The Significance of Work in Sociological Theory

The concept of work has drawn attention of many scholars over the years who are trying to determine its relevance in the society. Although many scholars have been analyzing work from the works of early scholars such as Max Weber, many prominent people had analyzed this concept several hundreds of years before them. In the Bible, King Solomon, son of King David, talked a lot about love from a philosophical perspective in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. At one moment, he would encourage people to work hard because it is the only way of fighting poverty and motivating development in the society. On the other hand, he would dismiss work as a meaningless thing and a chasing after the wind (Treviñe 2001, p. 54).

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He would argue that toiling is meaningless because the fate of death that awaits the rich man is the same fate that awaits a beggar in the street. If we have such a common destiny, then why would we spend most of our lives toiling while others take their time to rest. This is the basis that has forced the philosophical approach that contemporary sociologists have taken when addressing the concept of work. While a section of them have developed theories and concepts that holds that work is important, another section is arguing that work has no meaning in our society. It would be interesting to analyze these two contradictory concepts about work. In this research, the focus will be to analyze these contradictory concepts and the significance of work in sociological theory.

Max Weber’s Hard Work as a Means of Salvation

Max Weber is one of the revolutionary sociologists that took time to analyze work as a concept that helps in economic growth. In order to understand reasons why Weber considered work as a means of salvation, it would be important to understand the era in which he developed his concept. Weber was a German, and during this time, his country was preparing to go to war. The country was one of the leading powers in the world, but this could only be demonstrated by having as many overseas territories as possible. The country was finding it a challenge to manage other major powers, especially the United Kingdom.

There was therefore, a general feeling that every individual citizen had the responsibility to work for the nation to make it gain the much needed power. This explains why Weber used the term ‘salvation’ when talking about work. This was because at this time, international inversion was a common phenomenon, and the country had to stay vigilant and ready to counter such aggressions (Chui & Wilson 2006, p. 95).

This could only be achieved if individual citizens of the country accepted to work towards liberation of the country. If they failed to work, they will be forfeiting their salvation because the enemy force will take over the country and subject them to slavery. There was also a need for people to work in other sectors, especially agriculture, to ensure that food was readily available for the entire population, including those at war. The presence of food was another form of salvation because the country could only sustain war if it had enough food security. On his critical analysis of work therefore, he realized that the only salvation of the country and its population would come from hard work. Those in the military had to work hard, and those in other sector had to do the same in order to make the country strong.

One of the main concepts that have been attributed to Weber is about rationalism. Weber once said (Wharton 2013, p. 34), “The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” At this point Weber was appreciating the relevance of rationalism in a work where intellectualism was on the rise. He argued that although intellectuals may question some of the bureaucratic measures of the government, rationality should always guide our views towards fundament al issues in the society such as work (Collins 1986, p. 67).

The Potential of Work for Meaningful Self Expression

Karl Marx is one of the prominent philosophers who have been very critical of capitalism as an ideology in our socio-economic structure. According to Scott (2012, p. 45), Karl Marx took a more radical approach when viewing work and its meaningfulness to the workers and the society in general. In his Theory of Alienation, Karl Marx argued that the society is socially stratified, and this stratification of basis of all social evils. In a capitalistic economy, Marx noted that there is always an attempt by everyone to amass as maximum wealth as can be possible. People would ignore rationalistic approach of reasoning in an attempt to gain economic power.

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Marx said that it is always those who own factors of production who get to benefit from the capitalistic systems of economy. In such system, individual workers are denied the opportunity to define their destiny through their work. In this theory, Marx says that owners of factors of production would always dictate the destiny of workers. A worker is alienated from the work as a producer, to a mere laborer. For this reason, such a worker would get wages instead of profits. The profits go to the owner of factors of production who does very little in ensuring that the product is delivered to the market. He was very critical of the idea that one would toil to produce a given product only for him to be given ten percent of the benefit of what he or she has produced (Stolley 2005, p. 87).

The argument by Karl Marx made use conduct a primary survey to determine the truthfulness in this statement. We managed to convince the owner of a local carpentry workshop to allow us conduct a simple research at his facility. Most of his employees were casual laborers who were paid a weekly wage of about 250 dollars each. On a normal day, an employee would produce furniture worth over 350 dollars.

This meant that on a weekly basis, such an employee makes products worth over 1750 dollars. This means that the owner of the workshop gives the employees 14% of what they produce and remains with 86%. What is even more worrying out of our research was the fact that these casual laborers were comfortable with their weekly pay. They informed us that their previous employers paid lesser than what they were currently receiving at this firm (Korczynski 2006, p. 75). We related this to the news release that companies make on a quarterly and annual basis. It is common to hear them say that they have made billions of dollars in profit, but when the salaries of all its employees are added within the same period, it falls below ten percent of the profits they announce.

Following this independent research, it became apparent what Marx meant when he said, “In the capitalist system of production, the manual labour of the employed carpenter yields him wages, not profits. He went ahead to explain that it is the employer who determines the amount of wage or salary to pay. In explaining the potential of work for meaningful self expression, he held that although employees would want their hard work to be a reflection of their lifestyle and financial capacity, the owners of factors of productions will always get the maximum benefit. This makes hard work to be of little meaning to the worker.

Peter Berger’s Problem of Work

Peter Berger was motivated by the works of both Karl Marx and Max Weber. This philosopher also analyzed the concept of work and its meaningfulness to the society. It will be necessary to analyze the period under which Berger developed his work and some of the social factors that could have influenced his work. During his era, the United States was experiencing a massive success in the manufacturing sector (Zondervan 2005, p. 37). Many of the American corporations were going beyond the markets in the United States. The economy was booming, but Berger believed that those who benefited from this were the owners of factors of production. For a long time, Berger had been analyzing the economic boom in the American society and its relevance to individual workers who worked in these multinational companies.

According to Sadovnik (1995, p. 87), during the 1960s-1980s, America experienced a stiff rise in its economy. However, Turner (2002, p. 69) observes that during this period, cases of industrial accidents were very common. Employers gave more emphasis on the ability to produce in mass than the welfare of the employees. The earnings of the employees did not reflect the massive profits made by their employers. Industrial action was common not only in the United States but also other countries that were experiencing economic growth such as Australia and the United Kingdom due to low wages and poor working environment. Technology was taking jobs away from home, hence promoting bureaucratization in the world. The larger the companies became, the lesser the benefits employees received. The government and large corporations were in strong collaboration to maintain a bureaucratic society where individual worker will be powerless without the support of the government or the corporation.

Workers can demonstrate and demand for their rights, but the two entities will always have their way in the end (Granter 2009, p. 25). When the employers are forced to increase the salaries and wages of their employees, this would be reflected in the increase in the price of their products. It means that what employees could buy with their previous little pay, would be the same as what they can buy with their higher income. Their purchasing power would remain the same. This is what Berger defined as meaninglessness of work. People work, but they cannot benefit from their own toil. Someone else who owns factors of production would finally benefit.

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Ulrich Beck’s End of Work

Ulrich Beck’s concept of work is one of the most radical approaches among the sociological philosophers of the recent times. Ulrich came up with the concept of a risky society (Dillon 2010, p. 78). He argued that risk has been in existence since the beginning of humankind. Technological advancements and critical skills that human has developed over the years were expected to reduce this risk. It was supposed to make the world safer for everyone. While Turner (2001, p. 35) argues that technological advancements have enhanced security around the world, Ulrich disagrees with this concept. According to him, the world has become more insecure than ever before because of the work of humankind (Rumney1934, p. 55).

During the World War One, the Russians had to take their soldiers to Western Europe to fight the Germans using guns and other weapons that needed the physical presence of the enemy close by. In World War Two, the United States used a single plane and one pilot to drop atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The effect of this is still being felt in this country today. Currently, Russia is thumping its chest that it has the capacity of reducing the entire United States of America into a radioactive ash. What it fails to realize is that the United States have a similar capacity to do the same. Given the sheer size of the two countries, such attempts will completely destroy the world and all the living things. This only confirms that the world is currently insecure than it has been ever before because of work (Unkel 1977, p. 86).

Ulrich developed the Theory of Reflex Modernization to explain some of the negative consequences that are related to work. Ulrich (1998, p. 95) says, “The theory of reflexive modernization works from the basic idea that the rise of the modern industrial age produces side-effects across the globe.” According to Grint (2005, p. 66), people have worked hard to have a society that safe. However, what globalization and technology has brought to the world is increased insecurity, pollution, and unemployment. In this theory, Ulrich argues that the normal worker do not benefit from his efforts. An engineer at Tesla Motors will develop a new design of a car, but the ultimate beneficiary out of the employee’s creativity will be the owner of the company. This theory closely relates with Karl Marx’s theory of alienation. They both agree on the fact that employees are not the ultimate beneficiaries of their work.

Ulrich has also been critical of the system of education, accusing it of promoting bureaucracy in the world and a lot of sufferings to the common worker (Ulrich 1992, p. 112). Unemployment is directly Education, which was meant to enlighten the society, helped the government and corporate institutions become even more powerful. It introduced a new form of bureaucracy of white collar jobs. Graduates believed that they could only survive when they get jobs in the government and large companies after school. He finally observes that work, as defined by the modern bureaucratic system, must come to an end (Dunlap 2001, p. 32).


Work has been viewed from different perspectives by various sociological theorists. Max Weber considered work as a source of liberation. Karl Marx on the other hand, viewed work as an alienation of the worker from the profits. Among the contemporary sociologists, Peter Berger argued that work is problematic in nature because the workers do not get direct benefit of his or her toil. Ulrich Beck came up with a more radical approach that seeks to end work as defined in the current bureaucratic systems.

List of References

Chui, W & Wilson, J 2006, Social work and human services best practice, Federation Press, Leichardt. Web.

Collins, R 1986, Weberian, sociological theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Web.

Dillon, M 2010, Introduction to sociological theory: Theorists, concepts, and their applicability to the twenty-first century, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester. Web.

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Dunlap, R 2001, Sociological theory and the environment: Classical foundations, contemporary insights, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham. Web.

Granter, E 2009, Critical social theory and the end of work, Ashgate, Farnham. Web.

Grint, K 2005, The sociology of work: Introduction, Polity Press, Cambridge. Web.

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Treviñe, A 2001, Talcott Parsons today: His theory and legacy in contemporary sociology, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham. Web.

Turner, J 2001, Handbook of sociological theory, Springer, New York. Web.

Turner, J 2002, Face to face: Toward a sociological theory of interpersonal behavior, Stanford University, Press Palo Alto. Web.

Ulrich, B 1992, Theory, Culture & Society: From Industrial Society to the Risk Society: Questions of Survival, Social Structure and Ecological, Enlightenment, Theory Culture Society, vol. 9. no. 97, pp. 97-123. Web.

Ulrich, B 1998, Misunderstanding Reflexivity: the Controversy on Reflexive Modernization, Democracy Without Enemies, vol. 1. no. 1, pp. 84-102. Web.

Unkel, J 1977, Behavioral theory in sociology: Essays in honor of George C. Homans, Transaction books, New Brunswick. Web.

Wharton, A 2013, The sociology of gender: An introduction to theory and research, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester. Web.

Zondervan, A 2005, Sociology and the sacred: An introduction to Philip Rieff’s theory of culture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto. Web.

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