Sociology of Work and Industry

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No matter what society one lives in, all human beings depend on systems of production to survive. For people in all societies, productive activity, or work, makes up the largest part of their lives – it takes up more time than any other single type of behavior.

In traditional cultures, food gathering and food production is the type of work occupied by the majority of the population. In larger traditional societies, carpentry, stonemasonry, and shipbuilding are also prominent. In modern societies where industrial development exists, people work in a much wider variety of occupations.

Work, in sociology, is defined as the carrying out of tasks, which involves the expenditure of mental and physical effort, and its objective is the production of goods and services that cater to human needs. An occupation, or job, is work that is done in exchange for a regular wage or salary.

In all cultures, work is the basis of the economy, or economic system. The economic system for any given culture is made up of the institutions that provide for the production and distribution of goods and services. These institutions may vary from culture to culture, particular in traditional societies versus modern societies.

The sociology of work goes back to the classical sociological theorists. Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber all considered the analysis of modern work to be central to the field of sociology. Marx was the first social theorist to really examine the conditions of work in factories that were popping up during the industrial revolution, looking at how the transition from independent craftwork to working for a boss in a factory resulted in alienation and deskilling. Durkheim, on the other hand, was concerned with how societies achieved stability through norms, customs, and traditions as work and industry changed during the industrial revolution. Weber focused on the development of new types of authority that emerged in modern bureaucratic organizations.

The study of work, industry, and economic institutions is a major part of sociology because the economy influences all other parts of society and therefore social reproduction in general. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about a hunter-gatherer society, pastoral society, agricultural society, or industrial society; all are centered around an economic system that affects all parts of society, not just personal identities and daily activities. Work is closely intertwined with social structures, social processes, and especially social inequality.

At the macro level of analysis, sociologists are interested in studying things such as occupational structure, the United States and global economies, and how changes in technology lead to changes in demographics. At the micro level of analysis, sociologists look at topics such as the demands that the workplace and occupations place on workers’ sense of self and identity, and the influence of work on families.

A great deal of studies in the sociology of work are comparative. For instance, researchers might look at differences in employment and organizational forms across societies as well as across time. Why, for example, do Americans work on average more than 400 hours more per year than those in the Netherlands while South Koreans work more than 700 hours more per year than Americans? Another big topic often studied in the sociology of work is how work is tied to social inequality. For instance, sociologists might look at racial and gender discrimination in the workplace.


Giddens, A. (1991) Introduction to Sociology. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Vidal, M. (2011). The Sociology of Work. Accessed March 2012 from