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date: 16 January 2021

Labor, Culture, and Communicationlocked

  • Steven K. MaySteven K. MayDepartment of Communication, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Within the field of communication, scholars have argued that the work organization has become the central institution in modern society, often eclipsing the state, family, church, and community in power. Organizations pervade modern life by providing personal identity, structuring time and experience, influencing education and knowledge production, and directing news and entertainment. In the work context of the early 21st century, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between our public and private lives, work and family, labor and leisure. Work—and its related institutions—has come to dominate our lived experiences as employees, family members, and citizens.

Scholars who focus on the relationship between labor, culture, and communication explore how organizations significantly influence our lives in ways that often go unnoticed or, at the least, are taken for granted. They have studied how, over time, workers have developed naturalized assumptions about how work should function and what role it should play in our lives. For example, many of our cultural institutions—and related public policies—are organized around logics that prioritize work over other realms of life (e.g., developing welfare to work programs, rehabilitating prisoners to be “productive” citizens, shifting university education to job-related training, reducing unemployment insurance to motivate workers). At the same time, a broader consideration of work’s significance is particularly relevant when scholars take into account the values associated with what counts as productive activity. Culturally, the public has developed a range of discursive colloquialisms such as a “real job” to account for legitimate/illegitimate forms of work and have also created presumed claims like “It’s just a job” to justify a range of actions at/through work. Historically, a wide range of scholars have sought to come to terms with cultural understandings and practices of work. While some scholars have explored the discursive manifestations of work, others have studied its material conditions. Only recently, however, have scholars attempted to integrate the seeming bifurcation of these two realms of work-related research. Scholars now seek to reconcile the ways in which broader, cultural discourses that shape an understanding of work are interdependent with the concrete, specific material experience of labor.

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