Sociology Job Quality
Sonja Drobnič
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0207


Employment is central to most people’s lives and the quality of one’s job is an important element of an individual’s well-being. Still, agreement is not universal on what constitutes a good job and no unanimous definition of the concept or its measurement exists. Emerging from early attempts to improve working lives, numerous conceptual frameworks have been developed in social sciences centered on work and employment, such as quality of work life, quality of employment, quality of work, job quality, and job satisfaction. These approaches include indicators of objective working conditions as well as subjective appraisals of work situation. There is an underlying agreement that these concepts are important because the quality of work affects the well-being of the employees, their productivity, and economic performance. Although the ideas on the quality of work life and human relations movement originated in the United States, the spread of the concept “job quality” gained momentum with the centrality of the strategic goal of the European Union (EU) for the period of 2000–2010 to create “more and better jobs” as a means of developing a sustainable and affluent society. This policy discourse was very important for the development of international comparative research on job quality, even after the quality issues lost priority in policy discourse. The EU definition of job quality relies on a multidimensional approach, including objective characteristics of the job, subjective evaluations by workers, workers’ characteristics, and the match between the worker and the job.

General Overviews

Early research dates back to the Hawthorn plant studies conducted in the 1920s and 1930s, which are often considered the starting point for recognizing the importance of human and social factors that affect workers’ performance (Mayo 2007). The terminology related to job quality or quality of work life was not used but the developments were important in terms of fostering ideas on improving working conditions. Another strand of research involved worker’s motivation and job satisfaction (Herzberg, et al. 2010). In the 1960s and 1970s, concerns grew about the effects of employment on the health and well-being of employees (Braverman 1974). In Europe, the studies at Volvo plants in the early 1970s were well known, but concerns were increasing to improve both working conditions and job satisfaction for employees in many European countries (Cooper and Memford 1979). The International Conference on the Quality of Working Life in 1972 and the subsequent book (Davis and Cherns 1975) systematically addressed strategies and knowledge on how to create a better quality of working life. Nadler and Lawler 1983 systematizes the ideas and concepts on quality of work life. Also, awareness increased that new forms of work and production, based on skilled work (Piore and Sabel 1984) and information (Bell 1999), will significantly change the working environment. In the decades since the 1980s, debates on meanings, definitions, concepts, and measurements continued in academic and policy circles. Currently, it is generally agreed that job quality and other neighboring concepts contribute to the well-being of workers, but agreement is less universal on which factors are important and must be present in a work situation for a job to be of high quality.

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    Originally published in 1973. Bell describes the emergence of what he calls a post-industrial society, one that will rely on the economics of information rather than economics of goods. The post-industrial society’s dimensions include the spread of a knowledge class, the change from goods to services, and the changing role of women. All of these are dependent on the expansion of services in the economic sector and on an increasing dependence on science as the means of innovating and organizing technological change.

  • Braverman, Harry. 1974. Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York: Monthly Review.

    This widely acclaimed and influential book overturned the reigning ideologies of academic sociology and became the standard text for many basic areas of sociological inquiry, including the science of managerial control, the relationship of technological innovation to social class, and the deskilling of labor force under capitalism.

  • Cooper, Cary L., and Enid Memford. 1979. The quality of working life in western and eastern Europe. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

    The Quality of Working Life examines the issues raised by experiments in the quality of working life, explores pioneering work done in Europe, and highlights specific developments in both western and eastern European countries.

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    This volume is a compilation of various contributions to the International Conference on the Quality of Working Life in 1972, at which the term quality of working life was introduced and research on and action for quality of working life were discussed. Systematic attempts were made to assess the central aspect of quality of working life, its definitions, and its measurements.

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    Originally published in 1959. The authors found that while a poor work environment generated discontent, improved conditions seldom brought about improved attitudes. Instead, satisfaction came most often from factors intrinsic to work: achievements, job recognition, and work that was challenging, interesting, and responsible. The evidence provided in this volume called into question many previous assumptions about job satisfaction and worker motivation.

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    Originally published in 1949. The Hawthorne experiments brought to light ideas concerning motivational influences, job satisfaction, resistance to change, group norms, worker participation, and effective leadership. These were groundbreaking concepts in the 1930s.

  • Nadler, David A., and Edward E. Lawler III. 1983. Quality of work life: Perspectives and directions. Organizational Dynamics 11.3 (Winter): 20–30.

    DOI: 10.1016/0090-2616(83)90003-7

    In this article, the authors distinguish various definitions of quality of work life. Based on previous understanding of quality of work life as a variable and as a movement, they propose a working definition that integrates people, work, and organizations. Its distinctive elements are (1) concerns about the impact of work on people as well as organizational effectiveness, and (2) the idea of participation in organizational problem-solving and decision making.

  • Piore, Michael J., and Charles F. Sabel. 1984. The second industrial divide. New York: Basic Books.

    The authors warned in the 1980s that the Fordist model of work and mass production was about to come to an end. International competition and domestic conflicts are driving many large firms out of mass markets for standardized goods. To survive this challenge, manufacturers have to produce more specialized, higher-quality products, which increases the need for skilled labor and provides better opportunities for utilization of skills.

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