For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The Normativity of Work: Retrieving a Critical Craft Norm"

by Tweedie, Dale (2017)


Recent social theory has begun to reconsider how the activity of work can contribute to well-being or autonomy under the right conditions. However, there is no consensus on what this contribution consists in, and so on precisely which normative principles should be marshalled to critique harmful or repressive forms of workplace organisation. This paper argues that Richard Sennett?s concept of work as craft provides a normative standard against which the organisation of work can be assessed, especially when explained within a broadly Aristotelian account of the conditions of human flourishing. More precisely, the paper argues that a craft norm can meet the standards of social critique within the Frankfurt School tradition of Critical Theory, as this tradition has been interpreted by Axel Honneth. Honneth himself now rejects craft norms as too utopian and parochial to inform Critical Theory under contemporary economic conditions. In reply, this paper uses sociological studies of call centre workers to illustrate how work motivated by craft ideals can be sustainable rather than utopian, and how craftsmanship can inform social critique across a wide variety of industries and management practices.

Key Passage

Since neither the burdens nor rewards of work are proportionately shared under capitalist modes of production though, one criticism of capitalism is that it inadequately compensates workers for the sacrifices that they endure. Karl Marx’s concept of exploitation may be read as this kind of critique, since for him workers are exploited under capitalism because their wages are systematically less than the value of the goods their efforts produce. As Axel Honneth’s early analysis has stressed though, there is a second line of critique that also stems from Marx, but which invokes a very different underlying conception of the role of work in human life.1 This is the critique suggested by Marx’s concept of alienation, which charges capitalism with stripping the work activity of its inherent dignity, satisfaction or meaning. (p.66)


Social Theory, Critical Theory, Craft, Repression, Organisation, Utopia, Frankfurt School


Sennett, Goods of Work

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