Political Economy of Work Working Group

Why the political economy of work?

The task of analysing the nature and organisation of work used to be confined mainly to sociology, psychology, and industrial relations. Contributions from the other major branch of social science, economics, were relatively thin on the ground. Non-mainstream economists (e.g. Marxists, institutionalists, etc.) have long stressed the importance of studying the position of workers in production but their views were largely ignored by their counterparts in mainstream economics who assumed that work was simply a means to income and consumption (see Spencer, 2008). In the last thirty years or so, however, mainstream economists have opened up the ‘black box’ of the production process, through, for example, new Keynesian economics (e.g. efficiency wage theory), new institutionalist economics, personnel economics and, more generally, information theoretic economics. Very recently (within the past decade) economists have even begun to show an interest in the measurement of the subjective welfare of workers. The ‘economics of happiness’ in particular, an increasingly influential and high-profile literature not just in economics but across the social sciences, has promoted new interest in subjective measures of human well-being, inclusive of well-being at work.

These developments within mainstream economics present opportunities as well as threats for labour researchers in other disciplines and subjects. On the one hand, new space has been opened up for dialogue between previously separate research areas and for the development of an interdisciplinary perspective on work. Green (2006) is one notable labour economist who has made significant positive steps in this direction. On the other hand, there is the threat that mainstream economics will ride rough shod over the terrain of the other social sciences and come to impose its own concepts and methodology on the study of work. ‘Economics imperialism’, indeed, can be observed in a number of other areas (see Fine and Milonakis, 2009) and represents a possible danger for current and future research on work.

In these circumstances, the collective development and application of a multi-disciplinary and unified ‘political economy’ approach to work is a strategic imperative, and could bear much fruit, as a visibly superior alternative to the encroachment of mainstream economics onto the terrain of work studies. Accordingly, the chief aim of the ‘political economy of work’ working group is to:

  • foster collective development of a political economy of work across traditional disciplinary divides (such as economics, sociology, psychology, employment relations, human geography, philosophy)

Key themes are:

  • What are the nature, extent and consequences of recent changes within the workplace?
    • Impact of new technology and international competition (‘globalisation’); critique of simplistic accounts of the ‘new economy’
    • Relation of the global financial crisis to work and material production
  • How should organised labour react to and, indeed, mould the major ongoing developments in the workplace?
  • How should job quality be understood and how has it changed?
    • Analysis of the so-called ‘paradox of affluence’, and like themes, that the economics of happiness raises but fails adequately to address
    • Use and interpretation of subjective surveys of job quality
    • Gender and ‘work-life balance’
  • Labour process debate:
    • further development of political economy approaches within the labour process debate
    • explore links with broader political economy tradition.
  • Work and labour in general:
    • What is work? What is the divide between work and ‘leisure’?
    • What does it means to say ‘as humans produce their life, so they are’?
    • What are the possibilities for different social organisations of work? What might work be like in a post-capitalist society?

Note: the above is not meant as an exhaustive list of themes and we would expect and hope that more themes would be added as the working group develops and takes shape.

Past events

Inaugural Day Conference of the ‘Political Economy of Work’ Working Group (University of Leeds, 5th May 2009)
Conference Programme


  • Ben Fine and Dimitris Milonakis “From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics: The Shifting Boundaries Between Economics and Other Social Sciences”, in press, available in early 2009, London: Routledge.
  • Francis Green (2006) “Demanding Work: The Paradox of Job Quality in the Affluent Economy”, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • David Spencer (2008) “The Political Economy of Work”, London: Routledge.


To apply to join IIPPE Political Economy of Work group, email iippe@soas.ac.uk.