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subjective experience of work


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In contrast to the relatively stable ideologies which constitute a work ethic, sociology also looks at the way work is actually experienced by individuals and groups. This includes orientations to work, attitudes in the job, job motivations, and job satisfaction. Though work is highly gendered, and is carried out as domestic as well as industrial labour, the former was largely invisible until recently and the literature on these topics deals almost exclusively with the subjective experience of paid employment.

The study of orientations to work has developed only recently and is especially associated with research carried out in the late 1960s and 1970s by John H. Goldthorpe, David Lockwood, and their colleagues and students. Logically, however, it deserves priority, being concerned with the values, purposes, expectations, and sentiments the workers bring to the work situation. In The Affluent Worker (1968) Goldthorpe and Lockwood distinguish three ideal-typical orientations to work. Employees with an instrumental orientation see work as a means to an end (the need to acquire income); have a primarily calculating attitude to the employing organization; and do not carry their work experiences and relationships over into other aspects of their lives. By contrast, the solidaristic orientation to work is characterized by an involvement in the task as an end in itself; high job satisfaction and strong identification with the work-group (against the employer); and the carrying over of work relationships and loyalties into an ‘occupational community’ outside the workplace. Finally, the bureaucratic orientation defines work as a service to the organization, in return for incremental and secure wages; embodies a relationship of trust between employer and employee; pursues status advancement as a central life interest; and carries over self-concepts and social aspirations formed at work into non-work activities and relationships. Michael Burawoy's Manufacturing Consent (1979) is a fascinating and much-discussed attempt to link the literature on orientations to work to the Marxist discussion of the labour process.

Past experience is important in developing work orientations. Workers who possess few skills or are stigmatized and discriminated against have little, if any, choice of job. Typically, their work orientations will reflect a vicious circle: the range of insecure, low-paid, and unattractive jobs available reinforces a fatalistic outlook, which is inimical to building up any long-term identification with a particular employer. Where workers have a genuine choice, work orientations will affect the kind of labour-force that is attracted to particular kinds of job. Research findings confirm the commonsense expectation that workers balance out the advantages and disadvantages of jobs according to their personal priorities and self-perceptions, as when they choose (for example) the cosiness of a small-firm working environment, despite the lower rates of pay and poorer fringe benefits characteristic of small-firm employment. The dedicated choice of historically relatively low-paid caring occupations (such as nursing), precisely because of the intrinsic moral satisfaction they offer, provides another example of the importance of work orientation. In contrast, workers with so-called instrumental orientations deliberately accept the boredom of high-paid though intrinsically monotonous jobs (such as assembly-line work), in return for the enhanced leisure and consumption which itmakes possible. It has been suggested that such values brought to the workplace will be affected by the system of social stratification within the labour-market. Formidable methodological problems arise, however, in disentangling work orientations from the whole complex of subjective perceptions connected with a job or occupation.

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Subjects: Sociology.


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