The Sociology of Work: Structures and Inequalities
Vallas, Steven P., Finlay, William and Wharton, Amy S.
In their introduction the authors express a frustration towards deciding the most effective ways to teach the sociology of work. They concede, that generally they must make 'tough choices' when designing the reading lists for courses. The authors explain that this text is an attempt to offer a sociological understanding of work, and to,fill the gap in occupational literature, focusing on structures of work and the inequalities within them.
The authors provide a defense to the book's raison d'être, explaining the primacy of work within society, discussing its role in shaping norms and values. They contend that social theory is essential when attempting to understand individual or collective relations within occupational structures. This argument is developed further through their theoretical chapter, which addresses both classical and contemporary theoretical perspectives. The chapter begins by discussing contributions from Marx, Weber and Durkheim, including a brief but helpful introduction to their theoretical positions and a basic but balanced critique. It continues to then offer a chronological account of 3 phases of contemporary perspectives - theory of industrial society, labor process approach and theories of postindustrial society.
The text offers a chapter dedicated to research methods appropriate for studying the sociology of work. These include official statistics, surveys and interviews, ethnographies and experiments. For each form of data collection, the authors give a detailed introduction, explaining what each form is, basic technical practices, examples of where these methods have been used in past occupational research and a basic summary of the research method's strengths and weaknesses.
The central purpose and discussion of the book can be found in chapters 6-13, where both occupational structures and inequalities are discussed. The chapters concerning structures, offer an in depth explanation of the different levels or forms of work - blue-collar workers, managers and the service industry, explaining what roles these forms play in the occupational structure. The central strength of these chapters, comes from the amount of time the authors spend explaining different forms of work and workers, an area that many students may take for granted, the authors attempt to question, if not replace, this common knowledge of the work force structure.
The chapters concerning inequalities focus primarily on gender and racial inequalities, however, these issues are not only addressed through these dedicated chapters, but rather, they can be seen as a general theme throughout the book. These chapters offer a chronological account of the historical development of these inequalities, how they manifest and proceed in everyday work, the authors also comment on the future of these relations.
There are however two issues or possible critiques that struck me when reading this text. Firstly, there is a lack of discussion concerning the issue of class inequalities within the sociology of work, as the major inequalities the text focuses on are gender and race. However, I would concede that this is perhaps more of an issue for the wider academy than this specific publication. Secondly, some readers may take issue with the text's narrow North American focus. When the authors discuss forms of jobs, they describe low status jobs as being blue collar, when discussing immigration issues they use the example of the relationship between Mexico and the United States. I would suggest this issue is not solved, but certainly softened by the universality of North American pop-culture; the overall comments from the book would be useful to a wider, non-American, audience.
This is both a very useful and important text for undergraduate and postgraduate students. The authors do not simply offer an introduction or grounding to a sub discipline, but rather to an issue within the sub-discipline, inequalities found in employment and the structures that create, foster and reinforce them. It strikes me that publications in the past, placed inequalities within a chapter or a subsection. I think what this text does, is to make a younger or earlier audience aware of specific issues, rather than providing a general discussion.
Ciaran T. Burke
Queen's University Belfast