The Sociology of Work

Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry

by Robert Blauner
University of Chicago, 222 pp., $7.50

The Human Shape of Work: Studies in the Sociology of Occupations

edited by Peter L. Berger
Macmillan, 241 pp., $5.95

One can read these books either to discover what sociologists tell us about work in modern, western, non-Communist society, or as problems in the history of ideas—i.e., how sociologists formulate their inquiry. The first approach is the usual one, based on the assumption that we will now be given “the facts.” But facts depend upon what questions are asked. Only when we have determined the form of his inquiry can we tell whether the investigator has asked the relevant questions. This is particularly true in the case of these two books, since one claims to derive the form of its inquiry from Marx, the other from Max Weber.

“The orthodox Marxist,” Blauner writes, “believed that the lack of meaningful self-fulfillment of work…would push the proletarian toward a revolutionary outlook.” The worker “does not identify himself with the productive organization but feels himself apart…For Marx himself this was self-estrangement, the very heart of the alienation idea.” The Human Shape of Work, on the other hand, tries to explain the loss of meaning in work by invoking Weber: “The medieval concept of religious vocation was transformed into the modern concept of secular work as a vocation, that is, as action requiring the individual’s highest religious and ethical commitments.”

The trouble with these invocations (given the repeated use of the word alienation, one is almost tempted to say incantations) is that the formulations have little to do with what Marx and, though to a lesser extent, Weber were talking about. To make a fine but necessary distinction, there is an important difference, at least in the history of ideas, between sociology and social psychology. Marx primarily, and Weber in his historical analyses of social change, were sociologists. They were not concerned with “meaningfulness,” “self-fulfillment” and the like, but with actual social processes; not with subjective states of mind, but with objective social situations.

Take the vexing notion of alienation. While Marx, in some of his early, fragmentary, Hegelian writings (in the incomplete Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts), speaks of the self, that concept disappears in his later writings. So does the concept of alienation (Entfremdung, or estrangement) if understood in the social and psychological sense of the self groping for a relationship to the world. Where the idea of alienation (though not the word itself) plays a role in Marx’s later writings, it is as “reification” (Verdinglichung), in which the function, not the person, becomes the unit of social action. The person becomes embedded, swallowed up, in his function, and has no other identity. He becomes a “thing.” This is the use Marx makes of the idea in his famous chapter in Capital on the fetishism of commodities. In capitalist society, where everything becomes a commodity, everyone becomes a means to the abstract ends of exchange—abstract because the purpose of the system is accumulation, and in capitalist society accumulation knows no end other than its own continual accumulation.

The point is that Marx was not a social psychologist and cannot be “tested” as such. He was…

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