The Democratic Promise

Why the World of Work Determines Our Political Future

This project is being conducted within the framework of empirical research on work, inequality, and the welfare state that has been pursued since 2006 at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, especially in collaboration with the Soziologisches Forschungsinstitut Göttingen [Sociological Research Institute Göttingen] (SOFI) and the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. This research has addressed, from varying perspectives, changes in the world of work and discussed their impact on societal structures and experiences of social inequality. Changes in the political economics of work, new status conflicts within companies, a striking change in the conformation of the occupational middle class, and a fundamental transformation of the regulation of working society have become visible.

The project titled "The Democratic Promise" has a variety of theoretical and empirical reference points. One important point here is the tradition of labor and industrial sociology, which addressed for the first time the close connection between how the world of work was organized and the establishment of a democratic society. Political emancipation and social progress, opportunities for advancement and employee participation are central keywords. They appear for instance in the early industrial sociological works of Hans Paul Bahrdt, Ludwig von Friedeburg, Burkart Lutz, and Ralf Dahrendorf, but also in the programmatic concepts on the "humanization of work" from the 1970s.

The current debate about the present and future of work has largely lost this impetus. Talking about and researching work means that other issues more related to inequality, such as precariousness, fragmentation, exclusion, and vulnerability, must be addressed. This means that the loss of security, stability, and commitment in the middle strata of society move to the forefront of social analysis, but how the process of organizing a democratic society can continue to be pursued remains an issue, nonetheless. The dynamics of social inequality, the plurality of work-related forms of status, and the redesign of public goods and services, in particular, show that the world of work determines not only our economic but also our political and, in this way, our democratic future.

This project provides the conceptual framework for further research presently being pursued in cooperation with SOFI Göttingen. This research includes current projects in which, first, work consciousness is being (re)mapped under the conditions of transformations in the industrial world of work; this research takes up the tradition of work and social consciousness research that has been pursued in the sociology of work since the 1950s and 1960s. Second, questions related to today’s technological transformation in industrial production and its processing and structuring at the occupational level will be addressed. Finally, other studies will explore the legal organization of work society and the societal foundations for implementing labor rights. The project is thus situated, with its current empirical case studies, in the field of research on paid employment and enterprise, social inequality and class structure, and the welfare state and democracy.

 (Last modified July 2014)