The Turn to Public Sociology: The Case of U.S. Labor Studies



In the US, 1974 marked the beginning of a great transformation. In labor studies it was the year of the publication of Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, and the launching of a Marxist research program focused on the labor process. Braverman turned away from all subjectivist views of work to proclaim his famous deskilling hypothesis, namely the history of monopoly capitalism was the history of the degradation of work. True or false, it was a decisive break with narrowly conceived industrial sociology and timeless organization theory.

1974 also marked a major recession in the US economy and the onset of an economic and then a political assault on labor that would throw Braverman’s claims into relief. More broadly, this birth of neoliberalism, capitalism’s third wave of marketization, would deeply affect both the labor movement and the focus of academic research. It is the changing relationship among economic and political context, labor movement and labor studies that preoccupies this paper.

The rupture with professional sociology marked by Labor and Monopoly Capital, and the research program it inaugurated, was followed by a transition, some 20 years later, from the study of the labor process to an engagement with the labor movement. This transition to public sociology has been one of the more exciting developments in an otherwise heavily professionalized discipline and a generally bleak labor scene. Yet the shift of focus from structure to agency, from process to movement, from a critical professional sociology to a critical-public sociology of labor occurred in the very period of the labor movement’s greatest decline — the percentage of the labor force unionized in the private sector fell precipitously from 23.6% in 1974 to 7.4% by 2006.2 Why should sociologists devote themselves to a labor movement that was fast becoming extinct? Sociologists, after all, have always been interested in movements in ascendance not in decline!