Unit VIII Social Institutions
IM for Teaching Worker Alienation
Theme: Social Institutions
DescriptionDraws on the work experiences of class members to explore the quaities of jobs students considered "good" and "bad".
To develop a pool of concrete work experiences which exemplify Marx’s conception of alienation and the social organization that produces it.
Materials NeededNot too large a class.Back to top
Estimated TimeCan be done in one class period.Back to top
Each class member is asked to relate his/her worst work experience (almost everyone has had some summer or part-time employment). If people have never had “bad” jobs, I ask them to tell about their best ones. As we go, I list those factors which seem recurrent. The most useful themes, which almost always emerge with no coaching, include: monotony/variety, responsibility or lack of it, quality of peer relationships, and behavior of superordinates. In addition, there are always a number of graphic, funny, horrific, or otherwise memorable anecdotes in the average class. These and the themes that emerge from the collective experiences are then tied to Marx’s conception of alienation.
The four dimensions of alienation identified by Marx are alienation from: (1) the product of labor, (2) the process of labor, (3) others, and (4) self. Class experiences usually fit easily into these categories. The culmination of this phase of discussion requires a picture of what Marx thinks people and work should be like in order to understand the full human cost of alienation. This requires a discussion of “species-being” or Marx’s assumption of what constitutes whole personhood. Special emphasis, of course, goes to the central role of work. Marx believed that people naturally wanted to work, it wasn't something they did because they had to. It was necessary for a full life. Here, students with good work experiences are relied on in discussing the possible intrinsic satisfactions of work.
The final and sometimes hardest phase of discussion centers on alienation as a social structural problem. Students have a tendency to identify it as a psychological one, arguing that a “positive attitude” would eliminate alienation. From this I proceed to a broader consideration of job organization, societal organization, and culture. For instance, I point out meanings given to the words “work” and “play.” Why is it that something enjoyable can be defined as “work” only with difficulty. Often there are examples of the definitional irony in student accounts of work.
How do you feel about the thing you worked on or produced (auto parts, french fries)?
How did you feel about the people who used the things or services you helped provide? Were you in direct contact with them? Did you ever trick them or insult them or feel like doing it?
Did you ever feel like a machine or part of a machine? Did others treat you like one?
How long did it take you to learn your job? How much skill did the job take?
Did you or those around you have any standards of doing the job “right” as opposed to “any old way?”
Was it possible to take pride in your work?
How did it feel to be doing something that required little of your talent?
Did you ever try to disrupt, stop, or sabotage the work process?
Did the people who did this job year-round get along well with those who were only there for the summer?
How did you relate to your boss? Was he/she easier to relate to or to like off the job?
How did your boss relate to his/her boss, if there was one?
Can you imagine spending your life without developing any further skill than that required by this job?
If the job was boring, what did you do about it? Did you play games in your head?
Selections from “The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.” Leighninger used Robert Freedman (ed.) Marxist Social Thought (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1968), pp. 65-107, 278-295.
Creator/SourceUsed by Bob Leighninger, Department of Sociology, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan. Published in Innovative Techniques for Teaching Sociological Concepts, edited by Edward L. Kain and Robin Neas, 1993, Washington: American Sociological Association, pp. 135-136.
Other Comments (Interpretation, possible pitfalls)Finding the proper balance in the experience-sharing phase between student spontaneity and didactic direction can be a problem. I frequently ask some of the leading questions above to provoke thinking.Back to top