Work Research Paper

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It may seem that everyone knows what work means— most 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 (1818-1883). 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-a-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, labor—or work—itself 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 world’s 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. 105-106). Adkins’s study provides an illustration of the ways in which occupations are segregated not only by sex (i.e., biological femaleness or male-ness) 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 participate— wittingly or not—in the reproduction of gender relations” (1995, pp. 2-3). 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 Hall’s 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 women’s 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. 49-102). 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. 13-18). 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.


  1. Adkins, Lisa. 1995. Gendered Work: Sexuality, Family, and the Labor Market. Buckingham, U.K.: Open University Press.
  2. Anthony, P. D. 1980. Work and the Loss of Meaning. International Social Science Journal 32 (3): 416–426.
  3. Applebaum, Herbert. 1992. The Concept of Work: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  4. Aronson, Jane, and Sheila M. Neysmith. 1996. You’re Not Just in There to Do the Work: Depersonalizing Policies and the Exploitation of Home Care Workers’ Labor. Gender and Society 10: 56–77.
  5. Bottomore, Tom. 1991a. Labour Power. In The Dictionary of Marxist Thought, ed. Tom Bottomore, 565–571. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.
  6. Bottomore, Tom. 1991b. Value. In The Dictionary of Marxist Thought, ed. Tom Bottomore, 296–301. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.
  7. Daniels, Arlene Kaplan. 1987. Invisible Work. Social Problems 34: 403–415.
  8. DeVault, Marjorie L. 1991. Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  9. Elder, Sara, and Dorothea Schmidt. 2004. Global Employment Trends for Women. Employment Strategy Paper 8.
  10. Employment Trends Unit. Geneva: International Labour Organization.
  11. Glazer, Nona Y. 1993. Women’s Paid and Unpaid Labor: The Work Transfer in Health Care and Retailing. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  12. Hall, Elaine J. 1993. Smiling, Deferring, and Flirting: Doing Gender by Giving Good Service. Work and Occupations 20 (4): 453–466.
  13. International Labour Organization (ILO). 2004. World Employment Report 2004–05: Employment, Productivity and Poverty Reduction. Geneva: ILO.
  15. Messias, Deanne K. H., Eun-Ok Im, Aroha Page, et al. 1997. Defining and Redefining Work: Implications for Women’s Health. Gender and Society 11 (3): 296–323.
  16. Pierce, Jennifer. 1995. Gender Trials: Emotional Lives in Contemporary Law Firms. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  17. Ronco, William, and Lisa Peattie. 1983. Making Work: Self-Created Jobs in Participatory Organizations. New York: Plenum Press.
  18. 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, 709–721. New York: Blackwell.
  19. Rubin, Isaak I. 1972. Basic Characteristics of Marx’s Theory of Value. In Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, 63–75. Trans. Milo° Samardija and Fredy Perlman. Detroit, MI: Black and Red.
  20. Sayers, Sean. 1988. The Need to Work: A Perspective from Philosophy on Work: Historical, Comparative, and Theoretical Approaches, ed. R. E. Pahl, 709–721. New York: Blackwell.
  21. Tancred, Peta. 1995. Women’s Work: A Challenge to the Sociology of Work. Gender, Work, and Organization 2 (1): 11–20.
  22. Thompson, Paul. 1983. The Nature of Work: An Introduction to Debates on the Labour Process. London: McMillan.
  23. Wharton, Amy. 1993. The Affective Consequences of Service Work: Managing Emotions on the Job. Work and Occupations 20: 205–232.

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