For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Bias, history, and the protestant work ethic"

by Smith, V O; Smith, Y S (2011)


The Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) is an important construct for management theorists. However, there appear to be biases and distortions in the way it is used in research. This paper aims to discuss the issues of assumptions involving the PWE, thus addressing this gap in the management literature. Design/methodology/approach – The management literature distorts the PWE in three ways. First, though there are multiple work ethics, researchers largely focus on this one. This paper examines work-ethics research and language in various management fields. Second, the construct has been developed within limited philosophical perspectives. This is tested by comparing work histories. Third, the historic documents are investigated and it is argued that the PWE is not Protestant. Findings – There is evidence of bias in the management literature concerning the PWE. Though there are many work values, management research is dominated by the PWE. Luther’s and Calvin’s writings indicate that their essential views on work are the opposite of Webers’ formulation of the PWE. However, the views of Marx and Engels on work echo the PWE. Research limitations/implications – If a basic assumption is distorted, research utilizing this assumption is suspect. The PWE is an important construct in several management disciplines. Bias in construct assumptions can result in inaccurate measurements and results. Practical implications – Researchers must constantly be aware of possible personal bias, particularly regarding key constructs. Scholars should regularly examine assumptions in their discipline. The history of a discipline can greatly assist this examination. Originality/value – This is one of the few examinations of the assumptions behind a key construct in the management literature, the PWE. There are strong indications that distortions about the PWE have been reified

Key Passage

The point is that the “historical facts” asserted in the organizational literature appear to have emerged from a complex interaction of facts, values and interests as interpreted through a specific ideology. For example, many work histories echo Engels’ (1895) argument that the early Hebrews thought mankind was doomed to work as a penalty for the fall of Adam and Eve. That rationale is found in Genesis 3:17 “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it” (Erikson, 1990; Nord et al., 1990). However, earlier in Genesis, the Hebrew writers discuss God working in the act of creation, and say that He “placed the man into the garden of Eden to cultivate it” (Genesis 2:15). The divine instruction to do the work of cultivation took place before the fall of mankind. The indication is that the Hebrew writers did not see work itself as the consequence of the fall, but rather wearisome toil as the consequence, which is a very different thing (Attas and De-Shalit, 2004). Nor can evidence be found in the other Hebrew writings that work is necessary to expiate humans before God. On the contrary, Hebrew poetry and wisdom literature discuss work as a natural part of life, one that a wise man will do well as he does other things well. For example, Proverbs 12:14 says, “From the fruit of his lips a man is filled with good things as surely as the work of his hands rewards him.” (p.288)


Protestantism, Protestant Work Ethic, Theology, Management Theory, Organisational Theory


Protestantism, Religious Views on Work, History of Work

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