(Mooney, Knox, & Schacht, 2000 pp. 286-288)

Mooney, L. A., Knox, D., & Schacht, C. (2000). Understanding social problems (2nd ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Wadsworth. 


Theoretical Perspectives

Numerous theories in economics, political science, and history address the nature of work and the economy. In sociology, structural-functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism serve as theoretical lenses through which we may better understand work and economic issues and activities.

Structural-Functionalist Perspective

According to the structural-functionalist perspective, the economic institution is one of the most important of all social institutions. It provides the basic necessities common to all human societies, including food, clothing, and shelter. By providing for the basic survival needs of members of society, the economic institution contributes to social stability. After the basic survival needs of a society are met, surplus materials and wealth may be allocated to other social uses, such as maintaining military protection from enemies, supporting political and religious leaders, providing formal education, supporting an expanding population, and providing entertainment and recreational activities. Societal development is dependent on an economic surplus in a society (Lenski & Lenski, 1987).

Although the economic institution is functional for society, elements of it may be dysfunctional. For example, prior to industrialization, agrarian societies had a low division of labor in which few work roles were available to members of society. Limited work roles meant that society's members shared similar roles and thus developed similar norms and values (Durkheim, [1893] 1966). In contrast, industrial societies are characterized by many work roles, or a high division of labor,  and cohesion is based not on the similarity of people and their roles but on their interdependence. People in industrial societies need the skills and services that others provide. The lack of common norms and values in industrialized societies may result in anomie--a state of normlessness--which is linked to a variety of social problems including crime, drug addiction, and violence.

Conflict Perspective

According to Karl Marx, capitalism is responsible for the inequality and conflict within and between societies. The ruling class controls the economic system for its own benefit and exploits and oppresses the working masses. While structural-functionalism views the economic institution as benefiting society as a whole, conflict theory holds that capitalism benefits an elite class that controls not only the economy but other aspects of society as well--the media, politics and law, education, and religion.

As an indication of the ties between business and government, conflict theorists point to the growing level of corporate influence in U.S. politics. Hugh corporate contributions to politicians and political parties continue to buy political influence that favors corporate interests.

Corporate power is also reflected in the policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, which pressure developing countries to open their economies to foreign corporations, promoting export production at the expense of local consumption, encouraging the exploitation of labor as a means of attracting foreign investment, and hastening the degradation of natural resources as countries sell their forests and minerals to earn money to pay back loans. Ambrose (1998) asserts that "for some time now, the IMF has been the chief architect of the global economy, using debt leverage to force governments around the world to give big corporations and billionaires everything they want--low taxes, cheap labor, loose regulations--so they will locate in their countries" (p. 5). Treaties such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) also benefit corporations at the expense of workers by providing U.S. corporations greater access to foreign markets. "These laws increasingly allow corporations to go anywhere and do anything they like, and prohibit workers and the governments that supposedly represent them from doing much about it" (Danaher, 1998, p. 1).

According to the conflict perspective, work trends that benefit employees, such as work site health promotion and work-family policies are not the result of altruistic or humanitarian concern for workers' well-being. Rather, corporate leaders recognize that these programs and policies result in higher job productivity and lower health care costs and are thus good for the "bottom line."

Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

According to symbolic interactionism, the work role is a central part of a person's identity. When making a new social acquaintance, one of the first questions we usually ask is, "What do you do?" The answer largely defines for us who that person is. For example, identifying a person as a truck driver provides a different social meaning than identifying someone as a physician. In addition, the title of one's status--maintenance supervisor or president of the United States--also gives meaning and self-worth to the individual. An individual's job is one of his or her most important statuses, for many, it comprises a "master status," that is, the most significant status in a person's identity.

As symbolic interactionists note, definitions and meanings influence behavior. Meanings and definitions of child labor contributes to it perpetuation. In some countries, children lean to regard working as a necessary and important responsibility and rite of passage, rather than an abuse of human rights. Some children look forward to becoming bonded to a master "in the same way that American children look forward to a first communion or getting a driver's license" (Silvers, 1996, p. 83).

Symbolic interactionism emphasizes that attitudes and behavior are influenced by interaction with others. The applications or symbolic interactionism in the workplace are numerous--employers and managers are concerned with using interpersonal interaction techniques that achieve the attitudes and behaviors they want from their employees; union organizers are concerned with using interpersonal interaction techniques that persuade workers to unionize; and job training programs are concerned with using interpersonal interaction techniques that are effective in motivating participants.