Economy and Society

Please note: this is archived course information from 2021 for SOCIOL 208.


This course examines the changing relations between work and life outside of paid employment. Particular attention is paid to new forms of expropriation that profit from claiming private ownership of collective effort, ideas and cultural forms. These developments are crucial to understanding and contesting social inequality, globalisation, organisational restructuring and new technologies. Course material is drawn from international literatures and is grounded in an understanding of contemporary New Zealand.


This course will critically examine the concept of work. Everyone who works, and everyone who uses the word "work" necessarily has an understanding of that activity and its significance. Overwhelmingly, however, the predominant representation of work in contemporary society, culture and politics reflects one or another version of what can be called "the vulgar concept of work". The vulgar concept of work privileges the purposive, intentional, instrumental action of a largely isolated invididual. The problem with this vulgar concept of work is that it downplays the socially mediated character of action and places an unrealistic priority on individual intentionality and instrumentality.

This is a problem firstly because the vulgar concept of work and practices that follow from it – such as the individualised wage relation and ideas of individual private property – allocate resources in staggering disproportion to actual effort. In this way, the vulgar concept of work is pivotal in:

  • The production and reproduction of inequality
  • The unjustified attribution to particular individuals of vast power and wealth
  • The denigration of unpaid work and in specifically the reproductive labour predominantly done by women
  • The leveraging of advantage out of existing conditions of inequality, which are above all marked by ethnicity and nation

Additionally, in being unable to value "non-intentional" practices (such as nature) it is complicit with widespread environmental degradation. 

Second, the vulgar concept of work is a problem because this concept of work has by and large been taken up by social progressives, liberals and what remains of "left" political parties. Having no effective alternative conception of work and things attached to it (reward, the person and so on) is both a sign of the present weakness of the parliamentary and extraparliamentary left, and also reflects an incredible opportunity for the reinvention of left politics. We will seek therefore to articulate a concept of work that is at once more adequate to the nature of what work is, and beyond this to outline the explosive political consequences of moving beyond the vulgar concept of work.

Course Aims

At the end of this course you should:

  • Have an understanding of some of the key meanings of work from the history of political economy
  • Be able to identify the different assumptions about human beings and social situations that accompany different concepts of work
  • Understand the shifting relations between work and "non-work"
  • Understand the meaning of the concept of "the work of others" and the economic, social and political consequences of this concept 
  • Develop the groundwork of a critical understanding of work that places work within the context of the capitalist political economy

Availability 2021

Not taught in 2021




SOCIOL 208: 15 points


30 points at Stage I in Employment Relations and Organisational Studies or Sociology or 15 points at Stage I in Sociology with B+ or higher, or 30 points in International Relations and Business.