sociology of work

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sociology of work

a branch of sociology concerned with the attitudes, behaviour and relationships of those engaged in productive activity. As such, it has a number of levels of concern: the individual WORKER, the work GROUP, the ORGANIZATION and society. Traditionally the subject was known as industrial sociology and tended to focus on the attitudes and behaviour of production workers in industry. In recent years its subject matter has widened to take account of the shifts in occupational structure and the importance of work activities conducted outside formal employment (for example DOMESTIC LABOUR).

Industrial sociology emerged in the 1930s with the HAWTHORNE STUDIES. These studies were concerned with the social determinants of job behaviour, especially worker productivity. A notable feature of the Hawthorne studies was the (at the time) novel finding that JOB SATISFACTION was strongly influenced by the social experience of work and that satisfaction was itself an important determinant of worker output. These studies also highlighted the importance of GROUP influences on individual behaviour. Subsequent research in the new discipline was concerned with deepening the analysis of group dynamics and development, and with pinpointing more precisely the determinants of job satisfaction. For a while technological determinism – the notion that technology is the dominant influence on attitudes and behaviour – held sway (see ALIENATION). However, in the 1950s and 1960s, a growing body of thought suggested that there was no necessary relationship between technology and the social organization of work (see SOCIOTECHNICAL SYSTEM, JOB DESIGN AND REDESIGN) and hence a given type of technology could be used in various ways with varying effects on worker satisfaction. In addition sociologists came to appreciate the importance of individuals' expectations and requirements from work in determining their assessment of the quality of work experience (see ORIENTATIONS TO WORK).

In recent years the subject matter of the sociology of work has changed somewhat. Radical commentators have shifted the discipline to some extent to focus more explicitly on the structure of the relationship between employees and employers, and the inequities that flow from this. Arguing that the relationship is essentially one of exploitation, ‘labour process’ writers have argued that we need to examine the whole process by which employers achieve the ‘subordination’ of labour. In other words, how do employers control their workforces? It has been argued that there is a long-run tendency for employers to use the principle of SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT to reduce their reliance on workers' skills and independent thought. Control of labour is to be achieved by reducing workers to simple ‘cogs in the machine’. Critics have argued that many managements lack this degree of planning, and that workers resist such objectives anyway. Both radical sociologists and their critics share, however, a concern with CONFLICT at work and its sources.

In response to the growing participation of women in paid employment in recent years, sociologists have come to examine the characteristics of gender relationships at work, focusing especially on the inequalities of work and its rewards between the sexes, as well as the interrelationship between work and broader societal experiences. In addition, changes in the labour market – the decline of manufacturing employment, for instance – have generally caused sociologists to widen their focus from (male) production workers in paid employment to all kinds of work activity. See also ANOMIE, LABOUR FLEXIBILITY, FLEXIBLE SPECIALIZATION, HOMEWORKING, PART-TIME WORK.

Collins Dictionary of Business, 3rd ed. © 2002, 2005 C Pass, B Lowes, A Pendleton, L Chadwick, D O’Reilly and M Afferson
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