Work is the labor, task, or duty that is one’s accustomed means of livelihood. Anthropologists among social scientists have debated the significance of work in industrial and nonindustrial societies. In anthropology, emphasis is given to the association of the work concept to pertinent social relationships.
Skills are learned powers of competence, developed aptitudes, or abilities. Skills develop in areas of art, technology, language, and other forms of perception and expression. By analyzing skills and the processes that bring skills about, dichotomies, such as those that exist between art and science and high and low technology, may be overcome. Nevertheless, the extension of human skills through technology has resulted in the historical withdrawal of people from the production processes and in changes in the types of needed skills.
A contrast between the values driving work patterns in “Western” and “non-Western” societies often has been made in the field, following the writing of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Marx and Engels emphasized the evolution of modes of production, or the ways raw materials are converted into commodities through labor. Emile Durkheim’s concept of division of labor differentiates work, morals, and law in organic solidarity societies that stand in contrast to the likeness of work and consciousness in primitive mechanical solidarity societies. Weber emphasized social values and traced the rise of a capitalist economy to the Puritan determination to work and do good deeds. Subsequent economic and political ecology approaches have emphasized exploitative labor practices, hegemonic ideologies, socioeconomic differentiation, and globalization. In the moral economy, internal statuses are seen as more egalitarian. Lay concepts about the alleged laziness of indigenes follow ethnocentric notions, and are successfully countered in anthropology through cultural relativism and understanding the embeddedness of economies in social and religious practices and beliefs.
Marshall Sahlins makes a case that the activities that individuals and communities perform are embedded in their social relations, roles, and statuses. Similarly, Tim Ingold argues there is no need for the specialized concepts of work and workers among hunter-gatherers and other nondifferentiated societies. Ingold redefines work in such contexts as task orientation. Work is life for foragers, and the relevant distinctions made are not between work and nonwork, but between different types of activities, such as farming, weaving, child rearing, and so forth. Task orientations are carried out through skills.
Hunter-gatherers can develop finely tuned skills at reading animal signs and tracks, moving silently during the hunt, butchery for full use of the prey, as well as identification of edible and nonedible plants. Shamans and religious leaders in traditional societies have tremendous oratory skills. Skill at communication is an important ability for social leaders in non-industrial societies, including the ability to memorize, recall, and manipulate genealogies and ancestral spirits to produce favorable outcomes. Apprentices are engaged in the process of learning skills.
Whereas some anthropologists view human technological development as a driver of human social evolution, others have pointed out that many of the skills important in nonindustrialized societies are equally as important in industrial ones. The social atomization of families in modern state societies may be a manifestation of the dependency on mechanical devices and technological proficiency rather than the deterioration of skills.
- Durkheim, E. (1933). Émile Durkheim on the division of labor in society. New York: Free Press.
- Ingold, T. (2000). The perception of the environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling, and skill. London: Routledge.
- Weber, M. (1958). The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Scribner.