized effort. This also conformed to the European expropriation of world resources after Columbusputting the assumed "state of nature" to work, including human populations in the slave trade, land in the plantation colonies, and silver and gold in the mines of the Americas. John Locke's (16321704) Two Treatises on Government epitomize this line of argument. It offered a truly radical turn of thought by finding value in secular human action rather than, as in the Middle Ages, from fixed social rank combined with God's awesome majesty. Instead, the image of God became like that of man: God the maker. This fascination with making was the inspiration of eighteenth-century French and British Enlightenment attention to mechanisms of all kinds, natural and artificial. Denis Diderot (17131784), the son of a prosperous knifemaker, included the mechanical arts in his encyclopedia of natural and philosophical knowledge and insisted on the worth of artisans and artisanry. With these ideas, and with the concurrent rise of global trade, putting out manufacturing of cloth, improved agriculture, and the like, we have set the stage for modern wage labor and capitalism.

The Capitalist Era

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, new theories of work under capitalism emerged.

Smith and Ricardo.

In 1776 the United States declared independence and Adam Smith (17231790) published The Wealth of Nations. Within the history of ideas, this is the year best suited to mark the full birth of capitalism, though as we saw above, the change had been long coming; and it was still to be a few decades before artificially powered factories began to diffuse outward from northern England and Scotland. Smith's view of work must be understood within his wider understanding of markets, since he saw markets as leading to the division of labor in detail, breaking production into a series of discrete operations, performed repetitively and with a focused perfection by different kinds and grades of workers. This concept, which was to become pervasive in capitalist practice, is exactly the opposite of the medieval notion of the unity of all stages of work in a craft. Smith was ambivalent about his vision of the trajectory of work, however, since he feared that this division of labor would dull the mind of the worker. (This worry is characteristic of Smith, who both forecast the power of markets and capitalism and explored moral sentiments that bind otherwise materialistic and competitive people.)

Smith accepted the labor theory of value, but it was propounded most emphatically by David Ricardo (17721823) around 1810. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was adopted by Karl Marx (18181883) and has been a mainstay of orthodox Marxism since then. The labor theory of value holds that as people make and reshape the raw materials of nature and transform them into objects of use ("use value"), their market values ("exchange value") come from the physical and mental effort in that work. It is, in part, a theory of price, but more widely it is a theory of the commonality in the values that each individual idiosyncratically attributes to objects. Clearly, a labor theory of value exalts work as a fundamental theme of human life. In Ricardo's hand, it highlighted the producing classes, capital and labor together, against the dead hand of rent-collecting landlordsin other words, it announced the birth of capitalism out of feudalism. In Marx's subsequent version, however, it valued workers against capitalists, the direct producers against the surplus-collecting owners of tools and resources ("means of production"), which are the congealed results of labors past. To Marx, this announced the future birth of communism out of capitalism. Neoclassical economists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries avoided the question of intersubjective value and transfer of value between classes altogether, narrowing their concern to how prices are set in particular markets. Other radical perspectives have looked to nonlabor theories of value, especially energy and other ecological-physical value sources. Flawed as it may be, however, the labor theory of value captures something of the relationship of past work (capital) to present work (laborers), which is both an existential necessity and the basis for unequal and exploitative power relations.

Karl Marx.

Marx offered a comprehensive, radical theory of work. In his labor-based worldview, human activity is central to making and transforming all aspects of life, including the concepts we use to understand it. It is important that we recognize that this is not a purely economic perspective, which is often assumed about Marx, but a much wider emphasis on the practice of life rather than the play of unworldly ideas. Likewise, his view of labor is wider than physical effort in factories, though Marx himself focused on this (then new) feature of capitalism. Rather, the term labor captures the full range of human capacities, as much mental and creative as physical and forceful.

This understood, we turn to alienation, Marx's central concern about work. At times we labor for ourselves, and though the product may be outside our bodies (e.g., my cleaned desk), we are not highly alienated from it. It is part of our being. At other times, we labor directly for others (e.g., a garden I plant for my wife), rendering a product that someone else will possess, use, and enjoy. But though the product is separated from us, it becomes part of a social bond, a nonalienated relation to another human being. However, under the condition of commodity production (making a good for anonymous sale), and even more importantly in wage labor under capitalism (working on a good that is owned by someone else, in a manner controlled by someone else), the result of our labors has no connection or relation to us. It is alienated. To take, for example, the division of labor in a bank, we will see that one worker will collect data, another sum it up, and a third give it a credit score, based on research by a fourth, fifth, and so on. No one worker has an organic relationship to the owner of the labor (the bank), the final product of labor (the mortgage), or the person who receives the product (the potential homeowner). Alienation is, in Marx, a matter of objective relationships, but it has subjective, felt implicationsa sense that the product or the customer or the firm does not matter, that the individual has no control or commitment to work, that the whole goal of labor is vague or even unimaginable.

Within this broad framework, Marx launched a critical analysis of work under capitalism. If capitalists want to profit, labor has to render enough value to cover two funds. One is to pay workers enough to live, that is, to "reproduce" labor power. The other is for capitalists to hold the "surplus value." Marx thus saw unequal reward for work at the heart of capitalism; assuming the labor theory of value, work activity produces all the value, but the workers receive only part of it. The rest is captured by the owners of past labor, the means of production. If total value can be conceptually divided into the necessary payment to workers and surplus value, then capitalists who seek constantly to add to their invested capital (to "accumulate capital") have two basic strategies. One is to increase the total length of the working day, so that workers are paid for ten hours, say, enough to survive, but have to work for two hours beyond that. Marx called this absolute surplus value. The other is to make the workers' efforts during a given period of time more productive. More could be paid to workers, possibly, but the total product would increase even more quickly, rendering yet more surplus value. Obtaining this "relative surplus value" is, according to Marx, the main logic governing work under capitalism: not that work becomes more and more brutal, though sometimes it does, but that it becomes more and more dominated by the efficiency of production, especially via technology, the dead labor of the past used to speed up the live labor of the present.

Marx thus foresaw the ultimate polarization of capital and labor, leading to a revolution by the workers. Capital would accumulate more and more means of production, pushing relative surplus value ever more extremely, and workers would have more and more in common, as each would experience the same alienated and fractured labor. Both classes would become clearer in self-definition and self-understanding, and more openly in struggle between them, until a fundamental historical transformation (a "revolution") would usher in a new state of communism. Marx failed to think clearly about this future, being always focused on the immediate task of criticism and hostile to utopias, but he hints at a life of holistic, undivided labor, producing goods that were directly shared or exchanged in webs of immediate social relations. This recital indicates two major flaws in Marx's thought. Neither workers nor capitalists have become clearly defined and self-recognized classes across national or ethnic lines, though capitalists have come closer than Marx's preferred workers. And actual communism formed a series of dystopias, dedicated to the mass production of commodities in alienating factories with worker's labor unions and other self-expressions (e.g., religion) severely controlled or repressed by domineering political-economic masters: the worst of capitalism without the leavening of democracy and civil liberties. However, no worker, student, or activist in the modern world can ignore Marx's analysis of work, whether one seeks to defend or to transform capitalism.

Non-Marxist and Neo-Marxist Views of Work
under Capitalism

Marx looked to the future, embracing the development of work under capitalism as the necessary stage before communism. Other critics looked backward, drawing on (sometimes quite unrealistic) visions of medieval craft guilds or the mutualistic cooperation of the village community. Utopian socialists in the early nineteenth century, such as Charles Fourier (17721837) and the Scottish industrialist-turned-radical Robert Owen (17711858), sought the productivity of capitalism without alienation and inequality through communal mass production and the equal exchange of products between specialized craftspeople. The late-nineteenth-century artist, designer, and philosopher William Morris put forth an ideal of craft mastery against the division of labor and of creativity rooted in knowledge of the past. The gadfly economist Thorstein Veblen (18571929) explored related ideals about productive creativity and disciplined work, but instead of archaic crafts guilds, he envisioned as social carriers the combined figures of industrial engineers and workers. He turned a critical gaze against financiers, the accumulators and manipulators of money, who he regarded as the parasites (the "leisure class") of otherwise productive capitalism.

Émile Durkheim (18581917), a French sociologist-anthropologist who worked at the beginning of the twentieth century, offered perhaps the most perceptive defense of work under capitalism in The Division of Labor in Society. In traditional societies, people did pretty much the same work, so they bonded with each other from their sameness ("mechanical solidarity"). But with the advance of the detailed division of labor, people no longer do the same work. Instead, their mutual interdependence creates a new, "organic" solidarityunity from difference. This denied Marx's postulate of ultimately polarized classes. Durkheim's work is especially important in that he recognizes and confronts some of capitalism's most troubling developments, such as division and inequality (he was, we should note, a vigorous reformer who favored socialism). But his solution represents a mystical hope. Why should the division of labor result in solidarity and not worsening alienation and increasing fractionation of work?

The troubling qualities of contemporary, alienating work sparked two important mid-to late-twentieth-century statements affirming its underlying value. Catholic social teaching, as expressed in Pope John Paul II's Laborem exercens (On Human Work ), views work as a distinguishing feature of humankind. Through work, people come to understand their role in and obligation to a society, and to humanity as a whole. Likewise, work is a crucial source of self-respect and identity. This both establishes ideals of what work can be and provides a basis for critical evaluation of work in capitalism and socialism, where people become the objects rather than the subjects of work. Laborem exercens values labor over capital, though it accepts a subordinated role for capitalism. Hannah Arendt also sees work as crucial to the human condition, but she distinguishes between labor and work in an interesting fashion. Labor is the instrumental use of the body to make things that will be consumed and will not last long; work is the use of the mind and the hands to create things that will endure, the world of art and artifacts that surround and enrich human lives. She criticizes contemporary economics for blurring these two categories, for sacrificing the enduring monuments of work in favor of impermanent, mass-produced consumer goods. Insightful as this temporal perspective is, it seems biased toward artists and intellectuals and dismisses the creativity and necessity of daily chores, particularly those associated with women.

In 1974 Harry Braverman refocused the debate over work around the perspective of Marx. He argued that capitalists do not just buy labor power but seek to control the performance of work itself. Work may be considered to have two components, mental and physical (often called manual). To capture control over work is to take its mental side, the skills, knowledge, and initiative, away from the worker and put it in the hands of the employer. This is done through observation and redesign of physical motions (time-motion engineering), by building work skills into technologies and production layouts, and by bureaucratically controlled reward systems. Debate has raged over his reading of work history; for example, some technologies remove existing skills but introduce new skills. Nor are workers ever completely deskilled; even highly controlled and designed workplaces require subtle tricks and informal group cooperation. But after Braverman, we can no longer view new technology or management reform as simply neutral, as always means of greater efficiency and saving of effort; the forces behind such changes bear critical scrutiny.

In summary, writers of the last two centuries have viewed capitalist work with great ambivalence. From Smith, through Marx, to Arendt and Braverman, there is a sense that capitalism provides us a bounty of goods, but at the cost of controlled, subdivided, unchallenging, and unimaginative labors that do not tap the richness of human creative capacity. Ethnographers of workplaces generally agree with these views, but note that workers often find a sense of play and accomplishment in their jobs. Some bit of humanity peeks through.

The Social Sciences and Work: Key Ideas

Feminism has contributed the social sciences' most important insight about work: that is, work often performed by males, wage work or work outside the household, has been assumed to be the only kind of work, while work often performed by women, such as childcare or gardening, is left invisible or dismissed as mere chores and hobbies (this can be extended to activities of many men, such as tinkering with cars). To think of women's labor as work means to think not only of producing objects but also reproducing (renewing) the conditions of daily life. It means widening our ideas about what work is, for example in Arlie Hochschild's studies of emotional and nurturing care as work. And it challenges everyday language, such as "going out to work" and identifying a person by their paid occupation.

We thus need to keep open minds about what sorts of activities constitute work. The world of work is more diverse than stereotypical images of factories or heavy physical labor. Bureaucrats, for example, engage in "thought-work," the partly rationalized mass production of mental and verbal operations required to classify and regulate other people. Work thus involves tremendously varied experiences and ideas about those experiences, even within wage labor. Different workplaces and occupations have their own subcultural norms and symbols; the so-called "informal" workplace organization of friendship, collaboration, and factionalism often differs from the official organizational chart of power and authority. Participant-observation in workplaces has shown that informal organization surrounding minutely differentiated tasks and pay rates interdigitates with inequalities brought from the wider world, including gender, race, and ethnic background. Workplace friction, then, both reflects and exacerbates wider societal conflicts. The concept of "segmentation" aims to summarize such patterns of inequality of work and employment conditions. It highlights, in particular, the differences between jobs with specific entry requirements (e.g., educational credentials), relative stability, ascending careers, generous fringe benefits, and so on, and jobs that come and go, with few entry requirements, little future, low pay, and poor or no benefits. Working people holding the latter jobs are much more vulnerable to recurrent unemployment, giving rise to patterns of persistent rural and inner-city poverty that we perceive as "social problems."

Social scientists have also debated whether and how work has changed in recent history. Three key phases emerge from this literature. In Taylorism, named after management consultant Frederick Taylor (most active in the 1890s), management controls virtually every motion of workers through a combination of minute subdivision of tasks, detailed instructions, and monetary incentives for rapid and efficient performance. In Fordism, named after automobile manufacturer Henry Ford (most active in the 1910s and 1920s), relatively high rates of pay joined high-speed, high-pressure jobs; its broader social effect was a high-production, high-consumption, joint corporate/labor union economy characteristic of privileged segments of the Western economy from the 1940s to the 1970s. Post-Fordism, also termed flexible production, or Japanese-style management, has emerged since the 1980s. This is a contradictory concept. On the one hand, hierarchies of control are supposedly flattened and cooperative groups promoted. On the other hand, unions are dismissed as old-fashioned, even attacked and broken, workers are treated as "flexible," that is, easy to hire and fire, and corporate culture and human relations are deftly manipulated by management.

A debate has emerged in the literature about post-Fordism over whether, with computers and other advanced technologies, the tedious, Taylorist and Fordist jobs of the past will disappear. The social theorist André Gorz argues that the immense productive capacity of the modern economy makes possible vastly reduced effort, a life of leisure, self-cultivation, or voluntary and avocational work. In abstract terms, Gorz's argument makes sense and is an appealing ideal. Yet in post-Fordist conditions, the demands of work (both in terms of sheer time spent at work and people's tendency to take work "home" via computer, cell phone, etc.) have actually increased (Schor). This debate poses the question of whether the modernist image of labor as factory work and analyses, such as Marx's, that apply to it, are relevant to contemporary (flexible or postmodern) capitalism. Contemporary capitalism involves corporate and governmental entities of enormous size, complexly distributed working processes, rapidity of movement and information transfer, and finely tuned systems of psychological control. Some authors feel that this constitutes a networked capitalism characterized by loose, relaxed relationships, flexibility, and constant change. Others portray systems of power in which external surveillance becomes included as part of the individual's own watchful self. There is a strange mixture of giddy futurism and hopeless surrender in postmodern perspectives. Though often presented as arguments against Marx, these visions extend his notion of alienated labor to the point where the commoditization of the person as worker and consumer has completely colonized the self. The main difference is that they abandon his hope of a revolutionary break with alienation. Yet we should question whether such corporate forms really have eliminated all competing notions of human creativity and self-directed discipline. Likewise, the predicted end of the factory is incorrect and Western-centric; the mind-numbing mass production of everyday goods has shifted to newly developing countries such as China, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Brazil, and others. Though not simply replicas of the past, such places do in their own way re-create the "dark Satanic mills" of William Blake's early industrial Britain.

See also Capitalism ; Economics ; Marxism ; Poverty ; Wealth .


Applebaum, Herbert A. The Concept of Work: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. An excellent survey of the history of Western ideas about work, on which I have drawn substantially.

, ed. Work in Market and Industrial Societies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984. A continuation of the previous entry.

, ed. Work in Non-Market and Transitional Societies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984. A valuable anthology about work across cultures.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974.

Cornfield, Daniel B., and Randy Hodson, eds. Worlds of Work: Building an International Sociology of Work. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2002. A comprehensive survey of the social sciences of work in diverse nations.

Durkheim, Émile. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press, 1964.

Gordon, David M., Richard Edwards, and Michael Reich. Segmented Work, Divided Workers: The Historical Transformation of Labor in the United States. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. An excellent source on segmentation and changing concepts of industrial work.

Gorz, André. Paths to Paradise: On the Liberation from Work. Translated by Malcolm Imrie. Boston: South End Press, 1985.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

John Paul II. On Human Work: Encyclical Laborem exercens. Washington, D.C.: Office of Publishing Services, United States Catholic Conference, 1981.

Joyce, Patrick, ed. The Historical Meanings of Work. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A valuable collection, emphasizing concepts of work beyond those of articulate intellectuals.

Lee, Richard B. The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Levi, Primo. The Monkey's Wrench. Translated by William Weaver. New York: Summit Books, 1986.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Coral Gardens and Their Magic. 2 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965.

Marz, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. Edited by Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1972.

Mintz, Sidney W. Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960.

Nash, June. I Spent My Life in the Mines: The Story of Juan Rojas, Bolivian Tin Miner. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Orlove, Benjamin S. Lines in the Water: Nature and Culture at Lake Titicaca. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Schor, Juliet B. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edited by Edwin Cannan. New York: Modern Library, 1994.

Thompson, E. P., "Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism." Past and Present 38 (1967): 5697.

. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977. A representative figure of the nineteenth-century romantic critique of industrial work. Originally published in 1955.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Instinct of Workmanship, and the State of the Industrial Arts. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1964.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parson. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.

Josiah McC. Heyman


views updated May 17 2018


Work done by human beings is purposive action guided by intelligence; work that is repetitive or arduous is often called labor. Both purpose and intelligence may originate in persons other than those actually doing the work. Associated with the basic definition are many related usages including effort expended (also called toil); the result of that effort (a work of art); and one's job or employment, workplace, trade, occupation, or profession. In all these senses work is subject to technological modification, scientific and literary study, and ethical reflection.

Historical Background

In early civilized societies, the kind of work people did depended on their class: The elite had slaves do whatever they considered demeaning, notably if it involved unrewarded physical exertion. Certain religious attitudes perpetuated this devaluation. Some Buddhist and Christian monks, for instance, have associated physical inactivity with the highest spiritual states.

By contrast, in medieval Europe, a combination of prayer and work (ora et labora) came to be viewed as a more fully human expression of spirituality. Government despoliation of monasteries during the reformation reduced the feasibility of a life devoted primarily to prayer. But comparable lifestyles are still possible. These aside, the Industrial Revolution tied most workers' survivability to remunerative employment.

Throughout recorded history societies have adopted various attitudes and expectations regarding work. Knowledge of this history lends perspective to contemporary attitudes and expectations. Over time, though, vast technological changes have been made in the production, marketing, and distribution of goods and services, so that past arrangements may not pertain to contemporaneous circumstances. The young Karl Marx (1818–1883) thought history pointed toward an egalitarian society in which every worker would freely choose which activities to engage in. Hannah Arendt (1958) preferred instead a socially stratified society, as in ancient Athens, where a knowledgeable few engage in (political) action, while others work (produce something) or labor (exert themselves physically).

History aside, work-related matters are now routinely viewed in economic terms. In particular, all types of paid activity are identified as labor (skilled and unskilled), and labor costs are largely determined by supply and demand. The supply of labor is, in turn, increasingly a function of globalization; and labor is sought mostly for tasks that technology has not mastered. In this context, work is conceptualized as remunerative employment and is commodified.

Indeed, in the early twenty-first century most people associate work with earning a living and, for the career-oriented, enhancing social status. Frequently, though, personal career aspirations exceed what is attainable under the prevailing economic system—whence arise a number of ethical issues.

These ethical issues include the following: Is the character of work determined solely by the market? Who is obliged to work? Under what circumstances? Should remuneration provide a decent living for the worker (a living wage) and for the worker's family (a family wage)? Which if any institution(s) should provide and/or assure employment, humane working conditions, meaningful and satisfying work? Are those unable to find employment entitled to subsistence? The social effects of scientific and technological change increase the salience of these issues.

Established Ways to Think about Work

Practical approaches to such questions involve both ethical determinations and public policies. These, in turn, draw on research findings in such disciplines as history, economics, sociology, psychology, and jurisprudence, most of which have tended to reinforce socially favored attitudes toward work.

Work is now commonly treated as something bought and sold—typically, a service or product. Employers decide which services or products to offer or generate in a given locale and employ workers accordingly. Workers' remuneration is a function of their productivity in their economic environment. This productivity, in turn, is measured by subtracting overhead—that is, the expenses incurred by conducting a business on-site—from revenue received for services or products. Because a large part of overhead is labor costs, management strives to keep these to a competitive minimum, and may therefore resort to workforce downsizing, technological displacement, and/or workplace relocation. From these practices arise many ethical issues directed to fostering cross-cultural fairness in every aspect of the employment relationship, but especially those having to do with hiring, retention, remuneration, and working conditions. Also important, especially to employees, is finding in work both personal fulfillment and conformity with a socially promoted work ethic (Gini 2000).

A work ethic involves making work a key measure of personal success (Rose 1985, Beder 2000). Industrial-era capitalists fostered a work ethic to maintain a sufficient supply of willing workers. But workplace rationalization and globalization (see below) have rendered the work ethic an unreliable incentive. Some theorists nonetheless still call for meaningful work (Schwartz 1982, Byrne 1990) and a right to work. The latter expression sometimes signifies individualist opposition to unionization (Dickman 1987) and sometimes, gainful employment as such (Harvey 2004, Skopcol 1990). In either sense it is stymied by cost-cutting strategies that replace higher- with lower-paid workers and human beings with machines.

Since the Great Depression in the 1930s governments have assumed some responsibility for this problem by funding systems of unemployment compensation (UC): twenty-two countries had done so by 1949, and sixty-eight countries by 2004. Some scholars argue that any structurally unemployed person is entitled to subsistence income. But governments increasingly require a claimant for UC (as distinguished from generic welfare support) to have been employed and/or be actively seeking employment. Thus in the 1990s even Nordic countries, long noted for their generous UC programs, made these programs less accessible and their benefits less supportive.

Many factors enter into the amount of compensation a person receives for work done. These include the level of development and/or indebtedness of the economy within which one works, one's social and political affiliations, and one's gender, race, national origin, and so on. For example, work done by women is sometimes labeled differently from men's work to justify paying women less (Wright et al. 1987; Mohanty 2003). A society may also set ethical limits on the time a worker may devote to play (Byrne 1990). This pro-work mindset (manifested even in the career-oriented way parents view their children's preschool activities) seeks to maintain an abundance of available labor, now on a global scale.

Large corporations increasingly dominate worldwide employment without assuming responsibility for the negative consequences of their decisions regarding workforce size or location. Even in the face of automation (Byrne 1990) and globalization (Goudzwaard 1979), though, less socially disruptive strategies are possible. These are supported by calls for decent working conditions and a living wage (for example, the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, arts. 23 and 24; John Paul II, 1981). Such declarations, though, forestall few if any downsizing decisions. Moreover, the unemployed are often stigmatized and considered personally responsible for their situation even as governments dismantle programs that would mitigate the effects of unemployment (Beder 2000). These conflicting attitudes about work show that the ways in which work has been viewed are no longer adequate to the challenges now emerging.

Finding New Ways to Think about Work

The premodern fusion of work and life associated with primitives and studied by cultural anthropologists is now rare. The modern fusion of work and compensation is coming undone as the availability of jobs depends less on individual skills or dedication than on strategic workplace and/or workforce selections that contribute to profit maximization. In short, the industrial-age problem of worker displacement engendered by rationalization of process is now being compounded by globalization. So earlier analyses of work-related problems need to be reviewed through new lenses if a humane approach to work is to be restored.

Already in the eighteenth century some theorists began speculating about the future of work in view of the inroads of mechanization. Building on earlier utopian visions, some social planners proposed founding communes that would use technologies selectively (Manuel and Manuel 1979). But classical economists, including Adam Smith (1723–1790) and David Ricardo (1772–1823), believed that an unfettered market would achieve "full employment equilibrium." As explained by the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say (1767–1832), for example, supply creates its own demand and this engenders full employment. This "law of markets," or Say's law, predicts that as laborsaving devices replace workers more products become available at prices more consumers can afford, thereby creating a need for additional workers. On this theory, unemployment is not structural (inevitable given system priorities) because a machine-challenged workforce will accept lower wages, which in turn diminishes the need for more expensive machinery (Gini 2000). The mature Marx predicted instead that capitalists' continued recourse to laborsaving devices would engender a great mass of marginalized and potentially insubordinate poor. Proving this prediction incorrect has been a priority for theorists and politicians ever since.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries laborers were assumed to have minimal intelligence, which Taylorization and Fordism sought to exploit. But such workplace strategies destroy job satisfaction, lowering productivity. So during much of the twentieth century social scientists were recruited to improve workplace human relations and quality of work life, in large part to forestall unionization. In this vein, industrialist Henry Ford once raised his workers' wages above then-current rates so his employees could afford to buy his automobiles. Still others, from John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) to Franklin D. Roosevelt, worried about what the British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) called technological unemployment (Gini 2000, Goudzwaard 1979). Contemporary defenders of Say's law do not share these concerns. Their trickle-down economics, however, do not address the emerging phenomenon of companies "churning" a literally global workforce to cut costs. So this survey of work-related issues must, finally, take note of recent attempts to evaluate these new approaches to workforce dynamics.

The problem, in brief, is how to accommodate the tendency (a) of employers to pursue the least costly means of production and (b) of employees to seek the most advantageous compensation. In the age of discovery made possible by the development of reliable ships, employers combined on-site production with slave labor. In the industrial era, employers welcomed wage laborers to their fixed-site factories. Now in the age of computers and electronic telecommunications it is possible to locate supplies, employees, equipment, product, and vendors in whatever mix most favors a given business. Enslavement is now a violation of human rights under international law. It still occurs, however, and in other ways as well. Transnational corporations exploit Third World workers and will continue doing so until prohibited under international law (Moran 2002). They will do so because they gain monetary, trade, tax, and other advantages by locating facilities and employees so as to minimize total labor costs and maximize return on capital. Adding these strategies to automation, capitalist management strives to control workers, as did communist managers (Shaiken 1985). Control of the work process now depends, however, not just on routinizing a task but on where and by whom that task is most profitably carried out.

Most workers need to use tools, including highly complex machines that sometimes replace workers. Thus the availability of employment depends in part on what technology and operators are available. With this in mind, contemporary experts, like their forebears, debate whether introducing new technologies expands or contracts job opportunities (Aronowitz and DiFazio 1994, Bix 2000). In fact, it does both, either by requiring additional workers, as did the assembly line, or by rendering skills previously in demand obsolete, as has containerization and automated manufacturing processes, or both eliminating some jobs and creating others, as has the computer. The U.S. Department of Defense's funding of science and engineering since World War II has severely skewed educational and hiring priorities in many technical fields (Standler 2004). And computer-based network technology generally reduces complex layers of jobs to comparatively few, thereby rendering many employees superfluous. Some laid-off workers can be retrained for new jobs (hence the U.S. Workforce Investment Act of 1998). These jobs, however, are often temporary and/or part-time with no employer-provided benefits. In this context employers no longer stress company loyalty but promise their employees heightened skills for placement elsewhere. But those seeking reemployment may be deemed overqualified, in part because they are in a labor pool that includes many others, some no less skilled, in or from countries where compensation is substantially lower. Partly because of this migration of work unemployment is much lower in many developing countries, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, than in some developed countries, especially in Europe. This situation remains subject, however, to profit-maximizing strategies, which are ever under review. So however work is distributed around the world, it will enhance a globalized buyer's market that primarily benefits corporate executives and investors.

This noted, economic growth does tend to lower unemployment, albeit not precisely in accord with Okun's law (a 1% increase in the rate of economic growth lowers the unemployment rate by 0.3%). Lower unemployment, though, is not inconsistent with job obsolescence. Individuals with advanced degrees, especially in technical and business-related fields, do have better marketability than do those less or less appropriately educated. And it is true that in developed countries, especially in Europe, new jobs are being created mainly in the service sector. This sector, though, is itself being transformed by the same network technology that has reduced the number of jobs in manufacturing.

Workers' Rights in a Global Workplace

The global marketplace raises pressing ethical issues regarding workers' rights. But workers' rights are difficult to enforce in many countries. So business ethicists recommend codes of ethics that can be applied cross-culturally. These have tended to favor management, but public awareness of corporate executives' malfeasance and disproportionate compensation has generated support for tighter external regulation of business practices. The decades-old debate about corporate responsibility now takes into account stakeholder theories, which extend property rights to groups other than shareholders and management, such as plant-location cities, suppliers, and customers. But such theorizing is difficult to apply to structurally consolidated professional services, such as in health care, or to transnational combinations in industries such as finance, telecommunications, and retail groceries. Government and corporate leaders extol the resulting increases in productivity, even as they blame the unemployed for not having jobs (Beder 2000). Such politically motivated problem skimming, however, does not address people's growing sense that the globalized marketplace is limiting their employment opportunities.

Global employment strategies that are advantageous to an employer disadvantage some potential employees more than others. Protective tariffs may be imposed to safeguard jobs tied to goods not produced at competitive costs. But the availability of substantially cheaper labor in or from developing countries disfavors retention of higher-paid employees in developed countries. Thus by the year 2015 the U.S. electronics industry will have transferred some three million jobs to India, and possibly as many as that to China. Comparable moves are planned in Europe, even in non-English-speaking countries. Meanwhile, China now produces four times as many apples as the United States so that only growers in the state of Washington can still compete without tariff protections. And if U.S. tariffs on orange juice are abolished under a proposed free trade agreement, Brazil's product will capture the U.S. market and Florida orange growers will no longer hire Mexican migrant workers. Changes of this magnitude in job markets cannot be neutralized by extolling the rewards of adhering to a work ethic. A better response might be to somehow apply Marx's maxim: from each according to ability, to each according to need. This ideal, however, is not easily introduced into the corporation-dominated global economy.

Economists who study the effects of globalization disagree about their ultimate ramifications. Some retain the optimism of Say's law by arguing that the global economy as a whole improves whenever something is produced where it can be done efficiently and at a substantially lower cost than elsewhere. This thesis, which economists explain in terms of comparative advantage, needs to be modified to take into account both international monetary exchange rates and the losses incurred by displaced workers. Moreover, if the comparative advantage in question depends on exploiting workers (for example, in sweatshops) or engaging in illegal activities (such as laundering money), it is subject to additional ethical objections. To address such distortions of global fairness both the International Labour Organization and its parent body the United Nations (UN) have identified certain core labor standards with which all employers should comply. Subscribed to by many UN member nations, these standards favor workers' right to organize and condemn forced or compulsory labor, child labor, and discrimination in employment or occupation. Much debated is whether the inclusion of these core labor standards in trade agreements would mostly benefit Third World workers or First World corporations (Basu et al. 2003).

Work in the Future

In short, the ethical problems associated with a globalized and technologically challenged workforce involve not only economic but social and political considerations as well, especially because their solution requires moving beyond the modern tendency to base people's income eligibility almost exclusively on their work. This is rarely considered in the United States, where job responsibilities (such as being "on call 24/7") are blurring the line between work and leisure. Meanwhile in the United Kingdom programs are being developed precisely to achieve better "worklife balance." In some places, such as Alaska and Saudi Arabia, resource-based wealth has been distributed to all citizens, even those not participating directly in the generation of that wealth. Expanding such arrangements and devising others not dependent on the market is desirable (Offe and Heinze 1992) but unlikely so long as such traditional capitalist values as property rights and the work ethic remain dominant. For the foreseeable future, then, few besides the independently wealthy will be able to live decent lives without engaging in wage work. Where, then will this work be found?

This question is often answered by extending historical precedents into the future, namely, by viewing past transitions (from agricultural to industrial to service and to information sectors) as an evolutionary indication of another major employment sector to come. This may be so, but present data fail to reveal this new source of work in the world.

In the United States alone, some three-fourths of all workers deal with—create, collect, or use—information. The complexity of their involvement, and thus of their compensation over a lifetime, is partly a function of their education. But only 25 percent of the U.S. workforce have had four years of college, and only 5 percent have advanced degrees. The growth rate of researchers in the United States is a third less than the rate for all OECD countries. A fourth of the scientists in the United States are foreign-born, as are a third of doctorate-level scientists and engineers. Moreover, the United States has in recent years been attracting fewer foreign students to its technical programs. Indeed, it has been lowering annual ceilings for high-skilled (H-1b) visas even as the Japanese have greatly increased theirs. Meanwhile, more than 10 percent of all U.S. workers, mostly women, do not have regular full-time jobs. Given such indications of the present situation, what is needed is surely neither utopian nor anti-utopian scenarios but all the social inventiveness Americans can muster.


SEE ALSO Affluence;Automation;Business Ethics;Capitalism;Class;Critical Social Theory;Efficiency;Entrepreneurism;Industrial Revolution;Globalism and Globalization;Levi, Primo; Management: Models;Marx, Karl;Money;Poverty.


Arendt, Hannah. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Argues that the political sphere should address intellectual concerns, not the life-maintenance concerns of laborers.

Aronowitz, Stanley, and William DiFazio. (1994). The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Affirms that as technology diminishes job opportunities society must replace free market mythology with more egalitarian policies.

Basu, Kaushik, Henrik Horn, Lisa Román, and Judith Shapiro, et al., eds. (2003). International Labor Standards: History, Theory, and Policy Options. Oxford: Blackwell. Examines the history and economic implications of the controversial call for international labor standards.

Beder, Sharon. (2000). Selling the Work Ethic. Carlton North, Victoria, Australia: Scribe. Discusses the idea that the capitalist-fostered work ethic is both factually unfounded and detrimental to human well-being.

Bix, Sue. (2000). Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs? America's Debate over Technological Unemployment. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. Diverse interested parties over three generations support technological advances, disagree about responsibility for structural unemployment.

Byrne, Edmund F. (1990). Work, Inc.: A Philosophical Inquiry. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Asserts that defense of workers' rights requires community constraints on corporate hegemony.

Dickman, Howard. (1987). Industrial Democracy in America. La Salle, IL: Open Court. Claims organized labor is an unjustifiable hindrance to laissez-faire capitalism.

Gini, Al. (2000). My Job, My Self: Work and the Creation of the Modern Individual. New York: Routledge. Maintains that work is essential to maintenance of a human being's sense of self-worth.

Goudzwaard, Bob. (1979). Capitalism and Progress: A Diagnosis of Western Society, trans. Josina Van Nuis Zylstra. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Argues that supportive economic theories notwithstanding, people's faith in progress is in crisis.

John Paul II, Pope. (1981). On Human Work: Encyclical "Laborem Exercens." Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference. Has value primarily as manifestation of the worker's intrinsic dignity and vocation.

Manuel, Frank E., and Fritzie P. Manuel. (1979). Utopian Thought in the Western World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press. A comprehensive survey of utopian writings in the Western intellectual tradition.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press. Describes how diverse local cultures regarding gender are used to exploit women workers.

Moran, Theodore H. (2002). Beyond Sweatshops: Foreign Direct Investment and Globalization in Developing Countries. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press. Advocates more equitable distribution of foreign investment in developing countries.

Offe, Claus, and Rolf G. Heinze. (1992). Beyond Employment: Time, Work, and the Informal Economy, trans. Alan Braley. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Examines the emergence of an informal economy that replaces waged labor with non-monetary exchanges of services.

Rose, Michael. (1985). Re-working the Work Ethic. London: Batsford. Examines changes in workplace values and responsiveness to rewards and controls.

Schwartz, Adina. (1982). "Meaningful Work." Ethics 92(4): 634–646. Argues that a more democratic division of labor is better suited to enhancing individual autonomy.

Shaiken, Harley. (1985). Work Transformed: Automation and Labor in the Computer Age. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. Affirms that workers should have more input into the planning, programming and control of computerized automation.

Skocpol, Theda. (1990). "Brother, Can You Spare a Job? Work and Welfare in the "United States." In The Nature of Work: Sociological Perspectives, ed. Kai Erikson and Steven Peter Vallas. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Presents the idea that employment assurance, as recommended by New Deal planners, needs to be reconsidered now that the era of selective welfare is over.

Wright, Barbara Drygulski, et al., eds. (1987). Women, Work, and Technology: Transformations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Feminist responses to gender-biased accounts of women's involvement in workplace technologies.


Harvey, Philip (2004). The Right to Work and Basic Income Guarantees: Competitive or Complementary Goals? Available at Assesses alternative ways proposed to redress the failure of economies to assure a decent standard of living.

Standler, Ronald B. (2004). "Funding of Basic Research in Physical Science in the USA." Available at Argues that science in the United States is too dependent on military funding priorities.


views updated May 21 2018


WORK. Humans have always worked. Work was key to our biological development, shaping our bodies and sharpening our minds. One million years ago we first worked stones into tools and half a million years ago first worked with fire. For the last ten thousand years we have worked the land and for five thousand years have worked metals. Although we have always worked, we have not always held the same opinions about work. A brief survey of those cultures that have most influenced American opinions about work will make this clear and at the same time provide the perspective necessary for understanding the significance of work in American culture.


Work was held in low esteem among those ancient cultures that have most influenced American culture. The ancient Jews, Greeks, and Romans all held work to be inferior to leisure. According to all three traditions, our original condition was leisurely. According to Genesis, Adam originally resided in Eden before sinning and being cast out by God "to till the ground whence he was taken." And according to the pagan poets, a leisurely age once existed but was also somehow lost. The ancients held their condition, a condition in which labor was the norm, to be inferior to the original condition of leisure. Further, conceptions of labor as divine punishment existed among the ancients. For example, according to the ancient Jewish tradition, we must all bear the burden of the punishment handed down for Adam's sin by God. And, according to the ancient Greek tradition, Sisyphus had to labor perpetually, pushing a boulder up an incline again and again, for his own transgression against Zeus. Further still, in addition to these religious reflections of the low esteem in which the ancients held work, there existed etymological reflections. For example, the ancient Greeks used one word (πóνος) to signify both "labor" and "pain." And they used one word (β∝́ναυσος) to signify both "mechanic" and "vulgar." Finally, there existed political reflections of the low esteem in which the ancients held work. All were dependent upon work in ancient times. But not all worked. Most did but some were at leisure. Those who worked were held to be inferior to those who did not. The latter ruled the former.


Amidst the ruins of the Roman Empire, smaller and more introspective communities arose. Those who worked the land were not slaves but serfs. Pagan religions gave way to Christianity. And the church gained substantial worldly power. This last development led to a pervasive duality. On the one hand, as in ancient times, there were nobles that owned land and ruled. On the other hand, in contrast to ancient times, there was an autonomous church that also owned land and ruled. And so a political duality existed. For example, a serf might owe allegiance to a noble for land and protection in this world. Yet he might also owe allegiance to the church for the promise of transcendence of death and avoidance of Hell in the next. In addition to this political duality, a cultural duality existed. On the one hand, as in ancient times, work (that is, manual labor, skilled labor) was held to be inferior to the activities of noble leisure (war, politics, culture). On the other hand, in contrast to ancient times, work was also held to be inferior to sacred activities (prayer). For example, a young nobleman might seek worldly power and honor while a young peasant might be drawn to monastic seclusion and discipline (silence, poverty, chastity).


Work came to be held in unprecedented esteem during the modern times, as it was elevated by both Protestant theologians and philosophers. Martin Luther (German theologian and reformer, 1483–1546) attacked the medieval ranking of work as inferior to monasticism, asserting that devotion to God did not require seclusion from secular activities. John Calvin (French theologian and reformer, 1509–1564) also attacked the medieval ranking of work, asserting that work glorified God by improving the world and the individual. Francis Bacon (British philosopher and statesman, 1561–1626) attacked medieval education, criticizing it for encouraging a love of sloth and privacy in his Advancement of Learning (1605). In Leviathan (1651),Thomas Hobbes (British philosopher, 1588– 1679) attacked the medieval status of leisure as the original human condition, reasoning that humans originally led not Edenic lives of leisure but lives that were poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And John Locke (British philosopher, 1632–1704) attacked the medieval political order, positing that the world belonged not to leisured nobles or praying monks but to the industrious in his Two Treatises on Government (1690). Such opinions and the habits they engendered came to be known collectively as the Protestant work ethic centuries later, after the publication of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1920) by Max Weber (German economist and social historian, 1864–1920). The Protestant work ethic was the antecedent of the American work ethic as America, in its youth, was predominantly Protestant and British.

American Work Ethic

Had the native American population been assimilated rather than eliminated by germs and steel, the American work ethic might have emerged as more of a hybrid between European and Native American opinions about work. Or had the Spanish Armada not been rebuffed in 1588 or had the French not been defeated on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the American work ethic might have reflected Catholic opinions about work more and Protestant opinions about work less. But the Native American population was decimated and Catholic Spain and France eventually surrendered, ceded, or sold most of their territorial claims in North America. And so Protestant Britain became the dominant power in America. Many of those who came to America during colonial times were Calvinist (English Puritans, Scot-Irish Presbyterians, French Huguenots), and the American work ethic was at birth if not Calvinist simply then at least Calvinistic. In contrast to ancients who tended to hold work to be inferior to leisure, and in contrast to the medievals who tended to hold work to be inferior to monasticism, Calvin held work to be sacred. Like the ancients and medievals, Calvin too held work to simply be a means. But he held work to be the highest sort of means. He held work to be a means by which to improve the world to the glory of God and a means by which to improve oneself so as to prove oneself worthy of being saved by God. Even as opinions of work became less otherworldly—in other words, as the improvement of the world and of oneself became ends in themselves—the American work ethic remained at least Calvinistic insofar as it remained progressive, individualistic, and egalitarian. Progress depends on work, and so one should work for progress—an implication of this being that one should work as long as there is work to be done and not simply as long as necessity requires. Individually we are saved and only individually, for one cannot be saved by priestly forgiveness, and so one should primarily be concerned with oneself. And all should work. There should be no leisured class, whether a class of nobles or a class of monks. Leisure, once held to be the precondition for the highest things, should be recognized as the precondition for the lowest and thus should be discouraged. And all kinds of work contributing to the progress of the world should be esteemed. Moneymaking, which for millennia was viewed with suspicion, should be appreciated for its potential contributions to world progress. And manual labor, which for millennia was viewed as slavish, should be appreciated for its utility as discipline against sin and thus contribution to individual progress.

The opinions from which the American work ethic was derived were born in the shadows of the Roman ruins and the Christian castles of Europe, but they took root and flourished fully in America, in the absence of a landed nobility and the medieval church. There was infinite progress to be made in America, where work was more highly esteemed in part because there was a surplus not of workers but of work. Although those things that were honored in Europe were honored still, in America they were honored less. Land ownership was less of a point of distinction, for land was cheap and nearly all owned land. The finest tailors were thousands of miles away. Even then, there were not royal courts in which to make grand appearances. It could take months for news to reach Europe and more months still for monarchical praise and blame to be heard. In many ways America was neither a monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy but a work-tocracy. Whereas audiences once concerned themselves with leisured nobles (Achilles, Odysseus, Lancelot), Americans have concerned themselves with workers (Tom Joad, Willy Loman, Travis Bickle). And whereas leisured nobles once ruled almost exclusively (Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Henry V), America has been ruled by a canal boat pilot, storekeeper, and school principal (James A. Garfield, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson). No ancient emperor or medieval king ever made the assertion that President Theodore Roosevelt did, that "far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing" (Labor Day speech, 1903).

At no time have Americans been unified in their estimation of work, however. Even in the beginning, the American work ethic varied from occupation to occupation (farmer-craftsman), region to region (North-South), age to age (industrial-postindustrial), culture to culture (German Protestant–Irish Catholic), and individual to individual. Some have been openly critical of the American work ethic (Henry David Thoreau). Innumerable variations on the work ethic have existed, but there are perhaps six that best manifest what the American work ethic was, is, and will be. Three were prominent by the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 (Agrarian, Craft, Southern). A fourth emerged soon thereafter at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Entrepreneurial). And a fifth came of age at the end of the nineteenth century and dominated the twentieth (Industrial).

Agrarian Ethic

As in ancient and medieval times, most worked the land in 1776. Yet most of those who worked the land were neither slaves nor serfs. Most were free and independent, working land that they themselves owned. Free and independent farmers were widespread and highly esteemed. Farming in America offered a life of relative self-sufficiency. If one was willing to depend on nature and one's own labor, one could reduce one's odious dependence on other human beings. Most believed farming to instill virtue. The rigors of rural life were thought to have a chastening effect. Thomas Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence, president of the United States, and scientist), who was not a yeoman farmer himself, declared that if God had a chosen people it was those who labor in the earth, that genuine virtue was to be found in their breasts, and that their way of life was the way of life antithetical to corruption. He hoped that yeomen farmers would be the ruling class far into the future. Such opinions contrasted sharply with those of a more ancient scientist, Aristotle, who considered farmers to be incapable of genuine virtue and political rule because they lacked sufficient leisure. And such opinions contrasted sharply with those of the medieval church, for the church then taught those that worked the land to be obedient, not independent, and that priestly forgiveness, not toil, led to salvation. Even as America became less rural and more urban, the Agrarian Ethic remained a powerful cultural force.

Craft Ethic

As in ancient and medieval times, some were also craftsman in 1776. Although craftsmen were perhaps not as independent or as highly esteemed as farmers, they enjoyed a relatively high status in America. American craftsman tended to be more independent, less subject to poverty, and more admired than their European counterparts. Paul Revere was a silversmith. Benjamin Franklin (signer of the Declaration of Independence, author, and scientist) was himself a printer and included in his Autobiography a list of thirteen virtues indicative of those characteristics held in esteem by colonial craftsmen (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, humility). This list differed markedly from the moral virtues discussed by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics (courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, ambitiousness, patience, friendliness, truthfulness, wittiness, justice). And it differed markedly from the teaching of the medieval church insofar as, among others, faith and charity and hope were absent. Franklin published numerous aphorisms that reinforced his thirteen virtues in Poor Richard's Almanack (1732–1757). Industry, for example, was reinforced with aphorisms such as "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise," "Never leave that till to-morrow which you can do to-day," and "Little strokes fell great oaks."

Such aphorisms were one means by which the American work ethic was sustained. Such means were necessary because virtue tended toward vice. Ancient virtue, for example, bred courage. Courage bred a capacity for conquest. A capacity for conquest bred pursuit of empire. And pursuit of empire eventually led to destructive failure or corruptive success. Similarly, the Protestant work ethic engendered industriousness. Industriousness engendered a capacity for wealth. A capacity for wealth engendered pursuit of wealth. And pursuit of wealth tended to lead eventually to a forgetting of the two Calvinistic purposes of work: work as discipline against sin and work as glorification of God through improvement of the world. In other words, work tended to wealth, which tended to idleness and idolatry. Hence aphorisms aimed at these particular tendencies entered the common language. For example, "Idle hands do the devil's work" and "God helps those who help themselves." John Wesley (founder of Methodism and Anglican missionary in America) recognized these tendencies and warned against them. "What way can we take that our money-making may not sink us to the nethermost hell? There is one way, and there is no other under heaven. If those who gain all they can and save all they can will also give all they can, then, the more they gain the more they will grow in grace and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven." But at no time did American farmers or craftsmen, for whom frugality was a cardinal virtue, keep themselves poor by giving away excess wealth. And, ever so slowly, the American work ethic became less suspicious of idleness and more idolatrous, less devout and more religiously devoted to material success as an end in itself. Although some do continue to maintain a decidedly Calvinistic disposition toward pleasure, living a joyless quest for joy by accumulating wealth but not using it. For example, retirees dying on mattresses filled with millions and CEOs with no time or energy for the pleasures their money might buy.

Southern Ethic

The Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Mayflower in 1620 were not the first to found a lasting settlement in the British colonies. A less Calvinistic group of colonists had founded Jamestown in 1607. The differences between these two colonies, Plymouth Colony located north of the Hudson River and Jamestown located south of the Hudson River, foreshadowed the most historically significant geographic variation on the American work ethic. In both the North and the South, most work was performed by yeomen farmers, craftsman, indentured whites, and black slaves. And although most white farmers in the South owned no slaves, there was a much greater reliance on black slavery in the South. In the southern variation on the American work ethic, work was, to a degree, considered not sacred but slavish. And there was a greater appreciation of leisure. Although no landed, hereditary, leisured class ever took root in America, southern opinions about work within the uppermost class were in many ways closer to those of the ancients and medievals than the moderns insofar as they held work more as something to be endured and leisure as something to be appreciated. Yet a fully leisured class never developed. Had the southern climate been milder, had primogeniture been established, had the Civil War not broken out (1861), or had the degree of destruction been less, the Southern Ethic might have developed more fully and balanced the Calvinistic elements of the American work ethic to a greater degree. But the South lost the Civil War and consequentially much of its influence. From colonial times until the Civil War, the South was in many ways an equal to the North. A majority of the leading generals during the American Revolution and a majority of the early presidents were from the South (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison). But the victory of the North was so devastating that it took nearly a century for the region to recover. And the southern elite, those who held the least Calvinistic opinions about work, never did recover. And so the American work ethic came to reflect the Calvinistic opinions of New England more and the southern opinions about work less. Remnants of the Southern Ethic remain, of course. For example, the pace is still somewhat slower in the South. Yet the differences are not as substantial as they once were. Those in the South do basically the same kinds of work and hold basically the same opinions about work as people in every other part of the country.

Entrepreneurial Ethic

After the Revolutionary War, there was a push westward. Most were still farmers and some were still craftsman but nearly all were becoming more commercial. Enterprises were being undertaken. Roads and canals were being built. Crops from west of the Alleghenies were feeding the growing urban populations in the East or being shipped to the markets of Europe. Visiting America in the first half of the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville (French political writer, 1805–1859), perhaps the keenest observer of American society, suggested that Americans approached life as a game of chance or a battle. This gambling spirit, prevalent on the frontier, was not as evident among the earliest farmers and craftsman of New England who tended to be more cautious, to view gain without pain suspiciously, and to prefer frugality to spending money to make money. And gambles often depended on or resulted in debt and dependency. Yet these traits were also accompanied by a certain strength of soul, as families frequently rebounded after losing all.

The miraculous element of the Entrepreneurial Ethic was widely celebrated, the making of something out of nothing. One such rags-to-riches story was that of Andrew Carnegie (industrialist and philanthropist) who emigrated at age thirteen from Scotland, began as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill, and ended as one of the richest men in America. As waves of immigrants came to America in the nineteenth century, many poor and without any particular skills, rags to riches became the ideal. Immigrants during the nineteenth century were less likely to speak English and more likely to settle in cities with those of similar backgrounds. Agrarian independence was less attainable for later immigrants as good land became scarcer and commercial farming required more capital. Those without land settling in cities became almost entirely dependent on wages and thus on the health of the American economy. And as many immigrants arrived without particular skills, the independence of the craftsman also became less attainable. Although most prefer to work for others, some do still work for themselves. Such small business owners perhaps best typify the Entrepreneurial Ethic today.

Industrial Ethic

In the beginning of the twentieth century, a majority worked either directly or indirectly in industry. Those on factory floors and those supporting the manufacturing process from offices performed increasingly specialized work. The independent farmer was a manager, a laborer, a mechanic, a buyer, and a seller whose work varied from season to season and was not timed. The independent craftsman and the entrepreneur performed a similar variety of tasks. This lack of specialization cultivated the intelligence. But work in industry, whether work performed by a laborer on the floor of a factory or work performed in the offices of a factory, was specialized. Efficiency was pursued by managers such as Frederick W. Taylor (industrial engineer, 1856–1915) who developed time and motion studies in order to increase efficiency. Reliability, consistency, and an ability to focus on repetitive tasks for long periods of time were the sorts of virtues that became part of the Industrial Ethic.

American Work Ethic in the Twenty-First Century

A variety of developments will likely shape the American work ethic in the coming century. Cultural diversity is higher than it has ever been. Political rights of racial minorities and women are now recognized. Economically America is less industrial and more service oriented. And perhaps of the greatest significance for the future, Americans now have a decidedly non-Calvinistic view of leisure and pleasure. Like the ancients, Americans now appreciate leisure, although in a way very different from the ancients and the medievals. Americans work hard and play hard. And unlike the Calvinists, Americans are more favorably disposed to pleasures of all kinds, performing work with the intention and expectation of enjoying the fruits of their labor.


American Social History Project. Who Built America? Working People and the Nation's Economy, Politics, Culture, and Society. Volume 1: From Conquest and Colonization to 1877. Volume 2: From the Gilded Age to the Present. Edited by Bruce C. Levine et al. New York: Pantheon Books, 2001.

Applebaum, Herbert. The American Work Ethic and the Changing Work Force. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Bernstein, Paul. American Work Values: Their Origin and Development. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Gutman, Herbert G. Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America: Essays in American Working-Class and Social History. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Innes, Stephen, ed. Work and Labor in Early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

———. Creating the Commonwealth: The Economic Culture of Puritan New England. New York: Norton, 1995.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619–1877. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Maccoby, Michael, and Terzi, Katherine A. "What Happened to the Work Ethic?" In The Work Ethic in Business. Edited by W. Michael Hoffman and Thomas J. Wyly. Cambridge, Mass.: Oelgeschlager, Gunn, and Hain, 1981.

Matthaei, Julie A. An Economic History of Women in America: Women's Work, the Sexual Division of Labor, and the Development of Capitalism. New York: Schocken, 1982.

Rodgers, Daniel T. The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1950– 1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.


See alsoCalvinism ; Democracy in America ; Labor ; Protestantism .


views updated May 17 2018

work / wərk/ • n. 1. activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result: he was tired after a day's work in the fields. ∎  (works) [in comb.] a place or premises for industrial activity, typically manufacturing: he found a job in the ironworks. 2. such activity as a means of earning income; employment: I'm still looking for work. ∎  the place where one engages in such activity: I was returning home from work on a packed subway. ∎  the period of time spent during the day engaged in such activity: he was going to the theater after work.3. a task or tasks to be undertaken; something a person or thing has to do: they made sure the work was progressing smoothly. ∎  the materials for this: she frequently took work home with her. ∎  (works) Theol. good or moral deeds: the Clapham sect was concerned with works rather than with faith.4. something done or made: her work hangs in all the main American collections. ∎  the result of the action of a specified person or thing: the bombing had been the work of a German-based cell. ∎  a literary or musical composition or other piece of fine art: a work of fiction. ∎  (works) all such pieces by a particular author, composer, or artist, regarded collectively: the works of Schubert fill several feet of shelf space. ∎  a piece of embroidery, sewing, or knitting, typically made using a specified stitch or method. ∎  (usu. works) Mil. a defensive structure. ∎  (works) an architectural or engineering structure such as a bridge or dam. ∎  the record of the successive calculations made in solving a mathematical problem: show your work on a separate sheet of paper.5. (works) the operative part of a clock or other machine: she could almost hear the tick of its works.6. Physics the exertion of force overcoming resistance or producing molecular change.7. (the works) inf. everything needed, desired, or expected: the heavens put on a show: sheet lightning, hailstones—the works.• v. (past worked or archaic wrought / rôt/ ) [intr.] 1. be engaged in physical or mental activity in order to achieve a purpose or result, esp. in one's job; do work: an engineer who had been working on a design for a more efficient wing | new contracts forcing employees to work longer hours. ∎  be employed, typically in a specified occupation or field: Taylor has worked in education for 17 years. ∎  (work in) (of an artist) produce articles or pictures using (a particular material or medium): he works in clay over a very strong frame. ∎  [tr.] produce (an article or design) using a specified material or sewing stitch: the castle itself is worked in tent stitch. ∎  [tr.] set to or keep at work: Jane is working you too hard. ∎  [tr.] cultivate (land) or extract materials from (a mine or quarry): contracts and leases to work the mines. ∎  [tr.] solve (a puzzle or mathematical problem): she spent her days working crosswords. ∎  [tr.] practice one's occupation or operate in or at (a particular place): I worked a few clubs and so forth. ∎  make efforts to achieve something; campaign: we spend a great deal of our time working for the lacto-vegetarian cause.2. (of a machine or system) operate or function, esp. properly or effectively: his cell phone doesn't work unless he goes to a high point. ∎  (of a machine or a part of it) run; go through regular motions: it's designed to go into a special “rest” state when it's not working. ∎  (esp. of a person's features) move violently or convulsively: hair wild, mouth working furiously. ∎  [tr.] cause (a device or machine) to operate: teaching customers how to work a VCR. ∎  (of a plan or method) have the desired result or effect: the desperate ploy had worked. ∎  [tr.] bring about; produce as a result: with a dash of blusher here and there, you can work miracles. ∎  [tr.] inf. arrange or contrive: the chairman was prepared to work it for Phillip if he was interested. ∎  (work on/upon) exert influence or use one's persuasive power on (someone or their feelings): she worked upon the sympathy of her associates. ∎  [tr.] use one's persuasive power to stir the emotions of (a person or group of people): the born politician's art of working a crowd.3. [tr.] bring (a material or mixture) to a desired shape or consistency by hammering, kneading, or some other method: work the mixture into a paste with your hands. ∎  bring into a specified state, esp. an emotional state: Harold had worked himself into a minor rage.4. move or cause to move gradually or with difficulty into another position, typically by means of constant movement or pressure: [tr.] comb from tip to root, working out the knots at the end | [intr.] its stanchion bases were already working loose. ∎  (of joints, such as those in a wooden ship) loosen and flex under repeated stress. ∎  Sailing make progress to windward, with repeated tacking: trying to work to windward in light airs.PHRASES: at work engaged in work. ∎  in action: researchers were convinced that one infectious agent was at work.give someone the works inf. treat someone harshly. ∎  kill someone.have one's work cut out be faced with a hard or lengthy the works being planned, worked on, or produced.out of work unemployed.set to work (or set someone to work) begin or cause to begin work.the work of —— a task occupying a specified amount of time: it was the work of a moment to discover the tiny stab one's ass (butt, etc.) off vulgar slang work extremely one's fingers to the bonesee one's passage pay for one's journey on a ship with work instead of one's way through college (or school, etc.) obtain the money for educational fees or one's maintenance as a student by one's will on/upon accomplish one's purpose on: she set a coiffeur to work his will on her wonderssee wonder.PHRASAL VERBS: work something in include or incorporate something, typically in something spoken or something off1. discharge a debt by working.2. reduce or get rid of something by work or activity: one of those gimmicks for working off out1. (of an equation) be capable of being solved. ∎  (work out at) be calculated at: the losses work out at $2.94 a share.2. have a good or specified result: things don't always work out that way.3. engage in vigorous physical exercise or training, typically at a someone out understand someone's something out1. solve a sum or determine an amount by calculation. ∎  solve or find the answer to something: I couldn't work out whether it was a band playing or a record.2. plan or devise something in detail: work out a seating plan.3. poetic/lit. accomplish or attain something with difficulty: malicious fates are bent on working out an ill intent.4. (usu. be worked out) work a mine until it is exhausted of minerals.5. another way of saying work something off someone over inf. treat someone with violence; beat someone severely: the cops had worked him over a little just for the fun of through go through a process of understanding and accepting (a painful or difficult situation): they should be allowed to feel the pain and work through their to follow or operate within the constraints of (a plan or system): working to tight up to proceed gradually toward (something more advanced or intense): the course starts with landing technique, working up to jumps from an enclosed someone up (often get worked up) gradually bring someone, esp. oneself, to a state of intense excitement, anger, or anxiety: he got all worked up and started shouting and something up1. bring something gradually to a more complete or satisfactory state: painters were accustomed to working up compositions from drawings.2. develop or produce by activity or effort: despite the cold, George had already worked up a fair sweat.DERIVATIVES: work·less adj.ORIGIN: Old English weorc (noun), wyrcan (verb), of Germanic origin; related to Dutch werk and German Werk, from an Indo-European root shared by Greek ergon.


views updated May 11 2018


WORK . Once, at the dawn of creation, in the Golden Age, when earth and sky were conjoined (or when there was only sky), when only children, or the first human pair, inhabited the world, there was no "work." Only God, or the gods, worked their divine eternal play, the uncompelled sport of inexhaustible creativity. Only the primordial smith, the primal maker, seeded or molded the earth as archetypal sower or first craftsman. The fruits of the earth were available to all.

The world range of the myth indicates the universality of the theme. In ancient narratives from the Vedic, Greek, and Judeo-Christian traditions, from Africa, from North and South America, the subsequent fall from this paradisiacal state is widely associated on the one hand with some false move or a human choice based on some petty, selfish desire and on the other with the plunge into the condition humaine nakedness, the loss of immortality, the withdrawal of the sky, the opening of Pandora's box of woes, the cycle of birth and death, and the sentence to hard labor for life.

The tale is compelling on several counts. Most people experience lack of ease in their endeavorsas Marsilio Ficino notes in a letter on the work of the mind (Epistolae 2.1), they seem to be rolling the stone of Sisyphus up the steep slopes of the mountainand wish to find rest. Equally it can be argued that on some level everyone, even the unemployed, the idle rich, and the thief, is working at something and longs to find fulfillment in that work. Indeed, the history of labor, from Adam and Eve to the arts (or, by extension, to the most advanced technology), is literally the history of humankind.

At the same time, myth provides the notion of a deeper level of universality: The sentence to work symbolizes humanity's physicality in the world in the sense its separation from the divine, the cosmic, the natural. From this breach follows all suffering and toil. Significantly, in some versions of the story the point is made that in fact some form of work was originally designated for human beings. The Book of Genesis, for instance, indicates that Adam was first placed in the garden to work (or till) and keep it (2:15; cf. 2:5); only after the Fall is there talk of toil or suffering (ʿitstsavon) and the sweat of the brow. Similarly, according to a common African theme God originally meant the world to be a tilled garden, with no bloodshed, work, or sorrow. Depicting a reversed sequence of the human encounter with toil and ease, ancient Chinese myth relates that the primal figure Gun labored in vain to tame the great flood; only his son Yu, by going with the flow of things, was able to complete the task and make the earth suitable for cultivation. A distinct line is drawn between the first human participation in divine workthe easy yoke of conformance to the cosmic orderand the labor under which humans burden. In the words of the Hebrew scriptures, this is the heathen world of the "work of men's hands" (Dt. 4:28, 2 Kgs. 19:18, Is. 2:8), the cosmos bereft of hierophany. It is a treadmill on which humans are bound to do it all themselves, including the manufacture of their own clay gods.

Physical Work

Removed from sacred context, human activity is in itself simply neutral bodily movement. Whether the task is slopping the pigs or pushing papers around in a corporate office, work may be experienced as exhausting or, if the natural and efficient operation of the body is discovered, it may be felt as easy, enjoyable, even rewarding, at least up to the point when muscle fatigue or mental torpor takes over. But work unrelated to any higher meaning threatens to inspire the "work ethic" that so fascinated Max Weber: Labor itself becomes the end of life, at best valorized as the worship of accomplishment, success, or physical prowess, at worst crystallized into a nightmare of the most menial physical chores, undertaken in a tortured attempt to keep one's own body (and perhaps the body of one's immediate family) alive "between a sterile earth and an uncontrollable sky" (Agee, 1960, p. 325).

By contrast, esoteric traditions in both primal myth and organized mystical discipline assign human activity to a hierarchy of levels among which physical human bodies constitute only the most readily discernible plane. Transcending that plane is the world of the mind, which has its own work and rest; beyond that, the realm of the inner self, or spiritual being. Within this context, religious work is the actualization of principle through action, to be realized on all three levels.

Physical work may be taken as a starting point of experience, since one has to begin where one is: in the physical world. But bodily work serves as a metaphor for work on some other level, as in the New Testament parables about laborers, or in this passage by the Palestinian tanna arfon: "The day is short, and the work is great, and the laborers are sluggish, and the reward is much, and the Master is urgent" (Avot 2.20, cited in Sayings of the Fathers, New York, 1945, p. 43). The performance of physical work may even be experienced as metaphor, as when sweeping the floor is taken as a spiritual task and becomes a means of revelation (cleansing myself, or the face of God).

Religiously viewed, physical work serves outwardly to maintain the world, in the sense of renewing its structure (maintaining the order of the cosmos) or in the simple sense of paying creation back for the life than one has received as a gift. Both work itself, as a reflection of the primal structuring of the world, and the cycles of rest that punctuate it are ways of acknowledging the creative source as supreme. The injunction to serve the earth directly, to earn one's daily bread literally, is an expression of this inexorable law of just returns. It is honored by the apostle Paul ("If any would not work, neither should he eat"; 2 Thes. 3:10), the Chan master Hyakujo ("No work, no food"; in Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, New York, 1957, p. 70), and Gandhi in his invocation of the Bhagavadgītā 3.12 ("He who eats without offering the sacrifice eats stolen food"). Since the world itself is based on sacrifice (the supreme deity's creation of everything from nothing, or from his own substance), "this body, therefore, has been given us, only in order that we may serve all Creation with it" (Gandhi, 1960, p. 12). This fullhearted acceptance of the human condition as a call to labor in the sweat of one's face may be the supreme act of obeisance (the ūfī servant of God prostrate in the dust of the desert), or it may be an act of total obedience in penance for the original sin of disobedience, as Simone Weil proposed (Weil, 1952).

In another view, physical work expresses the primary function of the human being among all creatures: Humans are enjoined to subdue the earth and thus to reassert the hierarchical order of creation. At the same time, work subdues the earth of the human body, as anyone who has engaged in extended physical exertion will testify. Not only Western monastics but the Eastern Fathers as well called for severe labor (along with weeping) as ascetic practice. The early Shakers (for whom the terms work and worship were as synonymous as they were for the Benedictines) called their frenzied exercises laboring and communally shook off their physicality to the tune of such songs as The Zealous Laborer ("Oh, how I long to be released / from every feeling of the beast"). Yet consciously applied physical work is more than simple mortification of the flesh. It can be a strengthening, cleansing, a temporary bypass of the usual, interfering complex of mental associations, comparable to any other form of meditation.

Mental Work

In an essay that serves to define work at the mental level, Simone Weil reflected that the purpose of academic study is ultimately to "help form the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer" (Weil, 1973, p. 108). From the view of esoteric tradition, the function of mental work is to direct activity to the level of spirit (or the harmonious universe, or the gods). This is accomplished, first, by practicing a condition of attention at rest in which physical or intellectual activity can proceed naturally, and second, by deliberately dedicating the activity to the sacred realm. The outward work may be offered for the welfare of all (the bodhisattva's vow) or to the god or goddess in charge of the specific field of endeavor; or its fruits may be sacrificed to the supreme self. By this direction of attention or intention, outward work of whatever kind is acknowledged to be sacred or construed as living prayer in the sense of the Christian monastics' laborare est orare or what the Tibetan monk Chögyam Trungpa has called "meditation in action." Such mental work serves the heart of orthodox spiritual praxis, which decrees all activity to be valorized at every moment by dint of its relationship to the divine and all work to have for its goal the realization of one's natural being. This is the alchemical opus of transformation to a higher state.

Spiritual Work

Preparation for the spiritual event of self-realization is traditionally the only real work there is. It demands the most stringent of efforts, calling as it does for the elimination of such obstacles as egocentrism and attachment to results and the abandonment of compulsive human activity (the attempt to make things go as one would like them to). In the ūfī classic Maniq al-ayr (The conference of the birds) Farīd al-Dīn ʿAār warns that on the path to God "a hundred difficulties will assail you. You will have to make great efforts. The Spiritual Way reveals itself only in the degree to which the traveller has overcome his faults and weaknesses, his sleep and his inertia, and each will approach nearer to his aim according to his effort" (trans. Nott, New York, 1954, pp. 98, 107).

Yet it is in keeping with the mystical paradox that whenever this spiritual effort is encountered consciously, the outward effort is negated. When the simple working of the laws of nature are perceived through attention, experienced as my own nature, and allowed to act unimpeded by personal interference, work on any level becomes "not doing," "nonaction," "inaction." In the words of Zhuangzu, "The mind of a perfect man is like a mirror. It grasps nothing. It expects nothing. It reflects but does not hold. Therefore, the perfect man can act without effort" (trans. Watson). Similarly, the Dao de jing refers repeatedly to the sage who works without doing; the Bhagavadgita states that "the knower of truth, seated in the Self, thinks 'I do nothing at all, though seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, speaking, letting go, grasping, opening and closing the eyes' "(5.8f).

Nondoing is an entirely pragmatic matter, as witnessed even by the dry psychological records of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "flow experience" reports, descriptions of moments in which subjects engaged fullheartedly in activity have experienced a release from habitual limitations and the work is seen to "flow by itself." "The secret of power," wrote Emerson, "is delight in one's work. Place yourself in the stream of power and wisdom which animates all whom it floats, and you are without effort compelled to truth, to right and a perfect contentment." The arts have been classically sacralized in this sense, of course. The spirit of the Shaker craftsmen no less than that of medieval scribes fostered an atmosphere of meditative stillness in which the direction of the work would present itself effortlessly in the moment of the creative act. Similarly, Simone Weil's statement that "attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object" has the ring of an instruction in Zen art. In a frequently translated passage from Zhuangzu, Prince Wenhui learns the art of life from his cook, who explains his observation of the Dao in carving up an ox: There are natural spaces through which the blade simply passes, and the carcass falls apart of itself.

Surely this is the message of Jesus' invitation "Come unto me, ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Mt. 11:28). If the Dao can arise in the interstices between a cleaver blade and the joint of the bullock, why not in the space between an iron and a shirtsleeve, or between an editor's blue pencil and the manuscript page? In that space, work itself literally constitutes rest, earth and sky are conjoined, and the sentence of human work resolves back into its source, becomes what it has always been in reality: God's work, the play of his creation.

See Also

Art and Religion; Attention; Fall, The; Golden Age; Shabbat.


The richness of the subject is hardly matched by the number of works that directly address it at any length. Dennis Clark's Work and the Human Spirit (New York, 1967) offers a very general sociocultural discussion from the Christian view. Etymological considerations are well served by Klaus R. Grinda's study Arbeit und Mühe: Untersuchungen zur Bedeutungsge-schichte altenglischer Wörter (Munich, 1975), which demonstrates that words in English meaning "work" and those meaning "effort, labor, suffering" stem from entirely separate semantic fields. Readers who wish to address the theme of sacred and profane meanings of work may be moved by James Agee's intense, poetic vision of physical toil at a level utterly bereft of sacrality; see the section "Work" in Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941; Boston, 1960), pp. 319325.

Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1958; New York, 1976) presents his classic interpretation of the development of the "work ethic" of modern capitalism through the influence of ascetic Protestant doctrine. Gandhi's plea for widespread commitment to "bread labor" as a service to creation is offered in a small collection of his published statements and newspaper essays, Bread Labour: The Gospel of Work (Ahmedabad, 1960). For a document of the Catholic view of work, see the encyclical Laborem exercens from the pen of John Paul II, published as On Human Work (Washington, D.C., 1981). Much of the discussion is devoted to social-humane issues, but see pages 915 and the section "Elements for a Spirituality of Work" on pages 5360.

Simone Weil's The Need for Roots (1952; New York, 1971) presents her vision of physical labor as simultaneously the most torturous "subjection to matter" and the most transcendent human activity. Her wonderful essay "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God," in Waiting for God (1951; New York, 1973), pp. 105116, offers profound insights regarding attention in work at any level. The same volume includes a brief discussion of physical work on page 170.

Finally, two books explore in depth the theme of craft as a way of self-knowledge: Carla Needleman's The Work of Craft (New York, 1979) and D. M. Dooling's A Way of Working: The Spiritual Dimension of Craft (New York, 1979), a collection of essays by various hands.

New Sources

Fox, Matthew. The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time. San Francisco, 1994.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler. The Art of Happiness at Work. New York, 2003.

Schnall, David. By the Threat of Your Brow: Reflections on Work and the Workplace in Jewish Thought. New York, 1991.

Volf, Miroslav. Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work. New York, 1991.

Karen Ready (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 23 2018



It may seem that everyone knows what work meansmost people have engaged in activities that they call work, and they know that institutions and social structures are sustained through the work of large numbers of individuals in society. Yet, a closer examination reveals that the concept of work has a long and contested history. Peter David Anthony, for example, characterizes work as anything that gives people moral responsibility and spiritual significance. He writes that if life has any meaning, work has meaning because life is work (1980, p. 419). Along the same lines, Sean Sayers notes that the experience of being without a job is profoundly demoralizing and unfulfilling (1988, p. 731). In contrast, Herbert Applebaum argues that work in the modern world is purely instrumental. It is a mere means to gain a living, not an activity of value in itself, not a means of self-expression (1992, p. 573). Paul Thompson (1983) characterizes work as a loss of autonomy and an experience of being confined by the scheduling and disciplining of others. As Nona Glazer summarizes, work is a problematic concept (1993, p. 33).

Common to the various debates on the meaning of work, however, is the recognition that in the contemporary social and economic system, work has an economic and moral function. As Arlene Kaplan Daniels notes, in modern industrialized society, the most common understanding of the essential characteristic of work is that it is something for which we get paid (1987, p. 403). In addition, the recognition of an activity as work gives it a moral force and dignity: To work and earn money is also to gain status as an adult (p. 404).

Many of the ways in which we think about work in relation to pay and value have been influenced by the writings of Karl Marx (18181883). Marx noted that the process of exchange makes all the different types of labor homogeneous; this homogeneous labor, which produces commodities, is called abstract labor. Value is measured in terms of abstract labor, which in turn is measured in terms of the time necessary to produce a commodity vis-à-vis another commodity (Bottomore 1991a, p. 565). In this way, Marx described value as not something intrinsic to a single commodity apart from its exchange from another (Bottomore 1991a, p. 566). Marx constructs value as a social relation rather than a description of a thing (Rubin 1972, p. 70). Under capitalism, laboror workitself becomes a commodity that is bought and sold. One of the central ways that we organize our understanding of work is in terms of the jobs people do. Jobs are classified into sectors, such as agricultural, industrial, manufacturing, managerial, and service, according to the main activities involved. Around the world, jobs are deeply stratified by gender. For example, women tend to predominate in agricultural employment in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa. Women in most parts of the world hold many of the jobs in the service sector, such as community, social, and personal services, whereas men dominate in the business and financial sectors (Elder and Schmidt 2004).

Not all labor, or work, is valued equivalently. Work done by engineers, financiers, and managers is well paid, while the service jobs in which many women, people of color, and recent migrants are employed are precarious and poorly paid. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 1.39 billion people (almost 50 percent of the worlds workers) do paid work but earn less than two dollars per day. These people form the working poor, who are employed yet simultaneously live below the poverty line (ILO 2004).

Many scholars have focused their analyses on how work is deeply stratified in terms of gender. Peta Tancred notes that it is often assumed that women are born with certain natural skills which require neither talent nor training, and which are merely part of their natural, feminine behaviour (1995, p. 17). Jane Aronson and Sheila Neysmith document the experiences of home-care workers who do work that is similar to that which would otherwise have been assumed by female relatives. Although home-care workers are paid, their work is accorded little status and assumed to require little skill (Aronson and Neysmith 1996, p. 61).

Feminist theorists also provide vivid illustrations of the ways in which individuals are expected to re-create particular versions of masculinity and femininity as part of their jobs. Lisa Adkins, for example, discusses the jobs of catering assistants within a leisure park, where women are required to have the right appearance to be employed. This right appearance includes being attractive and looking fresh and not looking weird or too butchy (Adkins 1995, pp. 105106). Adkinss study provides an illustration of the ways in which occupations are segregated not only by sex (i.e., biological femaleness or maleness) but more importantly by gender (i.e., appropriate manifestations of masculinity and femininity).

Jobs, and the organizations within which they are situated, do not just require individuals to conform to stereotypical notions of femininity and masculinity. As Jennifer Pierce notes, gendered structures shape workers practices at the same time that workers participatewittingly or notin the reproduction of gender relations (1995, pp. 23). Gender is a continual process, being actively created and resisted within organizational structures. The ways in which women and men both reproduce and re-create a variety of gender norms through their jobs is illuminated in Elaine Halls analysis of interactions between table servers and customers. Hall demonstrates the ways in which expectations of behavior conforming to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity are not universally held, but rather are contextually developed. For example, both female and male table servers think that the public expects waitresses to be more friendly than waiters and cross-sex interactions to be more friendly than same-sex interactions (Hall 1993, p. 460). Female customers, however, are seen only by the waiters, and not by waitresses, to be friendly. Friendliness is, in this case, not a component of femininity across contexts, but rather a gendered process developed within the particular work role assigned to waitresses (termed by Hall a service script ) (1993, p. 461).

In addition to the gendered nature of work, only certain activities are labeled as work in the first place, depending on the social context. An activity such as sewing a shirt can be paid work, unpaid work, or leisure, depending on the context. This raises the questions of how certain activities get labeled as work and how some are deemed worthy of remuneration. Feminist theorists have noted that the strong economic orientation in conventional understandings of work fails to recognize much of the work that women do in our societies. Domestic chores and childcare are seldom recognized as work, even though they require more effort, commitment, and skill than many paid jobs. In fact, a lot of work is difficult to classify in terms of payment. Marjorie DeVault (1991) describes the work that goes into feeding a family, which involves not only cooking but also planning, provisioning, and being attentive to family members nutritional needs and individual tastes. Many of these activities are not only unpaid, they cannot be paid for. For example, if one were to make a detailed list of the activities that are involved in finding a place to live in a new city, one would find that many of the activities (such as figuring out where like-minded people live; balancing such factors as the size, brightness, and proximity of the apartment; and reconciling the needs of various family members) cannot be done by others, even for pay. These activities require emotion work (Daniels 1987).

As Deanne Messias and colleagues argue, attempts to define work in terms of economic activity are met with the problems of having to determine where noneconomic housework ends and economic activity begins (1997, p. 307). Given that women more often than men assume primary responsibility for family work (Pierce 1995) and that women are significantly more likely to be employed in jobs requiring emotion work (Wharton 1993), much of womens work is not only unpaid, but also cannot be paid for. Writers have called these tasks tailoring work and note that it is such invisible work that sustains many of our social structures. Daniels, for example, argues that the normative expectation in every industrialized society is that women will coordinate public and purchased services with the private requirements of their families [and] this tailoring is part of the invisible work in social life (1987, p. 405). Glazer provides illustrations of the tailoring work that women do through her analysis of the growth of self-service and self-care in the American retail and health-care industries. Self-service in shopping, for example, translates into considerable work for the customer. This work, done by women, involves gaining knowledge about goods, locating and evaluating items, and transporting goods to the home. The tailoring work involved in shopping is constructed as leisure (Glazer 1993, pp. 49102). In a similar way, cost-cutting measures in health care involve a work transfer where women learn and do high-technology health care at home, which includes providing food, changing linen, bathing, toileting, keeping detailed records, and administering medication. This care is treated as routine housekeeping rather than being recognized as skilled work integral to the U.S. health-care system (Glazer 1993, p. 179).

The discussion above illustrates the political nature of the concept of work and the ways in which different definitions of work signify gender, race, and class hierarchies within society. It can be seen that only certain activities are labeled as work, depending on the social context. William Ronco and Lisa Peattie, for example, ask what distinguishes work from a hobby and reveal the fuzziness of these categories. They conclude that the distinction between work and hobby is thus not inherent in the activity; it lies in the social context in which the activity is carried out (1983, pp. 1318). The consequence of the social labeling of only certain activities as work is that these activities hold higher financial and normative status in contemporary society. Given the importance of unpaid, family, and emotion work, conventional definitions of work need to be constantly challenged.

SEE ALSO Clock Time; Work and Women; Work Day


Adkins, Lisa. 1995. Gendered Work: Sexuality, Family, and the Labor Market. Buckingham, U.K.: Open University Press.

Anthony, P. D. 1980. Work and the Loss of Meaning. International Social Science Journal 32 (3): 416426.

Applebaum, Herbert. 1992. The Concept of Work: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Aronson, Jane, and Sheila M. Neysmith. 1996. Youre Not Just in There to Do the Work: Depersonalizing Policies and the Exploitation of Home Care Workers Labor. Gender and Society 10: 5677.

Bottomore, Tom. 1991a. Labour Power. In The Dictionary of Marxist Thought, ed. Tom Bottomore, 565571. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bottomore, Tom. 1991b. Value. In The Dictionary of Marxist Thought, ed. Tom Bottomore, 296301. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.

Daniels, Arlene Kaplan. 1987. Invisible Work. Social Problems 34: 403415.

DeVault, Marjorie L. 1991. Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Elder, Sara, and Dorothea Schmidt. 2004. Global Employment Trends for Women. Employment Strategy Paper 8. Employment Trends Unit. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

Glazer, Nona Y. 1993. Womens Paid and Unpaid Labor: The Work Transfer in Health Care and Retailing. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Hall, Elaine J. 1993. Smiling, Deferring, and Flirting: Doing Gender by Giving Good Service. Work and Occupations 20 (4): 453466.

International Labour Organization (ILO). 2004. World Employment Report 200405: Employment, Productivity and Poverty Reduction. Geneva: ILO.

Messias, Deanne K. H., Eun-Ok Im, Aroha Page, et al. 1997. Defining and Redefining Work: Implications for Womens Health. Gender and Society 11 (3): 296323.

Pierce, Jennifer. 1995. Gender Trials: Emotional Lives in Contemporary Law Firms. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ronco, William, and Lisa Peattie. 1983. Making Work: Self-Created Jobs in Participatory Organizations. New York: Plenum Press.

Ronco, William, and Lisa Peattie. 1988. Making Work: A Perspective from the Social Sciences. In On Work: Historical, Comparative, and Theoretical Approaches, ed. R. E. Pahl, 709721. New York: Blackwell.

Rubin, Isaak I. 1972. Basic Characteristics of Marxs Theory of Value. In Essays on Marxs Theory of Value, 6375. Trans. Miloš Samardźija and Fredy Perlman. Detroit, MI: Black and Red.

Sayers, Sean. 1988. The Need to Work: A Perspective from Philosophy on Work: Historical, Comparative, and Theoretical Approaches, ed. R. E. Pahl, 709721. New York: Blackwell.

Tancred, Peta. 1995. Womens Work: A Challenge to the Sociology of Work. Gender, Work, and Organization 2 (1): 1120.

Thompson, Paul. 1983. The Nature of Work: An Introduction to Debates on the Labour Process. London: McMillan.

Wharton, Amy. 1993. The Affective Consequences of Service Work: Managing Emotions on the Job. Work and Occupations 20: 205232.

Kiran Mirchandani


views updated May 11 2018


Religion and work are intertwined in complex ways. Sometimes religious beliefs and teachings give rise to cultural norms; sometimes religious and social standards are mutually supportive; and sometimes religion challenges prevalent views and practices. Three characteristics surrounding labor in the United States demonstrate how religion motivates, upholds, and confronts the world of work; they are the work ethic, the gender division of labor, and the right to work and workers' rights.

Work Ethic

Religious beliefs and teachings motivate individuals' labor and also sustain society's views toward work. Max Weber, a German social scientist, described how religion was an incentive for work. He noted that in northern Europe, prior to the Industrial Revolution, a set of ideas with Lutheran and Calvinist origins was prevalent; he termed it the "Protestant ethic." The ethic connected labor in this world to salvation in the next. It inspired people to work hard and long, to limit consumption of material goods, to save money, and to reinvest profits into business enterprises. It disposed workers to meet the production needs of fledgling industries, and it furthered the pursuit of wealth in commercial enterprises. Ultimately it contributed to the Industrial Revolution and to the growth of capitalism as an economic formula that stressed productivity and prosperity. In the United States the ethic was sometimes called the "Puritan ethic" in recognition of one religious group that brought it to the colonies.

Over time, the religious ethic converted into a secular one: working hard, remaining disciplined, seeking success, and cultivating profit became cultural norms. The ethic permeated individuals' lives and became so prevalent that the term "workaholic" was coined for individuals who manifest an extreme work ethic. Religious leaders, while encouraging work, also warn about sacrificing family for career. (See Salkin, 1994.) They exemplify how religion plays a dual social role, both upholding and confronting existing beliefs and norms.

The work ethic was reflected in the creed of commerce stressing acquisition and prosperity, which spread globally from Western Europe and the United States. Devoid of religious association, norms developed that promote acquiring profits, accumulating material goods and wealth, demonstrating disciplined effort, and making prudent expenditures. Business enterprises routinely appealed to "the bottom line" of profit, even when defending policies, practices, and procedures that negatively affected the employment and conditions of workers.

Further, the work ethic was manifest in U.S. policy. The cultural link between market forces and individuals' labor was reflected in income redistribution policies based on the premise that the market takes care of people's needs. Individuals' supplementary benefits are tied to their means, and decisions about welfare distribution are based on how much income individuals have and on whether they are "deserving"—that is, medically unable to work or, at least, trying to find a job. Often those without jobs and/or receiving welfare benefits are stigmatized. In contrast, many other industrialized societies distribute minimum benefits based on citizenship or on some other criterion not related to job-holding. (For further elaboration see Esping-Anderson, 1990.) In sum, the centrality of a "work ethic" is clear in the commerce and policies of the United States as well as in the motivations of individual workers.

Gender Division of Labor

Religious beliefs and teachings are tied in with the way work is divided by gender in the United States. Sometimes religious groups explicitly educate about gender roles and work; however, there is wide variability in teachings among and within groups. (See Demmit, 1992 and Ellison and Bartkowski, 1997.) More often, long-standing cultural norms implicitly reflect religious and other influences and shape labor in two ways. First, they affect individuals' occupational preferences and their actual selection of jobs. An emphasis on women's procreative, nurturing, and sustaining family roles legitimizes women's gravitating toward specific kinds of jobs and sanctions how men and women treat and value work inside and outside the home. Some want women to work at home; some think that women's work away from home should be in jobs, such as volunteering and doing part-time work, that do not interfere with family responsibilities. Others prefer jobs that socialize, nurture, or otherwise mirror women's roles in kinship groups, such as teaching, nursing, and service work. Often these jobs, as well as volunteer work, are named "good works."

Second, an emphasis on women's work as secondary or supportive to men's affects the groupings of workers available for employment, the apportioning of jobs by gender, the ranks in which women labor, and the type of rewards they get. Women are found in "pink-collar" occupations (i.e., occupations that are mostly filled by women, such as nurse, beautician, elementary-school teacher) and clustered at lower ranks (e.g., sales). Women are overly represented in part-time jobs and in the secondary labor market, which includes jobs that provide minimal benefits to workers in terms of income, job security, and chances to advance. And women in full-time employment earn about three-fourths of men's income. Certainly religion is not wholly accountable for the apportionment of the labor market in the United States, but affinities are apparent between religious beliefs and teachings and gendered occupational patterns and job choices.

The Right to Work and Workers' Rights

Religious groups often articulate the right of individuals to provide for themselves and their families as well as their duty to do so. They emphasize that self-reliance contributes to personal dignity and self-respect. (See Maxwell 1998.) Some church groups (e.g., the Mormons) make available employment rehabilitation and placement services. They maintain employment centers and enterprises that hire members. In so doing, religious groups support existing cultural norms about the value of work and individuals' right to it.

Some religious groups stress the rights of laborers and thus confront existing social norms. For example, churches in the South articulated the rights of African Americans to work and to have equal opportunities for employment during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The Roman Catholic Church in its teachings articulates the rights of workers: the priority of labor over capital, the importance of participation in decision-making, the need for just wages and decent working conditions, and the prerogative to unionize. (See National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1986.) At times such teachings are explicitly involved in labor conflicts, even within church organizations. For example, in 1998 Catholic Healthcare West, the second-largest hospital network in California, faced unionization demands from ten thousand workers in ten hospitals in Los Angeles and Sacramento, who called attention to religious principles about their rights to join workers' associations. Indeed, issues surrounding the right to work and the rights of workers manifest how religion both accommodates to and comes into conflict with the culture and realities surrounding work in the United States.


In the 1950s, Gerhard Lenski studied the connection between individuals' occupational mobility and their religious denominations. The Protestant-Catholic differences found then had vanished by the 1970s. Nonetheless, the term Lenski coined, the "religious factor," captures a persistent feature of the culture and practice of work in the United States. The norms, values, beliefs, teachings, and practices of religion both sustain and confront the work world and labor within it. Put simply, a "religious factor" permeates work and vice versa.

See alsoCivil Religion; Gender Roles; Sociologyof Religion; Spirituality.


Demmit, K. "Loosening the Ties That Bind: The Accommodation of Dual-Earner Families in a Conservative Protestant Church." Review of Religious Research 34 (1992): 3–19.

Ellison, C. G., and J. P. Bartkowski. "Conservative Protestantism and the Household Division of Labor." Paper presented at the Association for the Sociology of Religion Meetings, Toronto. 1997.

Esping-Anderson, Gösta. The Three Worlds of WelfareCapitalism. 1990.

Greeley, Andrew. The American Catholic: A Social Portrait. 1977.

Lenski, Gerhard. The Religious Factor: A SociologicalStudy of Religion's Impact on Politics, Economics, andFamily Life. 1963.

Maxwell, Neal A. "Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel." Ensign 28, no. 5 (1998): 45.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy." 1986.

Salkin, Jeffrey. Being God's Partner: How to Find the Hidden Link Between Spirituality and Work. 1994.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1930.

Katherine Meyer

Work (As a Psychoanalytical Notion)

views updated May 09 2018


In its general sense, the word work denotes an expenditure of energy by a system or organism that produces an effect or transformation. In psychoanalysis, mental work is taken to mean any activity of the psychical apparatus that is designed to deal with instinctual excitations.

As early as "Some Points for a Comparative Study of Organic and Hysterical Motor Paralyses" (1893c), a paper originally published in French, Freud introduced a notion cardinal to his entire work: "Every event, every psychical impression is provided with a certain quota of affect (Affektbetrag ) of which the ego divests itself either by means of a motor reaction or by associative psychical activity.... [T]his conception (Vorstellung ) does not become liberated and accessible so long as the quota of affect of the psychical trauma has not been eliminated by an adequate motor reaction or by conscious psychical activity" (pp. 171-172). It was therefore on the basis of clinical experience that the idea of mental work imposed itself on Freud the therapist as a necessary activity for the patientas distinct, in particular, from the patient's more passive role in treatment using hypnosis. In his earliest psychoanalytical writings, it was a cognitive kind of work that was seen as making it possible to resolve the contradiction between an unacceptable idea that had aroused a painful affect and the ego. The aim of such "associative working over (assoziative Verarbeitung )" (1894a, p. 50) was to integrate forgotten ideaswhich Freud would later call repressed ideas into the realm of consciousness.

By drawing this distinction between associative mental work and a motor discharge comparable to the reflex arc, Freud not only described the aim of such work, namely to deal with the quota of affect, but also offered a first glimpse of what was to become psychoanalysis: the study of the functioning of the psychical apparatus, and at the same time a therapeutic method designed to bring back into consciousness, by means, precisely, of psychic work, ideas that had been repressed. The term work appears frequently in Freud's writings, and very often it refers to one or other of these two aspects of psychoanalysis.

It is significant that Freud chose a term belonging at once to ordinary and to scientific language in order to describe his view of the psychical apparatus: by analogy with the natural sciences, which he so often invoked, he took work to mean a physical measure implying a certain expenditure of energy. Throughout Freud's writings, in fact, the idea of work supplied him with the yardstick with which to gauge every manifestation of mental activity, not only within the treatment (the work performed respectively by analyst and analysand, as discussed for example in the Studies on Hysteria [1995d]), but also in respect of the operation of various mental processes (as for instance the dream-work, joke-work, the work of mourning, or the psychic work of repression in the child during the oedipal period).

Beginning with The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Freud considered"since nothing but a wish can set our mental apparatus at work" (p. 567)that the dream was a wish-fulfillment, and that it was governed by the pleasure principle. The task of the dream-work, whose chief mechanisms Freud described as condensation, displacement, considerations of representability, symbolization, and secondary revision, was to transform the formative components of dreamsdaily residues, bodily stimuli, dream-thoughtsinto a manifest content acceptable to the otherwise vigilant consciousness of the dreamer. In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905c), Freud discussed the work involved in the construction of jokes, an activity designed to produce pleasure, and demonstrated its kinship with the mechanisms of the dream. The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d) introduced the sexual instinct as a way of conceptualizing the pressure for work mobilized by desire; the work of the psychic apparatus was thus deemed to be the management of excitations emanating from the sexual instinct.

In "Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning," (1911b), Freud reasserted that the activity of the psychical apparatus was governed by the pleasure principle, but he added that in the course of development the reality principle could establish itself and modify things: "Just as the pleasure-ego can do nothing but wish, work for a yield of pleasure, and avoid unpleasure, so the reality-ego need do nothing but strive for what is useful and guard itself against damage" (p. 223). Later, in "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-17g [1915]), Freud showed that mourning was responsible for the work of withdrawing libido from the object in situations where the object was highly cathected.

The word work was used throughout Freud's writings, too, to denote effort expended during analytic treatment, whether by the analyst or by the patient. In his paper on "Constructions in Analysis," for example, he reminded his readers "that the work of analysis consists of two quite different portions, that it is carried on in two separate localities [and] involves two people, to each of which a distinct task is assigned." Moreover, the "person who is being analysed has to be induced to remember something that has been experienced by him and repressed; and the dynamic determinants of this process are so interesting that the other portion of the work, the task performed by the analyst, [may be] pushed into the background" (1937d, p. 258). The analyst's said task Freud nevertheless compared first of all to that of the archaeologist; he then distinguished between two kinds of work on the analyst's part that were undertaken in parallel: construction (or reconstruction) and working-through (durcharbeiten ), the second being needed in order to overcome the resistances that the analyst's constructions were liable to provoke in the patient.

Finally, Freud did not overlook the everyday meaning of work as professional activity. Like Voltaire, whom he cited, he underscored the great value of work in this sense, but for his part he viewed it from the standpoint of the economics of the libido, and described it as a form of sublimation offering the possibility "of displacing a large amount of libidinal components, whether narcissistic, aggressive or even erotic"; to the extent that it made possible "the use of existing inclinations . . . or . . . instinctual impulses," any profession could be "a source of special satisfaction" (1930a [1929], p. 80n).

Many recent approaches to psychoanalysis have given a significant place to the notion of work. A notable example is André Green's "work of the negative," which, though it is a product of the death instinct, functions in a sense by making the negative positive: a void, a lack, or a state of mourning itself becomes an object of identification or an object susceptible of cathexis, to the detriment of the absent object itself. Negative hallucination, the function of disobjectalization, negative narcissism, or the complex of the dead mother are so many paradigms of the work of the negative in operation.

René Angelergues (1993) has distinguished between two qualitative orientations of mental work, the one toward sublimation, the other toward erotization. It is also worth mentioning the "work of thought" (Anzieu, 1996; Mijolla-Mellor, 1992). And, lastly, the phenomenon of mentalization, which, according to theÉcole de Psychosomatique de Paris, deals with the quantity and quality of an individual's ideasand is thus closely akin to that mental work which has the capacity to cope with and manage anxiety and intraspsychic conflicts.

MichÈle Pollak Cornillot

See also: Adolescent crisis; Autohistorization; Construction/reconstruction; Dream work; Interpretation of Dreams, The ; Mourning; Negative, work of; "Outline of Psycho-Analysis, An"; Preconscious, the; Secondary revision; Therapeutic alliance; Working-through.


Angelergues, René (1993). L'Homme psychique. Paris: Calmann-Levy.

Anzieu, Didier. (1996). Créer, détruire. Paris: Dunod.

Freud, Sigmund. (1893c [1888-1893]). Some points for a comparative study of organic and hysterical motor paralyses. SE, 1: 155-172.

. (1894a). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.

. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I, SE,4: 1-338: Part II, SE, 5: 339-625.

. (1905c). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. SE, 8: 1-236.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.

. (1916-17g [1915]). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.

. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

. (1937d). Constructions in analysis. SE, 23: 255-269.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE,2.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1992). Le Plaisir de pensée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.


views updated May 14 2018


The term work has a very specific meaning in physics that is different from the everyday use of the term. In physics, the amount of work (W) is the distance (d) an object is moved times the amount of force (F) applied in the direction of the motion: W = Fd. If the force is not parallel to the direction of motion, the force must be multiplied by the cosine of the angle between the force and the direction of motion to get the component of the force parallel to the motion.

A unit of work in the English system of units is the foot-pound (ft-lb). One foot-pound is equivalent to the amount of work necessary to raise one pound of mass through a height of one foot at sea level. In the CGS (centimeter-gram-second) system of units, one erg equals a force of one dyne traveling one centimeter. However, more commonly the joule is used for work, which is equal to 107 ergs. Joule is the unit in the SI (System International) system for work, which is equal to the force of one newton as it moves through one meter of distance in the direction of the applied force. (One newton, in the SI system, is the force necessary to give a one-kilogram mass an acceleration of one meter per second per second.) Used often with work, power is the rate of doing work (work per time). In the English system, one horsepower (hp) is equal to 550 ft-lb/sec and, in the SI system, one watt is the power of one joule per second.

Who is doing more work: a weight lifter holding up, but not moving, a 200 lb (91 kg) barbell, or an office worker lifting a pen? The weight lifter is certainly exerting more effort, and many people would say he is doing more work. To a physicist, however, the office worker is doing more work as long as the weight lifter does not actually move the barbell. The weight lifter does a considerable amount of work lifting the barbell in the first place, but not in holding it up.

If the force applied in the direction of motion is zero, then the work done is zero regardless of the amount of motion. Likewise, if the distance moved is zero, then the work done is zero regardless of the force applied. Any number multiplied by zero is still zero. In the above example, the weight lifter is exerting a large force, but as long as he does not actually move the weight he is doing zero work, just exerting a lot of effort. The office worker does not need to exert much force to lift the pen, but the force is not zero. So lifting and moving the pen is more work than supporting but not moving the weight. Now, think about the weight lifter actually lifting the weight. There is a large force required to lift the weight, and it moves several feet. The weight lifter is now doing quite a bit of work. To do work, one must actually move something. Just exerting a force, no matter how large, is not enough.

See also Energy.


views updated Jun 11 2018

426. Work


dull, laborious, or menial work. drudge , n.
an obsession with public employment.
an abnormal fear of work.
an instrument that records the amount of work done when a muscle contracts. ergographic , adj.
the study of the effect of work on mind and body. ergologist , n.
a mania for work.
a person who loves to work.
a hatred of work.
faineance, faineancy
laziness; the state of being idle. fainéant , adj.
a work practice under which workers are able, within certain limits, to choose their own hours of work.
1. laborious work or study, especially when done late at night.
2. the work, as a book or treatise, produced or apparently produced this way. lucubrator , n.
1. the state or quality of being industrious or busy.
2. the condition of being toilsome. operose , adj.
the policy or practice of maintaining an office or position that provides income without demanding any or much work or attendance. Also sinecureship. sinecure , n.
the methods of scientific factory management first introduced in the early 19th century by the American engineer Frederick W. Taylor, especially the differential piece-rate system.
an abnormal fear or dislike of being idle.
the practice or advocacy of working as a volunteer, often with the hope of thereby gaining paid employment in the same field.