Theoretical Traditions in the Sociology of Work by Steven Vallas
Karl Marx based his theories on the premise that human labour was the foundation of all
social institutions and social consciousness.
Max Weber disputed this argument but also saw organized systems of domination-
especially bureaucratic ones- as key features of the modern world
Emile Durkheim also devoted much attention to the increasing division of labour within
advanced societies, arguing that occupational associations would provide a key nexus for
Marx’s earliest writings focused on the problem of alienation from work
Marx argued that with the rise of the factory system, workers lost the artisanal connection
to their products and tools they had previously enjoyed.
As merchants and capitalist gradually took control of the production process, workers
became estranged, or alienated, from their labour in four distinct but interrelated ways
o First, the workers no longer owned the goods they produced, which now belonged
to the capitalist (PRODUCT)
o Second, workers came to view their own labour as devoid of any intrinsic
o Third, Marx contended that workers were forced to fight tooth and nail for their
mere subsistence (FELLOW WORKERS)
o Fourth, workers began to seek out only the most animalistic like satisfaction, such
as food, drink, or sexual gratification. Marx therefore concluded that workers
were increasingly alienated from their own human abilities (SPECIES-BEGAN)
Arlie Hochschild points out that many occupations serving the public now formally
oblige workers to perform “emotional labor,” thus placing their facial expressions and
emotional sensibilities under the control of the corporations that employ them.
Robin Leidner’s study of fast food workers and insurance salesmen explores the ways in
which corporations seek to routinize the interactions that occur between service workers
and customers- a task that compels corporations to train workers how and when to smile,
how to sound upbeat and enthusiastic, and how to incorporate standardized scripts into
their interactions with customers.
Marx sketched out an argument about industrial capitalism that has proven highly
influential for contemporary theorists and political movements.
o Marx argued that during the transition to capitalism, the organization of the
production process revolutionized traditional forms of work
Marx meant that machinery, as a form of capital, had become a power over the workers,
controlling their actions in ways that helped factory owners to extract profits from the
workers they employed. Marx believed that the competitive pressures of the capitalist marketplace compelled
factory owners to impose an increasingly authoritarian form on the production process,
first by lengthening the working day and then by intensifying the labour process,
especially with the aid of machines.
Weber’s work has come to be viewed as a “debate with the ghost of Marx” in the sense
that Weber sought to refute many of the arguments that Marx had advanced