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Rethinking Work

Key information

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Module description

Work is pervasive in the way we organise our lives, make sense of who we are, and order our societies. Many of us define ourselves by the work we do, and judge others by their success or failure in the workplace. This module unravels many of our unquestioned assumptions around the world of work. It examines work as a domain of human activity, a site of meaning-making, a source of identity, a form of dispossession, and a mechanism for social and economic differentiation. We will use theoretical perspectives from sociology, anthropology, political economy, ecological economics and feminist thought to explore debates around the role of work in human cultures and societies, as well as work as a site of exploitation, class-formation, inequality and resistance. To do so, we will study the way the meaning and nature of work vary across history and around the world, along with alternative visions of the way people can create livelihoods and social identity. We will look at case studies of work and working spanning hunter-gatherer societies in Namibia, carers in the UK, waste-pickers in Rio de Janeiro, robots in China and investment bankers in New York City. By drawing on a diversity of disciplinary perspectives and examples from both the global North and South, we will understand work as a shifting social process, cultural form, and economic phenomenon.

Assessment details

  • 150-200 words x 10 class reading blogs (20% of the final mark)
  • 2,500 word final research essay (80% of the final mark)

Educational aims & objectives

This module, which forms part of the BA Social Sciences, aims to expose students to core social science perspectives around the concept of work. Its main aim is to 'provincialize' or 'make-strange' everyday assumptions around labour, time-use, income and meritocracy. The module will focus not only on formal wage labour, but also unrecognized, informal and un-renumerated work. Students in the module will conceptualise the relationship between work, production, economic security, distributory justice, and social recognition, and will use perspectives from sociology, anthropology, ecology, gender studies and political economy to critically interrogate links between labour, work ethic, value, exploitation, and gender and racial justice. The module will situate the core concepts of the course within diverse geo-political, historical, economic and cultural contexts by linking each week's theoretical focus with an empirically rich academic case study of work or working. These case studies will be drawn from across history and geography, and range from modern-day slavery to robots, from hunter-gathering in Namibia to waste-picking in Brazil, from care in the UK to banking in Manhattan. Students will thus learn to interrogate the relationship between theory-making and empirics, and to both formulate and critically assess theoretical contributions based on empirical materials, including their own everyday lived experience.


The module will enable students to:

  • Explore the relationship between wages, labour, exploitation and production, including through the lens of class, gender and race.
  • Understand the role of work in social, community and political life, meaning-making and identity-formation across a variety of contexts and cultures.
  • Interrogate the social recognition, renumeration and value of 'non-standard' work, including informal, affective and care work.
  • Question the relationship between the work ethic, meritocracy, inequality and over-production.
  • Evaluate the role of workplace resistance and worker's movements in shaping working conditions and norms.
  • Situate debates around work in broader political-economic, philosophical and ecological debates around markets, production and distribution.

Learning outcomes


The module will be delivered in the university setting via a combination of lectures and seminars. While the lectures will be focused on key theories and concepts, the seminars will ground the lectures through student-led discussions of empirically rich real-world case studies of work and working from around the world.


Knowledge and understanding

At the end of this module students will be able to demonstrate a detailed and in-depth understanding of:

  • Key theoretical underpinnings of work as an economic, political, social and cultural institution, and the relevance of these theories to conceptual and policy debates around labour, welfare and distributory justice.
  • Key distinctions and overlaps between wage labour and others forms of productive, socially necessary or meaningful activities, including informal, immaterial, affective and care work.
  • Key academic and policy debates around the ‘goods’ of work, including social embeddedness, recognition, meaning making and economic security, and the ‘bads’ of work, including inequality, alienation, domination and exploitation.


Cognitive skills

Students who successfully complete this module will be able to:

  • Draw on empirical case studies from around the world to both inductively and deductively evaluate key conceptual and theoretical approaches to work and wage labour. *
  • Think across key scholarly and policy debates, including in interdisciplinary and intersectional ways. *
  • Critique and analyse variety of social scientific theories and concepts. *
  • Identify, reflect on and effectively communicate their own epistemological and ethical perspectives regarding key conceptual and policy debates around work, value and distributory justice.


Performance and practice

This module will enhance students’ ability to:

  • Synthesize academic and policy writing into succinct and accessible analysis. *
  • Communicate complex ideas clearly using visual, oral and written formats. *
  • Formulate an original argument and support this argument by drawing on empirical evidence. *
  • Critically analyse data and case studies relevant to understanding key theoretical perspectives on labour and work.


Personal, enabling and employability skills**

This module will develop students’ capacity to:

  • Engage effectively in oral and written dialogue, discussion and debate.
  • Defend and critique a variety of opposing and conflicting viewpoints.
  • Critically position themselves and their own plans and decisions in relation to the concepts and theories covered in the module, and reflect on how the material applies to their own views of work and working.


**In addition, many of the outcomes listed above are relevant to employability. See particularly those which are asterisked.

Module description disclaimer

King’s College London reviews the modules offered on a regular basis to provide up-to-date, innovative and relevant programmes of study. Therefore, modules offered may change. We suggest you keep an eye on the course finder on our website for updates.

Please note that modules with a practical component will be capped due to educational requirements, which may mean that we cannot guarantee a place to all students who elect to study this module.

Please note that the module descriptions above are related to the current academic year and are subject to change.