Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Work, Passion, Exploitation

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Work, Passion, Exploitation

Article excerpt

Meet three concepts: work, exploitation and passion. They all have a long history, but the combination of them varies. Work and exploitation go a long way back together in analyses of social relations of work, for example in the expression 'exploitative work forms'. Work and passion too have been connected to each other since hundreds of years, and have had a recent comeback as a conceptual pair: Today companies overbid each other to portray themselves as passionate about what they sell. Passion and exploitation, finally, have seldom been interconnected. In the following I make an exposé over these three concepts and at the end I suggest what might happen conceptually if we combine them.


There is no room for any detailed discussion about the concept of work here, but I will try to sketch in broad outline the reasoning that I have suggested in former writings (Karlsson, 2004, 2013). When I review the international social science debate about definitions of 'work,' it seems to me that there are a number of contradictory conceptual principles, which constitute boundary lines in the argumentation. I start with indicating these and then I present (at least parts of) my suggestion for getting past these contradictions.

A first dividing line goes between having a subjective or objective basis for the definition. In the first case, there are several suggestions, for example that the perspective of the worker of what work is should be guiding what is to be regarded as work in social science, or the worker's attitude to, experience, or sentiments of the activity in question. Usually, negative circumstances are emphasized, such as the worker not regarding the activity as an end in itself or not finding pleasure in it (e.g., Marshall, 1907:65); often the worker has to regard the activity as downright disagreeable, strenuous, or painful if it is to be counted as work. In the second case, the definition is built on circumstances that are independent of people's understandings (e.g., Daniels, 1987). Two common types of such definitions are that some activities, for example, child care and cleaning or wage labor, respectively, always are work.

A second dividing line runs between those who advocate a single or several concepts of work, respectively. Most social scientists appear-in spite of other differences-to have a common tendency, although the argumentation sometimes is not explicitly stated in that way: A single concept of work is enough for studies of working life. There are very few attempts to systematically build a more comprehensive set of concepts of work.

A third dividing line runs between regarding work as a number of activities per se or as the activities performed within the field of certain social relations. In the first case, the activities of work tend to be seen as historical constants that apply to all members of a given society; these activities are work whenever and wherever they occur and within any social relation (e.g., Wadel, 1979). In the second case, an activity that is work during a certain historical period or in connection with a certain social category can be non-work during another period or in connection with a different social category-it all depends on the social relations (Dubin, 1965:54). If we want to analyze work, we can in the first case go directly looking for the enumerated activities; in the second case, we first have to find the specified social relations. To return to a couple of earlier examples: Child care is often pointed out as an activity that is always worthy of being regarded as work, independent of if it is performed on the labor market or at home, during Antiquity or modern capitalism, among upper class or lower class. At the same time, all activities performed within the social relation of wage labor are almost always regarded as work, independent of if they are performed in India or China of today or Britain or Sweden of yesterday, among blue collar or white collar workers. …

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