Individualism and industrialization were the defining features of the international economic and social development in the 19th-20th centuries. The growing complexity of organizational and societal forms challenged established beliefs about work and workplace. The goal of this paper is to reconsider the basic concepts of Karl Marx’s, Emile Durkheim’s and Max Weber’s social theories and the way they relate to work settings. The concepts to be discussed and evaluated in this paper include Durkheim’s organic solidarity and the division of labor, Weber’s rationality and duty to work, as well as Marx’s worker exploitation.
Keywords: Marx, Weber, Durkheim, workplace, job, organization, bureaucracy.
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Sociology of Workplace: Marx, Durkheim, and Weber
At the end of the 19th century, with the rapid advancement of economic, thinking and social functioning, new theories emerged to assist in interpreting and understanding the fundamentals of organizational behaviors. Theories of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx became classical instruments of sociological and organizational analysis. Karl Marx focused on the role of social conflict in the emergence of modern capitalism. Weber was committed to the ideas of rationality, rationalization, and bureaucracy. Finally, Durkheim became famous for his contribution to the study of mechanical and organic solidarity and the division of labor. In this work, Weber’s concepts of rationality and bureaucracy, Durkheim’s concepts of organic solidarity and division of labor, and Marx’s concept of worker exploitation will be used to explain the most important job and workplace processes. Through the prism of Marx’s, Weber’s, and Durkheim’s theories, the paper will answer the following questions: (a) why do we work?; (b) how do we work?; and (c) what do we get in return for our work?
At the very beginning, I would like to say a few words about my current job. I work in an electronics store. I am a computer salesman. My job is quite simple: selling computers to people. The more I sell, the more I earn. I do not have any fixed salary, and my earnings depend on the amount of computers I sell. Also, with each new shipment, I am responsible for placing and locating products in ways that are appealing to customers. The store is not large, and all employees have got to know each other very well. I cannot say that I dislike this job, but I do think this is what I would not like to do for the rest of my life. Simultaneously, I try to do my job well and meet customers’ demands, as long as I know that my earnings depend on clients’ satisfaction with the products and services provided.
This is where one of the first fundamental questions emerges: why do we work? Max Weber provides his answer. One of the first maxims of Weber’s rationality and capitalist thinking is in the human duty to work and the human duty within work. According to Weber, we have a duty to pursue work (Weber & Whimster, 2004). Capitalism necessitates human participation in workplace activities, and the presence or absence of a job becomes the primary criterion of judging the value and significance of each individual (Weber & Whimster, 2004). I may not like my job, but I work because I have no other choice. Otherwise, my society will regard me as lazy, incapable of achieving anything in this life, or unable to provide for my living. This obligation to work is, actually, an essential ingredient of Weber’s philosophy of rationality: as long as I work, I can live my life rationally (Weber & Whimster, 2004). The presence of work as a source of earnings and instrument of individual growth makes my life calculable and measurable. It is also a stepping stone that has to bring me to the desired goal (Weber & Whimster, 2004). This is where the second question concerning work and organizations emerges.
The second question is, how do we work? In other words, what duties do we have within our jobs and how are they developed? Emile Durkheim offers an interesting view on these problems. According to Durkheim (1997), we live in a society made of organic bonds. This is what Durkheim calls ‘organic solidarity’, which grows from industrial specialization. The concept of organic solidarity is inseparable from Durkheim’s division of labor. Actually, it is derived from the division of labor (Durkheim, 1997). Our workplace obligations have nothing to do with the society’s collective thinking but rely on pure rationality and economic thinking. In this atmosphere of Weber’s rationality, every individual has his\her specialized professional role. This role is also the way these individuals can make a contribution to the creation of the common good. My workplace obligations are a part of the organizational harmony, and the functions I fulfill on a daily basis enable me to make my professional contribution to the economic growth of my employer. It is interesting to note, that what Durkheim calls ‘social solidarity’, Weber describes as ‘bureaucracy’. The latter concept is related also directly to the question of how do we work? Weber describes bureaucracy as a division of labor, with the explicit lines of authority, comprehensive written rules of behavior and communication, an organizational hierarchy, emotionally neutral management, accredited training and competence, and ownership of various organizational positions (Weber & Whimster, 2004). This is a perfect description of my organization and job, where all obligations are determined by the written rules and policies. We have a set of behavioral rules we are bound to follow, when dealing with clients (workplace ethic), and we subject ourselves to the power of the office hierarchy, based on supervisors and senior managers. We are expected to be friendly but emotionally neutral. This overwhelming emphasis on rationality and emotional neutrality raises another question: what do we get in return for our work?
Two answers are possible. Based on Weber, we work to earn (Weber & Whimster, 2004). Money is the ultimate goal of our blind commitment to work and professional growth. In bureaucratic organizations, we are expected to pass all stages of the career ladder, until we achieve the desired result. This is, probably why money is believed to be the most motivating performance improvement force within organizations. As I mentioned earlier, I need to work hard and make sure that my customers are satisfied, because their satisfaction will eventually impact on my earnings. Yet, Karl Marx would not accept this point. Marx’s concepts of labor power and worker exploitation suggest that our beliefs, which we are paid for the work we do at least misleading (Brooks, 2002). Marx believes that business owners do not buy our work – they buy our capacity to work (Brooks, 2002). Business owners exploit employees in exchange for the minimum wages and the feeling of job security (Brooks, 2002). Even if the wages paid by owners are high enough to afford a good car, a large house, and regular vacations, the gap between them and their subordinates remains unchanged. Although my workplace schedules are being governed by a complex set of labor and civil laws, we often hear that we have to work harder and better, in order to show our commitment to the company. This is when I start seeing some truth in Marx’s words and his vision of our organizational realities. I work because I need a job, I need to provide for my living and feel myself as a full member of society. However, even with all privileges given to me, I am just a salesman in a computer store. All this knowledge will empower me to improve my social and workplace position.
Theories ofKarl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim are useful instruments of sociological analysis. These classical theorists provide their unique views on a variety of organizational and workplace problems. Their theories help to understand why people work, how they work, and what they get in return for their work. All this knowledge can further motivate today’s employees to improve their future workplace position.
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