Skip to content
Health, Sports & Psychology

Introducing Richard Sennett

Updated Tuesday 26th April 2011

The polymath Richard Sennett offers new ways of thinking about how society produces, consumes and the way we work now.

Although Richard Sennett's titles - centennial professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and professor of humanities at New York University - are located in the field of Sociology and Cultural Studies, it would be fair to say that he is a polymath. He has a body of work and ideas that are also relevant to a wide variety of disciplines within the contemporary social sciences, including Politics, Economics and Social Policy.

Sennett's writing in the context of work is particularly interesting as it swims against the theoretical tide in the contemporary social sciences. For many social scientists, the emphasis has been on disaggregating or separating the relationship between production and consumption, to primarily focus upon the study of the latter as a site of social phenomena.

Intrigued? Inspired? Try The Open University's Introducing The Social Sciences

The rise of the consumer society as a global reality has seen consumption theorised from a variety of perspectives. From the impact of consumption on the construction of individual and collective identities; the emergence of choice and consumption as principles that increasingly underpin the relationship between government and citizenship; and the emergence of consumers as political actors, exercising their political will through what they choose to buy or not, discourses of consumption have been increasingly omnipotent.

Richard Sennett Creative commons image Icon Ars Electronica under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
Richard Sennett

Yet to Sennett and many other social scientists, work remains central to our understanding of society. Sennett's exploration of the impact of work on our identities can explored through two key books.

In Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism Sennett questions the impact of liberal global capitalism on the way we work. While acknowledging the positive elements of the flexible economy, both for some individuals, and for wider society, he also explores the ways in which corporate reengineering, contract working and the principle of flexibility can also be seen as problematic, eroding the sense of sustained purpose, integrity of self, and trust in others that an earlier generation understood as essential to the way they worked.

This alienation from work or production has also characterized many Marxist critiques of contemporary global capitalism but Sennett's observations are less concerned with the ownership of the means of production than with the manner in which we work.

The great paradox of modern society is that while we undoubtedly benefit from the use of machines and technology, this technology has for some observers meant that many occupations have become deskilled, distancing the worker from that which they do, and alienating or distancing them from the workplace.

How can we, as a society, make use of technology while also offering people meaningful and fulfilling occupations?

Equally importantly, the emphasis on consumption and the consumer society has regulated those who make our goods and services to a subsidiary and often an inferior and disregarded role. In a society where works maintains a central role, is this approach to one aspect of material culture sustainable?

Building on some of these ideas and concerns, Sennett's The Craftsman asks searching question about the meaning of skill in contemporary society, challenging some of the central ideas that have characterized 'modernity'.

Sennett argues that modernity has increasingly drawn damaging and artificial fault lines between craftsman and artist, producer and consumer, design and manufacturer and practice and theory

Sennett uses the now increasingly sidelined but historically significant idea of craft and craftmanship as the prism through which the contemporary world of work can be viewed.

He asks whether the idea of someone having a craft, with a deep and timeserved knowledge of their trade, the tools they use and the materials they work on, can also be applied to modern ways of working - and more generally ways of 'doing' things in our engagement with material culture.

If we engage with our work or hobbies in a deeper sense, might we also then have a greater empathy with the ways in which others work, perhaps moving from a 'consumer' society to a 'producer' society, as interested in and concerned with, the skills and working conditions of those who produce thing for us, as we would hope they would be with ours.

Cat quilt Creative commons image Icon jude hill under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
A different, crafty, way of working: Quilted cat

Taking pride in ones work and being allowed to express oneself in the workplace are clearly strongly motivational, helping employees gain a greater sense of themselves and an employer a more motivated and committed employee, yet this idea sits ill at ease with the increasingly rationalistic and specialised approach to work.

Sennett's central questions are then challenging ones for social scientists and wider society.

At a time when the consumption that has defined so many of our lives is no longer as readily accessible because of costs or scacity, do we need to find other ways to express ourselves as individuals and find meaning in our lives?

Might this be achieved through the one thing all of us do, in a paid or unpaid capacity, through our engagement with work?

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Anthony Giddens: A biography Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Polity article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Anthony Giddens: A biography

As Anthony Giddens prepares to give the 2007 Pavis Lecture, Shaun McMann introduces the man and his work.

Article
Supporting and developing resilience in social work Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: © istockphoto.com/Aldo Murillo free course icon Level 2 icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Supporting and developing resilience in social work

What does it take to become a resilient practitioner in social work? This free course, Supporting and developing resilience in social work, will guide you through some important concepts. An understanding of ‘emotional resilience’ and ‘professional leadership’ will help to guide you through taking a positive approach to problems that ----- in social work practice. You will also be introduced to some ideas about leadership in social work practice.

Free course
10 hrs

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Applying social work skills in practice

In this free course, Applying social work skills in practice, you will explore the social work role in working with vulnerable and socially excluded individuals and groups. You will learn about risk and the assessment of need in social work practice, and explore the wider context of social work practice and responses to social work. You will also explore the application of relevant knowledge, skills and values in social work, and think about the place of research in supporting social work practice.

Free course
7 hrs
Becoming a critical social work practitioner Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 3 icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Becoming a critical social work practitioner

What does it take to become a critical practitioner in social work? This free course, Becoming a critical social work practitioner, will guide you through some important concepts. An understanding of 'critical perspectives' will help you take a positive and constructive approach to problems that ----- in social work practice.

Free course
15 hrs
World Social Work Day Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: ISFW article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

World Social Work Day

March 15th is World Social Work Day. Explore social work in more detail with our range of free resources including interactives and free courses.

Article
Science and society: A career and professional development course Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

Education & Development 

Science and society: A career and professional development course

Scientists throughout the world are increasingly interested in the relationship between science and society. Part of their concern is with the social responsibilities scientists have in relation to broader public interests. That raises important issues to do with the ethical and social dimension of scientists' work and how scientists explain and perhaps justify their work to the wider public. Science and society: A career and professional development course, is a free course that explores this further.

Free course
30 hrs
An introduction to social work Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

An introduction to social work

Do you want to learn more about the social work role and develop your understanding of some of the theory associated with social work practice? This free course, An introduction to social work, begins by introducing key ideas, values, the social work process and the skills needed for social work practice. You will then move on to look at social work with individuals. Finally this OpenLearn course considers reflective practice.

Free course
15 hrs
Social work learning practice Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Social work learning practice

This free audio course, Social work learning practice, focuses on the importance of people's backgrounds and experiences in the field of social work. It identifies the diverse ways in which service users and social workers define themselves, helping you to understand how the two groups perceive each other and relate successfully to each other. An understanding of how people make sense of their experiences will help you to define yourself, and your own place within the process.

Free course
4 hrs
Social care, social work and the law - England and Wales Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Social care, social work and the law - England and Wales

This free course is made up of four extracts related to social care, social work and the law in England and Wales. The extracts are stand-alone sections but follow on from each other to make up this course. You will be introduced to five main themes that shape practice in the field of social care and social work. The aim of this course is to enhance your understanding of the relationship between social work practice and the law.

Free course
4 hrs