That meaningful waged work matters was never in doubt. Not in doubt before, during and after industrialization. At least not in doubt by workers and unions, and rarely questioned by sociologists writing about waged work. What these groups did doubt, however, was whether it is achievable under the political and economic system of capitalism. The reasons for this are manifold, but can be broken down to the state of affairs of the relations of production forcing the labour force, who do not own the means of production, to sell their labour power to those who do own them in order to ensure their livelihood. In this equation, the former have little say over the conditions they sell it under, how and what for their labour power is utilized. Therein, the dominant characterization of meaningful waged work in the sociology of work became that it is what everybody wants, but almost nobody gets.
The sociology of work and employment in the post-Second World War era had, thus, the strong tendency to characterize waged work as an alienated, coercive and humdrum activity, dragging on as ‘A Monday through Friday sort of dying’ (Terkel, 1975:1). Maybe not surprising then that one of the most popular notions in the British Sociology of work in the late 1960s was the one of the ‘Affluent Worker’ (Goldthorpe, 1968). The ‘Affluent Worker’ possesses an instrumental work orientation, encoding that workers derive meaning from the material rewards their work offers, but not from its social relations, tasks or usefulness, arguably because the latter are, indeed, rather meaningless. The ‘Affluent Worker’ is in the past now, but the sociology of work is riddled by its difficult relationship to waged work and the extent to which it is meaningful. A case in point is the recent popularity of the post-work discourse that is driven by the idea, represented by Srnicek and Williams (2015:132) amongst others, that ‘[f]or the vast majority of people, work offers no meaning, fulfillment or redemption’. The solution to the lack of meaninglessness of waged work is to take advantage of the rapid technological development that offers radical opportunities for automatization. The recipe is simple: Reduce working hours, get rid of routine jobs and supplement the economic loss by a Universal Basic Income. In other words: Give up on waged work as it is, in the grand scheme of things, meaningless.
In Management and Organisation Studies, Meaningful Work is a thing, however. Even though the contributions in these fields are considerably heterogenous and define meaningful work in various ways, a popular position, going back to Hackman and Oldham (1976), is to understand meaningful work as a subjective experience that is enabled by a job design that amplifies task variety, significance and identity. While the focus on the importance of the quality and variability of work tasks is welcome, the assumption that meaningful work arises from a unitarist organisation in which the interests of all parties are in harmony and workers recipients of meaningfulness violates sociological notions of human agency. Margaret Archer (1995), arguably one of Britain’s finest sociologists, calls positions like this as operating with an agency concept of downward conflation where people become an epiphenomenon of structures. Certainly, in the last two decades, the meaningful work debate has featured a wide range of valuable theoretical approaches that put the spotlight on the power of the individual as well. For example, Lips-Wiersma and Wright (2012) suggest that meaningful work emerges out of the dynamics between ‘being’ (e.g., belonging) and ‘doing’ and ‘self ’ (e.g., self-actualization) versus ‘other’ (e.g., serving others’ needs). Driven by the idea that individuals are all driven by the will to meaning, people are understood to possess the ability to infuse their work, no matter what kind of work, with meaning. Going back to Archer (1995:60), this reflects the qualities of an ‘upward conflation’, in which structure becomes an epiphenomenon to agency. Now the individual is in charge and, arguably, responsible for producing meaningful work. In other words, meaningful work is, essentially, in “the eye of the beholder” (Michaelson et al. 2014).
And as research on meaningful work marches on, producing accounts that tend to be guilty of up- or downwards conflation, we felt that it is time for a sociological intervention. Sociologists are well equipped, as the big discussions in social theory showcase, to explore the relationship between structure and agency. And we felt that this is what the meaningful work debate was missing. The article ‘Towards a Sociology of Meaningful Work’ (joint winner of this year’s SAGE Prize for Innovation/Excellence) introduces a novel theory of meaningful waged work that identifies three objective and three subjective dimensions of meaningful work which rest on autonomy, dignity and recognition. Exploring the interaction between these dimensions in the realm of waged-work led us to propose that a continuum of meaningful work is a more adequate theoretical framework that captures the wide range of work experiences that range from meaningful work to meaningless work, including in-between dynamics such as ‘constrained meaningful work’ and ‘struggle for meaningful work’. With the meaningful work theory we hope to give voice to the multi-layered experience of waged-work and workers urge to experience meaning in the boundaries of the labour process. Our ambition is to open up new avenues of critical inquiry into the organisation of work, the demands it places on workers and what workers want and, indeed, need from their work.
Archer, M.S. (1995). Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goldthorpe, J., D. Lockwood, F. Bechhofer and J. Platt (1968). The Affluent Worker: In the Class Structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hackman, R. and Oldham, G. R. (1975). ‘Development of the job diagnostic survey’. Journal of Applied Psychology, 60, 159–70.
Lips-Wiersma, M. and Wright, S. (2012). ‘Measuring the meaning of meaningful work: development and validation of the Comprehensive Meaningful Work Scale (CMWS)’. Group and Organization Management, 37, 665–85.
Michaelson, C., Pratt, M. G., Grant, A. M. and Dunn, C. P. (2014). ‘Meaningful work: Connecting business ethics and organization studies’. Journal of Business Ethics, 121, 77–90.
Srnicek, N. and A. Williams (2015). Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work. London: Verso.
Terkel, S. (1975). Working. London: Wildwood House.
Knut Laaser is a Senior Researcher at the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus–Senftenberg and a Lecturer at the University of Stirling. He has published widely on the moral economy of work and employment and more recently on meaningful work in international and world-leading journals. He co-authored a book together with Jan Ch Karlsson that is titled The politics of working life and meaningful waged work. The latter will be published by Cambridge University Press in December 2023. The book will feature a critical analysis of the current state of meaningful work research and introduce a novel theory of meaningful waged work and apply it to a set of international case studies. Twitter: @kg_laaser
Jan Ch Karlsson is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the Department of Working Life Science, Karlstad University, Sweden. He has published Organizational Misbehaviour in the Workplace. Narratives of Dignity and Resistance (2012), Collective Mobilization in Changing Conditions. Worker Collectivity in a Turbulent Age (2019) and Explaining Society. Critical Realism in the Social Sciences (2019).