Work Orientation

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The sociology of work emerged as a specialty area in the 1980s, when the American Sociological Association prepared a compendium of course syllabi for the area and a number of textbooks appeared. The name of this sociological subfield is new, but the general area is not. The sociology of work represents an integration of two long-standing specialties: industrial sociology and occupations/professions. It also draws from industrial and organizational psychologists and sociologists' attempts to integrate stratification and organization literatures to better understand the employment relationship.

The study of the employment relationship encompasses a multitude of topics ranging from how the individual is initially matched to a job to all that happens on the job (being paid, becoming satisfied or dissatisfied, forming cliques, etc.) and to turnover (quitting or being dismissed). Considered important to these topics are the orientations employees have toward their work, the topic of this article.

Definitions of work abound, but most include the following features. First, although groups or collectivities may be viewed as actors involved in work (e.g., work groups, task groups, teams, or committees), the focus of attention, and therefore the unit of analysis, is usually the individual. Second, the individual is involved in physical or mental activity. Third, this activity usually involves some form of payment, but pay is not necessary for an activity to be considered work. This allows people involved in housekeeping activities to be included, along with family members who labor to support a family enterprise and volunteer helpers. Fourth, the activity involves the production or creation of something. Fifth, this usually is a good or service. Sixth, this good or service is valued by the individual or others and thus usually is consumed by either or both. Work thus is defined as the mental or physical activity of an individual directed toward the production of goods or services that are valued by that individual or others.

"Orientation to work," unfortunately, is a term without a clear or precise meaning. Generally, it is used to refer to two broad areas: (1) motivation to work and (2) responses to work. The first area covers why people work and for some time has occupied the attention of industrial and organizational psychologists, who analyze need hierarchies, self-actualization, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. The second area has more often attracted the attention of sociologists. It takes the activity of work as given and addresses the ways in which individuals react to it. Job satisfaction and commitment have been given the most attention when sociologists study reactions to work.

This article is organized around work motivation and responses to work, but it places those topics the context of the social organization of the workplace. With only a few exceptions, work occurs in a social setting that has been called a "contested terrain" by Edwards (1979). Sociologists want to go beyond strictly individualistic portrayals of human behavior and are especially interested in understanding how this social setting, the workplace, affects an individual's work orientation. The explanations of this influence, often referred to as social control arguments, are discussed here. Finally, gender differences in work orientations need to be addressed. However, because the concept of alienation is related to job dissatisfaction and has been so prevalent in sociological accounts of work, it is considered first.


Sociologists continue to draw from Marx in referring to an alienated individual as being separated or estranged from certain aspects of work that give meaning and significance to that work and to life as a whole. For Marx, these aspects of work are control over the product, control over the work process, creative activity, and social relations with others. Clearly, a negative side of work is portrayed when alienation is the concept of interest.

A survey of journals and sociology of work texts over the past several decades suggests that sociologists have lost interest in this concept. For example, indexes for 1980s texts (e.g., Kalleberg and Berg 1987) do not include the term "alienation," and the Price and Mueller (1986) handbook on the measurement of major organization concepts does not devote a chapter to alienation. Even in 1990s texts and anthologies (e.g., Hodson and Sullivan 1995; Wharton 1998), alienation is given only limited attention.

This does not mean that interest in alienation is dead. Three things have happened. First, interest has shifted to conceptualizing and measuring positively worded concepts such as like job satisfaction. Second, scholars have moved away from the picture of capitalist work settings universally producing alienated workers and gone on to formulate a picture of multidimensional work settings and multimotivated employees who respond to work in varying ways. Third, out of this more pluralistic image of work, several concepts—for example, work motivation, self-actualization, job satisfaction and commitment—have emerged in an attempt to bring more precision to descriptions of how individuals are oriented to their work. Thus, alienation has been absorbed into several other concepts.

A particular line of research has implications for understanding alienation: Following more a Marxian picture of work, it has been assumed that the more formal and bureaucratic the workplace is, the more alienated (dissatisfied) the workers are. This assumption has been challenged with the argument that formal rules and regulations actually increase satisfaction in the workplace because they provide guidelines that apply to all and thus protect workers from arbitrary and unfair treatment. Although workers may not like the rules, the authority system is perceived as legitimate because all workers are treated according to the same formal rules. Research supports this more positive portrayal of formal rules and regulations.


Historically, sociologists have flirted with psychological concepts such as work motivation and work involvement and have disagreed about the relevance of those concepts to the study of social phenomena. For example, among the authors of the sociology of work textbooks in the past two decades, only Hall (1986) gives critical attention to the theoretical and empirical literature on the topic. Any treatment of work orientation must include this material, however, because most current literature is an offshoot of or a reaction to those theories.

Work motivation is the internal force that activates people to do the work associated with their jobs. Two theoretical traditions have been dominant. First, need theories argue that individuals are motivated by internal needs that usually develop early in life and often are not consciously recognized. Maslow (1954) identified a hierarchy of needs and claimed that higher-order needs (goals) cannot be met until lower-order needs are met sequentially. This hierarchy begins at the bottom with basic physiological needs and ends at the top with self-actualization. Others have modified Maslow's hierarchy into a continuum with fewer levels and with the idea that lower-order needs may reemerge at later stages as unmet. Herzberg (1966) was more interested in job satisfaction and argued that individuals are motivated by two types of factors: "Motivators" are the more intrinsic features of work, such as responsibility, advancement, and achievement, whereas "hygiene" factors characterize the workplace and include pay, job security, and working conditions. When motivators are present, employees are satisfied, but if they are absent, employees are not. When the hygiene factors are present, employees are neither dissatisfied nor satisfied, but when they are absent, employees are dissatisfied. McClelland (1961) argued that certain socialization environments produce a need for achievement and that individuals socialized in that manner strive for excellence in whatever they undertake. Management scholars were especially interested in this theory since it suggested who should be hired or promoted. Finally, McGregor (1960) argued that assumptions about human nature and motivation have resulted in two approaches to organizational design. Theory X is based on the assumption that individuals are basically lazy and are motivated primarily by extrinsic rewards such as pay. Theory Y assumes that humans act responsibly and contribute their skills and talents when their intrinsic needs, such as self-actualization, are met. This distinction is not unlike the classic dichotomy between functionalist and Marxian portrayals of society and human nature.

Overall, these need theories have lost favor. The empirical support is weak, the use in applied settings has proved difficult because of problems associated with measuring need levels and attempting to alter personality patterns that have developed in childhood, and the significance of the environment has been neglected.

The second dominant perspective—expectancy theory—comes from organizational and industrial psychologists. It bypasses the issue of needs and emphasizes cognitive and rational processes. The underlying assumption is that motivations to work vary substantially from one individual to the next and are mutable across time and space (Vroom 1964; Lawler 1973). Motivations reflect the interplay of effort, expectations about outcomes, and the importance or value given to those outcomes. Put another way, a person's motivation to behave in a particular way is a function of the expected results and how valuable those results are to that person. Until recently, this theory has been dominant in studying work motivation in industrial and organizational psychology.

Sociologists are generally aware of these motivation theories and, like psychologists, now give less attention to need theories. However, unlike psychologists, they have not been overly interested in the theories per se of work motivation. In fact, psychologists have led the way in developing theories of motivation, and sociologists usually are a generation behind in adopting or rejecting those theories. For example, Smither (1988) mentions equity, behavioral, and goal-setting theories as receiving much attention in the psychological work motivation literature. Although equity theory has been explored for some time experimentally by sociologists, there is no evidence that sociologists have adopted in significant way any of these "newer" approaches to work motivation. What sociologists do in practice matches the expectancy model more closely. The picture is one in which "the fit" of an individual's characteristics and expectations with the actual work conditions forms the basis for whether that individual is motivated.

What sociologists have emphasized instead of motivation theory is socialization to work, that is, how individuals learn their work roles. This is not surprising given the long-standing interest of both sociologists and social psychologists in socialization processes. One stream of thought in this area concerns socialization into professional roles, where a popular strategy is to examine career stages. Another approach is represented by the work of Kohn and Schooler (1982), who not only argue for the intergenerational class-based transmission of work values but also propound and demonstrate reciprocal effects: An individual's work orientations (e.g., self-direction) are affected by job conditions, but those orientations also affect the kinds of jobs with which the individual is associated.


Although the wording of definitions for "job satisfaction" has varied dramatically across disciplines and scholars, there is a near consensus on what the concept is. Smith et al. (1969) succinctly define it as the degree to which individuals like their jobs. The common element across definitions like this is the idea of the individual positively responding emotionally or affectively to the job.

The major issues in the study of job satisfaction are (1) What produces job satisfaction? (2) What are the consequences of differing levels of job satisfaction? and (3) Is it a global or unitary concept, or should facets (dimensions) of it be investigated?

Two dominant arguments exist regarding the determinants of job satisfaction. The first is that an individual's job satisfaction is determined by the dispositions or "personality" traits that an employee brings to the workplace. In simple terms, individuals vary along a continuum from a negative to a positive orientation. These dispositions are reflected in a person's responses to work conditions as well as to aspects of life such as family satisfaction and more general life satisfaction. The second argument is considered more "sociological" and emphasizes the importance of the work conditions an employee experiences. This approach is closer to a Marxian perspective in that it is the structural conditions of the workplace that make work rewarding or not rewarding; any individual dispositional differences that exist wane in importance in the face of these structural features.

Although sociologists give lip service to the disposition argument, the literature unequivocally documents a stronger interest in identifying the features of work that affect job satisfaction. Within this perspective, however, there is considerable disagreement about which features of work are important. One major debate concerns whether extrinsic (e.g., pay and fringe benefits) or intrinsic (e.g., self-actualization and task variety) features of work are more important. Following a needs framework or arguments from neoclassical economics about economic rationality leads one to argue that the extrinsic features must exist before the intrinsic features become important. In contrast, an expectancy argument would state that any of these features can be important and that it is the fit of what is found in the workplace with what the individual expects and values that is crucial in determining the satisfaction level. A popular argument that has an expectancy logic associated with it comes from the justice literature. A theme common to all distributive justice theories is that an individual compares his or her actual reward with what is believed to be just or fair. Individuals expect a just reward and are dissatisfied if a reward is unjust. Another frequently used general perspective for understanding the effect of work conditions on job satisfaction is social exchange theory, which also relies on an expectancy logic. As developed initially by Homans (1958) in the study of small groups and extended to the study of organizations by Blau (1964), exchange theory argues that individuals enter social relations in anticipation of rewards or benefits in exchange for their inputsand/or investments in the relationship. Simply put, workers are satisfied with their jobs if the rewards they value and expect are given to them in exchange for their work effort and performance.

It is impossible to summarize here the thousands of studies conducted on the determinants of job satisfaction. Instead, a list of variables that have been found to have some relationship with job satisfaction is provided (the sign indicates the direction of the relationship with regard to satisfaction): variety (+), pay (+), autonomy (+), instrumental communication (+), role conflict (−), role overload (−), work group cohesion (+), work involvement (+), distributive justice (+), promotional opportunities (+), supervisory support (+), task significance (+), and external job opportunities (−). Spector (1997) provides a more complete account of the determinants and correlates of job satisfaction.

The debate over which work conditions affect job satisfaction continues to direct the research of sociologists, but a more interesting question involves the disposition versus situation debate. Sociologists devote much effort to cataloging and operationalizing the objective structural features of work, and little attention is given to identifying and measuring the dispositional traits of individuals. Evidence, however, continues to mount that individuals exhibit basic dispositional traits (e.g., negative and positive affectivity) that are relatively stable throughout their lifetimes and over different employment situations (Watson and Clark 1984). This research strongly suggests that workers with positive dispositions usually are more satisfied with their jobs regardless of the work conditions, while those with negative dispositions seem not to be satisfied with anything.

Another issue concerns the consequences of job satisfaction. Two outcomes have received the most attention, primarily because of their practical significance to any business enterprise: job performance and withdrawal behavior, which includes absenteeism and voluntary turnover. The satisfaction–performance argument is of long-standing interest and thus has generated considerable empirical data. The hypothesis is that satisfaction is positively and causally related to productivity, and support is provided by meta-analyses showing a positive correlation of .25. In short, satisfied workers perform better, but the relationship is not a strong one. The weakness of this relationship could be due to the difficulties associated with measuring job performance, however.

With regard to the satisfaction–withdrawal relationship, the hypothesis is that the most satisfied employees will be the least often absent and the least likely to quit voluntarily. The meta-analyses for the satisfaction–absenteeism relationship suggest that the relationship is between -.10 and -.15, which is weak at best. The findings for the satisfaction–turnover relationship are stronger (meta-analysis correlation of -.25), but the conclusion is that job satisfaction serves more of a mediating function. That is, the structural features of work (e.g., promotional opportunities) and employee characteristics (e.g., education) directly affect job satisfaction (and commitment), which in turn affects turnover.

The final issue here is whether job satisfaction is a unitary concept or is a complex of many facets or dimensions. Since a fairly large number of work features are known to affect job satisfaction, it is logical to expect that individuals can be satisfied with some of these but not others. The data support this logic. In particular, there is evidence that for almost any distinct feature of the work situation—pay, autonomy, variety, work group cohesion, feedback—satisfaction scales can be developed that divide into distinct (but related) factors along these dimensions. This poses not only a theoretical problem but also a scale construction problem. As a simple example, a person may be satisfied with the pay but not satisfied with feedback about job performance. Combining scores for these two factors will show the person to be neither satisfied nor dissatisfied for the composite scale. In such situations, the rule of thumb is that scales developed to measure various satisfaction dimensions should not be combined. However, global job satisfaction scales—those which ask more generally about liking one's job—can be used to represent a person's general affective reaction to a job. Sociologists more often use these global scales and assume that work is experienced and responded to globally.

The facet approach clearly becomes more important in applied research. If an employer wishes to alter the work setting to increase job satisfaction, a global scale will be only somewhat helpful; a scale that captures satisfaction with pay, routinization, communication, and the like, will provide the information necessary to implement specific structural changes. Numerous established measures of job satisfaction, both global and facet-based, exist (see Cook et al. 1981; Price and Mueller 1986; Spector 1997).


Although some concepts, such as Dubin's (1956) central life interest and Lodahl and Kejner's (1965) job involvement, go back more than three decades, most of the interest in work commitment has emerged fairly recently, to a large extent during a time when interest in job satisfaction has been diminishing. If employee commitment is defined as the level of attachment to some component or aspect of work, the door is opened to a large number of types of commitment. The most common strategy adopted for understanding various types of commitment is to differentiate between the components and the foci of commitment.

There are numerous potential foci of commitment, with those receiving the most attention being commitment to work, the career, the organization, the job, and the union. It is organizational commitment, however, that has received the most theoretical and empirical attention (Mueller et al. 1992). Considerable interest exists in how workers form and manage their commitments to multiple foci (Hunt and Morgan 1994; Lawler 1992; Wallace 1995). For example, if a worker is strongly committed to his or her career, will this translate into a similarly strong commitment to his or her employer (organization)? Although some suggest that commitment is a zero-sum phenomenon by which commitment to an employer must decline if commitment to one's career increases, research consistently shows that most commitments to multiple foci are positively related.

Three components of commitment have received the most attention (Meyer and Allen 1997): affective commitment, continuance commitment, and normative commitment. Affective commitment refers to a worker's emotional attachment to an organization. Organizational and industrial psychologists are given credit for initiating interest in this concept. They argue that commitment intervenes between various features of work and individual characteristics and the outcomes of absenteeism and voluntary turnover. Sociologists (e.g., Lincoln and Kalleberg 1990) tend to see the structural conditions of work as the ultimate causes of affective commitment. The evidence generally is consistent with the claims from both disciplines (Hom and Griffeth 1995; Mueller and Price 1990). Continuance commitment treats a person's degree of attachment as a function of the costs associated with leaving an organization. In practice, it has been operationalized as the employee's stated intention to stay (or leave). This form of organizational commitment can be traced back to Becker's (1960) side-bet theory. Individuals are portrayed as making investments (e.g., seniority, a pension fund, coworkers as friends) when they are employed in a particular organization. These side bets accumulate with tenure and thus become costs associated with taking employment elsewhere. An employee will discontinue employment only when the rewards associated with another job outweigh the accumulated side bets associated with the current one. Although the evidence for the reasoning behind this theory has not been supported, research has consistently shown a relatively strong negative relationship (meta-analysis correlation of -.50) between intent to stay and voluntary turnover. Much of the literature identifies intentions to stay or leave as intervening between affective commitment and turnover. Normative commitment refers to the felt obligation to stay with an employer. Remaining attached to an organization is what one should do even if one is not emotionally attached or has only a limited investment.

Without question, affective organizational commitment has dominated the scholarly interest of those who study organizational commitment. It is strongly positively related to job satisfaction and negatively related to absenteeism and turnover. These relationships indicate the importance of studying and understanding employee commitment not only to address the practical issues confronting human resource managers but also to address classical sociological concerns about the "glue" that holds social groups together.


This article began with a description of the workplace as a contested terrain, a social setting in which employer and employee struggle for control. The image that comes from most economists is that monetary rewards are what motivate both employers and employees: Employers want to maximize profits, and workers want high pay for their work. The implication of this for workers is that they will be satisfied and committed if their pay is high, and if it is not, they can quit to take another job. This argument and causal linkage have been challenged both empirically and theoretically in sociology. There are three issues here. First, as was alluded to above, pay is only one of many factors that affect satisfaction and commitment. Second, employers, not workers, historically have had the upper hand in controlling the workplace and establishing the employment relationship. Third, job satisfaction and commitment can and are manipulated by employers to increase productivity and retain employees. There have been several different historical accounts of how this employer control occurs (e.g., Clawson 1980; Edwards 1979; Jacoby 1985; Vallas 1993), but two basic models dominate the literature. They can be differentiated by whether the social control is direct or indirect and by the importance given to worker satisfaction and commitment in the control process.

The historically dominant model of the workplace portrays direct control of workers by the employer. Direct supervisory monitoring, "machine control," and strictly defined divisions of labor are used to control the behavior of employees. In such instances, job satisfaction and organizational commitment may emerge to increase performance, but they are viewed as secondary to the direct control that is essential to maximizing workers' productivity. The other model relies much less on direct supervision and control by the production process and instead argues that high-performance employees are controlled indirectly by manipulating work structures that in turn produce satisfied and committed workers. It is the satisfied and committed workers, then, who will be the most productive. Lincoln and Kalleberg (1990) argue for this model (called the "corporatist" model) in their study of U.S. and Japanese workers. Concretely, they find that organizational structures that facilitate participation, integration, individual mobility, and legitimacy result in more satisfied and committed employees. This sociological interest in workplace control has practical implications. The same dichotomy is recognized in human resource management (HRM), where the direct strategy is called the control strategy and the indirect strategy is called the commitment strategy (Arther 1994). Similarly, in education, concern with low achievement scores among U.S. students has resulted in a debate over the organizational design of schools (Rowan 1990). The more direct approach, also called the control strategy, is based on an elaborate system of bureaucratic controls for regulating classroom teaching and standardizing student learning opportunities and outcomes. The more indirect approach, also called the commitment strategy, rejects bureaucratic controls and standards and argues instead for innovative working arrangements that support teachers' decision making and increase their involvement in the tasks of teaching. The claim for the second approach is that satisfied and committed teachers are critical to improving student performance. Without question, then, worker satisfaction and commitment still constitute a major component in the critical debates about social control in the workplace, worker productivity, and societal outcomes such as student achievement.


Associated with the increase in sociological interest in gender inequalities over the last three decades has been an increased concern with whether the work orientations of women and men are different. Two questions have received considerable attention. One concerns whether women and men have different work values, and the other refers to what is called the gender job satisfaction paradox.

Research consistently has shown that women are just as satisfied (and often more satisfied) with their jobs as their male counterparts are. This is viewed as a paradox because women's jobs are on the average "worse" jobs with lower pay, less autonomy, and fewer advancement opportunities. Several arguments have been offered to account for this paradox (Phelan 1994; Mueller and Wallace 1996). Justice-related arguments center on (1) women accepting their lower rewards because of their lower inputs, (2) women being socialized to accept the idea that lower rewards are all they are entitled to, and (3) women being satisfied because they are comparing their rewards to those of other women, who also receive less. The consensus seems to be that the "other women as referent" explanation best explains the paradox. The major competing explanation is that women and men value different aspects of work. This leads directly to the question of gender differences in work values.

Probably the most popular explanation for the gender satisfaction paradox is that men value extrinsic rewards (e.g., pay, benefits, and authority) more than women do, while women value intrinsic rewards (e.g., social support) more than men do. As a consequence, women are not less satisfied when they receive less pay and are promoted less often than are men. Research findings strongly reject this argument, however. Women and men hold essentially the same workplace values (Hodson 1989; Phelan 1994; Mueller and Wallace 1996; Rowe and Snizek 1995; Ross and Mirowski 1995).

These similar workplace values do not mean, however, that men have the same degree of work–family conflict as do women. Research shows that this conflict is greater for women (Glass and Estes 1997). This finding only adds to the paradox: If women have worse jobs and experience more work–family conflict, why are they so satisfied with their jobs?


The last two decades in the United States have witnessed considerable change in the workplace. Organizations have downsized, hired more temporary (contingent) workers, and outsourced production tasks to become more flexible in competing in an increasingly global marketplace. In addition, the income gap between the top and bottom segments of society has grown, labor union membership has declined to an all-time low, and although unemployment continues to be low, job expansion has occurred mainly in the service sector, where many jobs do not have advancement potential. All this suggests that in the future workers can expect to move from employer to employer more often. Also, workers can expect to find that their employers are less concerned with whether employees are satisfied and less interested in gaining a long-term commitment from them. As a consequence, occupational or career commitment may become a more important motivating factor for workers than is organizational commitment or job satisfaction. Without doubt, this changing landscape for the employment relationship will keep sociologists interested in studying and understanding work values, job satisfaction, and commitment.


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