In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Labor Markets

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • Journals
  • Classic Works
  • Internal Labor Markets
  • Labor Market Inequality by Gender and Race

Sociology Labor Markets
Matt L. Huffman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0071


The sociology of labor markets is a large and diverse field reflecting the varied connotations of the concept of a “labor market” itself. An abstract but useful definition is provided in “The Sociology of Labor Markets” (Kalleberg and Sørensen 1979, cited under General Overviews), which defines labor markets as arenas where exchanges are made between workers and employers. In labor markets, workers are said to offer their labor power to employers in exchange for various rewards associated with employment, including wages, power, and status. Labor markets are a fundamental institution because of their central role in distributing rewards that are tied to one’s social and economic status in society. As such, how labor markets operate is of keen interest to scholars interested in inequality and other areas of sociological inquiry. In contrast to economists, sociologists tend to view labor markets as fundamentally social institutions. This means that economic considerations do not tell the whole story, and in the sociological view, customs, rules, and relationships profoundly affect exchanges in the labor market. A large segment of sociological work on labor markets seeks to show how factors that are traditionally considered noneconomic affect the operation of labor markets and shape economic outcomes more generally.

General Overviews

Newcomers to the field may find much of the reading on labor markets unusually challenging due in part to the multitude of theoretical approaches and concepts. The cross-disciplinary nature of the field compounds this, with ambitious readers often finding themselves veering into highly technical work in labor economics and other unexpected destinations. Also there are no introductory-level textbooks devoted to the sociology of labor markets. That said, there are some excellent readings that provide the reader with the “big picture” through well-crafted overviews. For example, Kalleberg and Sørensen 1979 is an excellent jumping-off point, while Berg 1981 and Berg and Kalleberg 2001 provide deeper treatments of many centrally important topics. For an outstanding introduction to economic sociology, which will aid in understanding sociological perspectives on labor markets, one should read Smelser and Swedberg 2005. Readers who are interested in labor market inequality will benefit by reading England 1992, and England and Farkas 1986 provides a lucid treatment of how household dynamics and the labor market interact. For a collection of the classics as well as more contemporary work, Grusky, et al. 2008 is a must-have. The review in Kerckhoff 1995 is particularly useful for understanding the status attainment perspective in sociology and, more generally, the role of various labor market institutions in the process of stratification.

  • Berg, Ivar E., ed. 1981. Sociological perspectives on labor markets. Quantitative Studies in Social Relations. New York: Academic Press.

    With an emphasis on demand-side factors, this impressive collection of theoretical and empirical contributions is a must-have for those interested in various sociological viewpoints—as well as in focused empirical work—on labor markets.

  • Berg, Ivar E., and Arne L. Kalleberg, eds. 2001. Sourcebook of labor markets: Evolving structures and processes. Plenum Studies in Work and Industry. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4615-1225-7

    This important and wide-ranging collection examines a range of central topics for labor market research, including employment relations, stratification patterns and economic outcomes, and labor market policies.

  • England, Paula. 1992. Comparable worth: Theories and evidence. Social Institutions and Social Change. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

    Focused on wage inequality by gender. Especially noteworthy is chapter 2, which is one of the most useful general expositions of labor market theories available. A great place to begin one’s readings on the topic.

  • England, Paula, and George Farkas. 1986. Households, employment, and gender: A social, economic, and demographic view. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

    An important book linking household dynamics and employment. The section on employment will be especially useful to beginning readers on the topic.

  • Grusky, David B., Manwai C. Ku, and Szonja Szelényi, eds. 2008. Social stratification: Class, race, and gender in sociological perspective. 3d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    A truly expansive edited volume full of both classics and more recent work, many of which are directly relevant to the study of labor markets.

  • Kalleberg, Arne L., and Aage B. Sørensen. 1979. The sociology of labor markets. Annual Review of Sociology 5:351–379.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    An excellent and highly readable review of sociological theory and research on labor markets through the late 1970s. Available online by subscription.

  • Kerckhoff, Alan C. 1995. Institutional arrangements and stratification processes in industrial societies. Annual Review of Sociology 21:323–347.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    In this excellent overview of research in the status attainment tradition, Kerckhoff brings in an additional focus on educational institutions. Available online by subscription.

  • Smelser, Neil J., and Richard Swedberg, eds. 2005. The handbook of economic sociology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    An excellent introduction to economic sociology that will be useful in understanding sociological perspectives on labor markets. Chapter 12 provides an excellent discussion of the sociology of labor markets. Originally published in 1994.

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