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Wednesday, 01 May 2013 22:01

The Social Construction of Work

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The model of "economic man" - homo-economicus - promoted by modern economists and legitimated by behaviourists, has helped to shape conceptions of work and consumption which present us with a bleak picture of task enjoyment.  Work is here stripped of its joy and its dignity. It becomes, in the economist's own terms a disutility.  This is an important distinction to make, because it blankets work with the kind of meaning which may be at variance with the meaning people assign to it themselves in their daily lives, and the ones which give meaning back to their own lives, in a meanigful task creatively well done. This is because the actual way which people value work is excluded from the normative economic-behaviour equation, since it may involve reinforcers which are intrinsic and which therefore cannot be measured.

One of the more important internal contradictions of economic theory is the claim by economists that their theories are independent of particular cultural practices, that they are instead, universal and invariant. Value neutrality implies the exclusion of any moral responsibility or importance. The claim that behaviourism or abstract economic theories are morally-neutral, that they are simply mechanisms which can be used for either good or evil purposes ignores the reality of its own effect in the lives of real people.

Such claims ignore the profoundly colonising aspects of Western economic theory which have turned countless pre-industrialised and economically self-sufficient peoples into unemployed welfare recipients by inculcating a "need" for industrialised commodities. They take no account, for instance, of the experiences of indigenous peoples in remote regions of the globe like Sarawak in Malaysia which are characterised by vast areas of deforested desolation, strip-logged of their native hardwood rain forests, but populated by occasional shabby villages occupied by dishevelled children clustered around colour TVs, watching American soap operas.  Such examples speak to the continuing colonisation and destruction of whole cultures with alien and potentially catastrophic notions of "work". 

After an initial investigation of how our normative conceptions of "work" have come about, this study compares different conceptions, unpacks the difference between intriunsic and extrinsic rewards for "work" and sets the moral question of what constitutes work against a background of Buddhist Economics which values human dignity, personal growth and spiritual awareness.


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