Our Ultimate Quest for the Meaning of Work has started with a Brief History of Work, where I tried to analyse the evolution of the meaning of Work across time, with a specific focus on western culture. We have seen that Work has had different meanings, often associated with the way the society was evolving. Two particular characteristics, individuality and sociality of Work, continued to develop across history following various balancing acts. The other element that continued to change is the meaning of Work for an individual. I would argue that these changes are not to be seen as an evolution, but rather as a continue reset of alchemy that, over time, has taken different shapes and forms.
With this second article, I want to summarise the concept of Work across History, using the idea of Discourse inspired by the ideas of Foucault, as a proxy for that generally accepted meaning that Work had developed through society at that moment. Again, a caveat. I am focusing specifically on the western world., as my experience with other cultures on this topic is so far limited, and always mediated from a western lens.
Based on the historical trends we have seen, we can identify a succession of several different discourses around the meaning of Work in human history. I borrow the usage of concept from Simon Western’s approach to Leadership, as it fits a few of the characteristics that I want to highlight.
We can trace Six Discourses of Work that formed in Western history. Each of these Discourses has developed in a specific moment in time and a specific social and cultural context, but none of these have ever faded away completely. They are all still present, in some shape and form in human society today. Sometimes at the individual level. Sometimes as part of specific sections of society. Other as part of different discourses (like in politics). The result is that today, we see a stratification of meanings that increases the complexity of precisely describing what Work means because we need to apply a contextual lens to identify what Work means for a specific individual within a particular segment of society.
Moreover, a new Discourse is currently taking shape. All pieces of evidence are there, but it has not yet reached the status of a Generally Accepted Meaning for an ample portion of society. We will dedicate more room to this in the next article of this series.
Let’s now see the essential characteristics of the six discourses I have identified, before digging deeper into the features of each Discourse. Before digging deep, I just wanted to underline a critical element. The succession of the discourses is not to be considered evolution. I’ve started developing a sense of reject for the many models that trace human history as an evolution from “bad” to “good”. The only definition of a direction that exists in this suggested framework is that of time. Based on my knowledge at the time of writing, this is how the different discourses developed in chronological succession. It is natural that in this succession, one Discourse grows on the shoulders of the preceding one; however, this does not give the latter an evolutionary advantage over the first.
As I was summarising my findings, traces of these discourses started to pile up. I was, however, taken apart by the fact that all these discourses exist, in some shape and form, still today. At first, this puzzled me, but then instead of considering it a negative aspect, I now believe this is a positive feature of the framework I am suggesting. More research is required, and this is a “first rough draft”.
As I wrote down these discourses, I realised a parallel with a world-known model: Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. It is probably open of the most known models in management theory, yet the author, Abraham Maslow, never represented it as a pyramid. For him, the different types of motivation were not a hierarchical succession, where you’d fill one level and go to the next akin a videogame. Still, instead, he made clear “we are always going back and forth in the hierarchy, and we can target multiple needs at the same time”.
However, I have found a substantial conceptual correspondence between the different types of needs identified by Maslow’s model, and the Discourses of Work I have identified.
In five cases, there is a one to one relationship. Only in the case of Work as Salvation, there is not a precise relationship. I will explore this aspect more in detail later on, but it is evident that the religious element present within this Discourse has an impact. That Discourse evolves therefore at satisfying multiple needs at once, particularly Safety, belongings but also a particular condition, that of self-transcendence which the late Maslow himself identified as the apex of his model.
The reason I am making this association with Maslow’s model explicit is that I also want to avoid the idea of building an eschatological path whereby humanity moves in the interpretation of Work from Sustenance to Personal Realisation. Instead, the discourses allow the individual to move from one meaning of Work to the other, sometimes along different moments of their lives. An element that I want to ensure is thoroughly understood in this post.
Let’s now see more in detail the different discourses.
This is the basic Discourse of Work, whereby Work is the necessary activity needed to survive as an individual, or as part of an immediate social group (family or tribe). In the evolution of humanity, we see that the first communities of hunters-gatherers coalesced in small tribes, following the paths of their preys. The birth of agriculture, initially, did not alter the basic shape of these early human societies. The collaboration was essential as hunters, and the idea that first hierarchies converged around alfa-males, is a myth currently being challenged by many. When tribes started to settle with the agriculture revolution, these early forms of society continued to keep an egalitarian shape in nature, and their organisation type was typical of a Heterarchy (using Fairtlough’s Triarchy Theory as a baseline).
Probably the Worker Metaphor that is easier to associate to this work discourse I that of the Shepherd. The reason is simple. Pastoral societies are still very much present in many areas of the world. In the Mediterranean, for example, we always find strongholds of these societies in Sardina, Spain, Greece, Turkey. Whereas agriculture has evolved in many ways due to technology impacts, herding still has a very much ancestral feeling in many areas of the world.
There is somewhat a romantic flair linked to this Discourse, with the idea of a Work that is fully and correctly integrated with the rhythms of nature. Up to the point that a metaphor that has been recurring over history is that of a return to the origins, to the Myth of Arcadia, a utopian state based on an idyllic vision of untouched wilderness. Present in greek mythology, but also restated during the Renaissance and back again during the Baroque period, this myth exists still today, in the narrative of going back to the Earth. How many successful people have chosen to buy a piece of land and go back to cultivate, as a specific choice for a portion of their lives?
The Workplace of this Discourse is the Village. Which is not just a physical entity, but comprises several circles around the traditional settlement. Communal land and a shared administration of resources were a characteristic of village life, and are still traceable in most cultures grounded on conventional agriculture and herding.
Work is, as part of this Discourse, an innately individual fact. People collaborate on their own will, pushed by the need for survival. No wonder that Leadership plays here a minor role. Village chiefs were usually elected, and often were mere facilitators of the collaboration across individuals.
The two defining forces for this Discourse are Life and Death. Eating, as the primary physical need, is the main push that forces man to work and work together. The true meaning of Work in this Discourse is really to be sought in this antagonism.
In modern time, we still find this Discourse in several areas:
The last meaning shows that an idealistic view of this Discourse has some firm limits. Whenever personal or societal issues push the defining antagonism more towards the death polarity, we immediately see the harsh reality of a discourse deeply routed on survival.
The evolution of agriculture developed the first cases of appropriation of properties, both in terms of land and agriculture produce. This is the turning point that created the early forms of hierarchies, linked to the control of resources. Of course, there is not an exact moment in which we can observe the transition between the previous Discourse and this one, but we can for sure trace the development of this Discourse over the span of multiple centuries. Societies started to structure themselves in hierarchies often defined by worth. One of the defining characteristics of this Discourse is that Work starts to get also organised in an order, and identified as good or bad.
The Worker Metaphor that is easier to associate to this Discourse is that of the Slave. Slavery is a concept that is difficult to define in short, as many different societies intended slavery in other terms, both as in the way to be enslaved, as in the role that slavery played in society. We often interpret slavery as the utmost example fo labour intended and administered as a factor of production, but that reading came at a much later stage. What is expected in slave-based societies is the perception that slaves are inferior, and are due to work on the more fatigue-linked activities of that society.
The organisation metaphor that probably best represents this Discourse is that of the Colosseum of Rome. A prominent theatre, where often slaves would combat among each other to satisfy the free time of a flourishing nobility. With the Emperor ultimately having the right to grant life or death to the individual. Despite the heroic narrative of some movies or novel, the critical element to underline here is the perception of superiority of certain classes of workers towards others.
Working is often perceived as a punishment for those that have to do it. Aristotle emblematically assumed that most people had to work so that a minority could excel in the philosophy and the arts. The same concept of Punishment we see in the Bible when Adam is expelled from Eden and condemned to work.
The defining antagonism of this Discourse is that between the polarity of “citizen” or “free man” and “slave“. A key characteristic of the establishing hierarchies is that Work is inherited from father into son. Mainly patriarchal, these societies build on the assumption that Work and status get inherited. Plus, the natural hierarchy of different types of Work, create multiple belongings between the two polarities. Different types of “slaves” will appear during history.
This Discourse will revolve around time, and often sit in parallel to the other ones we will examine. For example, there is going to be a permanence of some of this Discourse during the early stages of Christianity, because the Church established a ranking between Work that was good and bad from a salvation point of view. Its varying interpretation of slavery will bring most of this Discourse to be intact up to the edges of modernity, and even further, if we consider the situation fo Slavery in the United States.
If we want to establish a Leadership Metaphor for this Discourse of Work, probably the easiest on is that of the Emperor. Historically, many different political and organisational structures succeeded and prospered while this Discourse still dominated. Still, the idea of an Emperor, reigning over multiple populations and other types of cultures, continually trying to expand its power, very well complements this Discourse. On the top, the illuminated few are on Earth to dominate the many.
I have already mentioned that Safety is probably the need that this Discourse fulfils the most. For sure we see the coexistence of also physiological conditions, but the reality is that, in many cases, Work is now sought to establish a sense of protection. Masters feel they need to protect their slaves as property from others. Artisans, builders and so on will strive to maintain their status through inheritance, stimulating a sense of Safety and belonging within the frameworks of the higher political structures.
Today, we still see most of the remnants of this Discourse. Nobility still exists in a few countries, as well as cast systems that are specifically linked to a hierarchy of Work. But there are also other elements of this Discourse that, unfortunately, still appear to exist today.
With the advent of Christianity, a new phenomenon would appear that of mass religions. Until that moment, beliefs where, essentially, a practice also limited to the few “elected” people. Even in societies where religious sentiment expanded across a broader part of the population, there was still adequate segregation, often reflected also in the plurality of deities and hierarchies among them. To pursue its Purpose of building a “universal church”, the Catholic Church had to create a new framework of reference also for Work. The Process was, however, not easy, as the early years of the catholicity were still marked by a rooted reverence in Aristotle’s ideas. Plus, let’s remember the concept of Work as a punishment, embedded in the Bible.
The change took time, and can probably be traced to the first monasteries. As they built their rules, they framed Work, for the first time, into a regulated and organised activity. Doing the planned Work well could help the Salvation of the soul. This is also a society that completed the transition to a hierarchy defined by the divine. Right, already emperors of the past had created a close link with the supernatural. Still, the Catholic Church made something new, an entire organisation based on this principle, and probably, to date, one of the longest living ones. The work discourse, however, paradoxically reaches its apex through the Protestant Reform movement. Officially, the Catholic Church still condemned several professions, such as trade and credit, a position that was not challenged by Martin Luther but would be challenged by John Calvin.
It is not by mistake that Max Weber traced back to the Calvinist point of view a defining origin of modern capitalism. Every person should use the resources that God made them available and invest them for their greater good, to achieve Salvation. Salvation through Work becomes a key foundational pillar of many protestant communities, and one of the founding elements of the United States tradition, still well established in many Evangelical communities across the continent.
The Worker Metaphor that is easier to associate is that of the masons working to build a cathedral. These multi-decades projects needed not only practice and Mastery but a sense of devotion and achievement. We all have in mind the tale of the two masons, originated by Saint-Éxupery, and also used by Simon Sinek to explain the concept of Purpose, as a way to clearly understand the characteristic of the mindset. The difference to the modernised version that is named cathedral thinking, however, comes from the external direction of this contribution imperative.
The Church easily symbolises the organisational metaphor for this Discourse: a hierarchy by God’s will, that is, however, capable of adapting to local realities and social constructs. Its subsidiarity principle is a novelty in terms of organisation perspective. Which still brought to a very modern success in ecumenical activities across different churches separated through history.
The workplace that better describes this Discourse is that of the long-lasting building site. Not only of a cathedral but also of a castle, of a bridge… Communities of masons and other workers would be working on-site for decades, if not more, each owning their tools, each passing its profession to their sons. For a greater good.
The Leadership Metaphor here is that of a priest, or a pastor using the protestant terminology. A conductor of souls focused on nurturing its disciples. I can’t avoid noticing the immediate reference to the Acadian Shepherd we have seen before. This element is essential because a big part of Discourse is linked to the continuous reinforcement done by the network of the religious hierarchy in ensuring that the people would all pursue the same salvation goal. Not dissimilar from today’s pastor, still supporting the unemployed in their remit to find Work. All this, as a continuous reminder of “paradise – hell” as the defining antagonist polarities of this Discourse, expressed in term of transcendent meanings of good and evil. As such, we can see this as an evolution of the Discourse of Work as Punishment, whereby a distinction between good and evil work still exists, but with the difference that the reward is positioned in a divine setting.
This Discourse is the one more iterative in the association with one precise need. As seen above, observing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the Work as Salvation discourse has the potential to fulfil three variegated needs: that of Safety (“I’m doing good work”); that of belonging (“I am Christian therefore I work”); that of Self-Transcendence (“I work for the greater good”).
One more aspect to consider is the social construct that this Discourse has brought along. First, is the necessary separation between Church and State, that, despite not being evident, has been brought by the development of Christianity, opening up future secular views of Work. The second is the establishment of “Nations” as a symbol of belonging for individuals. This is important because it is around this concept that changes one of the meanings more lasting around Work in history, that of the military. Being part of the Army, combating was not different from other types of Work for most of humanity. You would protect your community, or be part of the “ranks” that constituted the Army, together with slaves. Then you would serve towards the greater good of God, through the knighthood principles and in the Crusades, for example. At a certain point, however, also being a military transformed itself into a profession. Until, national states started to emerge, with their powerful attraction, and the ability to attract millions of soldiers.
Today, significant portions of this Discourse are still present.
This discourse in many ways overlaps historically with the one just seen, as it follows the development of professions. To a certain extent, the same example of the cathedral builder would not be present, if it wasn’t for the existence of masons, stonecutters and the likes. Yet the discourse around Craftsmanship needed to evolve on two very specific fronts. First, the evolution towards a model whereby work would not be simply inherited from father into son, but where work can be learned through the acquisition of skills. Second, the detachment from religious zeal, developing a more secular view of work.
The (re)birth of cities that happened towards the end of middle age and the beginning of Renaissance, created the right situation for this to happen. Commercial Guilds where the first to be formed, followed then by other professions. This process was made possible also because of the distance that the official Church still positioned itself against trade and credit, two of the elements that instead made the fortune of a few republics: Venice and The Netherlands above all.
We start seeing the foundations of a new discourse, where competence and mastery above all reigns, where professions are subject to regulations, where a new relationship is established between the apprentice and the master, but also where political and social norms are challenged and bent. It is in this context that the first modern enterprises will be created, and some of the most important pillars of the contemporary’s economic model laid bare: currencies, lending rates, financial accounting, all elements we can still trace today, and are associated with a very specific idea of value.
The Worker Metaphor that is easier to associate is that of the free-masons. It’s interesting to notice the partial overlap with the discourse we have just seen and the cathedral builders. There is, however, a profound difference, due to the absence of the eschatological view of work. Here masons are focused on their own mastery, through standards and knowledge, with a focus on sustaining their own lives and that of their family. This difference in thought, however, has had, historically, huge consequences. It’s not a coincidence that most of what we consider today’s liberal roots are deeply embedded in the history of the masonry movement, which sought a way to disenfranchise itself from the belonging to a christian church mindset.
Another worker metaphor that well describes this archetype is that of the merchant. And it is not a coincidence either that the first guilds where made of merchants.
The Guild easily symbolizes the organizational metaphor for this Discourse: a hierarchy based on competencies and knowledge, that is established on the concept of “belonging” to the guild or not. Either through exams, or apprenticeship or other ways, there is one legitimate way to be either part of the knowledge based community, or be an outsider, often unable to practice a specific job.
The workplace that better describes this Discourse is that of a workshop. Imagine a specialized artisan, think of the lives of great artists like Giotto. They all have started as apprentices in a great workshop. A unit strongly built on the concept of “mastery” of a specific discipline of knowledge, and that framed the way to achieve it through an institutional learning process based on practice.
The Leadership Metaphor here is that of a master, which achieved its status based on a constant nourishment of a competency primacy. Competency that is defined as tangible, visible from the outcomes of the work, but also in terms of economic standing that is achieved.
This Discourse moves specifically to a relationship need, that of belonging. I adhere to standards of knowledge and practice, i am “certified” to belong to a guild, I can practice a chore because I’m “in” an organisation and not outside it.
Today, significant portions of this Discourse are still present.
Through this post, we have seen the general framework of the Discourses of Work that I have clustered and a somewhat more in-depth analysis of the first four discourses that developed over history. In the next two posts on this series, I will be analysing the Discourse five, When Work became a Job and the New Discourse that is evolving.
We can, however, already draft an early conclusion. First of all, each of these discourses is still present and influencing parts of society, despite maintaining its own identity. Second, even if there is a clear historical progression between one Discourse and the other, there is no deterministic progression between one and the other. They are all relevant within their framework of reference, and they all seem partial to a contemporary eye. Within each Discourse, we can find different shades and interpretations, often linked also to the historical progression that specific forces plaid in distinct parts of Europe at different moments.
As we examine the remnants of these discourses in modern society, I cannot avoid noticing that a specific Discourse might apply to different stages of the life of an individual.
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