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Panel – 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.

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Chris Warhurst raises a number of issues that warrant careful attention. One stems from the still-considerable boundary between UK and US sociology – trends “over there” don’t map on to what’s happening in the USA (to the detriment of both sides, I might add). A second and related issue concerns the fate of the sociology of work and employment –empirically rich and ascendant, relative to economics? Or in the doldrums and losing its audience? A third is the jurisdictional struggle between culturally attuned areas of study (cultural studies, gender studies) on the one hand, and more structurally oriented approaches toward the “hidden abode.” Let me comment on these in turn.

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Chris Warhurst takes the 2007-08 financial crisis as a point of departure to ask some important questions. What is the future of the sociology of work? Is there still a place—indeed a need—for those “ethnographic monographs on work and employment” that have long been the backbone of the field?   It was so disheartening to read that new introductory textbooks subsume work within chapters on tourism and sport; while there is “little teaching of the sociology of work and employment in Australia’s top universities.” Yet I don’t think that the problem lies where Warhurst suggests it does, with a dearth of trading floor ethnographies. What we’re confronting is a deeper crisis, what I’ll call a decoupling of work from profits. It is the real culprit behind the marginalization of the sociology of work, and it derives from the financialization of the economy.

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NOTE: I was on my way to Megan Tobias Neely’s dissertation proposal defense when I received Matt’s invitation to respond to this blog post. In a case of pure serendipity, Megan’s dissertation is an ethnographic study of hedge fund managers. I sent Megan the blog post and we recently sat down to discuss it.

CLW: Why did you decide to write your dissertation on hedge fund managers?

MTN: I was taking a course on the financial crisis in the public policy school. A lot of that research focuses on how deregulation and various political interests led to the financial crises. I realized that we can’t understand the crisis unless we understand how the workplace structures the way people make investments, and how, through their daily decisions at work, financial managers shape public policy.

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