General information

International Conference

Work, techniques and the world

University of Minho (Portugal)
(28th and 29th October 2010)


The title of this conference relates to two major topics of the social sciences – work and techniques – to which Marxist approaches have ascribed particular importance, namely by highlighting the centrality of work and the social dimension of technique. Apart from its etymological connotation with punishment (tripaliare = work = torture) and the diverse meanings it has had in history and in different types of society, and without downplaying liberal and utopian socialist contributions, it was, in fact, Marx who, in an innovative way, came to conceive work as a use value producing activity and, within capitalist production, also as an exchange value producing activity, comprising both the transformation of Nature and the relational dimensions of social classes. From a structural functionalist perspective, work emerges as the foundation of statuses and roles or as an indicator of professional classifications. Despite the fact that different theoretical perspectives produce divergent readings, it is obvious that work holds not only structural dimensions but it also includes aspects such as subsistence, reward, satisfaction and social utility, being socially construed through actions and meanings subjectively ascribed by social actors.

Marx and Engels were also the ones who, within the framework of infra and super-structure, have focused on technique as a structuring factor in understanding and explaining the social, political and symbolic dynamics of today and yesterday worlds. Later on, new-Marxists, as well as (inter)actionists and transactionalists (Weber, Simmel, Barth, among others) have provided multidimensional approaches on work and the social, expanding the relation between techniques and economics, politics, culture and religion. This way, they brought along new focuses and research on very diverse themes, observation scales and problems – making way to the gradual institution of the heterogeneous field of social and cultural studies of science and technique – that raise a large field of debate between different, opposed or even contradictory analytical options. If for the first authors technique was the foundation of society and of the political-symbolic world, for the latter it is only understandable from social action, and for others still, such as Parsons, it cannot go without ideas as their structuring factor.  

To problematize technique in the light of these different sociological and anthropological approaches has the advantage of taking into account the material, objective conditions of its emergence and development. This allows one to consider social contexts where techniques come to exist as well as to incorporate the subjective dimensions intertwined in actions as bearers and sculptors of techniques. This implies knowing, on one side, whether social actions undetermined by techniques do exist, and on the other, to what extent certain forms of knowledge and certain immaterial procedures, ritual and performative linguistic acts, which are not strictly techniques, should or should not be incorporated in technological thought. But if the allegedly immaterial dilutes and/or melts with the material, would it not become epistemologically and theoretically redundant and useless to discern the role of technique as a relevant factor of social phenomena and its articulation with other factors and levels of analysis? In any case, what are the influences of the models, messages and images conveyed through microprocessors and the internet on our daily life?   

Considering the three pillars of science – matter, life and knowledge –, which have led to three techno-scientific revolutions (quantum with the atom discovery; bio-molecular with the gene; and informatics with the computer) –, it has become an evidence that despite diverse gazes on work and techniques, these have revolutionised the ways of living and working, reinstating the manual and mental processes in automation and reducing the hardship of certain productive tasks. Although this does not equal a general reduction of the monotony of work or of its alienating character, they have brought along profound changes in productive processes and in the uses of labour force with the destruction, creation and reconfiguration of work tasks, positions and identities.

Globalization structures and dynamics, and their intensity would not be understandable without the primal role of technology and techniques. One should notice that, today, Marxists are nor the only ones to highlight the structuring ability of technique. New-liberals, too, emphasise, despite a considerable ideological dosage, the mirifica redemptive abilities of technologies. If new-liberals a-critically praise the new information and communication technologies (ICT) and automation processes, some critics, namely Marxist ones, alert to their risks, and sometimes even to some ethical issues. They problematize ICTs and highlight the destruction of old qualifications and identities, as well as the degrading effects of ICTs that cause frustration and dissatisfaction. So, new technologies have no homogenizing effects since automation sections and polarizes labour sectors and workers. New technologies, present in the production and circulation of goods and services, along their positive effects in the constriction of space-time, circulate as goods and reproduce, in their flows, asymmetries, which affect countries and social classes with fewer resources. However, as potential change factors with implications in diverse social fields, namely work production and organization modes, techniques can unleash forms of resistance on the part of the social groups they distress. Their appropriation can also constitute a powerful instrument in the contestation of inequality and in the affirmation of citizenship.