Work, Community and Isolation

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“In traditional societies, people’s daily labour rendered a service to the community, strengthened its social cohesion and gained them public respect”

A theory from the economic sociology of Karl Polyani1 underlines modern work as a source of isolation and community dis-integration in our society:

“when people become wage labourers… their daily labour is ‘disembedded’ from their social matrix and they lose their inherited values and cultural identity … they labour for the money needed for their survival.”

In the past, work was in many ways embedded in community life, but today our work is separated from our community, and primarily serves an individualistic goal : to earn the money we need to live. In fact, this has become one of the principal goals of life in Quebec and western society. In the words of Mathieu Bélisle, “it appears that our existence, our imagination and our desires now serve only two specific ends outside of which there is no salvation : production and reproduction.” (That is, work and the family.)2

Polyani suggests that we should look for ways to re-integrate work in our social and community context. His goal is to rethink our whole economic system, which is rather beyond the purview of this blog, but are there ways to work and to live, both for, and in, our community?

For certain professions, it is clearly possible. For example, my sister is a pharmacist. In her workplace she is always in contact with the members of her community, and one of her responsibilities is to interact with them. I don’t know how much time she has to develop deep relationships in this context, but it isn’t hard to imagine how this sort of work could be adjusted to prioritise relationships – so our choice of profession can certainly influence our community integration.

Another choice which is often overlooked in our world, especially in big cities, is to live near where we work. It is much more likely that we will live a life integrated in our community if we aren’t spending 40 hours a week far away from it, not counting the time we spend in the car to get there every day. For many, the cost of housing in the city makes this option difficult, but on the other hand, sometimes community takes sacrifice. My wife and I decided to buy a smaller house than we could have (a townhouse) to be able to stay closer to work. This choice has also had some advantages for our community integration as well : we see and interact with our neighbours much more frequently than we would in the suburbs, and since our yard is quite small, we spend a lot of time in the park across the street, where we’ve gotten to know a number of families from the neighbourhood.

(As a side note, this principle applies just as much to the church : it would be much easier to develop our Christian community if we all lived in proximity to our meeting places!)

This week I saw an article on the CBC that underlined a risk of loneliness connected with telecommuting. Certainly if everyone works from home, we lose a lot of social interaction. But if several people who do all do distance work, but live in the same neighbourhood, why not telecommute together? Together in a public place like a café, or together, taking turns hosting the group?

Polyani, though, suggests a more radical change to re-embed work and community life : a change in the way we see the purpose of work:

“What has to happen is the re-embedding of economic activity in people’s social relationships… Here the motivation for people’s work would not be to increase their personal profit, but rather to contribute to the progress of their community and assure their own well-being within it.”

In other words, there are more important things in life than salary and economic well-being – an idea which is quite biblical, and a necessary corrective in such a materialistic society.

1: Gregory Baum, Religion and Alienation, Novalis, 2006, p. 238f

1: Mathieu Bélisle, Bienvenue au pays de la vie ordinaire, Lémac, 2017, p. 2

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