Man, Work, and Society: A Reader in the Sociology of Occupations

By Sigmund Nosow; William H. Form | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
THE MEANINGS OF WORK

It is characteristic of people in industrial societies to have a high degree of awareness of their everyday behavior. To a great extent this stems from the need to make conscious decisions when a number of alternatives are available to meet everyday needs and basic life goals. Because the selection of an occupation is a major decision, it often involves much conscious deliberation. How different this condition is from the one that prevailed in Western society in the past and still prevails among many societies today!

Historically, the mass of the population has not been consciously concerned with the meaning of work. As an integral part of everyday life, work was meshed with all major institutional functions. Typically, work consisted of a set of activities hereditarily prescribed as part of a particular status position in the community. The questioning, objective, rational approach to the world which we associate with recent Western society was alien to societies dominated by tradition. Historically, and among many primitive peoples today, populations have been brutalized by slavish subservience to the vagaries of climate and habitat. To ask men in such economically undeveloped traditional societies why they work is similar to asking them why they try to stay alive.

This is not true for modern industrial man. To ask him what he seeks from his work is to ask a reasonable question; for work has more meaning than mere survival or maintaining tradition. Indeed, one of the most distinguishing features of contemporary urban societies is the conscious expectation to derive meaning from work. A major task, then, of the sociologist interested in occupations is to inquire about the meaning of work.

This inquiry may be explored in different ways. The first is by historical analysis, a process that selects and describes the dominant meanings which people attach to work at different epochs. For the sociologist historical analysis supplements contemporary comparative analysis. Tilgher,

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