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Studying Work and Organizations Chapter 3. Introduction. This lecture begins by examining classical approaches to studying work and work organizations. The three founders of the sociology of work are Marx , Weber and Durkheim :

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  • This lecture begins by examining classical approaches to studying work and work organizations.
    • The three founders of the sociology of work are Marx, Weber and Durkheim:
      • Each analyzed new work forms, and also placed their analysis within a wider discourse on modern society and social change.
      • They set out a series of themes, concepts, assumptions, problems and ideas which continue to exercise an enormous influence over contemporary organizational theory.
      • All continue to have their contemporary adherents and detractors.
  • The lecture then moves on to cover contemporary approaches, reviewing 12 of the major theoretical perspectives and ways of differentiating between them.
karl marx 1818 1883
Karl Marx (1818–1883)
  • Marx focused on social fragmentation, conflict, and social change.
  • He believed that industrialization was a necessary stage for the eventual triumph of human potential, but that the mainspring of this social formation was capitalism rather than industrialisation as such.
  • For Marx, humans are distinguished from other animals because their labour creates something in reality that previously existed only in their imagination – a process known as objectification.
  • Marx's discussion of work under capitalism focuses on the nature of employment relationships.

Source: Marx/Engels Image Library

marx labour power surplus value and their consequences
Marx:Labour power, surplus value and their consequences
  • Marx suggested that, under capitalism, the aim is to buy labour at sufficiently low rates to make a profit.
    • There is a difference between labour and labour power.
      • Capitalism involves the work relationship between buyers and sellers of labour power.
  • Surplus valueis the portion of the working day during which workers produce value that is appropriated by the capitalist.
  • In the workplace the primacy of profit and conflict relationships give rise to three broad features of activity and change:
    • Centralization and discipline
    • Division of labour
    • Technological change.
marx alienation and conflict
Marx:Alienation and conflict
  • These characteristics of work in industrial capitalism have two major consequences:
    • Alienation:
      • This ruptures the fundamental connection human beings have to the self-defining aspect of their labouring activity (Morrison, 1995).
    • Conflict:
      • Capitalists and workers are in constant conflict, leading to the development of class consciousness.
  • Marxist interpretations of the workplace have an enduring effect on today’s thinking, but certain key limitations in his arguments have been identified:
    • He systematically underestimates the possibility that management may need to organize consent as well as coercion.
    • He ignores the fact that the interest of employers and employees may be very closely intertwined on some levels.
emile durkheim 1858 1917
Emile Durkheim (1858–1917)
  • Durkheim's book The Division of Labour in Society discusses the relationship between individuals and society and the conditions for social cohesion.
  • He is preoccupied with the issue of social solidarity and unity.
  • Rather than being a source of conflict and disorder, Durkheim argues that division of labour is a source of order; that solidarity has not disappeared, but changed:
    • Pre-industrial societies were held together by mechanical solidarity.
    • Complex industrial societies are held together by organic solidarity.

Source: By an unknown French photographer. cBibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France/Lauros/ Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library

durkheim explaining continued class conflict
Durkheim:Explaining continued class conflict
  • Durkheim’s theory would seem to suggest that division of labour would lead to harmony and social order – but in reality, there was intense class conflict.
  • He explained the existence of instability and social fragmentation by analyzing what he called 'abnormal' forms of the division of labour:
    • Anomic division of labour (anomie)
    • Forced division of labour
    • Mismanagement of functions in society.

Analysing Durkheim

  • It is important be aware of the assumptions Durkheim’s arguments made relating to the ‘natural’ inequalities between different groups of people (eg men and women, industrial workers and farmers).
    • These assumptions provoked the beginnings of a critique of patriarchy.
max weber 1864 1920
Max Weber (1864–1920)
  • Weber’s analysis of the development of capitalism was similar to that of Marx – he believed it was distinguished by:
    • Centralisation of production
    • Increased specialisation/mechanisation
    • Progressive loss by workers of means of production
    • Increase in management.
  • Often misrepresented, Weber's contribution to the study of work and work organizations is extensive and grouped as follows:
    • The rise of capitalism
    • Rationality, the nature of bureaucracy, and authority
    • Methodology and theory of knowledge.

Source: by an unknown German photographer. cPrivate Collection/Archives Charmet/The Bridgeman Art Library

weber the rise of capitalism and rationalization
Weber:The rise of capitalism and rationalization

The rise of capitalism

  • Weber's work The Protestant Ethic and the 'Spirit' of Capitalism (1905) linked the rise of modern, rational capitalism to Calvinism.
      • Calvinists searched for outward signs that they were among the elect few selected for heaven – one of these signs was considered to be wealth.


  • Traditionally, rationality means the decline of magical interpretations and explanations of the world.
  • Weber used the term to describe the overall historical process ‘by which nature, society and individual action are increasingly mastered by an orientation to planning, technical procedure and rational action’ (Morrision, 1995, p.218).
    • Four types of rationality have been identified in Weber's work: practical, theoretical, formal, and substantive (Delaney, 2004).
  • Weber argued that the rise of rational thinking caused those experiencing inequality to be more likely to form rational associations and to effect changes by conventional political means than to attempt to start a revolution.
weber bureaucracy and authority
Weber:Bureaucracy and authority


  • Weber was bureaucratization as an inescapable development of modern society.
  • He defined bureaucracies as goal-oriented organizations, administered by qualified specialists, and designed according to rational principles in order to efficiently attain the stated goals.
  • Two core ideas underscore Weber's concept of bureaucracy:
    • Formal rationality
    • Formalized decision-making.


  • Weber made a distinction between powerand domination.
  • He was also interested in legitimacy, defining three types of legitimate authority:
        • Traditional (usually acquired through inheritance)
        • Rational-legal (based on a foundation in logical sense)
        • Charismatic (based on individual qualities of the leader).
  • He was one of the earliest social theorists who saw domination as a characteristic of the relationship between leaders and followers, rather than an attribute of the leaders alone.
weber methodology
  • Weber's views about the nature of research in the social sciences continue to influence contemporary inquiry into work and behaviour in the workplace.
  • His idea of an ideal type is a theoretical, abstract model that describes the important, recurring characteristics of a particular phenomenon and suppresses the less important ones.
  • His concept of verstehenis a method of understanding human behaviour by situating it in the context of an individual’s meaning.
    • It hinges on the fact that, whilst outside behaviour may appear the same, the motivation or ‘inner state’ of the individual can be different.
  • He also pointed out that the observational language is never theoretically independent of the way the observer sees a phenomenon, and the questions he or she asks about the action.
contemporary theories of work organizations
Contemporary theories of work organizations
  • The variety of modern perspectives on OB is bewildering.
    • OB theorists have become more reflexive about organizational knowledge.
  • The table opposite maps the 12 perspectives along two interlocking axes.

Figure 3.1

Contemporary theories of work organizations

1 technical
1. Technical
  • The ‘technical’ approach is most closely associated Taylor’s principals of scientific management.
  • Technical division of labour generally refers to how a complex task is broken down into component parts.
  • For most of the 20th century this approach represented the ‘common-sense’ management strategy in North America and Western Europe.
  • This human relations school of thought developed as a result of disenchantment with the technical approach. It places focus on the social context of work: employee motivation, group dynamics and group relations.
  • The argument was that traditional authority as an act of subordination was offensive to an individual’s emotions and therefore could not serve as a good foundation for cooperative relations in the workplace.
  • In the long run it provided the impetus for the development of a new management strategy called neo-human relations.
    • This strategy focuses on a paternalistic style of management emphasizing workers’ social needs as the key to harmonious relations and better performance.

2 & 3. Human relations and Neo-human relations

4 systems theory
4. Systems theory

figure 3.2An open system

  • Systems theory involves anholistic explanation to social phenomenon. It shows the relationships and interactions between elements which, in turn, are said to explain the behaviour of the whole.
    • It is linked to the Weberian notion of paradox of consequences.
  • Systems may be classified as either ‘open’ or ‘closed’ to their environment. Work organizations are said to be open systems(see figure 3.2 on the slide):
    • This is because they acquire inputs from the environment (eg materials, energy, money), transform them into services or products, and discharges outputs (eg products, pollutants) to the external environment.
    • The open system model emphasizes that management action is not separate from the world but is connected to the wider context.
  • A number of criticisms have been made of systems theory.
5 contingency theory
5. Contingency theory
  • Contingency theory focuses on the three-way relationship between structure, contingency and outcomes. It is one of the most influential of all organizational theories.
  • Contingency, as it applies to work organizations, argues that the effectiveness of a particular strategy, structure, or managerial style depends upon the presence or absence of other factors or forces.
    • Consequently there are no single ‘best’ strategies, structures or styles.

6. Culture theory

  • Culture theory is based on the tenet that organizations consist of shared beliefs, values, and assumptions. Schein identified three different levels of organizations culture – see table 3.1.
  • Typically, the culture theory approach is normative and interpretative – it intends to explain not so much what the culture of an organization is, but what it should be.
7. Learning theory
  • Proponents of learning theories equate the ‘learning’ organization with organizational success.
    • A learning organization ‘facilitates the learning of all its members and continually transforms itself’ (Pedler et al, 1989, p.2).
  • Learning is driven by external competitive demands, seeking competitive advantage not only through unique organizational processes, but through superior intellectual capital.

8. Social action theory

  • Social action theory argues that social reality does not just happen, but has to be made to happen, thus implying that through social interaction people can modify and possibly even transform social meanings.
    • Therefore any explanation of human activity has to take into account the meanings which those involved assign to their actions (Silverman, 1970).
  • Another view of the social action approach is influenced by the work of George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) and symbolic interactionism.
    • Symbolic interactionism assumes that human beings act towards things on the basis of subject meanings, and these meanings are the product of social interaction in human society.
9. Political theory
  • The political approach characterizes the workplace as a miniature society with politics pervading all managerial work.
  • This approach reinforces the theoretical and practical importance attached to building alliances and networks of cooperative relationships.
  • The political perspective also draws attention to the role of strategic choice.
    • This approach emphasizes the importance of the political power of dominant coalitions and ideological commitments in explaining variations in managerial policies and behaviour and, ultimately for explaining variation in managerial effectiveness and organizational outcomes.

10. Control theories

  • This perspective stresses the inherent source of tension in organizations arising from technological rationality.
    • Work organizations are viewed as hierarchical structures in which workers are deskilled using scientific management techniques and new technology.
    • Managerial behaviour is characterised primarily as a means of controlling the worker.
  • A related perspective is thelabour process approach, which conceptualizes organizational managers as controlling agents that serve the economic imperatives imposed by capitalist market relations.
11. Feminist theory
  • Feminist theory points out that organizational studies has so far consisted, largely, of ‘important white men’ in academia talking to, reflecting on and writing about ‘important white men’ in organizations.
  • Areas of investigation include gender divisions in the labour market, patriarchal power issues of sexuality and inequality in society and at work, and the interface between home and work.
  • Much of the recent work requires us to look at the interface between social context and work, which shapes and reshapes employment relationships.

12. Postmodernism

  • Postmodernism is an approach to knowledge which puts the consideration of representation at the centre of the study of all aspects of human activity.
  • Applied to OB, the postmodern perspective suggests that:
    • Contemporary management controls human behaviour by systems of surveillance and HRM techniques.
    • Organizations’ members are constructed by power but do not ‘have’ power. Power is a web within which managers and non-managers alike are held.
    • Organizations are akin to defensive reactions against inherently destabilizing forces (Grint, 1998).
what are all these theories for
What are all these theories for?
  • The theories cannot be separated from management practice itself:
    • They are used both to defend existing management and organizational practices and to validate new ones.
  • Understanding the nature of the employment relationship involves considering organizational culture, societal values and norms, and national institutions.
    • It is through these that individuals acquire an identity and the mental, physical and social skills that shape their behaviour both outside and inside the work organization.
  • The employment relationship is clearly an issue of central importance to understanding human behaviour in work organizations.