Disability and Community: A Sociological Approach

Michael P Kelly. Handbook of Disability Studies. Editor: Gary L Albrecht, Katherine Seelman, Michael Bury. Sage Publications. 2001.

This chapter considers the individual with impairment and his or her experience of that impairment in the community. This chapter also links the personal experience of impairment with the social factors that create disability. It is argued that the community is the place where disability is constructed and experienced. The implications of the changing nature of social structures for those personal experiences are highlighted. The argument is based on a number of theoretical sociological approaches: a materialist conception of the human condition, a phenomenological account of the experience of the human condition, an interactionist exposition of the concepts of self and identity, and a focus on the disjunction between the social and technical divisions of labor in the contemporary world. The literature on which the argument is based includes some of the classical sociological writings of Weber, Marx, and Durkheim. The argument also rests on some of the more significant sociological writings of the twentieth century. Authors such as Mead, Parsons, Braverman, Goffman, Berger, and Schutz are explored for their contemporary relevance to understanding disability in the community. The concept of community that is used is neither bounded by geography nor neighborhood but is instead defined with reference to the life-world (Schutz 1970). The life-world of impairment and disability is therefore the initial focus.

The argument of this chapter begins by developing a conceptual means to understand personal experience and community. The concept that is used is called the life-world. The idea of the life-world helps to illuminate different aspects of personal experience. Personal experience becomes social experience in relationships with other people. A model is presented to help us understand these relationships. This model demonstrates the way people behave toward one another and what happens when one person dominates a relationship with another. Dominance of one person over another, it is argued, is what turns impairment into disability. The concept of self is then introduced as a way of understanding the manner in which people can feel both linked to and separated from the communities they inhabit. How communities respond to persons, who are in some sense seen as different, is considered, using the idea of identity, especially negative public identity. The manner in which identities are linked to social structures is described using the term division of labor. Two kinds of division of labor are contrasted. These are the technical division of labor, which is associated with productive work, and the social division of labor, which refers to broader patterns of social organization. The social significance of barriers to participation in the technical division of labor is noted. The connection between such barriers and negative public identities is explored. The fact that the idea of the technical division of labor has exerted a profound influence on many sociologists is outlined. Specifically, the assumptions that undertaking paid work is normal and that a life without work is deviant are seen to have been a highly influential assumption in writings about illness. This assumption, it is suggested, is unhelpful. In contemporary societies, the significance as well as the complexity and structure of the division of labor is changing. The way that these changes may affect identities is described, and the likely impact on personal experience is drawn out.

Life-Worlds, Community, and the Division of Labor

The life-world is defined as follows. Most people inhabit a social world in which they interact with other people. Some of these others they meet with on a regular and repetitive basis. This includes those with whom they share their domestic and work arrangements. Others still may be more casual acquaintances. The level of intimacy is not the crucial issue. It is the repetitive and routine nature of some of the contacts with others that is important. The repetition of contact with people and the meanings given to those contacts constitute the life-world. These contacts may be geographically proximate. Throughout most of human history, the life-world was bounded by immediate territory. However, imaginary, deceased, and anticipated future people as well as totems, gods, and spirits may also be significant in some people’s life-worlds. In an era of rapid, cheap, and efficient communication, the life-world expands dramatically, as it did with the inventions of printing, postage, railways, motor cars, telephones, television, airplanes, and, more recently, information technology.

The community is the everyday life-world of contacts—direct and indirect, real, imaginary, or virtual—that an individual has. Domestic life, work, and leisure may be the most important components of many people’s life-worlds, but community cannot be defined solely with reference to these types of attachments. The potential variability is enormous. It is the repetitive and routine contacts in the life-world that is the defining characteristic of the experience of community. This chapter examines the nature of that experience for persons with impairments.

Schutz (1967, 1970) conceptualized the life-world as a series of concentric circles. The innermost circle is the one in which the everyday contacts and routines are highly predictable and are therefore taken for granted. It is important to note that this innermost circle of the life-world may not be, and Schutz never suggested it would be, a place that is benign and cozy. It may be violent and bullying. It may be cold and unforgiving. It may be unpleasant and chronically difficult. It will be the place where discrimination and disadvantage are experienced. However, it constitutes the center of the existence of the person. The types of life-worlds that are grimly malign have been described in those diagnosed with paranoia (Cameron 1943; Lemert 1962) and in prisons and psychiatric hospitals (Cohen and Taylor 1972; Goffman 1968). Other writers have described a more mundane private sphere (notably Berger and Berger 1976), and there is a rich anthropological and sociological tradition exploring ordinary everyday examples (Bott 1971; Dennis, Henriques, and Slaughter 1956; Gold thorpe et al. 1969; Salaman 1974). The key Schutzian point relates to the central realities and experiences of everyday life as the principal focus for sociological analysis of community. To understand how this conception clarifies the position of people with impairment and how impairment leads to discrimination and disadvantage, one should highlight the points of disjunction of the innermost circles of the life-world and those circles proximate to it. This is where the community transforms impairment into disability.

Schutz (1970) described the concentric circles of the life-world as zones of relevance. The closer to the center, the greater the relevance is of what goes on there to the “I.” The values and prescriptions of immediately proximal circles to the center are important. The stocks of knowledge or assumptions that an individual has of those parts of the life-world are crucial resources for making sense of things (Schutz 1967). However, these assumptions do not apply in more distant outer circles of the life-world. The stocks of knowledge held by others, which exist in the outer zones of relevance of the life-world, might be understandable, but they do not have immediacy. The important qualifier to this argument applies where the “I” has proximal zones of relevance where the assumptions, values, and prescriptions are well understood and indeed relevant—but are fundamentally opposed or different—to the worldview held personally by the “I.” This, it is suggested, is potentially the condition of someone with impairment.

The differences in proximal zones of relevance in the life-world might therefore be very significant indeed. Impairment may be conceptualized as a differential opportunity (life chance) to control one’s life-world, which is materially determined by the physical body. Differences in zones of relevance in the life-worlds are the social manifestation of differences in physical life chances. The meaning of this in the life-world is differential experiences of power, exploitation, and access to resources. At the abutment of zones of relevance of the life-world, the significance of experience of discrimination and disadvantage, as well as the physical experience of pain and suffering, is located. It is not that communities are historically motivated agents that discriminate against people with disabilities. Communities do not exist as historically motivated actors. What happensis that the central life-world of the compromised life chance of someone with impairment is in opposition to those of others in the proximate zones of relevance of the life-world.

The way this works may be schematically described by using the concept of interaction. Sociologists use the term interaction to refer to the behavior or actions that people engage in with each other, rather than when they are on their own. Interaction is behavior between people. The term is used to mean that the actions of people in the company of others are more than the sum of two individuals’ separate actions. What happens between people is a product of a process of communication. The communication involves physical things such as gesture or voice or some other medium of communication. The parties involved are not only communicating; they are also able to think about what they are involved in. They can also think about what the other people involved are doing and thinking. This allows them to appraise what is happening. Because they can think about what is going on, they can modify their own conduct, if they want to, in response to their evaluation of the situation (Mead 1934; Schutz 1967).

The easiest way to imagine this is to think about two people, A and B, meeting for the first time. Where they meet, what led up to that meeting, and their expectations (if any) of what will happen provide the starting point. Whether they meet in a railway carriage as fellow travelers, in a dark alley, or at a cocktail party will provide very different beginnings for what might then ensue. Their gender, age, ethnicity, and whether they have some obvious impairment will provide signals to either party as to what might happen next. Yet none of the potential possibilities of what might occur can be worked out from first principles alone. It is only as some type of communication takes place that A and B will begin to make sense of how they may or may not connect with each other. When A does or says something, B’s response is conditioned by what was initially observed in A, as well as by what was seen and heard. This does not happen in some automatic cause-and-effect way but rather is a process of unfolding understanding. That understanding may become shared, or it may not. So, if the first gesture by A is to pull a knife, offer a drink, shake hands, utter some general greeting, or remark about the weather, it will set things off in a particular direction. The participants will then negotiate from different positions of power and influence with each other. Both A and B will be thinking about the other, observing what he or she is doing and saying, and observing the responses to his or her own actions. Movement, words, deportment, voice tone and pitch, dress, touch, smell, and physical proximity all contribute to the process. This occurs at particular times and in physical places. Time and place, together with the other aspects of communication, allow those involved (as well as other people who might observe what is going on or might hear about it later) to make some sense of it. Obviously, interaction often involves more than two people, and therefore the levels of complexity are potentially very great. Also, interaction is not limited to face-to-face contact. It can take place through any medium, which allows for mutual generation of meaning and understanding.

In summary, interaction with intimates in the immediate life-world and with others who enter it from time to time is both symbolic and communicative. When humans interact, they have the capacity to think about what they are doing, think about what they are going to do, and tell other people what they have done, what they are going to do, and why they have done it (Mills 1940). They possess the ability to anticipate and observe the impact on others and what they are doing and saying. Also, they mostly assume that the others with whom they are interacting engage in the same processes of thinking and anticipation (Schutz 1970). Humans have the ability to place themselves in the mind’s eye of their fellows and to imagine how they appear to others (Blumer 1962; Mead 1934).

In the simplest interaction, the dyad, the individual will more or less consciously offer a version of the self to the other. This will be done in a variety of ways: in what is said; in movement, dress, and the use of props; and in the words themselves (Mead 1934). In all of these activities, the self attempts to provide a version of reality that the other person will agree with or at least recognize. This is to achieve some goal or purpose that he or she has in mind. He or she also anticipates the responses of the other to his or her performance (Goffman 1969). In repetitive interaction with familiar others, behavior becomes so routine that little preparatory thought needs to go into the presentation of self. It is habitual and unself-conscious. On other occasions, when the responses of others are difficult to anticipate, the person will be self-conscious. He or she may have to give a great deal of thought to what to wear and say and how he or she will behave. In between the extremes of taken-for-grantedness and self-consciousness, a range of presentations of self are possible.

In whatever way the self is presented to others, the person making the presentation stakes some claim to be taken seriously in what she or he is doing. Presentation of self is about appearance, authenticity, and assurance in the performance (Goffman 1969). At their most mundane, these claims to be taken seriously may be nothing more than to be recognized as a man or a woman. It might be much more complex, though, and such presentations are linked to the division of labor and roles played in the division of labor such as parent, neighbor, brain surgeon, or computer programmer. If others acknowledge the legitimacy of the claims being made, then interaction will proceed routinely and un problematically. Unproblematically does not mean without conflict or pain but rather that the rules of the interaction are mutually understood. Each party can assume that the other has roughly the same idea about what is going on as the other. They both respond to and legitimize the version of self being offered.

If, however, the other denies the claims for legitimacy being made by the person presenting the self, then interaction will need to be renegotiated. This is because the parties involved do not share assumptions about the legitimacy of the situation. When the other legitimates claims made in interaction, then the interaction is grounded in authority and social order. Authority, according to Weber (1947), is where the rights of one party in the interaction to behave in particular ways toward the other are accepted as legitimate. Legitimacy means that in a dyadic relationship, certain claims to status, knowledge, or resources have to be acknowledged as rightful for interaction to proceed routinely and for the taken-for-granted aspects of what is going on to remain taken for granted (May and Kelly 1982).

The opposite of authority in social relationships is power (Weber 1947, 1948). In some relationships, the person in a subordinate position neither acknowledges nor legitimates nor willingly follows the demands made by superordinate others. Nevertheless, if one party is in a position to force the other to do what he or she wants, despite resistance, then the relationship is one of power. When power affects a simple dyadic relationship, the subordinate does not regard the position, the actions, or the claims of the other as legitimate. Through various mechanisms, from threat and coercion to actual violence, the superordinate gets his or her way. In these situations, the superordinate party denies the legitimacy, in full or in part, of the subordinate. Social order exists by control rather than consent.

Power and authority link to material resources. These, in turn, link to the social division of labor. The social division of labor is the manifestation of the differences in the distribution of resources in the social world (Braverman 1974). The experience of power or authority in relationships (i.e., of the social division of labor) is the outcome of maneuvers between self and others and is experienced and witnessed subjectively in the life-world. At its most abstract and schematic, this is the position in which people with an impairment find themselves. They are in a relationship of power in which they are subordinate. Their claims to be taken seriously as people with legitimate claims to citizenship, involvement in the world of work, involvement in sexual activities, and involvement in the division of labor and the social world are denied. Their experience in the center of their own life-world is not legitimated. Simultaneously, the aspect of the person, which attracts the attention of the other, is the impairment. When the other responds to the impairment (rather than the person) or when, outside of the dyad, in the broader world of everyday contacts, the response is to the impairment, this is the exercise of power. At that point, the impairment becomes a disability. Disability is the experience of power that subordinates, marginalizes, and excludes. Subordination, marginalization, and exclusion are felt and experienced in the life-world as the inner world collides with the proximal zones of relevance where assumptions about self of the inner life-world are not shared.

This is a simple version of a complex reality, and a very broad range of other social possibilities exists. Empirically, there will be widespread differences in social life, in response to impairment and of the experience of disability, as indeed there are many billions of possibilities in human contact. However, the dyad and the articulation of the presentation of self, as well as the power-authority responses described, allow the core of the experience of marginalization and exclusion and its experience in the life-world to be explained. Within the life-world, the locus of that experience of marginalization and disadvantage is the self.

The Self and the Body

At its simplest, self is nothing more or less than the view that each of us has in our mind’s eye of who and what we are (Ball 1972). Assuming a conscious adult, each of us has an account in our head about our self. This may be little more than a loosely linked set of attributes such as warm-hearted, kind, or talkative. These labels are self-attributed and constitute a borrowing from the various possibilities that human life generates. The self-attributions need not have anything to do with labels applied externally by others. They may bear only the most passing resemblance to what the world at large thinks.

In sociological terms, self is not a psychological thing having biological or physical substance. Instead, self may be conceptualized as a set of verbal routines bounded in the grammars of language, which are given substance in talk about self and in turn are the basis of our thoughts about who and what we are (Kelly 1992). Webecome conscious of the self because of our ability to talk about it as if it were a thing separate from the subjectivity that is the experience of the self (Kelly and Dickinson 1997). The various narratives that people use to articulate their own sense of who and what they are in the world, as well as to make sense of actual and vicarious experiences, give shape to self. Certain narrative styles give rise to different views of the self and of different attempts to present the self to the external world. The narrating “I” is at the center of such stories. Not infrequently, this produces a sense of the grammatical “I” being coterminous with the self. As narrative structures and styles are cultural resources, it follows that the sense of self will be sociohistorically and culturally diverse. Self has both a changing and a continuous structure (Ball 1972).

Self is historically and culturally variable. So, what it is to have a sense of self as a seventeenth-century Polynesian fisherman, a nineteenth-century naval cadet, or a contemporary air line pilot, for example, will be different. To be a manor woman, young or old, black or white, or disabled or able-bodied will mean different things at different historical times and cultural places. As well as being historically and culturally variable, the self is malleable in the same person through one’s life span. As people move from situation to situation, from social context to social context, as they interact with different people, they act out different social roles. Indeed, as they witness their own subjectivity, their sense of self changes (Kelly 1992). As people age and when they get ill, their sense of self changes.

Self may be said to change in two important ways: in space and in time. Ball (1972) refers to the situated self and the substantial self. The situated self is the changing self. It is that sense that people have of who and what they are at a particular moment and in a specific context. Certain situational factors assume salience and significance, which define how the self is experienced at any moment. In a single day, we may move in and out of many different physical spaces in the company of many different others. In a lifetime, our position in the life cycle and the capacities of our physical bodies change. These local saliences and changes in the life cycle will dominate the situated self, the discourse we use to describe to ourselves, and what we think and feel about ourselves. So, when someone walks into a shop to buy a newspaper, this transient experience of being a shopper, although central to the short period of the exchange of money and goods, will have a high but short-term salience. As they move on to their next appointment (e.g., a secret assignation with a lover), then their sense of self changes again. We might assume, for example, that the salience of the chemistry between a person and his or her lover would be of greater significance than that between customer and shopkeeper. It may have an even greater salience if one’s sense of who and what one is also is tied up with the guilt that one feels about deceiving one’s spouse.

Time also exerts a malleable effect on self but usually in a more gradual way. When we are 9 years old, in contemporary society at least, we generally have a clear sense of being a child. At age 29, we tend to have a clear sense of being a grown-up. At age 49, most people begin to recognize that they are changing. They may need spectacles to read. They cannot run as fast as they could at age 19. They perhaps feel less sexually vigorous. By age 69, the process of change tends to lead to people having a view of themselves as getting old or older. Leaving aside the fact that young children can sometimes behave in very mature ways and that adults can on occasion be childish, the aging process has an impact on self, regardless of our attempts to resist it. Aging can be linked to loss of function up to a point of significant impairment. Impairments themselves affect our sense of who and what we are, although the physical environment, the space rather than the time aspect of self, is the situation that transforms loss of function into a disability. The potential impact of this on the self is therefore considerable. Significant impairments may be rendered more functionally important in the aging process. When the physical space adds to the impairment, as an experience of being separate from the world, it is felt more acutely.

Ball (1972) also described the substantial self. This means that despite changes in immediate situations and changes that take place in the self because of the aging process, we mostly recognize that we are the same person who was a nine-year-old child, an adolescent, someone in the prime of life, and now someone whose functions are diminishing. We also know that if we are a clandestine lover, the guilt is more insistent when we return home. This is precisely because we are the same person who now sits quietly watching television with his or her spouse and plays with the children but who not long before was declaring love for someone else. We are also the same person who did 101 humdrum tasks since we bought our newspaper earlier that day.

In summary, the sense of who and what we are is experienced by most sober and conscious humans as having continuity through time and space. The sense of continuity around a particular body and autobiography are defining characteristics of subjectivity, at least in the Western world. They also create the sense of self and body as the same thing and also provide an empirical experience in which mind and body are both separate yet part of the same thing. The “I” at the center of the mind-body experience can easily create a taken-for-granted life-world in which the self is experienced as having a concrete reality sui generis.

Self in the World: Self against the World

In lay terms, the concept of the self is easy to understand, by virtue of its apparent coterminosity with the body and autobiography through time and space. The experience of self in most mundane circumstances appears to be the experience of body and indeed to be one and the same thing. The body, moreover, gives a sense of physical unity and continuity in the world. The self is, in that everyday mundane sense, embodied. The body provides an important locus of experience and is a mechanism for mediating the world. However, it is not helpful to go too far down this “lay” line of reasoning. Sociologically, the self is not the same thing as body. For example, the self not infrequently experiences itself as in some way separate from the body it inhabits. For example, this may happen when bodily movements are uncontrolled (as in the muscle spasms that occur prior to falling asleep); when we dream; in moments of semiconsciousness induced by drugs, alcohol, or hemiplegia; and in illness when the control of bodily functions may be lost. The sense of separation from the body is highly noticeable in response to certain types of very invasive surgery, such as coronary artery bypass and organ transplantation (Radley and Green 1985). The subjective “I” can also easily get outside of its own body. It can inspect its own subjectivity and treat its sense of self as an object, for all intents and purposes, like any other object in the environment. It can also view its own body in the same way. In other words, to see our selves as we imagine others see us is a process relating to the self and a process relating to the body.

The self, as just indicated, also experiences a sense of separation from others as the impact of space and time is felt on the self. In its most extreme, the sense of self as separate from or against the world may be found in people who entertain paranoid delusions (May and Kelly 1992). Yet the sense of being separate from the world is a process that is essential to the experience of self for all individuals. What happens is that through narrative talk and self-indications, the self accounts for and makes sense of the world of everyday experience. We construct the world in our mind around our self (around our inner circle of the life-world). The sad fact, however, is that the world has a material reality that does not conform to the social constructions the self may make of it. Like the developing child, we constantly, if figuratively, bump into the material world, and it hurts. This is when others deny the presentation of self. Our everyday experience is of hurt and discomfort. The paranoid person accounts for these experiences in terms of conspiracies, and sane people call them delusions. Yet all humans develop accounts in which they mend the gaps between their sense of self and social, physical, and material reality (Mills 1940; Scott and Lyman 1968; Sykes and Matza 1957). The sense of being apart from and set against the world is a common human experience. Conceptualizing the idea of identity is helpful.

The term identity is sometimes assumed to be interchangeable with the term self, and the terms are sometimes juxtaposed as self-identity. It is more convenient, however, to separate the ideas of self and identity in the way Ball (1972) has done. In a very simple distinction, Ball defines identity as the public label that is applied to the person, whereas the self consists of the ideas each of us has about who and what we are. Those public labels (identities) may relate to social roles and statuses in the division of labor or may simply be attributions made in interaction or more generally to groups in the population. In any event, these labels are the ways the person is defined by others at particular points in time and place. Identity is ego as known to others, whereas self is ego as known to ego (Ball 1972). Of course, self and identity may overlap in significant ways, in respect of key social variables. So ego’s sense of being a man is usually congruent with others’ views of him as a man. Similarly, ego’s sense of being a middle-aged, white, middle-class male may be entirely congruent with the public identities that are imposed by the world at large on that person (Kelly 1992).

None of this is immutable, and most individuals seem to spend some time attempting to manipulate the identities that others may attribute to them. This includes the relatively trivial attempts to conceal true chronological age, which are engaged in by teenagers wishing to appear older than they really are and the middle-aged trying to look younger or slimmer. It also in cludes the kinds of confidence trickery that Goffman (1969) described and the more thoroughgoing attempts that individuals sometimes make to present their gender or their racial grouping as different from the way they think others will perceive it to be.

The more interesting phenomenon from a sociological viewpoint is when self and identity are discordant (i.e., the sense of self, which the individual has and presents to others, is denied in social interaction by others). This is the heart of the issue in relation to disability. When the community in the near zones of relevance of the life-world respond to the impairment, they are constructing a social identity (disability) that draws on a set of cultural and social understandings about illness and disability. The sense of self of the person with the impairment is precisely that—with the disability, not the disability. The disability is not denied as a significant difficulty or as a significant diminution of resources, but the self, which is presented, is more than the disability. However, if the community members construct the disability as the all-powerful social identity, the attempts by self to construct it any other way will be thwarted in the normal run of interaction. This again is about power. However, that power is not just at a macro level in which the issue is scarce resources; it is about power in the micro life-world where self and identity collide or, put another way, where the individual human agent hits the social structure.

The place where individuals with impairment deal with others is in their life-world, and the consequences of those interactions are disability. The sense of otherness and strangeness created within the life-world by the disjunction between self and identity constitutes the fundamental life problem for all humans. It is rendered the more acute for some people because of impairment. The central life problem for all people, disabled or otherwise, is how to cope with a material and social world that is hostile, frequently disordered, and disorderly and how to cope with the anxieties that this creates. The problems are greatly exacerbated when the identities constructed in the community are highly discordant with the self.

Humans have to connect with the world as a part of the lived everyday experience of being in the world. Schutz (1967) called this “inter subjectivity.” By this, he refers to the sense of shared subjectivity, which in reality can never be fully shared. We can never know what even the most intimate of our acquaintances really thinks about something or the way they see and experience the world. However, we normally assume that, more or less, what they see and experience and how they make sense of the world are much the same as the way that we do. The times in life when we experience that sense of being in the world and, at the same time, of not being in the world are at the point when inter subjectivity breaks down. Schutz argued that the task that had to be accomplished in everyday interaction was to engage with others as if they shared the same assumptions and understandings of the world as self. The person with an impairment has to do this, even when the community manifestly operates with very different assumptions about the nature of the world and the person with an impairment’s place within it.

When intersubjectivity breaks down, the experience is of being in the world, but separate from it, or of being in the community but not part of it. However, the self has to engage with this highly problematic and ambiguous world as if it were not like this and as if they were not separate from it. The person with impairment therefore has to operate with a double level of meaning. It is important to note that this is not an issue limited to disability, but the problem is critical in the case of disability.

This is very familiar sociological territory. Because Marx wrote about alienation, many sociological and other theorists have made separation of self from the world an integral part of their social theories (Marx 1961). It provides us with the means to open up a set of other issues: Life is inherently problematic for all human actors (Lazarus 1969). The illusion that it might be otherwise is promoted in advertising, ideology, and religion, and true believers, political or religious, will create for themselves a transcendent reality in which the illusion is taken to be true. However, the emollients of advertising, ideology, and religion can only ever provide comfort. They cannot transform the world, although they make dealing with it a little easier. Access to resources, especially and particularly differential access to resources in the world at large, means that not everyone experiences it in the same way. Differential material resources, including the functioning of the human body, are the central fact of human existence in one form or another for us all. The analysis here is dependent on the idea of the body as a differentially available resource, like a Weberian life chance or a Marxian inequality.

Because sociologists sometimes talk about social structure as if it were a motivated human agent, it is easy to miss the fundamental issue that experiences of discrimination and prejudice are not found in the reifications of abstract entities, such as social structure, but rather are experienced in the epicenter of the life-world—the “I.” This is where the pain and suffering caused by the exercise of power is really felt. This is at the interface with the community as it reaches into the life-worlds of people with disabilities and, for that matter, everybody else. The interface with the community is the point when life-worlds meet, and it is the point when the social definitions of disability are contested. This collision with the world is the case for all human beings, but the difference is that the division of labor has evolved in such a way that the battle is not joined with the parties as equal. The resources are one-sided because of the form that the division of labor takes.

Homo Faber and the Division of Labor

One of the defining characteristics of the human species is its creativity and ingenuity. Humans possess the knowledge, the tools, and the imagination to confront the material world in which they live and to change it in ways that their imaginations dream of. Homo faber is the term to describe the capacity to think of things differently from the way they are in the present and to bring various forces to bear on the material world to alter it in line with imagination (Berger 1964). The division of labor is important because it arises in the attempt to control the material world and is one of the tools for attempts at control.

Human beings exist in many material worlds. They inhabit a physical universe, which is geological, meteorological, cosmic, and botanical, for example, and one that is the product of human endeavor or work itself. To survive, people have to engage with and protect themselves from that physical environment. This physical world is usually experienced as external to the individual and frequently as a determining force on his or her life. Until relatively recent times, even the most advanced human societies were at the mercy of powerful physical forces that were paramount in the life and death of individuals. Climate, geology, and microbiology constrained human life. It is only in the most recent past that the species has, through ingenuity and fashioning of tools, managed to keep these powerful forces at bay. However, such control is contingent. The appearance of human control over the physical world through technical means may appear to be a reality, but it is always a precarious control of the physical universe. The physical world is full of reminders that the efficacy of human dominance is tenuous. The irritating malfunctions of contemporary technologies, such as cars, washing machines, and computers, as well as the full force of nature in hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods, show that the assumption of human omnipotence is dangerously naive. Nevertheless, one of the most successful ways the species has brought this dangerous material world at least partly under control is through cooperation. This cooperation is the basis of the division of labor.

The idea of productive and cooperative activity is central to the concept of the division of labor (Glover and Kelly 1987). An important characteristic of human beings is the capacity to produce goods and services beyond basic subsistence needs in relationships with other humans and the physical environment. The social division of labor is the particular ways the producers and consumers of different goods and services within a society are differentiated from and interrelated with each other (Braverman 1974). The various forms, which the social division of labor takes, generate the different types of social and political organization found in societies. The degree to which different forms of communities relate to each other and to the social system as a whole is a manifestation of the social division of labor. The ways in which different groups and individuals, such as minorities, the young, the old, men and women, and the people with impairments, link together is a form of the division of labor. The social division of labor is a neutral concept, but its impact and its effects are far from neutral. The dynamics of exclusion, the basis of power, and the positioning of classes and other social divisions in society all stem from the form that the social division of labor takes. In general terms, people with disabilities have found themselves relatively disadvantaged and marginalized in the social division of labor historically and contemporarily. As argued above, this is experienced in the face-to-face interactions in the life-worlds within specific communities.

The technical division of labor (as against the social division of labor) refers to the specific productive configurations or arrangements in work organizations (Braverman 1974). In preindustrial society, these may well be difficult to distinguish from the social organization of community life, in agriculture or craft working. In industrial society, the distinction is clearer. Scots political economist Adam Smith most famously described the technical division of labor. He considered the division of labor in manufacturing and enunciated the principles of the division and subdivision of tasks and functions and the link of this division to efficiency. He concluded that it was more efficient for a task to be divided and subdivided and for there to be further subdivision than for someone to complete the whole task on his or her own (Smith 1976).

Marx (1971) developed this theme further. He was fascinated by the productive energy of capitalism and with the forces released by machinery combined with a specialized division of labor. For Marx, the great irony and trick of capitalism was its ability to produce plenty but to deny the wealth created by the many being shared among them. These principles are at the heart of Marx’s theory of surplus value and at the center of his analysis of capitalism. The important critical leap in Marx’s thinking was to extend the analysis beyond the economic into the social and political. Critically, Marx argued for the principle that the very structure of society in the form of its class system emerged directly from relations arising in the technical division of labor. The relationship of participants in productive activity in the technical means of production and the form of the exploitative relationships that emerge establish the social division of labor (Marx 1971).

Marx (1971), on the division of labor, provides an insight into the dynamics of exploitation. At its heart is a materialist conception of the basis of human life. The technical division of labor allows cooperative and productive engagement with the material world. The shape of society is the social division of labor (Braverman 1974). When a disjunction exists between the social and technical divisions of labor, conflict emerges in a sharp and acute form. This is vitally important to understanding contemporary developments for all marginalized, disenfranchised, exploited, and discriminated groups. In this conception, the person with the impairment, by virtue of limited life chances, may not play a full role in the technical division of labor. This, in turn, leads to marginalization in the social division of labor. However, the issue is more complex in contemporary societies.

The Division of Labor and Work in the Contemporary World

What all the classical writers on the division of labor shared was an agreement about the importance of work (Durkheim 1933; Marx 1971; Smith 1976). Contemporary technologies offer some interesting possibilities about the development of the division of labor and, in turn, impairment, disability, and community. Work roles, given their position in the technical division of labor and their consequences for the social division of labor, are assumed in most classical and much contemporary sociology to be the cornerstones of the social structure (Parkin 1972). The dominance of such thinking is demonstrated by the fact that most accounts about the dispossessed start from an analysis of their exclusion from the technical division of labor and their consequent disempowerment in the social division of labor. The paradigmatic case is people with disabilities. De facto, such people were wholly or mostly excluded from the productive process or at least grudgingly allowed a minor role in disadvantaged labor markets.

However, the underlying assumption of such theorizing is that full employment is the norm, that work roles are central in terms of personal and system integration, and that such work roles are enduring and lifelong. This assumption is based on the highly specific sociohistorical example of industrial societies, especially the Western European and North American economies of the first half of the twentieth century. It is based on an economic world in which there is an industrial base, when the primary and secondary sectors of the economy are relatively labor intensive, when the nature of the social systems in such societies was relatively stable, and when it seemed that this state of affairs was a crowning achievement of progress (or the heart of capitalist exploitation, depending on your point of view).

Several points need to be made. First, outside the industrialized West, this model did not apply. Second, even in the industrialized West, the model only had limited application. As far as paid employment was concerned, it applied principally to adult men. Female participation rates in the economy, defined in terms of paid employment, were less than men in general, and so are we to assume either the model did not really apply to them or that some other kind of model or set of assumptions should have been brought to bear? Women are discounted as real participants in the social world by virtue of being outside of the technical division of labor. What about children, the dispossessed, the unemployed, the aged, and those in large parts of continental Europe who were located in a rural agrarian tradition? In other words, the underlying assumption of the theory was based on a minority of the population, even in those societies that are or were the most technically advanced at a particular point in time.

Such was the deeply engrained nature of the assumption about the centrality of paid work that writers in many branches of sociology used the occupational structure and the division of labor as a metaphor to describe other aspects of social life. The doyen of medical sociology, Parsons (1951), builds the idea of the centrality of work, derived from an understanding of the division of labor into the epicenter of his theory of the sick role. One of the core ideas of the sick role is that of exemption from normal social role responsibilities, the principal responsibility being engagement with paid work. To be sick, according to Parsons, is to disengage from the productive part of the technical division of labor and to settle, albeit temporarily, in a specialized part of the social division of labor—the sick role.

This has had very important consequence for the theories of medical sociology and disability. If the assumption is challenged that work is or should be the central life activity of humans, a very different account of illness and disability emerges. Much of the early work on chronic illness, for example, focused on the impact of the loss of opportunity to work consequent on the illness. The illness was thus conceptualized as a double deficit. There was the illness itself and the pain and suffering that accompanied it, as well as the losses associated with the inability to fulfill normal social role responsibilities. One of the core ideas of the sick role is exemption from normal social role responsibilities. The principal responsibility from which people who are sick are exempted is engagement with paid work. Subsequently, theorists of chronic illness borrowed heavily from the discourse about the centrality of work and even used the idea of the illness career as a guiding principle in the construction of ideas about illness. In this regard, illness and disability are theorized as deficits when measured against a standard of normality in which work and adulthood (for men) are synonymous, and loss of work is about the detachment from society and the principal anchor points in the social structure.

This kind of thinking led Parsons (1951) to describe illness as deviance at an individual and social level and as a disturbance to the normal functioning of the individual and society. It is helpful to note that this way of theorizing does not conceptualize illness or disability as aspects of life chances (and hence as dimensions of stratification) or as aspects of the distribution of power and legitimacy in the social structure. Neither does this kind of reasoning allow for an embedding of the person who is ill in the social structure (which a life chance approach would). Instead, it effectively places the ill or disabled person outside of the social structure proper, by virtue of his or her unproductiveness, deviance, and special character, which follow from the illness itself. The community may reject the person, and the person may feel alienated and separate from the community, but that is not the same as being deviant and outside society in any sense other than not being able to work.

Recent debates about postmodernity and about postmodernism serve to highlight the particular view of industrial society and the roles of work within it, central to this kind of thinking (Kelly and Field 1998). At the heart of an understanding of disability using traditional sociological reasoning is that having a disability is a state of physical being that results in a state of economic, social, and psychological being that is not wholly integrated into the dominant civil society. The argument might be made that this is the inevitable consequence of material physical difference. It might also be argued that the material conditions of existence might or must be changed. However, at the center of the argument is a model of society in which equilibrium is possible, either as Parsons (1951) argued, by managing the deviance of difference in various ways, or, as other writers have argued, by overturning politically the oppressive structures (Oliver 1990).

In contemporary society, the fixed nature of work roles cannot be assumed, however. The transition from a manufacturing-based economy to a predominantly service-based economy, as well as developments in information technology, automation, and the introduction of more flexible work patterns, has led to the widespread disappearance in the West of industrial work dependent on a predominantly male, low-skilled manual workforce. Jobs linked to primary production and manufacturing have declined in large numbers. New types of segmented labor markets have emerged in which part-time, short-term work in retail leisure and services is increasingly common (Edwards 1979). There is greater participation by women in the total labor market. The growth of global markets has been accompanied by diminished state intervention in many aspects of economic and social life.

Against this background, key aspects of the social division of labor have altered in their significance. Class, age, and gender, which were arguably once the fundamental and accepted axes of social structure and identities created around the life-world, have become more fluid and less deterministic. Gender identities have become less rigid and coercive, and cultural identities based on ethnicity are more prominent, highlighting a range of legitimate diversity not previously acknowledged. As these aspects of the social division of labor evolve in ways that articulate increasing diversity, fashion and image have become increasingly important in a world of global mass communications.

The experience of having impairment may also change as the life-worlds change and fragment within the social division of labor. Television, video, mobile phones, and the Internet provide a means of changing and expanding life-worlds. The new private mass media and do-it-yourself communications have shifted and expanded the life-world by creating a new type of experience. They expand the potentially knowable and give a new basis for intersubjectivity. The face-to-faceness of community relationships has been changed and also expanded as acon-sequence of modes of communications, which allow communication globally. This has and will continue to play a role in the fragmentation and unification of social life. The privatization of entertainment and the global possibilities of cyber-friendships produce a life-world that is not geographically defined and potentially at least is not class, gender, or ethnicity bound. In one very interesting development, communication between people with shared experiences of illness is very easy now without the constraints of official definitions (by the medical profession or other dominant groups). This may facilitate, in a much more direct way, the development of alternative views of the illness potentially contrary to mainstream thinking, in a way that erstwhile patient support or self-help groups were not able to do very easily.

Another aspect of this fragmentation process relates to identities. In the era when the social division of labor was relatively fixed and stable, the numbers of identities—the public knowable aspect of the person that an individual could adopt—were circumscribed often quite rigidly within communities. The anchor points of social roles in communities were limited to occupation, gender, age, and perhaps religion. These identities had an enduring quality through time. Geographical and social mobility were limited, and such identities were lifelong. Having a disability or a chronic illness mirrored the core identities in the social structure. Having a disability became the dominant identity, at least as far as officialdom, medicine, and perhaps the rest of the community were concerned. The medical and social services were the arbiters of the identity and how it should be constructed. Arguably, the fragmentation of identities in contemporary Western and North American societies means that the constraints of an earlier era are no longer so absolute.

One particularly important aspect of this is what might be termed the celebration of difference. Drawing inspiration from antiracist, feminist, and postmodern discourses more generally, the disability movement has celebrated difference in an attack on what is defined as the ideological assumption that difference is bad (Oliver 1996; Shakespeare 1996). This leads not only to a kind of relativism in the aesthetics of appearance (long inspired by the avant-garde) but also to the political demand for a tolerance and acceptance of difference. In turn, this generates, through the appearance of new discourses of self, alternative ways of constructing meaning about the world to provide for different ways of having a disability or a chronic illness. Once upon a time, the hegemony of the medical and social services to define what the role should be led to some extraordinary coercive regimes (Scott 1969). The new discourse of difference is not just about changes in identity and changes in community relations; it is also about the creation of life-worlds in which difference is both a reality and a choice.

However, there is still the question of the technical division of labor and, more specifically, the technology on which many of the changes described depend. Information technologies have changed the nature of the technical division of labor at the workplace and opened the possibility of distance working, home working, and remote access. They also open up possibilities for entry into the labor market for many people who could not separate home and work for mobility or health reasons. Yet the new technologies have a range of other liberating potentials in terms of being the tools themselves of functional replacement in which the material life chances of the body are limited. The technology is the potential to replace the lost or absent resource. There are quantum issues too. A wheelchair or a prosthetic limb has to be negotiated as part of identity, but that negotiation becomes much easier when the technology offers direct, easy, and effortless control by the person using it, rather than when it requires constant assistance to be of any use.

What of resources? The technology is not inexpensive, and persons living in the contemporary West are more likely to see its use sooner than are persons in developing countries. Obviously, someone has to pay for it. Here, prediction is probably unwise, but the previous two decades have seen the costs of the technology fall steeply while its power has increased. There is evidence that the Internet, for example, is growing at a rate that will make global possibilities of reality sooner than could have been imagined even a few years ago. The class and cultural biases that affect access to the mass media of communications are likely to have an impact, but it is far from clear where the line of access, which is economically determined, will actually fall. The model of innovation here is more likely to be that of the video player and the computer game, which, in a society such as Britain, have spread rapidly through all sectors of the class system, rather than something such as air travel, which has more restricted use. Also, it is not just the technologies of mass communication; it is the technology of mobility and prosthetics for which we are probably at the very earliest stages of development.


The community then ceases to be something in which the dominant motif is neighborliness and proximity. If we use the definition of community described at the beginning of this chapter as the life-world, we have a much better way of conceptualizing actual and potential changes in community relationships. If we acknowledge the significance of the social division of labor, take note of its traditional link to work, and then see the possibilities that changes to the technical division of labor facilitate, both to the nature of work itself and to the social division of labor, then we begin to see interesting practical possibilities. Go further and question the centrality of work as a full-time activity within the social division of labor and think in terms of the extra productivity that new technologies potentiate, and then a range of possibilities, theoretical and practical, may be discerned.

The new social arrangements offer freedom and liberation in ways that theorists of alienation could scarcely have thought possible two or three decades ago. The nature of politics also changes in such an environment. It has been argued that in contemporary Western society, issue-based politics has replaced class-based politics (Crook, Pakulski, and Waters 1992). So, green issues, environmental issues, and food scares become the bread and butter of political life, while issues of class exploitation remain submerged. Likewise, worker resistance moves from outright industrial confrontation through strikes to a more simple disengagement with the work and, within the workplace, a greater emphasis on legislation and legal contracts.

However, contemporary society is more than just the occupational structure destabilized. The nature of sociability has altered in subtle ways too. With the demise of the engagement with work, people seem much freer to create lifestyles of their own choosing, and there is evidence that this is exactly what many have decided to do. Changing patterns of sexual partnering, cohabitation, child rearing, and gender identities have all been explored and tried out not just by persons in the margins of society or those who are excluded in various ways but also by those at the center of our political establishment. This is not to say that marriage is no longer popular, nor to deny that many people live in conventional arrangements. It is to say that some of the easy certainties of life in the middle of the twentieth century seem to have given way to growing uncertainties. Impairment means diminished life chance. Diminished life chance is experienced in the technical division of labor as exclusion and in the social division of labor as marginalization. This is felt as a disjunction between self and identity in the life-world and is transformed into disability. If the technical division of labor changes, if life-worlds expand, and if public identities fragment, then the impact on life chances may be different. They may not necessarily be better, but sociological theory allows a means to plot their progress.

This chapter has shown, by using a number of traditional sociological concepts, that it is possible to theorize disability in the community. A number of core ideas were presented. First, the life-world was defined with reference to the subjectivity of the self. It was identified as the locus of pain, suffering, and alienation from others. Second, community was described as the intersection of self’s subjectivity in the life-world and public identities imposed by others. The interactive processes, which lead to the application of negative labels, were outlined. Third, power and authority in interaction were shown to be embedded in understandings of legitimacy in interaction and especially the nature of presentation of self. Fourth, the social division of labor was defined as the outcome of social relationships as well as an important constraint on them. The social division of labor is linked to the consequences of power and authority relationships in social interaction. Fifth, the technical division of labor was described with reference to technical and technological artifacts and the location of productive paid work. It was argued that impairment became disability at the point when others denied the claims made by the self in the community. It was noted that this traditionally has had implications for exclusion from the technical division of labor and hence from paid work, and it also has had considerable effects in the social division of labor. It was suggested that with the transformation of the technical division of labor and the concomitant changes in the social division of labor, the continuity of these arrangements and indeed the theoretical arguments that underpin them should be questioned.