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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.

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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?

 

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