Conceptualizing Work: A History of Powerful Ideas


George Edgar Hicks, The Sinews of Old England, 1857 [1]

by John W. Budd

What is work? Why do we work? How is work valued? These questions are fundamental to any human society. Without a written record, we cannot know with certainty how the earliest humans thought about work, but the importance of sharing food and other resources means that prehistoric work embodied at least an element of serving the needs of a community rather than just those of an individual and his or her immediate family.

With the emergence of social differentiation in hierarchical societies, work continued to be a way to serve others, especially the ruling elite, as was the case for slaves in the ancient Greek city-states, for the conscripted peasants building the Egyptian pyramids or for the emperors of the Tang dynasty. By claiming the divine right of kings, working to serve the elite was legitimized by portraying work as serving the gods, and later, God. Within the early Christian church, work was seen as a way to serve God’s kingdom by preventing idleness (and therefore sin), providing for one’s family and supporting charitable giving. But given the medieval power of the church, and visions of royalty and feudal lords as varying extensions of God, doing the (Holy) Lord’s work was often inseparable from doing the (feudal) lord’s work in concept and in practice.

In indigenous societies, providing for the community is frequently seen as an activity in harmony with nature. But when one works many hours a day to slave for a ruler, make corvée payments to a lord, to tithe to a church, or to provide for more than a modest standard of living for one’s household, then it is more difficult to see work as being in harmony with nature. Rather, work becomes a struggle to extract more than what one would need from nature, and the idea of work is thus seen as a curse. This is seen quite starkly in the Judeo-Christian tradition in which humans are cursed with hard work “by the sweat of your brow” (Genesis 3:19), as punishment for human imperfection and weakness. In a related vein, the elite classes of some societies propagate an ideology in which lousy work is the curse of the lower classes. The caste system inIndia is rooted in a belief that it is the will of the gods that specific castes must endure lousy work. And Aristotle reasoned that nature creates humans of varying intellectual abilities such that the intellectually inferior are naturally suited to be slaves whose role in life is to carry out menial tasks. In contemporary societies, the marginalization of some tasks as “women’s work” or fit only for minorities or immigrants can similarly reflect a belief in a natural social hierarchy, and the resulting cursed nature of work for members of these groups.

Arguably, the dominant pre-modern conceptualizations of work are thinking of work as a curse or as serving others. While these powerful ideas continue to have relevance today—whether in the form of an unquestioned acceptance of work as a necessary evil, modern slavery or serving others through volunteering—the ascendancy of the individual in Western thought between the 1500s and 1800s brought new complexities to the thinking on work. In particular, the importance of the individual in modern Western thought yielded multiple conceptualizations of work as an activity that serves the individual rather than someone else.

First, work can be seen as a source of individual freedom. In Western anthropocentric societies, nature is something to be mastered for human needs. An increasingly scientific and decreasingly religious view of the natural world during the Middle Ages made nature seem conquerable. Work, then, became seen as mastery over nature, a way to create freedom from the vagaries of the natural world and unlock humans from the slavish pursuit of the food and shelter needed to survive. Today, we frequently think of this freedom as creativity.

In the 17th century, work also came to be seen as freedom not only from nature, but also from the coercion of others when John Locke asserted that labor establishes ownership of private property. This idea of  political liberalism then laid a foundation for economic liberalism—if work is seen as one’s own property, then you are free to sell your labor services for pay if desired. And thanks to Adam Smith’s influence in the 18th century, work came to be viewed as an economic commodity—an abstract quantity of productive effort that has economic value traded in economic markets.

And, once people achieved the liberty to trade their work—conceptually as well as in practice—work became seen as various forms of free activity distinguished by differing views on the nature of human self-interest. In mainstream economic thought, human behavior is characterized by a quest for the consumption of goods, services, and leisure, so work is thought of as an activity to support this quest. Work itself is not desirable, either because it is stressful and arduous, as was articulated by early economists such as W. Stanley Jevons, or because it is less fun than leisure as assumed by mainstream economists today, but is tolerated in order to directly or indirectly procure goods, services and leisure. This is the often-unstated intellectual foundation for using hefty incentive payment schemes to motivate investment bankers, corporate executives and many others.

Honoré Daumier, The Laundress, c. 1863

If human self-interest is instead characterized by needs for achievement, mastery, self-esteem and self-worth, then work can instead be thought of as a source of personal fulfillment and psychological well-being. In the 19th century, the ideal of achieving joy in work was reflected in the writings of the French utopian philosopher Charles Fourier and the French author Émile Zola, and was championed to the greatest extent by Karl Marx’s exaltation of work as the highest form of human activity. In contemporary scholarship in psychology and related fields, this ideal of joy has largely been reduced to job satisfaction. Modern human resource management is also rooted is this thinking of work as personal fulfillment because effective human resource management practices are assumed to be those that satisfy workers’ psychological needs and therefore enhance job performance.

The material self-interest emphasized in mainstream economics or the desire for intrinsic rewards emphasized in psychology fail to recognize that work is embedded in complex social phenomena in which individuals seek approval, status, sociability and power. The social context also provides constraints, whether in the form of social norms that define the boundaries of acceptable behaviors or work roles, or in the form of power relations that define access to resources. This gives rise to another important way of thinking about work, that is, work as a set of human interactions that are experienced in and shaped by social networks, social norms and institutions, and socially-constructed power relations.

Beyond satisfaction and social approval, human self-interest might also be the search for an understanding of who we are and where we fit into the broader world. In this way, work can be thought of as a source of identity. This can occur on several levels, such as through biographical information that includes descriptors related to one’s work, by identification with various groups such as occupation, employer and class, or through the self-presentation and social feedback that comes from making our work roles public. At perhaps the deepest level, work can be seen as a fundamental aspect of creating a human identity not as individuals or classes, but as a species. This centrality of work for humanness was most famously advanced by Marx’s argument that “In creating an objective world by his practical activity, in working-up inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as its own essential being” (1844: 76-77). It is from this belief that self-directed work is the essential quality of being human that Marx further argued that the commodification of work under capitalism causes alienation, and then led him and others to search for alternatives to capitalism.

Marx, of course, was not the only critic of the conceptual commodification of work that has occurred over the past three centuries or so. Feminist scholars and activists challenge the prioritizing of paid employment and the devaluing of reproductive work that comes from the equation of work to the production of economic commodities. Rather, it is argued, care work—the physical, cognitive and emotional effort required to attend to and maintain others—should be thought of as “real work” instead of purely instinctual activities done out of love and not worthy of workers’ compensation, social security, recognition of full economic value in divorce proceedings, and other culturally-produced expressions of value.

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Planers, 1875

Heterodox economists, sociologists, philosophers, industrial relations scholars, theologians, human rights activists and others also reject the thinking of labor as a commodity that treats workers simply as factors of production. Rather, it argued that workers are human beings and are therefore entitled to rights and standards of dignity and self-determination irrespective of what the market provides. This way of thinking is a descendant of the 19th century concerns with wage slavery, but the contemporary focus is on adding labor standards to make work consistent with citizenship rather than rejecting paid employment as incompatible with the independence required for full, participatory citizenship. This contemporary perspective, then, forms the intellectual foundation for labor market regulations that provide for minimum wages, mandated benefits, the promotion of labor unions, and other labor standards.

So what is work? Why do we work? How is work valued? The importance of these fundamental questions is reflected by the range of historical figures and intellectual giants who have wrestled with and shaped societal views on them—philosophers Aristotle and Confucius, sociologists Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, economists Adam Smith and Karl Marx, political scientist John Locke, psychologists Sigmund Freud and Abraham Maslow, theologians St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin, management experts Frederick Winslow Taylor and Mary Parker Follett, feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and others. As I illustrate in my recent book The Thought of Work, the answers to these questions matter. Thoughts on work are not simply alternative perspectives on work; rather, how work is seen actively structures our understandings of and our experiences with work by providing frames of references, norms, values and attitudes toward work that actors translate into specific practices.

Over two thousand years ago in ancient Rome, Virgil’s poem The Georgics included the sentence:

labor omnia vicit
improbus et duris urgens in rebus egestas

This has been popularized as “hard work conquers all” and labor omnia vicit is therefore the motto of schools, cities, labor unions and even sports teams around the world. But this passage is a microcosm of the entire domain of work—the translation “hard work conquers all” is a gross oversimplification, and not the only possible interpretation. The phrase can be translated and interpreted negatively as “everything was toil, relentless toil, urged on by need” (Ferry 2005: 13), or more positively as “wicked effort has overwhelmed all things and oppressive need” (Putnam 1979: 33). And the fullest interpretations depend on the broader context of Virgil’s milieu, and yield nuanced meanings in which work is intimately connected to the human condition, material progress, social beliefs, and visions of the good life as seen through the interpreter’s eyes, and that also recognize the phrase itself as a beautiful piece of artistic work. Such is the nature of work—a complex, fully human activity that is experienced in many ways, that can only truly be understood by embracing a multiplicity of perspectives, and that can only be improved by recognizing the deep importance of how we think about work for how work is structured in practice.


[1] The power of ideas about work are reflected in numerous ways, such as this Victorian-era painting’s promotion of the masculine breadwinner engaged in noble manual labor outside the home and the feminine stay-at-home caregiver.


Ferry, David (2000) The Georgics of Virgil: A Translation (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

Marx, Karl (1844) Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan (Prometheus Books, 1988).

Putnam, Michael C.J. (1979) Virgil’s Poem of the Earth: Studies in the Georgics (Princeton University Press).

About the Author

John W. Budd is a Professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, where he holds the Industrial Relations Land Grant Chair and is the Director of the Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies. He the author of Employment with a Human Face: Balancing Efficiency, Equity, and Voice (Cornell University Press), Labor Relations: Striking a Balance (McGraw-Hill/Irwin), Invisible Hands, Invisible Objectives: Bringing Workplace Law and Public Policy into Focus (with Stephen Befort, Stanford University Press), and most recently, The Thought of Work.