The nature of work is deeply implicated in individual and social life, and is therefore quite a complex topic. James (1997) suggests that there are at least three ways of thinking about and therefore conceptualising work – productivist, instrumental/rational, and cultural/ontological. In productivist terms, work can be thought of as “efficient, purposive, socially useful activity that provides or produces useful material or service for others”. In instrumental terms, work is not just about ends, but is also “an externalized, differentiated, performative activity” (i.e. work is about means and ends). In ontological terms, work is “practical activity undertaken for the purpose of reproducing and enhancing social life” (i.e. work is purposive and performative but is also fundamental to social and cultural being). Each of these definitions takes us in slightly different directions, and each is underpinned by a rich intellectual and political/cultural tradition that stretches back to antiquity. This chapter examines how the nature of work has changed and how this has changed wider social relations, and our understanding of these concepts of work.
- Historical development of the concept of ‘work’
The concept of work in its modern form evolved with the development of capitalism and is closely associated with paid employment. Williams (1983) explained:
The specialization of work to paid employment is the result of the development of capitalist productive relations. To be in work or out of work was to be in a definite relationship with some other who had control of the means of productive effort. Work then partly shifted from the productive effort itself to the predominant social relationship. It is only in this sense that a woman running a house and bringing up children can be said to be not working (p. 335).
Even though feminism made the critical point that paid labour is contingent on much unpaid labour, Williams point is that it is nevertheless implicit in contemporary understanding that a woman who runs a house and brings up children is distinguished from a woman who ‘works.’ Similarly, ‘to be in work or out of work,’ or to be ‘injured at work’ implies a particular relationship with the means of productive effort (the employer) and the means of acquisition (the wage).