What is Work? Insights from Non-Intuitive Cases
22 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2013
Date Written: January 22, 2013
Contributors to the sociology of work seldom say what work is, perhaps relying on a taken-for-granted understanding. That understanding is (usually) no longer limited to paid employment, as social scientists know that such a definition overlooks or devalues the work done mainly by women in the home; it also fails to capture informal sector and voluntary work. But a critique of older/narrower definitions (rooted in an appreciation for the need to capture a wider range of forms) has not yet been convincingly accompanied by a more comprehensive ‘positive’ definition.
This paper argues for a definition rooted in the *value* created by work; if an activity creates value, then it merits designation as ‘work’. That approach to definition by no means answers all the questions we might raise about work; instead, its utility consists in the way it forces us to confront those questions (when normally they are elided, especially in public discourse, by a ‘market fundamentalism’). In particular, it compels us to ask: what do we value, and how is value to be recognized/rewarded beyond market exchange?
The discussion builds on analysis of two groups whose activities have at best a tenuous connection to conventional notions of work: Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jewish men (engaged mainly in full-time Torah study, not paid employment) and French farmers, whose incomes derive more from public subsidy than from success in markets. The elements of their situations that seem distinctive are found in fact to be quite pervasive, even for activities that are ‘obviously’ work.
Keywords: work, ultra-Orthodox Jews, Haredi Jews, French farmers, welfare & social policy
JEL Classification: J20, I30, Z10
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