Term of Art: Skill

“Skill: In everyday speech, skill means a relatively precise set of manual or mental techniques which, though they may depend on aptitude, have to be learned through training or schooling. Sociological work, though not denying this aspect of skill, is primarily concerned with the management of skill; that is, how skill is defined, constructed, and recognized. Since the publication of Harry Braverman’s work in the 1970s, much scholarship has been devoted to examining Karl Marx’s claim that ‘valorization’ in the capitalist labor process requires a continual attempt to de-skill expensive forms of labor. De-skilling means either the disintegration and mechanization of craft techniques; or a refusal adequately to recognize established or new capabilities still required of the worker. The latter is very common in women’s employment. Many writers, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, argue that de-skilling is not inevitable. Workers, individually or through trade unions, may resist mechanization, or insist that de-skilled processes are reserved for workers with established training, who continue to be paid a premium for their displaced skills. Also, employers may upgrade (or ‘upskill’) workers; because they wish to recognize and retain dependable or experienced workers; or to control and inhibit labor unrest; or because, notwithstanding Marx, the development of technology has created new skills in place of older ones. In any case, jobs may be de-skilled without necessarily implying the de-skilling of individual workers, or indeed the labor force as a whole. A selection of empirical case studies are reported in Roger Penn et al (eds.), Skill and Occupational Change (1994).”

Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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