For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

The Structures of the Life-World

by Schutz, Alfred (1989)

Key Passage

Among the many different kinds of operation, one especially merits closer examination. All operation, as controlled corporeal conduct, in some way engages in the world. But not every operation changes the surrounding world in a way that is significant for the practical objectives of everyday life. On this point we should not be misled by the metaphysical question—which is not pertinent for everyday practice—whether every action, indeed every event, be it “inner” or “outer,” does not change reality. If after merely accidental “thinking aloud” I happen to frame my train of thought intentionally in words, I have gone over from thinking to operating: something has changed essentially in the mode of action. But in the surrounding world nothing has noticeably changed, and in myself hardly anything noticeable. Now assume that I clothe my train of thought in words for someone else and ask him to cut down a tree. When he does cut it down, I have then engaged in the surrounding world in a manner that changes it, although I myself have not lifted a finger. The effect resembles what I would have achieved if I had personally cut down the tree. all these examples have one thing in common. Some determinate effect, a change in the natural and social world, was achieved by a plan of action. It is, moreover, quite clear that man’s surrounding worlds are not merely part of nature, but are also always social. We will not at this point go into the difficult problem of the flexible and historically variable boundaries of the social world. One can dream about cutting down trees, one can observe it, think about it, talk about it, convince others to do it, or do it oneself. This shows that, despite all unclear transitions in individual cases, it is meaningful to stress the kind of operation that changes the surrounding world according to the plan of action. Change is thus not a purely accidental effect of action. It must rather be intended and inserted in the plan of action, whether or not the performance of the act succeeds. Leaving tracks behind in the snow is not part of the project, but stomping out a path in the snow surely is. This shows that even this kind of operation cannot be unambiguously attached to criteria of conduct, but rather must be understood from its meaning to the actor. Let us call it work. This conception of what work means does no great violence to the colloquial usage of the word. But clearly the precise delineation suggested does not correspond to the concept’s blurred connotations in modern industrial societies, not to mention that no such concept existed in earlier tribal societies. Remnants of early Christian, Calvinist, and Lutheran history of ideas are still contained in the capitalist and Marxist versions of the concept of work in the modern world, where there is little sign of a unified conception of it—quite apart from its valuation. The functionalist orientation of most social science concepts of work is useful for certain ends, but has its own difficulties, as professional sociology, for example, shows. This holds especially for historical and intercultural comparative analyses, since the concept of work—so central to social organizations of everyday reality and their ideological corroboration—is subject to historical contractions and expansions. In this context, too, a broad but precise definition of work as a particular kind of life-worldly operation may be useful. This definition, of course, includes productive activities in an economic sense, but it also includes all those forms of social action by which a change is made in the social world: declarations of love, marriages, baptism, court deliberations, the sale or even the collecting of postage stamps, revolutions and must be understood in terms of the project. The actor works when he wants to achieve something definite in the surrounding world. This can be something natural or social, as “social” and “natural” happen to be understood in a society. For a physicist, of course, speech is obviously a physically measurable event. In the practical everyday attitude, however, one speaks in order to influence people and knows that it is also possible to cut down trees indirectly by speaking. Therefore, at least on the level of the constitution of the meaning of everyday action, a distinction between work and communication is out of place. There are of course very important differences between simpler forms of operation and communicative acts—these will be analyzed more precisely in the investigation of signs, symbols, and language. But the line of separation cuts right across the category of work. Work is not just simple operation; communication is not just idle talk. One more point I want to make concerns the specific meaning of work. Work was distinguished from other kinds of operation by the fact that in its project it aims for a particular change of the surrounding world, the specific motive of which is irrelevant in this context. Whether one cuts down a tree for firewood or to earn money, for training and conditioning, or as a counterbalance for “mental” work, or for any other reasons, is important both for the individual and for the social organization of work—but in all cases it is work. And finally: no one will call me to account for what I think. If I “think aloud” it is surely harder to “talk my way out” as not having meant it literally. But I am in any case responsible for trees chopped down and for cigarettes removed from someone’s mouth. As work was defined, therefore, it forms the fundamental category of social attribution of responsibility. (p.13)


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Sociology of Work, Concepts of Work



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