Sociology Globalization and Labor
Bill Dunn
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0160


The literature on labor and globalization is potentially impossibly vast. The social relations of work, whether directly or through their economic impact, shape every aspect of our existence. To discuss labor globally might come close to requiring a discussion of everything. Understandings of capitalism as a global system, and perceptions of labor’s orientation as necessarily internationalist, also go back at least to Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto and the First International. This article limits its ambition by concentrating on important claims of transformation (roughly) since the 1970s. After introducing some general overviews in the next section, the article is organized (somewhat arbitrarily) into three related themes. The first theme involves claims of globalization as a spatial reorganization, with sections introducing literature on globalization as responsible for a labor’s disempowerment, especially in the (Global) North, works on global value chains, and works on labor in the (Global) South. The second theme involves claims of the emergence of a “new economy” as a social transformation of labor markets, work and workplaces, and changing prospects for labor’s agency and strategy. Here the sections consider “big-picture” claims of the division of labor and economic transformation, more qualified depictions noting continuities and possibilities for labor resistance, and more-specific literatures on the proliferation of precarious labor and the connections between free and unfree labor. Finally, the third theme considers the implications for labor organizing. Typically, attention focuses either on the need for labor internationalism or on new strategies more appropriate to the new economy. The emphasis on depictions of restructuring in the last few decades and rethinking labor’s situation means that not only the long history but also several modern issues are dealt with only in passing. Perhaps most conspicuously, more could be said of labor migration, which is covered in an existing article; see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Sociology article “Immigration.” Similarly, although several listed texts emphasize the gendered nature of change and the connections between paid and unpaid labor, readers should also see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Sociology article “Women’s Employment and Economic Inequality between Households.” This article also largely avoids referring to country-specific studies, although many of the most influential early texts based their analyses of change on the United States.

General Overviews

Labor is studied in many academic disciplines; sociology, anthropology, economics, industrial relations, geography, and many more. As Taylor and Rioux 2017 maintains, a specific field of labor studies is almost necessarily interdisciplinary. Accordingly, labor has been studied from many different intellectual traditions. Marxist thinking, at least in principle informed by a commitment to labor’s agency, informs much of the literature in the last few decade’s transformations. Sometimes it does so positively—for example, in Moody 1997 and Munck 1988—but also often in the negative, as a vision of the world and of labor superseded and against which alternative perspectives are posited. In the last few decades, the work of Karl Polanyi has become particularly influential; for example, in the later work by Ronaldo Munck (Munck 2002, cited under Post-Fordism, the New Economy, and Labor’s Social Dispersal), and in Silver 2003. Burawoy 2010 finds no greater hope in Polanyi than in Karl Marx for reversing labor’s misfortunes. Influential accounts of the last few decades globalizing transformation (for example, in Reich 1991 and Fröbel, et al. 1980, both cited under Globalization and Labor’s Decline, and in Castells 1996, cited under Post-Fordism, the New Economy, and Labor’s Social Dispersal), whether drawing on neoclassical economics or Marxism, depict a world of heightened capital mobility and labor’s disempowerment. Studies by geographers, in particular, are more likely to emphasize the complexity of capitalism’s spatial reorganization and a reshaping rather than foreclosure of potential labor organizing (see, for example, Herod 2018). Following the work of studies such as Federici 2020 and Peterson 2003, there has been a growing awareness of the complex, gendered character of restructuring and of connections between paid and unpaid labor. Walker 1999 interprets labor’s reverses more as a political than economic achievement. Among many studies that continue to perceive a potential for labor agency, Brookes and McCallum 2017 surveys theories of its disempowerment and strategies for organizing.

  • Brookes, M., and J. K. McCallum. 2017. The new global labour studies: A critical review. Global Labour Journal 8.3: 201–218.

    DOI: 10.15173/glj.v8i3.3000

    Marissa Brookes and Jamie McCallum survey the “hodgepodge” of multidisciplinary literature, assessing both new theories of labor and corporate vulnerability. They identify the shift from Marx to Polanyi in the literature, different dimensions of power, and strategies for labor organizing beyond the workplace.

  • Burawoy, M. 2010. From Polanyi to Pollyanna: The false optimism of global labor studies. Global Labour Journal 1.2: 301–313.

    DOI: 10.15173/glj.v1i2.1079

    Advocating an “uncompromising pessimism,” Michael Burawoy rejects hope in a Polanyian countermovement to the market. He sees this based on a teleology contradicted by deepening successive waves of commodification. Such hope engenders false optimism, just as the Marxist “dream of internationalism is dashed on the rocks of localism.” The article stimulated robust debate in subsequent issues of the Global Labour Journal.

  • Federici, S. 2020. Revolution at point zero: Housework, reproduction, and feminist struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

    This hugely influential collection of essays connects gender, social reproduction, and labor market inequalities. Three sections discuss housework, global reproduction and feminist resistance, and care work, land struggles, and strategies for “commoning” the material means of reproduction.

  • Herod, A. 2018. Labor. Cambridge, UK: Policy.

    Published as part of Polity’s Resources series, the book begins by describing how labor is a resource like no other. The book applies a geographer’s sensibilities to surveys of population and migration and detailed studies of specific conditions; for example, of mining in Australia, cocoa plantation work in West Africa, fisheries in Thailand, and “dirty work” in the new economy.

  • Moody, K. 1997. Workers in a lean world: Unions in the international economy. London: Verso.

    Kim Moody’s classic text accepts a fairly strongly globalized view and that the world is “lean,” but without seeing this as foreclosing the possibilities of resistance. The book first looks at capital restructuring, both globalization and the introduction of new production techniques as well as the use of corporate and state power. It then looks at labor’s response both in the North and the South and argues for an “international social-movement unionism.”

  • Munck, R. 1988. The new international labour studies: An introduction. London: Zed Books.

    Munck’s book remains foundational, particularly for thinking about labor outside the Global North. Its focus is on trade unions in the developing world, owing much to the World-Systems tradition but advocating a “trans-disciplinary approach,” interested in history and culture against a narrow economism and considering connections between free and unfree labor. Discussions of employment, labor processes, and labor organization are illustrated with numerous vignettes.

  • Peterson, V. S. 2003. A critical rewriting of global political economy: Integrating reproductive, productive, and virtual economies. London: Routledge.

    Seeking to politicize globalization as a neoliberal project, V. Spike Peterson also aims at a “more inclusive” study than is provided by neoclassical or Marxist accounts. She emphasizes the so-called informal sphere of reproduction and patriarchal and race/ethnicity hierarchies.

  • Silver, B. J. 2003. Forces of labor: Workers’ movements and globalization since 1870. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511615702

    Written in the World-Systems tradition, and informed particularly by the work of Giovanni Arrighi, this is a short book of remarkable historical, theoretical, and empirical depth. It relates labor’s agency to capital movements, product cycles, and political shifts. It distinguishes between “Marx-type” struggles of newly emerging working classes and “Polanyi-type” backlash or defensive resistance, and between structural and associational power, and maps these onto changing economic conditions.

  • Taylor, M., and S. Rioux. 2017. Global labour studies. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

    Marcus Taylor and Sébastien Rioux’s textbook is aimed primarily at undergraduates, usefully setting out ways of understanding labor and its different dimensions. It emphasizes the complex global value chains involved in making even simple commodities, and the interactions of different forms of labor. Among other things, it makes a nice distinction between work and labor, and the necessarily social context of the latter. Its understanding is broad, encompassing unpaid and unfree labor.

  • Walker, R. A. 1999. Putting capital in its place: Globalization and the prospects for labor. Geoforum 30.3: 263–284.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0016-7185(99)00016-0

    Richard Walker questions claims of a new era of economic transformation and capitalist success and sees labor’s weakness as something achieved politically in the 1970s and 1980s rather than as determined by structural economic change.

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