Panel – A health check on the sociology of work

We are posting a four-part panel today, with five sociologists providing a health check on the sociology of work. Chris Warhurst begins the panel by noting that the inability of mainstream economics to predict or explain the 2007-8 financial crisis might provide an opening for the sociology of work to become more influential. Yet, across the UK and Australia, the study of work has been eclipsed in sociology by cultural and gender studies. Chris wonders if part of the problem is the lack of good ethnographic research by sociologists on knowledge workers like investment bankers.

Steve Vallas responds to Chris’ piece largely in agreement, noting that in many ways the sociology of work in the UK is more dynamic than that in the US, having produced concepts such as aesthetic labor and enterprise culture. In fact, Steve notes, US sociology is experiencing some of the same forces Chris notes in the UK: Demand for critical discussion of work has been eclipsed by organizational institutionalism, particularly in business schools, and the cultural turn.

Jeff Sallaz responds to Chris’ piece with a bit more disagreement, suggesting that the problem is not a lack of ethnographies of finance workers, but the fact that the rise of service sector employment has not been associated with proportionate rise in profit generated by this sector. He suggests that work is becoming decoupled from the process of capital accumulation.

Christine Williams responds to Chris from a different angle, presenting an interview with Megan Tobias Neely, who just defended her PhD thesis proposal for an ethnographic study of hedge fund managers. Megan notes that professors, fellow grad students, and even those within the hedge fund industry have been very interested in her research. While there are differences in studying this industry versus others – most notably, a need to be careful to neither demonize nor glorify her subjects – she concludes that “My goal is no different than that of my fellow graduate students who are studying low wage workers—contextualizing their social worlds and learning about how they make sense of their daily work lives.”

What this panel richly shows is that the sociology of work is as energetic as ever – but it faces many of the same formidable challenges that increasingly confront our societies in an era of neoliberalism and financialization.

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