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

Germany, empirical commitment and theoretical ambivalence

Bénédicte Zimmermann
Traduction de Kevin McAleer
Traduction(s) :
La sociologie du travail allemande : entre engagement empirique et ambivalence théorique [fr]


After a start of institutionalisation under the Weimar Republic, the German sociology of work established itself during the 1960s, making of industrial relations, technology and industrial skilled labor its core issues. The affirmation of a subjectivation paradigm in the 1980s broadened the spectrum of analysis to include the agency and embodied dimension of work. Although these different research orientations remain relatively compartementalised, they have hitherto shared a unifying framework in terms of the Marxist reference and the ambition to offer a critical diagnosis of society. But this ambition is currently in search of a new theory of society, while the dominant mode of contractual research funding leaves small latitude for broad theoretical investigations.

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“The section ‘Sociology of Work and Industry’ is one of the largest and oldest sections of the German Sociological Association (DGS). Its work focuses on transformation of the labor society, the evolution of economic and organizational forms of capitalism, and the structures of cooperation, interaction and communication in the workplace. The sociology of work and industry is not limited to an analysis of the industrial sector but includes the investigation of services and other sectors. Analysis of the labor market as well as technical and organizational developments are part of its research program in addition to a holistic approach to work that includes its unpaid forms. The sociology of work and industry is in the tradition of a theory of society whose aim is to make a contribution to the diagnosis of contemporary problems.”

1There is no better introduction to the characteristic features of what I will call, by way of shorthand, the German sociology of work than the German Sociological Association’s self-portrait with respect to its section “Sociology of Work and Industry.”1 Initially developed in non-academic research, sociology of work nowadays constitutes a strong and well-established discipline in both academic and non-academic research. It is distinguished by a considerable amount of empirical production, but also by the ambition to contribute a critical diagnosis in the tradition of Marxist Gesellschaftstheorie. Yet the dimension of applied science that defines it, in close connection with its modes of financing, tends to boost its empirical production to the detriment of its theoretical renewal to such a degree that ever since the 1980s there have been recurrent debates on the crisis of the discipline against the backdrop of transformations in work raising the issue of its eventual disappearance (Matthes, 1983; Huchler, 2008). It was around the year 2000 that these transformations led to a change in the section’s name from the “sociology of business and industry” to the “sociology of work and industry.” While this change acknowledges an extension of the boundaries of work, preservation of the historical term “industrial sociology” is nonetheless indicative of a persistent tropism in the direction of industrial relations, technology and industrial skilled labor.

2The first part of this article shows how these two themes – industrial relations and technology – helped to shape the discipline in the 1960s and 1970s, before the assertion of a third paradigm in the 1980s, namely that of the acting subject, to which I devote my second section. My third section maps out the principal concepts and methods of inquiry that characterize the discipline today, highlighting the permanence of the Marxist reference as a loose but unifying framework. The final section will then give account of the structuring effects of financing logics in terms of applied research, backed by companies and trade unions and large thematic programs funded by the Ministry of Education and Research. Indicative of this is how digitalization has become a flagship subject in the last decade.

  • 2 This text adopts the inclusive writing conventions proposed by the review Sociologie du travail, 20 (...)
  • 3 I should also like to thank Michèle Dupré, Olivier Giraud, Michel Lallement, Katrin Sold and the ed (...)

3Our discussion is informed by the important literature pertaining to the sociology of work, which includes a considerable number of thought-provoking studies on the discipline. It is also based on fourteen interviews conducted with German colleagues in the course of 2020:2 Ingrid Artus, Fritz Böhle, Klaus Dörre, Kerstin Jürgen, Ursula Mense-Petermann, Sarah Nies, Sabine Pfeiffer, Jürgen Kädtler, Frank Kleemann, Martin Krzywdzinski, Martin Kuhlmann, Rudi Schmidt, Michael Schumann, Günther Voss and Stephan Voswinkel. For reasons of confidentiality, I will not be citing them specifically within the text. I thank them all for making themselves available and for the richness of our exchanges.3

1. Industrial Relations and the Technical Dimension of Work as Historical Pillars

4Among the pioneering studies of the sociology of work, it is customary for scholars to cite those undertaken by the Verein für Socialpolitik (German Economic Association) in Imperial Germany. Among the best known of these are Max Weber’s investigation of agricultural workers east of the Elbe (1892) and his work on “the selection and adaptation of workers in large-scale industry,” for which he wrote the methodological introduction (Weber, 1924). Yet it was not until the Weimar Republic that the sociology of work began to be institutionalized under the term “sociology of industry” with creation in 1923 of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) in Frankfurt am Main, and which became a hotspot for critical theory. But Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 brought these early developments to a brutal halt. Like the social sciences in general, the sociology of work was dismantled by the Nazis. Many researchers emigrated (Lepsius, 1979; Kern, 1982, 209ff). This was the case for Karl Mannheim, Max Horkheimer and most of the members of the Institut für Sozialforschung, which was closed down in 1933; but certain of its activities – such as publication of its journal the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung – were transferred to Paris and subsequently to New York.

  • 4 The return to the East German sociology of work would deserve an article of its own, based on furth (...)

5It was in the wake of the Second World War, in a Germany first divided into four occupation zones and then two separate countries, that the sociology of work made a new start fueled by international knowledge and references – particularly American – brought back by the returning emigrants. In West Germany the Institut für Sozialforschung reinstalled itself in Frankfurt in 1950, while four years earlier a non-university research unit called Sozialforschungsstelle had been created in Dortmund in the British zone of occupation (Schmidt, 1980). In East Germany the 1950s were a barren decade for sociology in general, denigrated as the bourgeois teaching of capitalist technologies. When sociology redeployed in the post-Stalinist period of the 1960s, the sociology of work and industry assumed a prominent place, especially as an applied science oriented toward the optimization of production processes (Sparschuh & Koch, 1997; Pasternack, 2015). Yet little remains today of this East German sociology, which was swept away by reunification, so that the sociology of work in today’s Germany is heir solely to the West German sociology of work.4

6It was also in the 1960s that the West German sociology of work took off in a climate that put work and its institutions to the test: the construction of the Berlin Wall was drying up the labor market and leading to increased calls for immigrant workers, while the economic recession of 1966 and 1967 accentuated the race for rationalization, as well as the development of new technologies (electronics, petrochemicals, robotics etc.); finally the strikes of September 1969 for an increase in salaries, which were carried out independent of the trade unions, put industrial relations under pressure. During this period two new non-university research institutes were established to support economic and political actions by studying the changes in work and their consequences, namely the Institut für Sozialwissenschaftliche Forschung (Institute for Social Science Research [ISF]) in Munich in 1963 and the Soziologisches Forschungsinstitut (Sociological Research Institute [SOFI]) in Göttingen in 1968. It was within the context of these institutes and those of Frankfurt and Dortmund that the sociology of work forged its main features, initially at a remove from university chairs. From a thematic point of view, the now classic pioneering works of Heinrich Popitz and Hans Bahrdt (1957) on technology and worker consciousness and those of Friedrich Fürstenberg (1958) on co-determination and industrial relations helped, as early as the 1950s, to shape the contours of what today remain two key themes of the German sociology of work. During that same period Ralf Dahrendorf (1956) designated the business firm – where he thought to perceive a reduced model of life in society – as a privileged place of investigation, while designating industrial relations (industrielle Beziehungen) as the key object.

7The 1960s made industrial work the primary object of the sociology of work and the Marxist approach to the relations of production the main social theory upon which to base its analysis. Yet the two perspectives inherited from the 1950s on technology and the division of labor on the one hand and industrial relations on the other, continued to structure the discipline. But they evolved along two separate lines of investigation that communicate little.

8The outstanding works of the period reflect the geography of the non-universty institutes. The Frankfurt Institute specialized in the analysis of co-determination, trade union organizations and industrial relations in the broadest sense (employment, wages etc.) (Müller-Jentsch, 1991). The importance of this research can be seen in the institutional context of a subsidiary state that makes out of social partners the actors of a situated regulation of work, within the framework of collective bargaining at the branch level and co-determination within the company. The distinguishing feature of the Göttingen and Munich institutes was their investigation of technical issues and the division of labor, although they studied them on two different scales. Whereas the work of Göttingen chose the workplace as its point of entry (Kern & Schumann, 1970 and 1984), that of Munich focused on matters at the company level (Altmann, Bechtle & Lutz, 1978).

9These two institutes were also characterized by their investment in the circulation of knowledge between France and Germany. This is reflected in the way in which the research developed by Horst Kern and Michael Schumann at SOFI in Göttingen on worker consciousness (Arbeiterbewusstsein) and the end of the division of labor and “polarization” as consequences of rationalization and deskilling (Kern & Schumann, 1970 and 1984) draw inspiration not only from Marxist social theory and the phenomenological approach of H. Popitz and H. Bahrdt but also from the work of Georges Friedman and Alain Touraine.

10The same French references nurtured the research of the Munich institute on technical processes and the organization of work. Burkhardt Lutz, the institute’s director from 1965 to 1990, played a decisive role as ferryman between French and German sociologies of work. He translated G. Friedmann and later imported the French regulation theory into Germany, which inspired his book on the end of the mirage of market growth (Lutz (1984). Involved in several Franco-German research networks, he was one of the German partners in the investigation that gave rise to the “societal effect” thesis developed by a team from the Laboratoire d’Économie et de Sociologie du Travail (LEST) in Aix-en-Provence (Maurice, Sellier & Silvestre, 1982; Labit & Jens, 2003).

11Conversely, the theses on the end of the division of labor by H. Kern and M. Schumann (1984) and the end of market growth by B. Lutz (1984) were translated and discussed in France. But this period of cross-influences between French and German sociologies of work is a bygone era (Dupré & Giraud, 2003). These days, when German sociologists cast their eyes abroad, it is primarily with a view to the Anglo-American literature.

2. The Turning Point of Subjectivation

  • 5  Numerous handbooks were published between Dahrendorf’s 1956 booklet and the 2010 work but always u (...)

12Technology certainly brought work as an activity into the sociology of industry, but it has done so in a disembodied fashion, independently of the experience and personal characteristics of the people who actually work. In response to this blindspot, a third paradigm asserted itself in the course of the 1980s – that of work as an activity of the acting subject. It is by way of this definition of work that the editors of the first handbook dedicated strictly to the sociology of work describe its object (Böhle, Voss, Wachtler, 2018 [2010]).5 It is no accident that two of them, Fritz Böhle and Günther Voss, are the architects of the subjectivist turn in the German sociology of work. In the 1980s they developed two distinct but complementary perspectives on the relationship between the subject and work, whose different inflections have contributed to the richness of the German paradigm of the subjectivation of work (Modalsch & Voss, 2002; Lohr & Nickel, 2006). Whereas G. Voss (1984) accentuated the way in which capitalism enlists individual subjectivity, F. Böhle (2002) focused on the lived experience of work. Both perspectives converge in a critique of the incompleteness of the Marxist approach to work but without repudiating it.

13In his book Consciousness Without a Subject? A Critique of the Concept of Consciousness in Industrial Society, G. Voss (1984) denounced H. Kern and M. Schumann’s (1970) approach to worker consciousness. He criticized their study of work situations through the prism of an economic and technical determinism that shortchanged any account of the person who worked, and instead called for a shift in the analysis towards subjectivity as an engine of economic development. He saw an expression of this in the contemporary valuation of individual autonomy and responsibility by public policies as well as business firms, which he analyzed as a source of domination both inside and outside the company. In his advocacy of a broadening of perspectives on work beyond the company sphere, he forged first the concept of “work as a way of life” (Voss, 1991) and then, together with Günther Pongratz (Voss & Pongratz, 1998; Pongratz & Voss, 2003), the concept of an “entrepreneur of one’s labor force” (Arbeitskraftunternehmer). Through the theme of the entrepreneurial worker that the two authors identified a new character of globalized capitalism whose development they observed in both salaried and self-employed work. Their thesis found an important echo even beyond the circle of sociologists of work. Some years later Ulrich Bröckling (2015 [2007]) enlarged the thesis to a general sociology of the entrepreneurial self (das unternehmerische Selbst) as a new normative character. But while Bröckling’s work is strongly marked by the Foucauldian approach to governmentality, that of G. Voss and H. Pongratz is informed by Max Weber’s sociology and Ulrich Beck’s theory of the risk society (1986). In fact, German sociologists of work are not inclined to use Foucault in thinking about subjectivation, thus leaving open a space for appropriation and theoretical hybridization. This openness is doubtless not unrelated to the subjectivation paradigm’s wide diffusion in the discipline (Kleeman et al., 2019).

14The specificity of this diffusion is that it combines the thesis of the market instrumentalization of subjectivity with a second vein of analysis which, in the wake of the pioneering work of F. Böhle, develops a comprehensive approach to acting in a work situation. The focus here is on the experience of work, the way in which the worker carries out her work and interacts with an environment whose character is both human and technical. The founding book by F. Böhle and B. Milkau, published in 1988 under the title From the Crank to the Screen: Evolution of the Sensitive Experience of Workers during Technological Changes succeeded in outlining the program. It is another one of those rare monographs of the German sociology of work translated into French (Böhle & Milkau, 1988). While the corporate world and its technical environment remained a central axis of investigation, Böhle and Milkau gave rise to an innovative approach based on the subjective action at work (subjektivierendes Arbeitshandeln) for which F. Böhle (2017) forged the concept. Foucault was not a point of reference here; rather Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice initially informed the approach, as well as in a later stage a pragmatist theory of situated action inspired by John Dewey.

15Articulated around these two perspectives, the German paradigm of subjectivation at work has given rise to numerous extensions. It has fueled research on the decompartmentalization of life spheres (Entgrenzung) (Kratzer, 2003; Gottschall & Voss, 2003) and the self-exploitation of workers (Selbstausbeutung) (Sauer, 2005) but also on their expectations and aspirations (Baethge, 1991). In the Frankfurt School’s critical tradition, Stephan Voswinkel’s (2002) study on the paradoxes of recognition at work showed how these two perspectives on the subjectivation of work – the one denouncing the dangers of its capitalist instrumentalization, the other noting its possibly emancipatory virtues – reveal its profound ambivalence.

16It thus required a double convolution – technical in the 1960s then subjectivist in the 1980s – for the appellation “sociology of work” to gradually gain credibility alongside that of “sociology of industry.” The evolution of paradigms suggests that far from being a simple question of label, it is the very definition of the discipline’s object which is at stake. This definition has continued to expand in a cumulative process whereby new paradigms have not driven out old ones but have instead led to their reformulation. Although these paradigms were a source of divisive debates during the 1980s, they did not crystallize into competing schools or theoretical frameworks. Rather, today they are moblized in an eclectic fashion, with some researchers seeing their articulation as a heuristic lever and a source of renewal for the sociology of work (Pfeiffer & Jäger, 2018).

17The fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification marked a caesura in the rising potential of the “work” object. Within a context of the liquidation of the communist economies, rampant unemployment and institutional transfers from West to East, unemployment and industrial relations were at the heart of both political and scholarly concerns (Dörre, 2002; Kädtler, 2006), whereas the content and experience of work was relegated to the background. The sociologists of work – exclusively from West Germany – were at the time involved in various commisssions of inquiry which aimed to inform political decision-making in matters of employment policy and economic development.

18In the first decade of the twenty-first century a return to the sociology of work took place in connection with questions relating to the working population’s demographic aging, occupational health, the quality of work, and the reconciliation of private and professional life. This return was further strengthened a decade later by the theme of digitalization, which at the same time helped revitalize the technical approach.

3. Permanence of the Marxist Reference, Theoretical Eclecticism and Methodological Pluralism

19While professional relations, technology and the acting subject remain three important unifying themes in the German sociology of work, other themes have developed in the course of this return to work over the last twenty years, while still not giving rise to paradigms of comparable scope. These include but are not limited to gender, domestic and reproductive work (Artus et al., 2020; Jürgens, 2006; Hipp, 2019), tertiary and public services (Schultheis, Vogel & Mau, 2014), commodification and financialization (Minzen, 2000; Kratzer, 2003; Faust & Kädlter, 2018), psychic pressure and the injunction to perform (Neckel & Wagner, 2013), the aging workforce and health at work (Tullius et al., 2012), casualization of employment, work and lifeforms (Aulenbacher et al., 2007; Vogel et al., 2010;  Dörre, 2019), informality (Mayer-Ahuja, 2018), digitalization (Pfeiffer, 2018; Butollo & Nuss, 2019; Staab, 2019; Krzywdzinski & Gerber, 2020; Nies et al., 2021) and, more discreetly, the ecological impact of work (Dörre et al., 2019).

3.1. A Critical Ambition in Search of a New Theory of Society

20Although the treatment of these different issues has given way to a kind of theoretical eclecticism, the claim to a dual Marxist and Weberian heritage continues to be a hallmark of the contemporary German sociology of work. While Marxism offers a theory of society, Weberian sociology provides a social theory. Moreso than their French counterparts, German sociologists are fond of this distinction between Gesellschaftstheorie (theory of society) and Sozialtheorie (social theory). Whereas the latter aims at providing a comprehensive and causal explanation of social phenomena and processes, the theory of society offers a critical framework of analysis based on a vision of what society and its constitutive processes should look like, thus defining a normative horizon for desirable futures. Strongly inspired by Marxism and the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, the contributions made by German sociologists of work to a theory of society attained its height in the 1960s and 1970s during the heyday of industrial society, and sociology. More than a sub-discipline, the sociology of work was understood at that time as being constitutive of general sociology (Beckenbach, 1991, 6). If it has subsequently lost this kind of theoretic panache, it still remains very attached to the critical-diagnostic dimension of Gesellschaftstheorie.

21Marxism remains a reference shared by the vast majority of sociologists of work, including the architects of the subjectivization paradigm. This is a distinctive feature of the German sociology of work. If they position their work in a Marxist-inspired vein, most of them hasten to point out that they do it as “unorthodox” heirs. The Marxist reference functions as a backdrop in the absence of another more suitable over-arching theory, but in most cases without being operationalized in the empirical investigation and analysis itself. Proposals in favor of a repositioning of the discipline on the basis of a critical theory of society (Mayer-Ahuja et al., 2018 [2012]) or a theoretical renewal combining Marxist structuralism and Weberian action theory (Pfeiffer & Jäger, 2008) do exist, but they are quite rare. Indeed, the latest edition of the handbook for the sociology of work (Böhle et al., 2018) does not include a theoretical chapter, while empirical investigations are characterized by a theoretical eclecticism and the elaboration of “middle-range paradigms.” Middle-range paradigms constitue, beside social theory and theory of society, the third category through which the relationship to theory is expressed by German sociologists of work. This third kind of theory, that shapes most of contemporary research, varies from the two first ones, in that its space of validity is limited to a given issue or research question.

22Even if the the Marxist framework has generated renewed interest these days, the strength of the contemporary German sociology of work lies in its empirical power and methodological inventiveness. One of its main weaknesses, by contrast, consists of its difficulty in renewing itself theoretically and in elaborating analytical frameworks of general scope reaching beyond empirical investigations. The notion of a “theoretical deficit” has been a recurring theme in the interviews, even if in looking closely at the scientific output this deficit proves to be very uneven from one research to another.

3.2. Qualitative Tropism and Methodological Sophistication

23This empirical pervasiveness is accompanied by great methodological sophistication. The research is essentially of a qualitative nature, with the exception of the large-scale surveys of the labor market primarily conducted by the Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung (Institute for Labor Market and Employment Research) which is attached to the Bundesagentur für Arbeit (Federal Employment Agency) and centralizes statistical data relating to labor and employment.

24Ever since the 1960s the sociology of business and industry has been based on large-scale qualitative inquiries The Munich team developed the method of company case studies (Betriebsfallstudien) based on interviews with experts (Experteninterviews) – supervising staff, senior managers and members of the works council, representatives of employers’ associations and of trade-unions (Bogner, Littig & Menz, 2014). The SOFI team in Göttingen specialized by contrast in workplace studies (Arbeitsplatzbeobachtung) (Pongratz & Trinczek, 2010; Nies & Menz, 2018) which focuses on the observation of work as well as interviews with those who perform it (Kuhlmann, 2009).

25The transformations of work and the subjectivist paradigm have contributed to a diversification and hybridization of methods (Nies & Menz, 2018) in order to integrate the ways in which work interacts with other spheres of life and people’s experience of it. This has resulted in the development of narrative techniques that take the form of biographical interviews or group discussions whose goal is to both reconstruct objective processes and grasp their subjective meaning. The number of levels of analysis have been multiplied (even in the same investigation), incorporating varied combinations of the analysis of activity, of personal experience, and of organizations and institutions.

26If these different perspectives on work are the object of great methodological inventiveness, it is to the exclusion of certain other approaches. The interactive analysis of activity in the tradition of “workplace studies,” as well as ethnographic observation based on medium-term immersion in the field, have enjoyed little resonance in Germany. This methodological selectivity is no stranger to the functionalist inclination that continues to mark the discipline despite the subjectivist turn and the existence of a vein of work that, in the field of industrial relations, combines Marxist and interactionist frameworks (Trinczek, 1989; Artus, 2008).

27Another distinctive trait of the German sociology of work is the persistent and dominant place occupied by action research (Fricke et al., 2015), a significant portion of the investigations being applied research. This is related to not only the critical diagnostic mission claimed by the discipline but especially to its modes of funding and institutional structuring.

4. How Modes of Funding Structure Research

28The bulk of German research in the humanities and social sciences is performed within the framework of university chairs. With the exception of a few bodies such as the Max Planck Institutes, thematic research institutes are rare, the French CNRS and its laboratories having no equivalent across the Rhine. Within this context the sociology of work stands out with its specialized institutes and their proximity to companies and trade unions. These two specificities go hand in hand with particular funding channels that place the discipline in a relationship of partial dependence on public and socio-economic orders. If this positioning somewhat compromises the ideal of scholarly autonomy, it also facilitates access to the business world and the financing of large-scale empirical research as suggested by the theme of digitalization, which concentrates considerable resources in the present day.

4.1. Specialized Institutes and Applied Research

29Of the four institutes created from the 1920s to the 1960s, two have remained dedicated to studying work and continue to play a leading role in the discipline: the ISF in Munich and the SOFI in Göttingen. Specializing in critical theory, the IfS in Frankfurt remains a flagship of German research, but the analysis of work now occupies a smaller place. Other institutes currently active in the field include the Institut Arbeit und Qualifikation (Institute for Work and Qualification [IAQ]) at the University of Duisburg-Essen, offshoot of the Institute für Technologie und Arbeit (Institute for Work and Technology [ITA]) founded in 1988, and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (Berlin Social Science Center [WZB]) established in 1969 but which only became a major player in the field in the 1980s. This latter is distinguished from the other institutes by the importance of its recurrent public funding which, by providing it with its own budgetary base, affords it greater autonomy in the choice of research emphases.

30With limited recurrent public funding, the ISF, SOFI and IAQ are dependent on third-party funding to secure their financing. The majority of researchers have contracts of indefinite duration, but they finance their posts through applied research in companies and the research contracts that they win. The expression “applied fundamental research” (anwendungsorientierte Grundlagenforschung) synthesizes the dual – and sometimes difficult to reconcile – demands that burden their work.

31There are numerous sources of funding, including foundations such as the Volkswagenstiftung or that of the trade union confederation, otherwise known as the Hans Böckler Stiftung. The problem is not so much a lack of resources as those time pressures related to the fact that even before one research project has been completed, it is necessary to position oneself for the next. This bidding for contracts, which is essential for the institute’s survival as a collective and for the continuity of its members’ remuneration, drastically limits the time available for any theoretical elaboration and the production of academic publications intended for nationally or internationally renowned sociological journals. With just a few exceptions, sociologists at the institutes prefer to publish in collective works, in the online journal of the “Sociology of Work and Industry” section of the German Sociological Association (AIS Studien) or in specialized and multidisciplinary journals that are predominantly empirical such as Die Arbeit, Industrielle Beziehungen, Soziale Welt and WSI Mitteilungen.

32Completing the picture are those university chairs which have multiplied since the 1970s. They are endowed with a basic funding that comfortably ensures the remuneration of their professors as well as a team of collaborators whose scope is negotiated at the time of recruitment – at very least a secretary, a research assistant, and a part-time student assistant. But they too are subject to the search for third-party funding to finance their investigations.

4.2.  The Proximity to Trade Union Organizations

33The discipline developed in close symbiosis with the German system of industrial relations. Worker and employer representatives, being the main actors in a system based on decentralized labor regulation, became large consumers of expertise. Another important factor was the existence of a unitary trade union, the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (German Trade Union Confederation [DGB]) and powerful industry federations. While the DGB has created its own research institute, the Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliches Institut (Institute of Economic and Social Research [WSI]), the Hans Böckler trade-union Foundation finances a considerable amount of external research. It constitutes a place of socialization between trade unionists and researchers, whose collaborations are numerous. For instance, in 2015 the foundation set up a Commission on the Future of Work, composed of an equal number of trade unionists and researchers, which issued its conclusions in 2017 in the form of a set of jointly drafted recommendations (Jürgens et al., 2018 [2017]). Certain federations such as the powerful and influential IG Metall (metallurgy) also organize regular meetings between researchers and trade unionists as well as large thematic congresses where members of both communities interact and discuss such issues as solidarity, inequality etc.

34This proximity to trade union organizations facilitates access to the field, while providing sociologists with active partners in their self-appointed task of critical diagnosis. But it also helps to lend important weight to the trade union agenda in defining research orientations, both in terms of the questions posed and the target population (employees in the traditional sectors of industry and service).

4.3. Large Research Programs on Political Initiative: The Case of Digitalization

35Finally, other sources of funding that help shape the discipline and its thematic emphases are the large research programs launched by the Federal Ministry of Research. This was the case in the 1970s with the program for the Humanization of Work (Humanisierung der Arbeit), dedicated to the human effects of Taylorism; and it is still the case today with the vast research initiative on digitalization, an important aspect of which concerns work, its transformations and its future. One of the colleagues interviewed spoke of a field “inundated with money,” while another viewed this political initiative as a “godsend” for renewing the discipline after two decades of calling it into question. A new field of research is indeed emerging at high speed under the dual impact of economic transformations (as captured by the phrase “industry 4.0”) and targeted public funding.

36Evidence of this occurred in 2017 with the simultaneous creation in Berlin of two institutes – the Weizenbaum Institute and the Einstein Center Digital Future. Also called the German Internet Institute, the Weizenbaum Institute brings together four Berlin universities with the University of Potsdam and two research institutes including the WZB in a collaborative project funded for the first five years by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research with 50 million euros and the state of Berlin with 5.2 million. Organized into 24 research teams, the institute’s mission is to study the societal changes connected with digitalization and to develop plans of action for the future. It has generated the creation of some hundred research posts from the doctoral to the professorial level, in support of colleagues with positions at those universities and institutions associated with the project.

37As for the Einstein Center Digital Future, it specializes in the technological aspects of digitalization. It is based on a broad public-private partnership of more than thirty companies and organizations, five Berlin universities and more than ten research institutes. The project, which is slated for six years and has a budget of 38.5 million euros, is meant to bolster the links between the Berlin main actors in the field and to inspire new forms of cooperation.

  • 6 This sum is calculated on the basis of ten projects that I was brought in to evaluate as a member o (...)

38The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) is the operator of public-research funding – in the same way as the ANR in France – and is not to be outdone in its massive injection of public funding into research on digitalization. In the autumn of 2019 it launched a new priority program entitled “The Digitalization of Work Worlds: Conceptualizing and Capturing a Systemic Transformation,” to which sixty proposals were submitted and fifteen selected for an average funding of 340,000 euros per project over three years.”6

5. Perspectives and Challenges

39The strong demands placed upon the sociology of work by the transformations of work in the era of digitalization have helped to impart a new impetus to the discipline. The debates about the end of the work have now given way to optimism regarding the future of the discipline. Digitalization not only ensures the discipline’s development through the funding it attracts but it also fosters hopes of theoretical renewal. Can the digital society give rise to a paradigm as structuring as that Marxist paradigm inherited from industrial society? Some see in it the opportunity for a repositioning that is not, however, without challenges.

40The first challenge is to elaborate a theoretical and conceptual framework that permits to flesh out a paradigm able to grasp the digital society in its globality, beyond the sole issue of work. Only then will sociologists of work be able to revive their ambition to contribute to a theory of society that can make a contribution to general sociology. This presupposes not only a reconceptualization of work and its contours but also of the way in which it relates to other human activities. Required here is a new and more “encompassing” concept of work (Jürgens, 2008) which is still sufficiently precise and robust so as not to dilute work into just any kind of activity. The sociology of work is thus faced with the challenge of redefining the contours of its object. While, on the one hand, a growing body of scholarly work testifies to an analytic widening of the definition of work beyond its salaried and market forms to include domestic and volunteer work and more broadly gender at work (Jürgens, 2006; Hipp, 2019; Artus et al., 2020), on the other hand, the projects submitted as well as those selected in the first wave of the DFG’s priority program on digital worlds of work7 have shown less innovation, reflected in the continuing salience of salaried work, technology and the company as research entry points.

41Another challenge relates to the transformation of the company, a classic object of the sociology of work, whose boundaries have also tended to become more fluid. How can we conceptualize these changes and their impact from the standpoint of the content of work and its organization as well as those who carry it out – and not to mention the wider environment in which it is embedded? This other facet of the extension of the boundaries of work is at the heart of research on teleworking (Kleemann, 2017), platform work, subcontracting chains and the practices of multinationals (Mense-Petermann & Wagner, 2006) as well as the ecological impact of companies (Dörre et al., 2019).

42A third challenge is the internationalization of research both in terms of the scope of investigations, cooperations, and the dissemination of results. With a few notable exceptions (Mayer-Ahuja, 2014; Artus, 2008; Spiegel et al., 2018; Krzywdzinski & Gerber, 2020) the sociology of work in Germany today, as in many other countries, is centered within national borders, which induces serious limitations when it comes to capturing within a single theoretical paradigm the multiple facets of a digital and globalized economy.

43By way of conclusion, today the German sociology of work constitutes a community that is more oriented toward national trade unions and employers, its historical partners, than it is toward other fields of sociology or the international scene. With just a few exceptions, sociologists of work are not deeply invested in general sociological debates, publish little in the discipline’s generalist journals, and make only rare forays into the sociology of organizations or economic and political sociology, which are more internationalized and carry on a dialogue with general sociology.

44Tending to be inward-looking, while yet displaying a great deal of reflexivity with respect to the challenges it faces, this community is also relatively consensual. Forming the basis of this consensus is a program that conjoins the primacy of empirical evidence with the demand for a critical diagnosis of society in the tradition of the Marxist Gesellschaftstheorie. Although this offers the discipline a unifying framework, it operates as a backdrop that only a few works concretely mobilize and operationalize in the empirical investigations. Favored by the absence of competing and divisive theoretical propositions, the consensus is further nourished by massive adherence to a sophisticated and rigorous qualitative methodology. It is probably for these reasons that the sociology of work has escaped the violent dispute that has agitated German sociology for the past few years and which in 2017 led to the schism in the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie (German Sociological Association [DGS]) and creation of the Akademie für Soziologie (Academy of Sociology [AS]) which is dedicated to promoting analytical sociology.

45In this dispute, specialists in quantitative research (the schismatics) rebuke those specialists in qualitative research for their essayism and lack of professionalism, while the latter denounce the fetishism of measurement of the former. Beyond the methodological quarrel, however, the dispute is also about the very conception of sociology and its criteria of scientificity. More prosaically, it is fueled by issues of access to positions of power in commissions of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) which preside over the distribution of public-research funding, bearing in mind that these commissions are made up of representatives of the professional associations from the different disciplines such as DGS for sociology and now the AS. If the sociology of work benefits from its own sources of funding, it is no less directly concerned with the substantive debate that has shaken sociology, namely its criteria of scienticity; to evade it is to effectively renounce the ambition that some of its representatives harbor for the return to a more central position within the sociological discipline.

  • 8 My thanks also go to the Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin for funding the translation.

46Translation French/English: Kevin McAleer8

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1 See, accessed on 11 February 2021. As of 31 December 2018, the section had 336 members (the last published figures).

2 This text adopts the inclusive writing conventions proposed by the review Sociologie du travail, 2019, “Guidelines for Authors on the Use of Inclusive Writing and the Feminization of Job Names,” online:

3 I should also like to thank Michèle Dupré, Olivier Giraud, Michel Lallement, Katrin Sold and the editorial board of the Nouvelle revue du travail for their valuable comments on various versions of this text.

4 The return to the East German sociology of work would deserve an article of its own, based on further historical research.

5  Numerous handbooks were published between Dahrendorf’s 1956 booklet and the 2010 work but always under heading of sociology and industry. Heiner Minssen’s Arbeits- und Industriesoziologie (Minssen, 2006) incorporated the German Sociological Association’s name change to its section in the year 2000, whereas the handbook of F. Böhle, G. Voss and G. Wachtler (2010) abandoned the label of Industriesoziologie in favor of the single term Arbeitssoziologie, a theoretical choice that the handbook’s editors claimed was based on transformations of the world of work.

6 This sum is calculated on the basis of ten projects that I was brought in to evaluate as a member of the international selection committee constituted for that purpose.

7; consulted 18 February 2021.

8 My thanks also go to the Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin for funding the translation.

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Bénédicte Zimmermann, « Germany, empirical commitment and theoretical ambivalence »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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Bénédicte Zimmermann

EHESS (Paris) and Wissenschaftskolleg (Berlin)

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