The sociology of work is the study of the nature and importance work plays in determining the quality of our daily lives. To understand the true nature of this concept, academics undertake the study of how work has evolved through the ages. They examine the different industries and occupations people work in, as well as the effects of workplace participation and workplace diversity.
The discipline is vital to the study and understanding of industrial relations and has long been a central topic in sociology for classical theorists such as Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Max Weber.
The sociology of work represents the integration of two long-standing specialties: industrial sociology and occupations/professions. It also draws from industrial and organizational psychologists and sociologists' attempts to integrate stratification and organization literatures to better understand the employment relationship.
The theory is used to understand the vital individual, social, economic and political issues of the world. Everett Hughes explained the significance of the sociology of work in the American Journal of Sociology. He commented: "In our particular society, work organization looms so large as a separate and specialized system of things, and work experience is so fateful a part of every man's life, that we cannot make much headway as students of society and of social psychology without using work as one of our main laboratories."
The majority of adults throughout the world dedicate most of their time to working. Most do this mainly to obtain social rewards such as a house, car and clothing, which are associated with earning a salary. They also work to avoid the social deprivations associated with unemployment including homelessness. Researchers believe that all societies, even the simplest, must maintain themselves through functional skills. The amount of labor required to sustain group life varies according to resources and climate. With only a few exceptions, work occurs in a social setting, described as a "contested terrain" by economist Richard C. Edwards.
The examination of the sociology of work in the United States first began in the 1940's at the Chicago School of Sociology, as part of ‘experts studies' on industrial sociology. This was defined as "the study of work organizations, careers and adjustments of workers, and the relations of workers and work organization to community and society" by the Professor of Economics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, Robert A. Miller.
The study of the sociology of work declined in significance during the 1960's and 1970's as the sociological study of work became increasingly fragmented, with other topics and issues becoming more pressing. During this time, critical studies of work included research into police on skid row. Sociologists also became concerned with deviant types of work such as stripping and prostitution, as well as deviance in normal work settings including theft and drug use. It was during this era that Arlie Russell Hochschild, a professor at the University of California, introduced the notion of emotion work, which is defined as "work done in a conscious effort to maintain the wellbeing of a relationship."
However, gender did not become an important area of focus within cultural studies of work until the 1980's. The study was spurred by the expanding range of occupations women began to undertake.
The workplace underwent considerable changes with organizations downsizing, hiring more temporary workers, and outsourcing production tasks to become more flexible in the increasing global market place.
This resulted in a cultural shift, with the gap between the top and bottom segments of society widening, labor union membership declining to an all-time low and job expansion occurring mainly in the service sector, where many jobs do not have advancement potential.
With the face of employment in the United States changing greatly, those studying the sociology of work have concluded workers in the 21st century should expect to change employers more often, find their employers will show less concern with employees satisfaction and less interest in gaining a long-term commitment from them. As a consequence, occupational or career commitment may become a more important motivating factor for workers than organizational commitment or job satisfaction. Looking to the future, sociologists claim the changing landscape for the employment relationship will lead to the study of the sociology of work to focus on work values, job satisfaction, and commitment. In addition, experts believe the cultural study of work must be undertaken to understand the forces of globalization.