Seven Conceptualizations of Work

“Seven Conceptualizations of Work,” adapted from writings by John Budd for the Center of Human Resources and Labor Studies


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There are seven conceptualizations that Budd labels here. He makes use of some views by Karl Marx as a point of comparison. Marx saw the worker as in a constant state of strife as the means of production, alienated as a commodity. As we start to look at particular worlds and time periods of work this week and in the weeks to come, let us see how some of these conceptualizations line up with the stories, poems, and plays we will encounter.

Definition of Work

First, Budd defines work as “purposeful human activity involving physical or mental exertion that is not undertaken solely for pleasure and that has economic value.” When he mentions “economic value,” he is quick to disclaim that the “value” doesn’t mean it has to be done for money; for instance, caring for one’s family.

Work as Commodity

What Marx viewed as “labor power”: work is seen through the impersonal laws of supply and demand. Work is viewed for economic value. As Marx posited, there is the potential for the alienation of the worker.

Work as Occupational Citizenship

Work is undertaken by citizens of inherent equal worth. There are standards of dignity and self-determination. There is a bargained relationship between employee and employer.

Work as Disutility

Work is viewed as stressful and painful. It takes away from leisure, which is more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Work as Social Relations

Work consists of human interactions. It is shaped by social networks, institutions, and norms. There are socially-constructed social relations. There is the potential for power struggle, as posited by Marx.

Work as Personal Fulfillment

Work is directed by the brain, cognitively and emotionally. Attitudes and moods can impact one’s mental state in regards to work. Work can satisfy our human needs for achievement, self-esteem, and self-worth.

Work as Caring for Others

Feminist scholarship has helped to highlight what has been traditionally viewed as “women’s work.” There is physical, cognitive, and emotional effort in caring for others.

Work as Identity

Work is viewed as a source of meaning and understanding. This shapes us as part of our species, our social standing, our class, and our personal lives. Self-directed work is essential. This is contrasted most with work as commodity and the alienation that Marx feared for workers.