Reclaiming the System: New Visions for a Future of Work

by Deryn Mair Thomas
Funded by: The Future of Work and Income Research Network


The future of work is gaining traction as a central topic of discussion, both within academic philosophy and broader public discourse. Much of that discussion, however, has primarily been focused on questions regarding the role of AI and automation, the possibilities of mass unemployment, and, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, the future of the workplace. These questions, while important, address a narrow range of problems and offer a limited vision of what the future of work could look like. Therefore, this blueprint offers an overview of a wider range of philosophical perspectives which have considered alternatives to our current systems of work and employment. It touches upon a range of underrepresented topics in philosophical work literature: perspectives offered by members of underrepresented groups, underexplored problems presented by existing systems, and creative solutions which challenge many of the basic foundations of our current cultural relationship to work. Many of the authors address the ways in which structural injustice is embedded in current systems; all share a common interest in a future of work which is more empathetic, more human. [The title of this blueprint is borrowed from Lisa Herzog’s book, “Reclaiming the System: Moral Responsibility, Divided Labour, and the Role of Organizations in Society” (2018).]


    Week 1. The Problems with Work
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    Weeks, Kathi. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries
    2011, Duke University Press.
    Introduction: pp. 1-13 (end before Work and Labor), and pp. 16-23 (Work and Class, Freedom and Equality).
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    Publisher’s Note: In The Problem with Work, Kathi Weeks boldly challenges the presupposition that work, or waged labor, is inherently a social and political good. While progressive political movements, including the Marxist and feminist movements, have fought for equal pay, better work conditions, and the recognition of unpaid work as a valued form of labor, even they have tended to accept work as a naturalized or inevitable activity. Weeks argues that in taking work as a given, we have “depoliticized” it, or removed it from the realm of political critique. Employment is now largely privatized, and work-based activism in the United States has atrophied. We have accepted waged work as the primary mechanism for income distribution, as an ethical obligation, and as a means of defining ourselves and others as social and political subjects. Taking up Marxist and feminist critiques, Weeks proposes a postwork society that would allow people to be productive and creative rather than relentlessly bound to the employment relation. Work, she contends, is a legitimate, even crucial, subject for political theory.

    Comment: This text serves as an excellent introduction and comprehensive overview of contemporary philosophical critiques of work, as one of the central texts in the literature on anti-capitalist and post-capitalist critiques of work. Although a sociologist by profession, many of the author's questions and arguments are, at their core, philosophical. Therefore, she serves as a good starting point for any broad examination of existing systems and structures of work, and for encouraging creative discussion about alternate visions.

    Discussion Questions

    Introduction, pp 1-13

    1. To begin, discuss your own critical reflections about the concept and experience of work.
      • Can we think of work as a cohesive, overarching system? Why/Why not?
      • If yes, does the current system have problems? What might some of those problems be?
      • Who has a responsibility to resolve them?
    2. Why does Weeks think it is so difficult to reflect critically about work as a social system, as opposed to the more narrow project of addressing particular problems within the system? Why might it be important to critique work as a social system?
    3. Weeks discusses some of the problems that arise when we think about work as a private, rather than public sphere of activity. In what ways can work be private, public, or both? What problems does the privatization of work present?
    4. Weeks writes, “The social role of waged work has been so naturalised as to seem necessary and inevitable, something to be tinkered with but never escaped.” She is drawing attention to the degree to which wage work, and the norms associated with it, are taken for granted and assumed to be part of the natural order of things. Why might this be a problem?

    Introduction, pp 16-23

    1. How does work shape society, according to Weeks? How does the work system embed certain ways of thinking about morality?
    2. How does the work system interact with gender?
    3. How does the work system interact with, and influence, class and social status?
    4. Do you think work legitimize a particular type of exploitation, by arranging people in hierarchical relations with an imbalance of power? Is this an inevitable feature of work, or can it be resolved (e.g. through democritization)?
    Week 2. Organisational Structures
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    Herzog, Lisa. Reclaiming the System: Moral Responsibility, Divided Labour, and the Role of Organizations in Society
    2018, Oxford University Press.
    Introduction, 1.1 Individuals in Organizations: Normative Theory's Blind Spot (pp. 1-7), and 1.3 Reclaiming the System (pp. 12-17).
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    Publisher’s Note: The world of wage labour seems to have become a soulless machine, an engine of social and environmental destruction. Employees seem to be nothing but ‘cogs’ in this system—but is this true? Located at the intersection of political theory, moral philosophy, and business ethics, this book questions the picture of the world of work as a ‘system’. Hierarchical organizations, both in the public and in the private sphere, have specific features of their own. This does not mean, however, that they cannot leave room for moral responsibility, and maybe even human flourishing. Drawing on detailed empirical case studies, Lisa Herzog analyses the nature of organizations from a normative perspective: their rule-bound character, the ways in which they deal with divided knowledge, and organizational cultures and their relation to morality. She asks how individual agency and organizational structures would have to mesh to avoid common moral pitfalls. She develops the notion of ‘transformational agency’, which refers to a critical, creative way of engaging with one’s organizational role while remaining committed to basic moral norms. The last part zooms out to the political and institutional changes that would be required to re-embed organizations into a just society. Whether we submit to ‘the system’ or try to reclaim it, Herzog argues, is a question of eminent political importance in our globalized world.

    Comment: This text, an introduction to a longer work on organisational ethics, proposes and discusses novel arguments about the nature of organisations, and organisational spaces, as moral entities. By challenging long held common sense assumptions that corporate organisations are 'amoral' or outside the scope of human morality, Herzog offers an alternate view. It is therefore useful as a way to examine and discuss alternate visions of organisational structure and the role that human beings play as moral agents within those structures.

    Discussion Questions

    Introduction 1.1

    1. Why, according to Herzog, is it important to resasses the moral nature of organisations and organisational structure? Do you find her initial arguments to be convincing?
    2. Herzog writes that, within organisations, “individuals face specific moral challenges, which are different from the moral challenges they encounter in other spheres of life.” What are some examples of these challenges, either from the text or from your own experiences? Why are these moral problems different from the ones we encounter in other spheres of life?
    3. Do you think organisational morality can be ‘reclaimed’, as Herzog does? Why/Why not?
    4. It is relatively commonplace these days to encounter the idea that corporations are evil and that all large organisations are “irresponible monsters” incapable of moral action. But Herzog insists that organisations can be forces for good. What are some examples of this? Why might organisational morality be worth reclaiming?

    Introduction 1.3

    1. What factors contribute to the sense that organisational structures are amoral, or outside the scope of normal human moral demands? How has traditional normative theorising failed to account for organisations, and the particular moral problems they face?
    2. What assumptions do we make about organisational structure, and why (e.g. organisations as ‘systemic’, or like machines)? How does this affect our perspective of their moral responsibility?
    3. What assumptions do we make about individual agents, and why (e.g. that they behave opportunistically)? How does this affect our perspective of organisational moral responsibility?
    4. What are some ways, either concrete or abstract, that we might reorient organisational life?
    Week 3. Meaning and Purpose
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    Veltman, Andrea. Meaningful Work
    2016, Oxford University Press.
    Chapter 4, What Makes Work Meaningful?, pp. 105-112, 135-141.
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    Publisher’s Note: This book examines the importance of work in human well-being, addressing several related philosophical questions about work and arguing on the whole that meaningful work is central in human flourishing. Work impacts flourishing not only in developing and exercising human capabilities but also in instilling and reflecting virtues such as honor, pride, dignity, self-discipline, and self-respect. Work also attaches to a sense of purposefulness and personal identity, and meaningful work can promote both personal autonomy and a sense of personal satisfaction that issues from making oneself useful. Further still, work bears a formative influence on character and intelligence and provides a primary avenue for exercising complex skills and garnering esteem and recognition from others. The author defends a pluralistic account of meaningful work, identifying four primary dimension of meaningful work: (1) developing or exercising the worker’s capabilities, especially insofar as this expression meets with recognition and esteem; (2) supporting virtues; (3) providing a purpose, and especially producing something of enduring value; and (4) integrating elements of a worker’s life. In light of the impact that work has on flourishing, the author argues that well-ordered societies provide opportunities for meaningful work and that the philosophical view of value pluralism, which casts work as having no special significance in an individual’s life, is false. The book also addresses oppressive work that undermines human flourishing, examining potential solutions to minimize the impact of bad work on those who perform it.

    Comment: Veltman's text can be used first, to introduce students to the concept of meaningful work and philosophical analysis of its core characteristics; and second, to facilitate discussion on the importance of meaningful work in society, such as discussion about what types of activities counts as meaningful work, whether all people should have access to it, or what role the state plays in providing it, etc.

    Discussion Questions

    1. What are the features of meaningful work, according to Veltman? Does Veltman think meaningfulness – and consequently, meaningful work – is a subjective characteristic?
    2. Why does Veltman think it is useful to have objective measures of meaningfulness?
    3. Is all work meaningful? Why / why not?
      • Is work that is not meaningful the same as work that is meaningless?
      • According to Veltman, what characteristics makes work bad? How do you think we should respond to the existence of such work?
    4. How do you think we should understand the importance of meaningful work? Is it a basic need, something all people should have a right to, or is it simply a matter of personal preference?
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    Terkel, Studs. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do
    1974, Pantheon Publishers.
    Introduction, pp. xi-xxvi.
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    Publisher’s Note: Perhaps Studs Terkel's best-known book, Working is a compelling look at jobs and the people who do them. Consisting of over one hundred interviews with everyone from a gravedigger to a studio head, from a policeman to a piano tuner, this book provides an enduring portrait of people's feelings about their working lives.

    Comment: Terkel's interviews are useful for a few reasons. They offer a firsthand account of how individuals relate to their particular types of work, and of the sorts of features that people tend to value in their work. Since many of these features align with Veltman's features of meaningfulness, i.e. mastery, a sense of purpose, socialisation, etc., the interviews serve as complementary material. They can help offer examples or cases to supplement discussion about Veltman's analysis.

    Discussion Questions

    1. What are some of the general conclusions that Terkel draws from his interviews? What values or experiences does he notice are common across different kinds of work?
    2. Do these align with Veltman’s objective measures of meaningful work?
    3. Do you think it is important for one’s work to be meaningful? Why / Why not? What role has meaningful work played in your own life?
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    Marhoefer, Paul. Over the Road [Podcast]
    2020, Radiotopia & Overdrive Magazine.
    Optional Material: Season 1 Episode 2 (Transcript or Audio).
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    Abstract: A tale of two truckers in Grand Island, Nebraska: former real-estate agent Kenyette Godhigh-Bell, and third-generation owner-operator Jared Sidlo. One is testing the waters of a new career, while the other weighs the personal costs of a job he can’t (and won’t) quit.

    Comment: The podcast provides more anecdotal material through interviews, but from a more present-day context than Terkel's interviews, and therefore also serve a similar, supplemental role.

    Discussion Questions

    1. The interviewees discuss the experiences of their work as truck drivers. Are there any common experiences or features that emerge in the interviews? Are any of these experiences universal or shared across other professions? Discuss how your own experience of work relates to these interviews.
    2. Do you see evidence of Veltman’s objective measures of meaningfulness in the interviews? Give examples and discuss.
    Week 4. Economic Structures and Income
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    Penner, J. E.. Aristotle, Arendt, and the Gentleman: How the Conception of Remuneration Figures in our Understanding of a Right to Work and Be Paid
    2015, In Virginia Mantavalou (ed.), The Right to Work: Legal and Philosophical Perspectives. Bloomsbury.
    Chapter 5 in The Right to Work: Legal and Philosophical Perspectives, pp. 87-97.
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    Abstract: This chapter is part of a larger work concerning what I call 'property fetishism', which is, briefly and roughly, a particular phenomenon or outlook in moral and political philosophy under which the "social thesis" is denied, or obscured, or diminished. The "social thesis" is the thesis that the "default" characterisation of human existence for the purposes of exploring interpersonal (including political)morality is not that of a hermit in some state of nature who shares no interests with others, but one in which interpersonal relations of real significance are native or natural to human existence. As such, those normative means, like the power to consent or to make agreements so as to be able to act cooperatively with others, are not some cultural achievement which we could plausibly be without, but are part and parcel of our natural endowments, in the same way as our basic responsiveness to reasons makes us (in part) the kind of creature that we are. Property fetishism works to deny, obscure, or diminish the significance of this human sociability principally by characterising acting in the social and political sphere as the interaction of "self-owners", as individuals principally constituted by the way in which they interact as possessors of property. As a rough picture that will do for the nonce; we shall return to the idea below.

    Comment: This article offers an interesting and accessible argument for a novel conception of remuneration. In doing so, Penner challenges one of the most foundational premises of a modern system of work - the idea that work and employment are synonymous - in a unique and original way. Therefore, this article can be used to prompt students to think about alternate models of remuneration, and to consider whether those models might offer a more humane system of paid work.

    Discussion Questions

    1. What is the author’s main aim in this article?
    2. What is the distinction between labour, work, and action that Arendt makes? Why might this conceptual distinction be useful?
    3. The author argues that remuneration was once conceptualised differently, through the practice of patronage. How did remuneration function in the case of the professional gentleman, according to Penner?
      • In what ways is this conception different from our current one?
      • Why makes such a conception attractive to the author? Why might it be useful?
    4. What are some objections that might be raised against this model of remuneration? How does the author respond?
    5. Do you find Penner’s argument convincing? Why / Why not?
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    Greene, Amanda. Making a Living: The Human Right to Livelihood
    2019, In Jahel Queralt and Bas van der Vossen (eds.), Economic Liberties and Human Rights. Routledge..
    Chapter 8 in Economic Liberties and Human Rights, Introduction and Section 2, pp. 153-163.
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    Abstract: In this chapter I argue that we have a human right to livelihood. Although some economic rights have been defended under a human rights framework, such as freedom of occupation and the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to livelihood requires a separate defense. We have a livelihood when we are able to exercise some control over how we generate income and accumulate wealth. I argue that this control is good in itself, and that it leads to two further goods, social contribution esteem and a sense of self-provision. Beyond its being a right per se, having a livelihood also fulfills Joseph Raz’s conditions for being a constitutional right, insofar as it is a right that can be fairly and effectively protected through legal mechanisms, and for being a human right, insofar as it a right that can be suitably enforced through a system of international law.

    Comment: Greene's perspective, although not the same as Penner's, does share some important features, and as a result, she presents an argument for a right to livelihood which can help push students into another set of questions related to this weeks topic. These ask whether having agency over one's material resources and the manner of their acquisition is so important as to be essential, and consequently, whether that can be considered a right. One could also use this text to challenge the dominant rights narrative - perhaps a having a livelihood is essential, but not the sort of good that can be protected by rights. In that case, one could use the text to explore what other ways this important human capability might be protected, and by whom.

    Discussion Questions

    1. What is the author’s main aim in this article?
    2. In what three ways, according to the author, does a livelihood contribute to a person’s well-being?
      • Is having control over resource inflow the same as complete economic independence?
      • How is social contribution esteem different from simply the personal satisfaction of a job well done?
      • In what ways is the opportunity for self-provision morally significant?
    3. Why does the author think that market-based income is superior to publicly financed income?
    4. Is Greene’s argument persuasive? What might be some objections to a right to livelihood?
    Week 5. Disability, Gender, and Access to Work
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    Albin, Einat. Universalising the Right to Work of Persons with Disabilities: An Equality and Dignity Based Approach
    2015, In Virginia Mantavalou (ed.), The Right to Work: Legal and Philosophical Perspectives. Bloomsbury.
    Chapter X in The Right to Work: Legal and Philosophical Perspectives, Section I, pp. 65-71, Section III and Conclusion, pp. 81-85.
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    Abstract: Rarely do labour law theories draw on disability studies. However, with the growing acceptance that both disability and labour are human rights issues that are concerned with dignity and equality, and that both fields of study tempt to address the social context of disadvantage, an opportunity emerges to bring the two discourses together. In this chapter, I take advantage of this opportunity to discuss the right to work. The interest lies in the new and crucially important direction that Article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (hereafter the CRPD or the Convention) has taken. Article 27, the latest international human rights instrument that has been adopted regarding the right to work, offers what I consider to be an innovative and welcome approach towards this right, while addressing some of the main concerns that were raised in the literature regarding the right to work as adopted in other international human rights documents and implemented in practice.

    Comment: This text presents several interesting arguments regarding the right to work of persons with disabilities and its relationship with a universal right to work. It can be used, first, to engage students with literature at the intersection of critical disability theory and philosophy of work; and second, to further discuss philosophical questions concerning who should have access to good work and why.

    Discussion Questions

    1. What are some of the barriers that persons with disabilities face in the labour market and workplace?
    2. Why might access to work be especially important for persons with disabilities to feel like full members of society? Albin discusses this in Section I, but you can also think about previous discussions on meaningful work.
    3. Why, according to Albin, does the CRPD represent a critical shift in the discussion about a right to work for persons with disability?
    4. What does Article 27 of the Convention state? Discuss any features of the article that you find interesting.
    5. What are some of the main concerns that confront a universal right to work? How, according to the author, does Article 27 provide an answer to these problems?
    6. What argument does the author provide as justification for a universalist approach? How does thinking about a right to work in terms of ‘abilities’ augment an understanding of the right to work?
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    McKay, Ailsa. Promoting Gender Equity Through a Basic Income
    2013, In Karl Widerquist (ed.), Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research. Wiley Blackwell.
    Chapter 26 in Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research, Karl Widerquist (ed.), pp 178-184.
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    Abstract: Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research presents a compilation of six decades of Basic Income literature. It includes the most influential empirical research and theoretical arguments on all aspects of the Basic Income proposal.

    Comment: This text presents several interesting feminist arguments in favour of basic income, while offering some novel criticisms about the way 'work' is typically conceptualised in traditional UBI debates. In particular, McKay points out that most UBI discussion disregards unpaid work, which has a variety of impliciations for gendered labour and class division. Therefore, it can be used, first, to engage students with literature at the intersection of feminist philosophy, philosophy of gender, and philosophy of work; and second, to further discuss philosophical questions concerning how we conceptualise work and what happens when certain forms of work are prioritsed over others.

    Discussion Questions

    1. What is the author’s purpose, in this article?
    2. In what way, according to the author, does the current debate around basic income fail to recognise the social experiences of women? Why is it important to do so?
    3. How does basic income literature typically treat references to women and questions of gender inequality, according to the author?
    4. What solution does the author propose to these problems? How does she argue we should reconceptualise work?
    5. Why does the author refer to traditionally female work as “invisible”?
    Week 6. Class, Race, and the Work Ethic
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    Shelby, Tommie. Justice, Work, and the Ghetto Poor
    2012, The Law and Ethics of Human Rights. 6 (1): 69-96.
    Excerpts. Introduction, pp.71-72; Section VI through Conclusion, pp. 86-96
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    Abstract: In view of the explanatory significance of joblessness, some social scientists, policymakers, and commentators have advocated strong measures to ensure that the ghetto poor work, including mandating work as a condition of receiving welfare benefits. Indeed, across the ideological political spectrum, work is often seen as a moral or civic duty and as a necessary basis for personal dignity. And this normative stance is now instantiated in federal and state law, from the tax scheme to public benefits. This Article reflects critically on this new regime of work. I ask whether the normative principles to which its advocates typically appeal actually justify the regime. I conclude that the case for a pro tanto moral or civic duty to work is not as strong as many believe and that there are reasonable responses to joblessness that do not involve instituting a work regime. However, even if we grant that there is a duty to work, I maintain that the ghetto poor would not be wronging their fellow citizens were they to choose not to work and to rely on public funds for material support. In fact, I argue that many among the black urban poor have good reasons to refuse to work. Throughout, I emphasize what too few advocates of the new work regime do, namely, that whether work is an obligation depends crucially on whether background social conditions within the polity are just.

    Comment: This text is useful for several reasons. First, it introduces an argument examining a civic obligation to work; second, it discusses that obligation in relation to structural injustices regarding socio-economic and racial inequality. It can be used to discuss the intersection of these topics more generally, or to further discuss philosophical questions concerning who should have access to good work and why.

    Discussion Questions

    1. What is the author’s main aim in this article?
    2. Does the author assume there exists a civic obligation to work? On what grounds? Do you agree or disagree with this assumption?
    3. What are some reasons, according to the author, for which the ghetto poor may reasonably refuse to work but which could be altered by small structural changes to American society? How does the author think these reasons could be addressed or resolved?
    4. What are the three major objections to a pro tanto civic obligation to work that the author presents? How does the author think these could be addressed or resolved?
    5. Do you think that these major objections are enough to override a pro tanto obligation to work?
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    Rose, Mike. Blue Collar Brilliance: Questioning Assumptions About Intelligence, Work, and Social Class
    2009, The American Scholar. 78 (3): 43-49.
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    Abstract: Intelligence is closely associated with formal education - the type of schooling a person has, how much and how long - and most people seem to move comfortably from that notion to a belief that work requiring less schooling requires less intelligence. These assumptions run through our cultural history, from the post-Revolutionary War period, when mechanics were characterized by political rivals as illiterate and therefore incapable of participating in government, until today. More than once I've heard a manager label his workers as "a bunch of dummies." Generalizations about intelligence, work, and social class deeply affect our assumptions about ourselves and each other, guiding the ways we use our minds to learn, build knowledge, solve problems, and make our way through the world.

    Comment: This text is included because while written in a lay style and directed at non-academic readers, it still presents a philosophically interesting argument which challenges the normative assumptions that are often held about 'blue collar' work and professions. The text is therefore useful to raise questions about normative attitudes towards work ethic and work competance, especially as it falls along socio-economic class lines, and their implications for social justice.

    Discussion Questions

    1. What basic assumptions about work and intelligence is Rose attempting to challenge in this essay?
    2. What values are tradtionally associated with the working class, according to the author? Can you list any that he does not mention?
    3. What are some cultural or conceptual reasons, according to Rose, why we might associate working class jobs with low intelligence, lack of cleverness, etc.?
    4. What are some examples – involving verbal, mathematical, or physical skills – that the author raises to counter these long held cultural assumptions?
    5. What might be the value of subverting or challenging these basic assumptions? How could it help us create a fairer, more just system of work?
    Week 7. Political and Social Implications
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    Estlund, Cynthia. Working Together: Crossing Color Lines at Work
    2005, Labor History. 46 (1):79-98.
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    Abstract: Amidst signs of declining social capital, the typical workplace is a hotbed of sociability and cooperation. And in a still-segregated society, the workplace is where adults are most likely to interact across color lines. The convergence of close interaction and some racial diversity makes the workplace a crucial institution within a diverse democratic society. Paradoxically, the involuntariness of workplace associations—the compulsion of economic necessity, of managerial authority, and of law—helps to facilitate constructive interaction among diverse co-workers. Where racial diversity is a fact of organizational life (and the law can help to make it so), then employers and workers have their own powerful reasons—psychological and economic—to make those relationships constructive, even amicable. I contend here that it is where we are compelled to get along, and not where we choose to do so, that we can best advance the project of racial integration.

    Comment: This text raises interesting questions about the relationship between diverse workplaces and democratic practices, and in particular, makes an interesting argument about the implications for racial integration. It can therefore be used to prompt students to think generally about democratic political structures, citizenship, and equality, while also encouraging discussion in particular about the role that work plays in promoting good civic practices.

    Discussion Questions

    1. What are the author’s main claims in this article?
    2. What are some of the reasons why diversity can be good for communities?
    3. What two propositions about the workplace does Estlund make before beginning her argument? Do you agree or disagree with these fundamental assumptions?
    4. What are some of the social benefits of work – the benefits of connectedness – that Estlund identifies?
    5. Why does Estlund think that the workplace presents a unique location for integration?
    6. What does Estlund argue are some of the consequences and social implications of racially diverse workplaces?
    7. What are some of the challenges still present in racially diverse workplaces?
    8. What are some of the political implications of diverse workplaces for democracy? What are some suggestions Estlund offers for how to promote or protect diversity in the workplace? Are there any ideas you might add?