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Corpus - Au-delà des frontières, sept sociologies du travail

Beyond borders, seven sociologies of work

NRT Editorial Board
Au-delà des frontières, sept sociologies du travail [fr]


This NRT Corpus offers a presentation of the sociology of work (SoW) in seven countries other than France. The list includes older European cradles of social sciences such as Germany or the United Kingdom (the Spanish sociology have started much later) along with the United States. Countries often referred to as possessing an “emerging” school - such as Mexico, Argentina and China – are also treated here. Each article has its own way of analysing and critiquing how research objects have been transformed; how issues and paradigms have emerged or disappeared; and how paradigms have dominated or faded. Each also reflects convergences between intellectual currents ­—a circulation of ideas within which the effects of capitalism’s transformations can be read — while also noting the differences between all these branches of sociology.

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1One objective for this New Labour Review Corpus is take stock of the sociology of work (SoW) in seven countries (with new articles on other horizons also being planned) and thereby enhance French-speaking sociologists’ knowledge of what is happening outside their customary reading space while also scrutinising the convergence and circulation of ideas between these various schools, as well as their specificities. A further aspiration is to give English- and Spanish-speaking SoW readers access to international sources. Translating the entire Corpus into all three languages would have been ideal and remains a serious ambition. In the meantime, the articles below take a step in this direction.

2At a time when the UN recognises 195 nations worldwide, the seven cases being presented here may seem very selective. Faced with the impossibility of achieving a more representative sample of the relatively few countries in which a SoW exists, certain choices have had to be made. Some translate how difficult it would have been to get all network colleagues to contribute to the project within the limited time frame allowed – explaining why certain countries with significance to the discipline (inc. Italy, Sweden or Brazil) are absent from this compilation. It remains that the seven SoWs on display here include representatives from social sciences’ historic European cradle – Germany and the United Kingdom, with Spain having arrived much later on the scene, as discussed below ; the USA being the one global superpower; plus three large countries that at least until the 1970s were part of what used to be referred to as the “Third World” (namely Mexico, Argentina, and China – with the latter now clearly competing with the USA for global leadership status).

3The aim here has been to avoid overly descriptive articles simply presenting a few choice themes or theoretical currents within each country. Each article has its own way of analysing and critiquing how research objects have been transformed; how issues and paradigms have emerged or disappeared; and how paradigms have dominated or faded. They also show international convergence, divergence and more generally the circulation of ideas. In some cases (like China), because the higher education sector developed at a later date and/or for essentially political reasons, SoW would emerge relatively belatedly, maturing or existing only in an embryonic and fragile state. In this sense, the present compilation builds upon The Palgrave Handbook of the Sociology of Work in Europe, a publication to which some of the authors cited here contributed, but which they seek this time around to transcend geographically.

Convergence: the role of historical scansions

4Convergence can first be identified via the historical scansions that have increasingly tended – since capitalism entered the era of neo-liberalism, financialisation and economic “globalization” in the late 1970s/early 1980s – to punctuate the socio-economic dynamics circumscribing the world of work in each of the countries involved here. This has entailed industrial retreat and the disintegration of the Keynesian compromise in the first countries to have developed industrially; “structural adjustments” in the countries of the South; the Chinese economy’s liberalisation and opening up to foreign capital; and the impact that the 2008/2009 financial and economic crisis had on work and employment everywhere. Convergence is also witnessed in the more or less parallel transformations affecting both the workforce’s objective composition and the dynamics characterising a number of social movements (exemplified by the weakening of trade unionism and rise of feminism). The net effect has been to advance new themes, including ones relating to the role that gender and ethno-racial minorities play in recomposing the world of work. Along these lines, note Chris Rhomberg's article published in Varia showing how the year 2020’s triple health, economic and social crisis constitutes a powerful indicator of all these transformations and comprises an inflection if not a breaking point in the history of work and workers in the United States.

  • 1 Paul Stewart, Jean-Pierre Durand and Maria-Magdalena Richea (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of the Soc (...)

5In two of the European countries where SoW has been established for the longest period of time – here, the United Kingdom and Germany – the same expression of a “golden age” is used to describe a privileged epistemological institutional positioning that aligned during the 1960s and early 1970s with what was defined as the social and political centrality of industry and industrial working class. Controversy over the scope and meaning of this “golden age” postulate lies at the heart of the Corpus article covering the United Kingdom1. The authors strongly dispute the idea that the discipline is in “decline”, emphasizing its blind spots and welcoming the “redeployment” associated with the expansion of its fields of inquiry to previously neglected components of the world of work, starting with women and ethno-racial minorities. Reflecting the social basis of the social-democratic compromise, early British SoW was particularly interested in male workers with longstanding roots in the country. The article also questions the scope of British SoW’s move from sociology departments to business schools (some integrated into universities) – a diagnosis that also resonates strongly among French-language SoW specialists taking a retrospective view of how the discipline has fared in their own country. In Germany, work’s relative eclipse and replacement by employment and employment policies during the 1990s is also a direct echo of both the socio-economic contextual transformations and the disciplinary inflections that France was experiencing synchronously. Having said that (and compared to its British cousin), in this latter country the discipline seems less beset by existential questions and “more optimistic” about its future, probably because it is “tendentially inward-looking” and “relatively consensual”, given certain shared reference to Marxian critical traditions.

6In Mexico as in Argentina, the 1980s also witnessed a historic break with the past, epitomized by neo-corporatist labor regulations and various attempts to use a certain type of industrial development as a substitute for imports. However, this was also a time when SoW began to really develop in these countries – albeit subsumed in Argentina into “work studies”. The tendency here would be a straightforward embrace of new research themes breaking with the ones that had dominated the “old” SoW. This would include employment issues, informal work, precarity, inequality, poverty and the subordination of certain worker categories. Unlike the first countries to have developed industrially, “it is in the context of the working class’s decline as a subject of social transformation that the sociology of work emerges.” Thus, in a country where informal employment is the rule and not the exception, many studies acknowledge the impossibility of studying work through the prism of “norms and ideals constructed on the basis of stable and protected employment”. Instead, what they recognise is a need to account fully for the heterogeneity of productive activities.

7The Argentine contribution is the one that articulates a periodisation of economic policies most specifically – covering a short period, from the 1990s until today – and applies towards this end certain thematic inflections in work-related research. Spanish colleagues’ SoW treatment – divided into three periods since the 1980s and the end of Francoism – is not miles away either. In actual fact, more than the others it is Argentine and Spanish societies that have been most shaken by the economic and political crises that have had such a direct effect on SoW’s objects of study. Otherwise, the examples of the United States and China are also there to demonstrate the role played by common historical scansions ; the mid-1970s weakening of the “employment relationship” typifying the era of Fordist growth in the United States (itself followed by a profusion of different forms of flexibility) ; and China’s break during the 1990s from an earlier mode of development that would be succeeded by the national economy’s liberalisation and greater openness, radically expanding the size of a population class that was also inflated the mass exodus of rural migrant workers. Of course, this was also followed in China during the 2010s by processes of flexibilisation and precariousness that are familiar to Westerners, in their forms if not in their radicality.

The circulation of ideas

  • 2 See for example: Linden Van der M. (2012), "Challenges for a Global Labour History", The Social Mov (...)

8Historically, the circulation of theoretical and intellectual influences between different SoW strands has been unidirectional, emanating from the discipline’s European founders (including Durkheim, Marx and Weber) to the “new world”: first the USA in the early 20th century; followed by Mexico; and then Argentina later on. Not all of the articles in this Corpus address this issue of international influence. The German one does, however, being a country exemplified by a number of notable exchanges with France during the 1970s and 1980s - a traffic that would subsequently fade as a result of Anglo-American hegemony. The same happened in Spain, reportedly under the influence of French (and Italian) SoW at first; and in Argentina, where French influence stood out among other European schools. Nowadays, however, there are numerous international exchanges within the discipline, with the ensuing proliferation of international comparisons – including ones conducted under the aegis of European institutions – clearly playing an important role. But asides from the Spanish contribution, these are rarely treated explicitly here. Instead, the focus seems to be on the effects of university transformations and academics’ hunt for status, embodied in their race to publish in the “best international journals” – understood to be one written in English. This calls for further reflection on how such trends affect the discipline and its paradigms, objects and methods – the question being whether they all point towards a dilution of disciplinary boundaries and/or a relaxation of theoretical requirements. Whatever the answer, the need to transcend a Eurocentric definition and study of work – historically reduced to formal employment and paid work – is prevalent throughout the social sciences of work and therefore unsurprisingly present, whether explicitly or implicitly, in the present contributions.2


9The authors of these seven national contributions have not had any particularly restrictive framework imposed upon them. That being the case, some of the contributions are very thematic in nature (i.e. the USA); other combine periodisation and themes (Argentina, Mexico Spain); and others highlight more theoretical issues (Germany, United Kingdom). As for the China article, the focus here is on describing work and employment transformation, if only because of the impossibility of rooting analysis in an institutionalised and visible Chinese version of SoW. After all, in this country the discipline operates under tight political control, especially since 2012, which marked the end of an era of relative openness and the arrival of President Xi Jinping. Moreover, the narrow space allocated to SoW as an academic discipline is a real concern for all social sciences, even if the treatment of its object of study – work and work-related conflicts – is something frightening to the Chinese state and to the CCP. In Spain and Argentina as well, periods of dictatorship have either long stifled or put an abrupt end to national social sciences’ development. The experience of authoritarian regimes hostile to (and necessarily critical of) sociological research has undoubtedly been conducive to the politicisation of SoW specialists.

10Lastly and beyond certain convergence that can be observed between countries – generally explained by the often transnational changes affecting salient socio-economic contexts (and more specifically by global paradigm shifts since the 1980s due to the hegemony of financial and deregulated capitalism) as well as the work and employment dynamics they imply – readers will discover the diverse nature of the objects that tend to be treated in one country or another. This might also be envisioned as a kind of variability in terms of the emphasis being placed on the different sets of objects that unite all these SoWs. The Mexican contributors, for instance, have been particularly interested in trade union figures facing the privatisation of their strongholds (oil or electricity industries). German contributors are galvanised by the “digitalisation” of work, a topic that benefits from considerable funding in that country. Argentine sociologists seem highly focused on work precarity and on the exchanges between various social movements.

11The present Corpus demonstrates that notwithstanding the globalised production of and trade in goods and services, the problems characterising and different ways of dealing with work, employment, qualifications or training continue to be highly affected by national intellectual environments. Reciprocal influences are there for all to see but it is also true that agendas and timelines continue to differ from country to country. Many research objects may be common to all – but the hierarchisation that they receive continues to vary from one national space to another.

12Hence the need to intensify international exchanges and not to “level down” or homogenise reflection. The priority instead must be to take stock of differences; identify emergent thinking; and discuss reciprocal relevance.

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1 Paul Stewart, Jean-Pierre Durand and Maria-Magdalena Richea (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of the Sociology of Work in Europe, Cham (CH), Palgrave MacMillan, 2019.

2 See for example: Linden Van der M. (2012), "Challenges for a Global Labour History", The Social Movement, 4 (241), pp. 3-39.

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Electronic reference

NRT Editorial Board, Beyond borders, seven sociologies of workLa nouvelle revue du travail [Online], 19 | 2021, Online since 01 November 2021, connection on 21 January 2022. URL:; DOI:

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Licence Creative Commons
La Nouvelle Revue du Travail est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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