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

United States: eight key themes in sociology of work

Arne L. Kalleberg et Kevin T. Leicht
Traduction(s) :
États-Unis : huit thématiques clés de la sociologie du travail [fr]


This paper discusses the evolution of the sociology of work in the United States in the post-World War II period. We conceptualize the sociology of work broadly, as the study of jobs and organizations as well as its links to social stratification and inequality, political economy, and worker power, among other topics. We identify eight major enduring themes: work organization and the labor process; labor markets and careers; professions and professional work; employment relations; meaning of work; unions and worker power; workplace stratification and inequality; and labor force diversity. For each theme, we summarize some of the main issues, research questions, and studies that have revealed important aspects of work in the United States. These themes are likely to continue to be significant topics in the sociology of work in the United States in coming years.

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1Work is a central institution in the United States. The centrality of work is mirrored in the prominent position occupied by the study of work within American sociology in the post-World War II period. From research by industrial sociologists on unions and labor-management relations in the 1950s to studies of occupations and organizations during the past forty years, there has been no shortage of issues that have been studied by sociologists of work in the United States.

2The prominence of sociology of work in American sociology is due in part to its linkages to other aspects of sociology, such as stratification, the family, the life course, leisure studies, organizations, occupations and industrial relations. Moreover, the sociology of work is a fertile meeting area for other disciplines, and sociological understandings of work have both contributed to--and been informed by--theoretical debates and research conducted by economists, psychologists, historians, industrial relations scholars, and management scientists, among others. This breadth reflects the multi-level nature of topics related to the sociology of work, that span macro (the economy and culture), mezzo (organizations and the industrial relations system) and micro (jobs and teams) levels of analysis (Kalleberg and Berg, 1987).

3Developments in the study of work in the United States are intimately related to issues and trends taking place throughout the world. Sociologists of work in the United States have always been aware of and receptive to developments in other countries, which have influenced Americans’ thinking about the important theoretical questions and how to study them.

4In this article, we discuss the evolution of the sociology of work in the United States in the post-World War II period. We conceptualize the sociology of work broadly, as the study of jobs and organizations as well as their links to social stratification and inequality, political economy, and worker power, among other topics. We identify eight major enduring themes: work organization and the labor process; labor markets and careers; professions and professional work; employment relations; meaning of work; unions and worker power; and workplace stratification and inequality; and labor force diversity. For each theme, we summarize some of the main issues, research questions, and studies that have revealed important aspects of work in the United States. These themes are likely to continue to be significant topics in the sociology of work in the United States in coming years.

Work Organization and the Labor Process

5How and why work is organized the way it is has long been a major concern in the United States. Sociological research on this issue has been framed by debates rooted in Emile Durkheim’s conception of the division of labor, by Karl Marx’s view of the labor process as derived from capitalist control, and by discussions of the efficiencies and dysfunctions of bureaucracy as a way of organizing work that drew upon Max Weber’s classic insights.

6Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974) focused research and theory on the question of work organization in terms of class struggle and labor control. His neo-Marxist analysis maintained that the organizational division of labor resulted from class conflict over the way in which work was organized. Braverman’s theory of the detailed division of labor sparked a lively debate regarding the impact of work organization on changes in skills. This led to various streams of research that sought to fill in some of the gaps in his argument (the book has been cited over 17,500 times, according to Google Scholar; accessed February 8, 2021).

7Michael Burawoy (e.g., 1979) challenged Braverman’s near exclusive focus on the objective aspects of the labor process, which downplayed the subjective processes by which workers came to be coerced by capitalists. Burawoy argued that capitalists’ control over the labor process is achieved not only through de-skilling but by eliciting workers’ consent and making them party to their own domination. This aligns the perceived interests of the working class with those of the capitalist class, thus diffusing a situation rife with class antagonisms. Burawoy went on to expand on hegemonic forms of control that sought to elicit compliance and consent (e.g., Burawoy, 1983).

8Richard Edwards (1979) elaborated on the control systems that have emerged in the United States. Capitalists utilize technical and bureaucratic control in addition to simple, direct control and each was dominant in particular eras of U.S. history. His concept of “qualitative efficiency” underscored ways in which workers have exercised power and agency in shaping the labor process, leading to crises in capitalism and eventually to changes in control systems. Edwards integrates a bureaucratic perspective with a neo-Marxist view that the historically contingent nature of the labor process was driven by the dynamics of capitalist development.

9Braverman’s argument that capitalists sought to de-skill workers by creating a detailed division of labor that minimized labor costs was challenged by those who maintained that technology and other drivers of the labor process resulted in skill upgrading in some cases. The debate over whether skills have been downgraded or upgraded as a result of changes in the organization of work and technological change was extensively reviewed by Spenner (1983), who concluded that this depended on whether you looked at the entire economy (which yielded evidence for upgrading) or at specific occupations (such as printers, which provided evidence for downgrading). Vallas (1990) critically elaborates on conceptions of skill and Handel (2004) provides more recent updates on the skill requirements of jobs.

10While some employers have sought to de-skill workers, other U.S. organizations have taken the “high road” and sought to enhance the commitment of employees and their participation in decision-making by providing them with multiple skills so that they can be redeployed from one task to another. Committed, permanent employees are assumed to increase an organization's efficiency and effectiveness, thereby improving its competitive advantage, performance and productivity. “High performance” work systems (HPWS) organize work so as to allow front-line workers greater autonomy over their jobs and methods of work. HPWS arose initially in manufacturing industries and featured mechanisms such as self-directed teams that enabled workers to participate in decisions that shape organizational work routines (Appelbaum et al., 2000). HPWS have also been extended to service industries (e.g., Batt, 1999).

11Recently, the automation of work tasks has attracted considerable interest among sociologists of work in the United States. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Schwab, 2016) has rekindled worries that we are headed into a “jobless future” in which technological changes will reduce the demand for human labor. A concern with machines wiping out jobs has had a long history in the United States. For example, a commission created by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 concluded that while technology eliminated some jobs, it does not eradicate the need for work as new jobs will be created; hence, machine substitution of labor does not replace human labor but rather displaces workers from one part of the economy to another (Autor, 2015).

12The numbers and types of jobs that are likely to be eliminated and created as a result of technology and automation are less clear. Frey and Osborne (2017) conclude that current technological changes will make it possible to replace about half of the jobs in the U.S. with machines in the next 10 to 20 years. Jobs at the greatest risk of being automated are those involving transportation, logistics, office and administrative support, and production. The jobs in these industries tend to be routine in nature and typically involve rules-based logic that computers are particularly good at replicating (Levy and Murnane, 2013). Jobs that are less likely to be automated include those that involve unstructured tasks and require extensive education and experience, critical-thinking and problem-solving ability, adaptability and creativity, and complex reasoning or planning (Brynjolfsson and Mitchell, 2017).

13Moreover, as automation and smart technology become more prevalent, new jobs will be created alongside those created by artificial intelligence. Human workers will be required to complement the tasks performed by cognitive technology and machines. Other technological changes will redefine some jobs rather than eliminate them. Artificial intelligence and other technological innovations will change the way in which the expertise of a wide range of professions is made available to society (see Susskind and Susskind, 2015).

Labor Markets and Careers

14The study of labor markets emerged as an important issue in the sociology of work within the United States in the 1960s. The initial impetus was fueled by radical economists who sought to understand the persistence of the urban poor. The resulting explanation was dual labor market theory (Gordon, 1972), which posited that the labor market was divided into two main sectors: the primary market consisting of good jobs; and the secondary market comprised of bad jobs. The working poor were concentrated in the secondary market, where lack of opportunity for skill development doomed them to a career of low wages and unemployment. The primary market, by contrast, consisted of good jobs that paid relatively high wages and workers were able to advance their careers by moving up ladders within internal labor markets (Doeringer and Piore, 1971).

15Sociologists quickly expanded the dual labor market theory by elaborating the structure of labor market segmentation and its impacts on labor mobility, careers, and earnings inequality, among other issues (for a review, see Kalleberg and Sørensen, 1979). Studies of labor market segmentation included analyses of internal labor markets and promotion processes within firms as well as of how barriers within the occupational structure impeded the free mobility of workers from one occupation to another (Althauser and Kalleberg, 1981). These perspectives argued that initial placements in the labor market were critical for predicting further advancement or stagnation in the development of work careers (Rosenbaum, 1984). While empirical results largely failed to support segmented labor market perspectives (Hodson and Kaufman, 1982), research continued to study the demand for employees so as to explain the structure of inequality.

16Subsequent sociological research on labor markets and careers has focused on occupations and organizations (see Kalleberg and Mouw, 2018, for a review). These are the two major work structures that shape the opportunities available in the labor market. Stratification researchers have traditionally emphasized occupations as the major unit of analysis for conceptualizing and measuring structural differences within the labor force. Jarvis and Song (2017) analyze time trends in occupational mobility and find that there has been an increase in intragenerational occupational mobility over time in the U.S.

17However, sociologists also recognized that organizations are also central to explanations of careers and inequality. Baron and Bielby’s (1980) call to “bring the firms back in” to stratification research resonated with a growing stream of research on organizations and inequality. Individuals’ can advance their careers by moving up in an organization or by moving from one employer to another. In the dynamic labor markets of the post-Fordist era, employers increasingly hire workers from outside the organization rather than develop their employees’ human capital internally. The proportion of managers hired from the external market has increased dramatically since the 1950s, though this varies by organization size (Cappelli, 2008).

18The growth of network organizational forms holds important consequences for individuals’ careers. Research on “boundaryless” careers has shown that career mobility increasingly takes place via movements between rather than within organizations. Such career patterns require adaptable and flexible skill sets. The pace of change in product and service markets requires that workers possess diffuse skills suitable to performing multiple tasks, rather than acquiring only those needed to perform the activities specified by a stable, well-defined job description.

Professions and Changes in Professional Work

19Studies of professions have played a prominent role in the sociology of work in the United States. Professions such as physicians, lawyers, accountants and scientists are among the elite occupations in the U.S. and are at the leading edge of social change. Relatively recent developments in the late-20th and early 21st century economy have added new contenders to professional work, including management consulting and data science (e.g., Gorman and Sandefur, 2011; Kipping and Kirkpatrick, 2013).

20What constitutes a “profession” has proved difficult to define (e.g., Abbott, 1988). Some researchers conceptualize professional work using a series of distinguishing traits such as high skill, autonomy and control, professional ethics, institutionalized training, professional associations and a service ideal (Wilensky, 1964). Others focus on the ability of professional groups to monopolize specific market niches, define their activities as exclusively legitimate, keep occupational competitors from entering the market, and control the supply of practitioners to ensure relatively high fees and salaries (Derber et al., 1990). Researchers have directed most of their attention toward the established professions (usually medicine and law) and start their research by asking why these occupational groups are such a powerful force in the U.S. labor market (e.g., Brint, 2020).

21Others have sought to answer a more historical question: how do aspiring professional groups end up in their dominant positions? These researchers often focus on critical interactions of the occupation with clients, the state, and changing economic conditions to explain the development of the relative power of professional groups (Starr, 1982). Studies in this tradition have generally concluded that the power and prestige of professional work result from a complex interaction between intentional actions on the part of professional incumbents and larger societal changes that increase the demand for professional services.

22Researchers in the United States have also grappled with the question of whether corporate capitalism has compromised professional work through the expansion of control and challenges to traditional professional prerogatives (Larsen, 1977). This group has paid particular attention to new organizational arrangements for delivering professional services (Health Maintenance Organizations in medicine--see Hoff, 1999; professional service firms in management consulting, law, and accounting—see Saks and Muzio, 2018; and large corporate law firms and in-house counsel arrangements in law—see Van Hoy, 1997). Researchers have studied the effects of these arrangements on the organization of professional work (see Leicht and Fennell, 2001; Muzio and Suddaby 2013). These changes in the context of professional work are also related to efforts to unionize (see below), as illustrated by Budry’s (1997) description of the development of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists (UAPD), the most successful physician’s union to date.

23While these long-standing, traditional themes continue to inspire sociologists of work, post-millenial research on the professions has added new themes. The overall increase in economic inequality in the United States has stimulated research on long-standing and growing inequalities in professional occupations (see Stier and Yaish, 2014). This research suggests that inequalities between urban and rural practitioners, practitioners in different specialities, and inequalities across institutional arrangements have all increased over the past 20 years (see Leicht and Fennell, 2001; 2020). In fact, the economic inequalities within some professions (most visibly lawyers) are now as high or higher than the economic inequalities between these professions and the rest of the labor market (see Gorman and Kmec, 2009). The relative gender equality in access to higher education, along with higher graduation rates of women compared to men, have led to an influx of women and people of color into traditional professions, renewing sociology’s traditional focus on workplace inequalities in these occupations (see Ginther et al., 2011). But there is recent evidence that the 2008-2009 recession, in combination with the growth in educational debts accrued in the course of professional training, has led to a lull or “plateau” in these demographic shifts in many professions (see Leicht and Fennell, 2020).

Employment Relations

24Employment relations is a central concept in sociological resesarch on work that is linked to both the organization of work and to labor markets and careers. Employment relations connect individual workers to their organizations and other economic and social institutions. Changes in social, economic, political, historical, spatial and legal institutions have profound effects on employment relations, and thereby on individuals. Employment relations, in turn, affect these institutions (see Kalleberg and Marsden, 2015).

25The image of employment relations and careers that characterized the sociology of work for most of the post-World War II period was one in which people worked full-time for a single employer and advanced steadily up a ladder within an internal labor market until they retired. These “standard” employment relations resulted from a strategy of internalization on the part of employers, who sought to create stability within their workforces. This situation began to change in the United States in the mid-1970s, as employers became increasingly concerned with having greater flexibility in order to respond to challenges posed by globalization, rapid technological change, increased price competition, and the changing labor force (see Kalleberg, 2011).

26One way in which employers sought to achieve this flexibility is by externalizing part of their labor forces through nonstandard work arrangements such as temporary, contract, and part-time work. Externalization of employment is a retreat from internalized bureaucratic employment relations to a set of ongoing transactions with the open labor market (Pfeffer and Baron, 1988). This harkens back to an earlier era in economic organization in the U.S. when factory labor was not continuously employed but rather subcontracted from the outside (Williamson, 1985). Thus, nonstandard employment relations are not new, though they depart from the relative certainty and growth that typified employment relationships during the three decades following World War II. Expansion in nonstandard employment relationships is associated with, and poses questions regarding, a wide range of phenomena including the growth of economic and social inequality, shifting career patterns, and changes in the organization of work.

27During the past quarter-century, understanding employment relations has taken on increasing importance in the United States and other industrial countries, as nonstandard work arrangements have been linked to the growth of “bad” jobs. Moreover, growing polarization between “good” and “bad” jobs has been argued to be responsible for increasing inequality in income, job and employment security, hours worked and other labor market outcomes.

28More recent research has begun to focus on the “gig economy,” which is generally characterized by short-term engagements among employers, workers, and customers. The gig economy is also not new: it represents a digital version of the offline atypical, casual, freelance, or contingent work arrangements characteristic of much of the economy prior to the middle of the twentieth century.

29An organization form growing in importance in the gig economy is platform work. This involves mediating online the relationship between customers and service providers and enables both an exchange of service and payment once tasks are completed. The platform economy also provides a different governance mechanism than markets, hierarchies and networks for organizing work where the application of digital technologies controls “independent contractors” who are only loosely tied to the businesses involved in these transactions (Vallas and Schor, 2020). The platform economy provides numerous advantages for businesses, while having both advantages and drawbacks for workers. It demands new forms of labor market regulation and social protections as platform workers are generally not covered by existing labor laws and social security schemes in the U.S.

Meaning of Work

30The significance of work to Americans is reflected in them long viewing work as a central life interest. A study by Nancy Morse and Robert Weiss (1955) showed that work was a central life interest for the vast majority of Americans: 80 percent of men said that they would continue to work even if they did not have to do so for economic reasons. Since the 1970s, surveys of the American population have consistently shown that about 70 percent of Americans say that they would continue to work. Moreover, men are more likely than women to say they would continue to work, reflecting the greater centrality of work to men in the U.S. (Kalleberg and Marsden, 2019).

31Another indicator of the meaning of work is what people feel is important or value in their job. Since 1973, responses to the U.S. General Social Survey have revealed that Americans usually rate “intrinsic” aspects of work (i.e., having a job that gives them a feeling of accomplishment) as the job characteristic that they would prefer most, more than “extrinsic” rewards such as promotions and income (Kalleberg and Marsden, 2013). Results from similar surveys of workers also show that Americans tend to evaluate intrinsic dimensions of jobs as more important than extrinsic dimensions (see Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance, 1999). Obtaining intrinsic rewards is especially important for job satisfaction, organizational commitment and psychological functioning in a country such as the United States, which places a great emphasis on individual autonomy (Lincoln and Kalleberg, 1990).

32The absence of intrinsic rewards constituted for Marx a form of work alienation, and he was concerned that the detailed division of labor characteristic of the organization of work under capitalism (see above) would result in workers’ inability to derive challenge and feelings of accomplishment from their jobs. Even participative management (as in HPWS) does not provide workers with the same level of positive and meaningful experiences as under the craft organization of work, as Hodson’s (2001) analysis of organizational ethnographies shows.

33Sociological theories of work values emphasize the significant influences of social contexts in shaping and altering preferences. Work values also provide insights into how workers’ positions in the stratification systems of industrial societies affect their goals and aspirations (e.g., Kohn, 1969). Americans, for example, traditionally place great importance on the search for security and the belief in opportunity (Bernstein, 1997). People differ in their work values because they reside in diverse social settings and have different individual needs and dispositions. Members of different social classes, for example, assign different significance to particular aspects of jobs due to variations in social norms and cultures as well as in opportunities to realize economic and non-economic rewards from jobs (Kohn, 1969).

34Those who have more resources in the labor market—such as more education—are more likely to value intrinsic rewards as opposed to extrinsic factors such as security and advancement (which are valued more by less advantaged members of the labor force). Blacks are more likely than non-blacks to place greater importance on security, high income, advancement, helping both others and society, and flexible schedules, though not on having interesting jobs. Moreover, women place greater importance than men on having secure jobs, jobs in which they can help both others and society, and flexible working hours (Kalleberg and Marsden, 2019).

35An important stream of research has sought to disentangle age differences in work attitudes, as these confound the effects of aging with those due to the historical period one lives in or one’s cohort membership. Recent surveys show that changes over historical time periods are most consistently responsible for temporal differences in work values in the United States. In particular, during recent periods Americans tend to place greater importance on jobs that provide security, high income and opportunities for advancement; this is consistent with a narrative that these job rewards have become more difficult to attain recently and are thus more problematic for workers. Some differences in work values are also attributable to aging or life course processes, especially the greater importance placed on high income during the mid-life years when family responsibilities are generally greatest. By contrast, there are few differences in work values among members of different generations or cohorts (Kalleberg and Marsden, 2019).

Unionization and Organized Labor

36The United States has one of the lowest rates of unionization of any industrialized nation. In 2020, about a third of public sector workers, but only 6.3 percent of private sector workers, belonged to unions (​news.release/​union2.nr0.htm). Nevertheless, sociologists of work in the U.S. historically have been very concerned with issues related to unionization and the organization of labor more generally. Research in this area has focused on three major issues: union organizing activity; resistance to union organizing activity on the part of employers and political actors; and the assets and liabilities of unionization for different groups of workers.

37Studies of union organizing activity have either focused on historical moments when union-organizing activity was especially successful (e.g., in the 1930s and early 1940s) or on individuals’ decisions to join unions and vote for union certification. Union organizing in the United States has been most effective during periods of rapid industrialization (such as in the 1890s) or in severe economic crises such as the depression of the 1930s; it reached a peak shortly after World War II and unionization rates have been in slow and consistent decline since then. Union organizing has often been met with considerable resistance and violence by employers and the state, and this resistance has taken both legal and extralegal forms. The difficulties faced by union organziers due to outdated labor laws and the globalized and decentralized economy have undermined unionization efforts (Rosenfeld, 2014). These changes (and the declines in union representation that followed from them) have led to calls for new forms of organizing with the Service Employees’ International Union taken as a prototype for future, jobs-based union representation (see Avgar et al., 2018).

38A second, related, strand of research has looked at how employers and the state have resisted unionization activity. While much of this work focuses on the same historical moments when union organizing was proceeding rapidly, other researchers have focused on the day-to-day ability of employers to exploit the relatively lax labor laws and enforcement mechanisms provided by the U.S. Federal Government and most state governments. This research has focused on welfare capitalism, blacklisting, manipulation of union organizing elections and the growing post-World War II wave of organizational consultants that specialize in keeping workplaces union free (Freeman, 1994). The newest and latest threats to collective bargaining come from attempts to limit or eliminate public sector collective bargaining rights, mostly at the U.S. state level, such as in Wisconsin (see Malin, 2012).

39A third thrust of research focuses on the worker as an individual actor in union decision-making (Lipset, Trow and Coleman, 1959). These studies focus on the individual characteristics of workers (such as their gender, race, and education) that promote union organization, the roles that individual workers play in union governance and decision-making, and the benefits and liabilities that come from union membership. Unionized workers have been shown to be more productive and to be less likely to quit their jobs, and unionized companies have lower within-firm earnings inequality (Freeman and Medoff, 1984). Unionized workers are also more likely to experience layoffs and there is a lively debate about whether and how unions contribute to labor market inequalities between organized and unorganized workers. The preponderance of evidence suggests that unionization increases the earnings of unorganized workers in the same industries and firms (Leicht, 1989; Wallace, Leicht and Raffalovich, 1999; Denice and Rosenfeld 2018). In spite of their declining representation and influence, 48 percent of American workers say they would join a union if it were possible to do so (BS, 2018).

40The position of unions in the U.S. political and economic landscape is also complicated by the historical lack of labor and socialist party politics in the United States (see Montgomery, 1979). The first-to-the-post/winner-take-all electoral system encourages the production of a small number of political parties with “big tents,” a flurry of differing and often conflicting interests, and shifting constituent support (Manza and Brooks, 1999). The 20th century relationship between unions, unionized workers, and the Democratic Party has been fraying for at least 30 years and was foreshadowed by the so-called “Reagan Democrats.” The split between union leaders and unionized workers in national political support has reduced the clout of organized labor in American politics.

41In summary, research into unions and their influence in the United States has shifted from a focus on union organizing to one on widespread retrenchment and their loss of influence. It is hard to see how or when this trend will turn around, though the recent movement to create a 15-dollars-per-hour federal minimum wage may reflect a resurgence of interest in traditional union issues. Estimates suggest that declines in union representation (and the equity norms they represent) are responsible for between one-quarter and one-third of the rise in income inequality in the United States (Western and Rosenfeld, 2011).

Workplace Stratification and Inequality

42The U. S. has one of the highest levels of income and earnings inequality of the industrialized nations and this has risen considerably since the early 1980s. Also, because of the generally unregulated nature of the U.S. labor market, much of the inequality in earnings and income occurs within firms, occupations, and jobs rather than between them. These are two main reasons for why workplace stratification and inequality have received a great deal of attention from sociologists of work in the United States.

43Research on social inequality in the workplace prior to the 1980s focused almost exclusively on individuals’ occupational attainment and the structure of labor markets. These studies examined the intergenerational transmission of occupational positions and the ability of schooling and other achieved characteristics to improve or retard high-quality occupational placement. Sociological studies of work and inequality since the 1980s have focused in greater detail on the institutions and organizations that structure labor market opportunities. These have been fueled by a growing recognition that workplace inequalities were produced within firms and within the opportunity structures of specific occupations (e.g, Tomaskovic-Devey and Avent-Holt, 2019). As income inequality has grown in the 1980s, there is a growing recognition that firm profitability and market position play critical roles in the production of workplace inequality. This acknowledgment has become all the more salient due to reports by researchers and the popular press of growing within-firm earnings inequality between managers and blue-collar workers. This gap, which in the U.S. was never low, has risen to unprecedented levels and spawned much research activity.

44A major cause of workplace inequality over the past three decades has been the growth in the power and influence of the financial sector (cf. Lin and Neely, 2020; Prechel 2020; Tomaskovic-Devey and Avent-Holt 2019; Lin and Tomaskovic-Devey, 2013). The onset and spread of financial deregulation have increased opportunities for rapid profits from financial exchanges, increased the economic returns companies can make from taking on debt, and amplified the financial rewards that accrue to top executives from stock price performance (see Batt and Applebaum, 2013). The shareholder value conception of the firm rewards short-term activities that make money quickly, including laying off workers and selling assets. Most workers are not directly rewarded as a result of these financial transactions as they are not paid in stock options and many companies make more money from financial transactions than they make from their core activities (Lin and Neely, 2020. This growing dominance of financial transactions in place of the “real economy” has left workers as pawns in short-term financial deals that make executives and stockholders wealthy.

45Two other trends are evident and have spawned research about their workplace implications. First, the growth of “winner-take-all” markets and poor or non-existent anti-trust enforcement has increased product market concentration in many industries and slowed the creation of new ventures (see Frank and Cook, 2013). This leaves workers with fewer options for whom to work for and enables concentrated employers to control big sections of the labor market. The global reach of the firms in many of these concentrated industries (such as Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft) renders workplace negotiations very difficult as the employer can hire from anywhere in the world.

46A second trend is partly the result of financialization but also a product of automation and globalization. The average American corporation is shrinking in employment size (see Davis, 2016). The implications of this trend for workers (in combination with the previous trend) are that workers have fewer opportunities to work for companies that have lots of market power and are left to fend for themselves in smaller workplaces with far more competition. The long-term consequences of the “corporate collapse” are a shrinking safety net for workers, rising inequality, job instability, and declining upward mobility (see Davis, 2016). Ironically, the same economic monopoly that allows financially powerful corporations to dominate markets also helps them to shed workers and treat their existing workforce as disposable (Frase, 2013).

47Related to both of these trends is the growing economic disparity between the top one percent of the income and earnings distributions and the remaining 99 percent of the economy (see Saez 2019; Piketty 2014). This growing gap is relevant to the sociology of work in the United States because the top one percent is partially occupied by “super earners” who obtain considerable earnings from jobs and work rather than investment income from rents (Frank and Cook, 1996). This outsized compensation seems to be tied to the “winner-take-all” market phenomenon, growing assertive mating between high-earning individuals, and political and social actions to hoard opportunities (see Reeves, 2018). These very large rewards to top performers seem to occur in every occupation requiring considerable skill.

48The rise in top incomes and the relative stagnation of middle and low incomes distribution have fueled on-going concerns about the health and future of the American middle class (see Leicht and Fitzgerald, 2007; 2014; Crouch, 2009; Schor, 1999; Dwyer, 2018). Much of this work focuses on the growing indebtedness of the middle class and their pervasive borrowing to fuel consumption in ways that do not build long-term wealth. Crouch has labelled this pervasive borrowing “private Keynesianism,” where the ability of individual consumers to borrow money to stimulate aggregate demand has replaced government spending and social insurance programs as props for the U.S. economy. Schor, and Leicht and Fitzgerald talk about the reduced bargaining power that indebted workers have over employers when there is little saving for a rainy day and consumption bills constantly come due. The widespread availability of easy consumer credit partially severs the win-win relationship between wages, consumption, and profits that formed the post-World War II Keynesian consensus (see especially Crouch, 2009; Leicht and Fitzgerald, 2014).

Growth of Labor Force Diversity

49The U.S. civilian labor force grew sharply during the twentieth century, from about thirty million people in 1900 (which constituted about forty percent of the U.S. population) to about 164 million in 2020 (about half of the U.S. population). In addition to getting bigger, the U.S. labor force has also become more diverse: it has gotten older, better educated, less white, and more female. Perhaps the most dramatic and far-reaching change has been the growing labor force participation rate of women, which increased from about 1 in 5 to about 3 in 5 between 1890 to the mid-1990s (Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance, 1999). The COVID-19 pandemic has lowered this figure somewhat with women’s labor force participation currently at about 57 percent, down three percentage points from its peak in 1999 (​research/​women-in-the-workforce-united-states/​).

50These increases in labor force diversity have made some issues more pressing than they were when the U.S. labor force consisted mainly of a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. For example, issues of how to combine work and family lives now occupy a prominent place on the agenda of managers as well as sociologists of work, who are both concerned with how to help families cope with the stress of dual careers and increased responsibilities (see Kelly, Moen and Tranby, 2011). In addition, women are still paid less than men, and issues of comparable worth are hotly debated. Sex segregation persists in the United States, though women are making inroads into many jobs formerly held by men (Reskin and Roos, 1990; Charles and Grusky, 2005). Recent analyses suggest that there has been an alarming growth in inequality within racial and gender groups as well as stagnation in and persistence of gaps between these groups (see Leicht 2008; 2016).

51The increased representation of nonwhites within the U.S. labor force has raised issues of how to manage diversity and to accommodate persons of different cultures within the same workplace. It has also stimulated debate about the desirable amount of immigration and its impact on the jobs held by non-immigrants. Moreover, the aging of the population has fueled debates over age discrimination, the preservation of the Social Security system and institutions to encourage life-long learning, and second (and third and fourth) careers that permit older workers to continue to lead productive lives.

52As a research endeavor, the past 20 years have given rise to audit studies that attempt to uncover institutional and employer discrimination in the workplace (see Pager and Shepherd, 2008). These ingenious research designs manipulate the demographic characteristics of resumes and potential employees and then examine what types of disparate treatment ensues. The results of these studies show that many employers still use a combination of statistical discrimination and unconscious bias in making hiring and promotion decisions.

53The future and implications of workplace racial and ethnic diversity are prominent topics for studies of work in the U.S. (see Alba, 2020). The United States will become a major-minority country sometime between 2040 and 2050, but the implications of that depend on shifting future ethnic and racial boundaries. Some researchers view majority-minority worlds as illusory (Alba, 2020), while others see the growing diversity of racial/ethnic and mixed-race groups merging into an enduring color-line distinction (Lee and Kye, 2016).


54Like almost all research in sociology, the study of work in the United States is driven by the problems that sociologists see in their immediate environment. The U.S. context is distinctive in many ways, which makes the study of work especially challenging and interesting. Some of the dominant features of the U.S. context are: an overriding commitment to free product and labor markets; great ideological emphasis on individualism and negotiating; low government capacity to intervene in the labor market combined with fragmented governmental jurisdictions; low employee bargaining power and few institutionalized employment guarantees; no history of electoral socialism or military intervention in political affairs; permeable national boundaries for capital and people; and high levels of racial and ethnic diversity.

55The institutional support for the sociology of work in the United States is similarly fragmented, but widely available to most serious scholars. A relatively extensive list of government agencies, private foundations, private research firms, and “think tanks” fund and conduct research. Data that others have collected are widely available and cheaply disseminated. Much like the people they study, American sociologists of work have to negotiate individually a maze of agency names, data sources, and policy initiatives to conduct their research. Many of the wide variety of settings in which U.S. sociologists work are also subject to the same waves of workplace change that they study in their own research. In this sense, life imitates social science and the relationship between theory, research and everyday life is always fascinating.

56While the sociology of work in America traces its roots to classical European social theorists, the subject matter and problems addressed are directly affected by its unique national context. Studies of work organization and the labor process are especially interesting because our employers have had an unusually free hand to determine the organization of work. Our labor markets produce large varieties of jobs of varying skill, stability, desirability, and compensation. The organization of the professions is fragmented across diverse work settings and payment systems. Traditional ideologies of individualism and the Protestant Ethic come in conflict with modern (and postmodern) consumer and leisure cultures that affect individual commitment to work and careers. Organized labor battles constantly with employers and an often indifferent and unprotected workforce. Social inequality has increased drastically, and tax systems more and more favor the rich. There are many cases of growing job insecurity and other individually unnerving characteristics of the “post-bureaucratic” workplace to study in the United States because there are few (if any) institutional barriers to stop the spread of neoliberal political and economic policies. The growth of labor force diversity poses challenges for employers and workers alike. These problems and issues constitute important topics for sociologists of work in the United States to study in the future.

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Arne L. Kalleberg et Kevin T. Leicht, « United States: eight key themes in sociology of work »La nouvelle revue du travail [En ligne], 19 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2021, consulté le 30 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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