In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sociology of Work and Employment

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and Edited Collections
  • Skills, Control, and the Debate Over the Labor Process
  • Technology, Workplace Change, and Flexible Work
  • Service Work
  • Precarious Employment
  • Globalization and Work

Sociology Sociology of Work and Employment
Steve Vallas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0057


The sociology of work and employment is concerned with the social relations, normative codes, and organizational structures that inform the behavior, experience, and identities of people during the course of their working lives. “Work” has of course taken a wide array of institutional forms across different cultures and historical periods, ranging from forced or “unfree” labor (in prisons, slave systems, and other coercive contexts) to non-market work (subsistence farming or household labor) and wage labor or paid employment. The last of these has been viewed as the predominant form of production under modernity and has provided the central focus of the field. The field’s theoretical foundations reach back to the classical theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim; more recent inspiration is found in the perspectives of the Chicago School, feminist sociology, and social network analysis. Following World War II, industrial sociology flourished for a time, developing classic studies on systems of managerial authority, the informal group behaviors that govern workplace life, and the lines of conflict that arise as workers informally negotiate with their managers. Since then, the field has grown increasingly complex and internally differentiated. While much research has focused on the characteristics of workers’ jobs (such as changes in skill requirements or the closeness of supervision), other areas of concern have proliferated, including studies of new, post-bureaucratic forms of work organization; the influence of race and gender in shaping the allocation of workers into jobs and occupations; the distinctive features of service occupations; the operation of labor markets (whether within the firm or beyond its boundaries); and the relations between work organizations and their wider institutional environments. Sociologists of work and employment are most often found in academic departments of sociology, business schools, and governmental agencies concerned with equal employment opportunity.

Textbooks and Edited Collections

Relatively few textbooks have currency in this field, perhaps reflecting the uncertain boundaries and the turbulence shaping work, occupations, and the employment relation itself. Smaller texts have emerged that focus on selected aspects of workplace life, some of which offer provocative critiques of the nature and consequences of work under contemporary capitalism. Several readers are available that provide useful collections of classic and contemporary studies on work and organizations especially. The major textbook is Hodson and Sullivan 2002. A recent entry is Vallas, et al. 2009. Both are comprehensive overviews, devoted to various subfields, including sections on the historical meanings of work, the occupational structure, inequalities in the distribution of job rewards, marginal jobs, the high-technology workplace, and the changing nature of work in an era of global capitalism. Especially prominent expressions of such smaller texts are Sweet and Meiksins 2008, which focuses on the transformation of work and its consequences for workers’ interests, Sennett 1998, and Beck 2000. The latter two texts provide theoretically sophisticated analyses of work under contemporary capitalism. Both view the workplace as undergoing epochal shifts that have sweeping cultural and personal consequences. Several edited collections have also appeared that are useful guides to classic and contemporary studies in the field, including collections edited by Wharton 2005, Ackroyd, et al. 2005, and Harper and Lawson 2003.

  • Ackroyd, Stephen, Rosemary Batt, Paul Thompson, and Pamela Tolbert, eds. 2005. The Oxford handbook of work and organization. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An empirically driven collection of review articles that canvas what is currently known about work, technology, labor markets, occupations, and organizations. The chapters draw not only on sociological perspectives but also on scholarly traditions established in labor and employment relations and organizational studies.

  • Beck, Ulrich. 2000. The brave new world of work. Oxford: Polity.

    This is a theoretically rich critical analysis of the “end of the work society,” offering a diagnosis of the decline of full-time secure employment, which Beck believes is giving way to the “Brazilianization of work,” whereby labor force participants cycle in and out of formal and informal employment in ways that portend major changes in contemporary culture and society.

  • Harper, Douglas, and Helen Lawson, eds. 2003. The cultural study of work. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

    This is a strong overview of classical and contemporary studies of workplace culture and occupational communities in varied sectors of the economy, relying largely on symbolic interactionist perspectives (see Contemporary Perspectives).

  • Hodson, Randy, and Teresa A. Sullivan 2002. The social organization of work. 3d ed. New York: Wadsworth.

    Perhaps the most prominent textbook in the field, written by two highly respected scholars. Chapters provide a standard treatment of the occupational structure, along with analysis of marginal jobs, the high-technology workplace, and the changing nature of work in an era of global capitalism

  • Sennett, Richard. 1998. The corrosion of character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism. New York: Norton.

    An influential critique of how new forms of work organization are undermining the capacity of workers to construct meaningful narratives about the course of their working lives.

  • Sweet, Stephen, and Peter Meiksins. 2008. Changing contours of work: Jobs and opportunities in the new economy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.

    A critical discussion of trends gripping levels of skill, worker autonomy, and job security in the current era.

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

    A comprehensive treatment of the field. In addition to analysis of the occupational structure and its attendant inequalities, this text discusses gender-related developments such as the rise of the male-breadwinner norm, the historical meanings of work, Luddism, and the consequences of globalization. More theoretically informed than most overviews of the field.

  • Wharton, Amy, ed. 2005. Working in America: Continuity, conflict, and change. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

    Excerpts from the major empirical and theoretical studies that have defined the field, from the classics (Marx, Weber, Taylor) to contemporary analysis of gender, temporary work, racial and ethnic inequalities, work and family, and other timely topics.

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