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Lecture 14. Sociology of labor and economic life

1. The social organization of labor (by Durkheim,Marx ).

2. Historical development of economics as a social system: agrarian, industrial, informational revolution

3 The subject of economic sociology.

4. The development of sociological ideas about economic life; Weber, Durkheim, Marx, K.Polani and the others.


1. No social theorist had a greater influence on the critical analysis of society than Karl Marx. For Marx the most important part of society is its economic system – the way in which people work and produce goods and services – and he saw this aspect as underlying all social relationships. These relationships were for him based largely on inequality and oppression, which therefore made it inherently unstable and contradictory. History, Marx believed, was divided into a series of distinct epochs, or modes of production, each characterised by a specific set of social relationships.


As with many thinkers, Marx's ideas changed over time. The early writings tend to focus on human nature (a humanist/romantic approach) while the intermediate and later writings are firmly "materialist", giving priority to the economy and economic relations. The object of his work as a whole is to conceptualise change, understood as the transition from one mode of production to another. History is seen as a developmental process culminating in communism, the last stage in social evolution. Within this theory of history, known as “historical materialism”, Marx developed with his long-time collaborator Friederich Engels, a theory of society that analysed the class structure and dynamics of capitalist society. Marx’s theories, although not as popular as they were due to the many problems arising out of practical attempts to implement communist society, are with recent modifications, still a powerful analytical tool within the social sciences and within political struggles against oppression around the world.


Emile Durkheim’s view in The Division of Labour is guardedly more optimistic than Marx’s blatant pessimistic analysis of the division of labour in the 18th-19th century capitalist society. While Marx saw the specialisation of labour as enslaving workers in their occupational role and causing acrimony between social classes, Durkheim believed that the promise of the division of labour outweighed the problems. He acknowledged that specialised division of labour and the rapid expansion of the industrial society contained threats to social solidarity. However, he still maintained that the division of labour could increase interdependence and thus reinforce social solidarity. He noted that in order to produce goods and services more efficiently, individuals had to specialise in particular roles. To him, this specialisation requires cooperation, which in turn leads to organic solidarity.


The main influences on Durkheim's thought are Henri Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte on the one hand and the attempt by some German theorists to apply the organic approach in biology to society. Durkheim accepted his predecessors’s definition of a positive social science and spent most of his life attempting to develop sociology into a respectable discipline. He is well known for his functional analysis of society even though he separated function from cause in his analyses. Durkheim argued that society evolved from a simple mechanical to a complex organic structure and that the change was caused by a range of factors including an increase in population. Furthermore, he insisted that society has an existence that was separate from the individuals who constitute it. Paradoxically, he attempted to provide a sociological explanation of individuality in the modern world.

Weber’s work can be seen as a critique of the deterministic bent of Marx and Durkheim’s materialist and structural functional view of individual agency in a capitalist society. Weber developed a sociological method known as “verstehen” that requires the sociologist to put aside their own values in order to subjectively understand the meaning behind other people’s actions. Another contribution of Weber’s is the notion of “ideal-types” – conceptual abstractions that people employ in trying to understand the complexities of the social world. He applied this concept most famously to his study of modern bureaucracy.


Max Weber’s work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism examines the relationship between the rise of certain forms of Protestantism (Calvinism) and the development of rational capitalism. He focused on the subjective world of the individual, and the meaning attached to the religious inspired social action. He looked at how religion shaped men’s mentality and affected their behaviour in various aspects of their lives, particularly their attitudes to economics. He saw Calvinism as a dynamic faith well suited to the progress of the modern world, the advance of the bourgeoisie, and the evolution of capitalism (Hamilton, 2000).


As was the case with Durkheim and Marx, Max Weber was primarily concerned with the emergence of modern capitalist society and the human relationships surrounding them. Similarly to Marx, Weber was interested in the issue of class, although he believed it was the product of a wider range of forces than simply the ownership of property. Furthermore, Weber explored the relationship between the Reformation and the ultimate rise of capitalism, as well as the increasingly complex administrative structures of the modern age.

The development and transformation of industrial capitalism from early 20th century to today’s global capitalism. Industrial capitalism refers to the system of mechanized and mass production of goods using a systematic division of labour and specialised management. This was exemplified by Henry Ford in his car factories in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Fordism became the model for the low-cost production of standardized goods for a mass market (aided by the mass media industry). We then consider the contentious notion of post-industrialism or post-Fordism, which is seen as a shift from heavy industrial production to more flexible methods of production. These are focused on innovation, diversity and quality, and requiring a reduced and multi-skilled labour force. Finally, we will look at global capitalism, that is, the ever increasing worldwide network of production, consumption and economic exchange.

Frederick Winslow Taylor. The division of labor reached the level of a scientifically-based management practice with the time and motion studies associated with Taylorism, which originated in Frederick Winslow Taylor's work The Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor believed that decisions based upon tradition and rules of thumb should be replaced by precise procedures developed after careful study of an individual at work. He is most remembered for developing the time and motion study, which actually combines Taylor's studies of the time involved in the component parts of each job with Frank Gilbreth's work on reducing the number of movements required to complete a job.

Taylor believed that the industrial management of his day was amateurish, that management could be formulated as an academic discipline, and that the best results would come from the partnership between a trained and qualified management and a cooperative and innovative workforce. Each side needed the other, and there was no need for trade unions. Taylor's scientific management consisted of four principles:

Replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks

Scientifically select, train, and develop each employee rather than passively leaving them to train themselves

Provide detailed instruction and supervision of each worker in the performance of that worker's discrete task

Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks

Taylor had very precise ideas about how to introduce his system:

t is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adaption of the best implements and working conditions, andenforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adaption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.

2. Humans first relied upon hunting and gathering to survive. Social systems of subsistence depended upon the family or small groups for food and did not have a recognizable economy. But through agriculture, specialization, settlement, and trade, an economy did emerge. With the development of agriculture came pastoral and horticultural societies with more dependable food supplies and surplus. This surplus allowed division of labor, and many in the society took on new roles—specializing in making clothes, tools, or shelter. People could settle in one place and begin producing a surpluso fother goods, which in turn led to trade. The primary sector dominated this pre‐industrial economy, and cottages or homes produced limited manufacturing. Sociologists studying the transformation from hunting and gathering to pre‐industrial society primarily interest themselves in how surplus, trade, and accumulation of possessions led to social inequality (the situation where some people have more possessions and power than others).

Primary sector dominance shifted to the secondary sector in the mid‐eighteenth century with the Industrial Revolution. Beginning in England with the invention of steam power, the force of production moved from muscle to machine. The limited manufacturing in cottages or homes of pre‐industrial society gave way to centralized, mass production in factories. Workers, now earning wages, became more specialized, doing single repetitive tasks rather than making a product from start to finish.

The secondary sector dominance gave way to tertiary sector dominance in many economies during the mid‐twentieth century. Economists call such economies postindustrial because they depend upon service industries and high technology. As the steam engine powered the Industrial Revolution, computers have fueled the Information Revolution in the twentieth century. In the Information Revolution, information and ideas have replaced manufactured goods as the basis for the economy. Consequently, the economy requires a more literate labor force, which must now communicate through computers rather than simply manipulating machines.

Today, countries may be agricultural (primary sector), industrial (secondary sector), or postindustrial (tertiary sector). The poorest countries are agricultural, while the wealthiest are postindustrial. With the rise of technology, computers, and the Internet, sociologists and economists point to the growing global economy (an economy where product or information development, production, and distribution cross national borders). For example, automobiles, a major production of industrialized nations, were once manufactured and assembled in one country. With the global economy, other countries make many parts for vehicles considered “American,” and workers in the United States now assemble vehicles once considered “foreign.”

3. Every society must have a political system in order to have recognized procedures for the allocation of valued resources. Whereas the economic system of a society has an important influence on social behavior and on other social institutions.

Economic sociology is defined in many ways. We define economic sociology broadly as the study of the social processes of resource creation, distribution, exchange and consumption. Special interests within economic sociology include the study of: business, caring, crime, disability, employment, entrepreneurs, environment, families, food, gambling, gender, health, housing, markets, money, networks, philanthropy, taxation, technology, wealth, and more.

Other definitions of economic sociology include:

Emile Durkheim ([1909] 1978:80 in R. Swedberg Principles of Economic Sociology)

‘Finally there are the economic institutions: institutions relating to the production of wealth (serfdom, tenant farming, corporate organization, production in factories, in mills, at home, and so on), institutions relating to exchange (commercial organization, markets, stock exchanges, and so on), institutions relating to distribution (rent, interest, salaries, and so on). They form the subject matter of economic sociology.’

Paula England‘s and Nancy Folbre‘s definition of economic sociology includes ‘production in the household’ and the ‘large distributive flows of resources (money and time) that pass between spouses, family members living apart, adult children and their parents, and parents and children’ (England, P. and N. Folbre (2005 ) ‘Gender and economic sociology’ pp. 627-649 in N. Smelser and R. Swedberg (eds) Handbook of economic sociology. Russell Sage and Princeton)

Neil Smelser and Richard Swedberg define economic sociology as ‘the sociological perspective applied to economic phenomena’ (The handbook of economic sociology. 2nd 2005: 3).

The economic sociology is based on the theory that patterns of economic behavior are shaped by social factors. The economic sociologists explore how social forces—such as shifts in political power, the influence of social networks, or the spread of new economic ideas—shape real-world economic behavior.

Sociology and Economics as social sciences have close relations. Relationship between the two is so close that one is often treated as the branch of the other, because society is greatly influenced by economic factors, and economic processes are largely determined by the environment of the society.

Economics deals with the economic activities of man. It deals with production, consumption and distribution of wealth. The economic factors play a vital role in the very aspect of our social life. Total development of individual depends very much on economic factors. Without economic conditions, the study of society is quite impossible. All the social problems are directly connected with the economic conditions of the people. That is why Marshalldefines Economics as "on one side the study of wealth and on the other and more important side a part of the study of man."

In the same way Economics is influenced by Sociology. Without the social background the study of Economics is quite impossible. Sociologists have contributed to the study of different aspects of economic organisation. Property system, division of labour, occupations etc. are provided by a sociologist to an economist.

The area of co-operation between Sociology and Economics is widening. Economists are more and more making use of the sociological concepts in the study of economic problems. Economists are working with the sociologists in their study of the problems of economic development in underdeveloped countries. Combined efforts of both the experts may be of great practical help in meeting the challenges.

4. Beginning in the 1840s, Karl Marx tried to understand the economic underpinnings of class relations and political activity. Forty years later, Émile Durkheim explored how work was divided up in modern societies and the implications for occupational behavior. By the end of the

nineteenth century, Max Weber was concerned with understanding the origins of economic institutions and behavior patterns. Then, between about 1920 and 1980, sociologists turned away from the study of economic behavior per se. They studied economic institutions, such as firms and unions, but they tended not to study economic behavior in those institutions. Since about 1980, sociologists have flocked back to the subject of economic behavior, bringing the tools they had developed to study other kinds of behavior. They had been asking why behavior varies so dramatically across societies but less so within them. Why are religious patterns, childbearing patterns, and voting patterns so regular within each society, yet so variable across different societies? Sociologists had traced behavior in these different realms to social conventions, and they came to believe that economic conventions are much like family or religious conventions. Conventions vary dramatically between Budapest and Seoul, but within Budapest, conventions tend to be quite pervasive and powerful.

Sociologists therefore began to argue that their theories explaining patterns of political, religious, and family behavior could explain economic behavior. Like families, polities, and religions, markets are social structures, with conventions and roles and conflicts (Fligstein 2001). The realization that modern, capitalist societies exhibit widely different patterns of economic behavior stimulated sociologists to treat economic conventions like other types of conventions, and this realization came about in part with the increasing awareness that East Asia provides a model of modernity different from the model that Europeans and North Americans were used to—or perhaps several different models. This new treatment of economic conventions was also fueled by the insight that despite their similarities, the economies of the United States, Germany, France, Sweden, and Britain are different in systematic and persistent ways. If such different kinds of economies can achieve high growth rates, sociologists reasoned, and then economic behavior must be driven by more than narrow economic laws that determine what is efficient. Social processes must explain much of the variation in economic behavior.

A prominent sociological theory that is often contrasted with structural-functionalism is conflict theory. Conflict theory argues that society is not best understood as a complex system striving for equilibrium but rather as a competition. Society is made up of individuals competing for limited resources (e.g., money, leisure, sexual partners, etc.). Broader social structures and organizations (e.g., religions, government, etc.) reflect the competition for resources in their inherent inequalities; some people and organizations have more resources (i.e., power and influence) and use those resources to maintain their positions of power in society.

Conflict theory was developed in part to illustrate the limitations of structural-functionalism. The structural-functionalist approach argued that society tends toward equilibrium, focusing on stability at the expense of social change. This is contrasted with the conflict approach, which argues that society is constantly in conflict over resources. One of the primary contributions conflict theory presents over the structural-functional approach is that it is ideally suited for explaining social change, a significant problem in the structural-functional approach.
The following are three primary assumptions of modern conflict theory:

  • Competition over scarce resources is at the heart of all social relationships. Competition rather than consensus is characteristic of human relationships.
  • Inequalities in power and reward are built into all social structures. Individuals and groups that benefit from any particular structure strive to see it maintained.
  • Change occurs as a result of conflict between competing interests rather than through adaptation. Change is often abrupt and revolutionary rather than evolutionary.

A heuristic device to help you think about society from a conflict perspective is to ask, "Who benefits from this element of society?" Using the same example as we did above, we can ask, "Who benefits from the current higher educational system in Kazakhstan?" The answer, of course, is the wealthy. Why? Because higher education in Kazakhstan is mostly not free. Thus, the educational system often screens out poorer individuals not because they are unable to compete academically but because they cannot afford to pay for their education. Because the poor are unable to obtain higher education, this means they are also generally unable to get higher paying jobs which means they remain poor. This can easily translate into a vicious cycle of poverty. Thus, while the function of education is to educate the workforce, it also has built into it an element of conflict and inequality, favoring one group (the wealthy) over other groups (the poor). Thinking about education this way helps illustrate why both structural-functionalist and conflict theories are helpful in understanding how society works.

Conflict theory was elaborated in the United Kingdom by Max Gluckman and John Rex, in the United States by Lewis A. Coser and Randall Collins, and in Germany by Ralf Dahrendorf, all of whom were influenced by Karl Marx, Ludwig Gumplovicz, Vilfredo Pareto, Georg Simmel, and other founding fathers of European sociology.

Not surprisingly, the primary limitation of the social-conflict perspective is that it overlooks the stability of societies. While societies are in a constant state of change, much of the change is minor. Many of the broader elements of societies remain remarkably stable over time, indicating the structural-functional perspective has a great deal of merit.

As noted above, sociological theory is often complementary. This is particularly true of structural-functionalism and social-conflict theories. Structural-functionalism focuses on equilibrium and solidarity; conflict-theory focuses on change and conflict. Keep in mind that neither is better than the other; when combined, the two approaches offer a broader and more comprehensive view of society.


Questions for Review:

1. What a specificity of the sociological approach to the study of labor

2. Describe The social organization of labor of Durkheim’s, F.Taylor's and G.Ford’s

3. Reveal the historical development of economics as a social system

4. The subject of economic sociology

Date: 2016-03-03; view: 4444

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