In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Occupations and Professions

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Data Sources
  • Journals
  • Theoretical Foundations

Sociology Occupations and Professions
Kyle Albert, Kim Weeden
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0038


Sociologists have long been fascinated with occupations and professions, both as forms of social organization and as the locus for other social processes and dynamics. Social control and cohesion, differentiation and inequality, collective action, power and influence, and identity formation are just a few of the topics considered by sociologists studying occupations and professions. Four strands of literature compose the sociology of occupations and professions, broadly defined. One strand tackles the division of labor, with the goal of understanding how positions in the division of labor are differentiated from one another (e.g., professions from other occupations), and how those differences are maintained. A second examines occupational communities, and, in particular, the relationship between occupational membership and individual behavior. A third strand focuses on the social activity of work itself, including the labor process, employer control of work, alienation and job satisfaction, unionization and its recent discontents, and the rise and fall of skills. Another thread of scholarship considers how occupations become associated with rewards (e.g., pay, prestige, authority, etc.). The field of occupations and professions has diversified methodologically in recent years, opening up new modes of inquiry into some of these topics. Indeed, whereas case studies of particular occupations dominated the field in the latter half of the 20th century, major empirical research in the last decade have included ethnographies, comparative case studies, network analyses, and quantitative analyses of survey data. And, although the pace of theoretical innovation in the “professions” literature may have slowed in recent years, the field remains a vibrant arena for studies of globalization, technological change, corporate reorganization and changes in employment practices, and the emergence of “new” types of work (e.g., service work, emotional labor).


Case studies and ethnographies tend to be easily accessible in their original formats, and difficult to translate to textbook form. Given the strong tradition of these methodological approaches in the occupations and professions literatures, many instructors in the field choose not to rely on textbooks. Nevertheless, several textbooks may be suitable for courses on the sociology of work and occupations. Wharton 2006 is the latest incarnation of a popular reader that presents concise excerpts from classic works in the sociology of work. Rothman 1998 and Volti 2008 constitute more traditional textbooks on the sociology of work and occupations, covering vast amounts of literature in an accessible format. Vallas, et al. 2009 is notable for its focus on inequality within the labor market. Finally, instructors looking for a classic text might consider Hughes 1994, a unique compilation of essays that touch on many principal aspects of the sociology of work and occupations.

  • Hughes, Everett C. 1994. On work, race, and the sociological imagination. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A compilation of Hughes’s most famous essays, including “Institutional Office and the Person,” and “Good People and Dirty Work,” this was originally published in 1958. The essays, which reflect the Chicago school’s qualitative and interactionist approach to sociology (see also Becker, et al. 1961, cited under Identities, Socialization, and Normative Control; Freidson 1988 and Freidson 2001, both cited under Professions: Definitions; and Stouffer, et al. 1949, cited under the Labor Process) are readily accessible to undergraduates. The ideas may now seem self-evident or simplistic, but because of Hughes’s deft writing, they still sparkle.

  • Rothman, Robert A. 1998. Working: Sociological perspectives. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    In just over three hundred pages, this textbook offers a comprehensive overview of the sociology of work, occupations, and professions. It covers core topics in the sociology of occupations (e.g., professionals and professionalization, skill changes, and bureaucratization) as well as related topics such as occupational prestige, unemployment, and the work-family balance.

  • Vallas, Steven P., William Finlay, and Amy S. Wharton. 2009. The sociology of work: Structures and inequalities. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This text provides rich historical context on the development of employment policies and paradigms in the United States and a unique chapter on research methods. The bulk of the text is devoted to the occupational structure (e.g., professions and service work) and the implications of work for social inequality.

  • Volti, Rudi. 2008. An introduction to the sociology of work and occupations. Los Angeles: Pine Forge.

    As with other Pine Forge Press offerings, this text is designed to provide a concise, easily accessible overview of the field. Its coverage of the social, economic, and political-historical context of the broader societal changes (e.g., globalization, technological change) that affect work make it particularly accessible to undergraduates who lack a sociology background.

  • Wharton, Amy S. 2006. Working in America: Continuity, conflict, and change. 3d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    This reader covers a range of topics related to the American labor market through forty-three excerpts, generally ten to twenty pages in length, from important scholarly and popular works. The excerpts are primarily written by American scholars. Readings range from classical theory to technology, inequality, and service work; their coverage of the American perspective on work and occupations is broad and engaging.

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