In This Article Skill

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Theories of Societal Differences in Skills
  • Conceptualizations of Skill
  • The Measurement of Skills
  • Empirical Studies of Skill Trends
  • The Problem of Skill Mismatch
  • Technology and Skill Trends
  • Skill and Work Organization
  • Macro-Level Influences on Patterns of Skill Formation

Sociology Skill
Duncan Gallie
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0095


Changes in the level and structure of skills have been central to debates about social change for the last half-century. The pattern of skill development has been seen as crucial for economic growth through its implications for the productivity of the workforce. It also has been seen as vital to individual well-being due to its importance for identity and the capacity for self-development. It is widely recognized as a primary determinant of other aspects of social structure such as the quality of working conditions, patterns of work organization, the level of earnings inequality, and the characteristics of welfare institutions. But developments in skill have been highly controversial, with widely contrasting interpretations of their trends, determinants, and consequences. Theory and research in the first three postwar decades were dominated by contrasting universalistic arguments suggesting that similar trends were occurring across all of the advanced capitalist countries. More recently, it has been argued that there has been no single long-term direction of change but rather countries developed different types of “skills equilibrium,” which provided different forms of competitive advantage. These different visions of the past and future of skills rested on rather different conceptions of the nature of skill, associated with different views about the way skills and trends in skill should be measured. The different perspectives also embody different views about the key factors that determine skill patterns: with a sharp difference between those emphasizing the requirements of changing technology and those underlining the socially constructed nature of skill; and hence the importance of historically derived institutional systems.

General Overviews

In broad terms, there have been two long-term perspectives on the future of skills: the first envisaged a scenario of a trend to rising skills and the second a scenario of widespread deskilling. The most influential early statement of the upgrading these was in Kerr, et al. 1960 in the theory of industrialism. The general argument was extended by later theories of post-industrialism (Bell 1974) and the informational society (Castells and Aoyama 1994), taking account of the development of the service sector and the growth of information and communication technologies. The upskilling thesis became integrated into the official ideology of the European Union with its Lisbon Strategy mission statement of 2000, with its aim of creating a knowledge-based economy with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion. But there has been skepticism about the social optimism of this scenario, with arguments that overall rising skills levels may not be as crucial for productivity as is sometimes suggested and may be accompanied by social polarization and a reduction of welfare (Crouch, et al. 1999). The founder of the contrasting theoretical tradition emphasizing the trend to deskilling in work was Georges Friedmann (Friedmann 1955), although its influence in the Anglo-Saxon literature derives primarily from (Braverman 1974). From the 1990s, the pessimistic scenario was increasingly displaced by a polarization thesis that pointed to a simultaneous growth of the high- and low-skilled sectors of the workforce (Kalleberg 2011). Most recently there has also been a rejection of the view that advanced societies follow a broadly similar path of skill development and the emergence of theories of societal differences in types of skill and systems of skill formation (Gallie 2007).

  • Bell, D. 1974. The coming of post-industrial society. London: Heinemann.

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    Much-cited text that argued for the growing centrality of knowledge for production and introduced the concept of “post-industrialism.” The evolution of the skill structure is toward managerial, professional, and technical work in the service sector. This is a more qualified view of the implications for social stratification than the theory of industrialism, recognizing the risks of increasing marginalization of the low skilled.

  • Braverman, H. 1974. Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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    Launched the “Labour Process” tradition of theory and research in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Very similar in its general argument to Friedmann, albeit with remarkably little recognition of his contribution. But extends the logic of the argument to white-collar work and the service sector.

  • Castells, M., and Y. Aoyama. 1994. Paths towards the informational society: Employment structure in G-7 countries, 1920–90. International Labour Review 133.1: 5–33.

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    An elaboration on Bell’s argument but emphasizing more specifically the critical role of knowledge in the context of new information and communication technologies: micro-electronics, computer software, and genetic engineering. Points to a general trend toward the upgrading of skills in the “informational society,” with an increasing share of occupations requiring higher skills and advanced education.

  • Crouch, C., D. Finegold, and M. Sako. 1999. Are skills the answer? The political economy of skill creation in advanced industrial countries. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A well-informed critique of the “utopian” scenario of progressive economic and social development through the improvement of education and skills. Accepts that the economic competitiveness of advanced societies is likely to depend upon a continuous process of upskilling but questions whether this is likely to resolve problems of high unemployment, income inequality, and social welfare.

  • Friedmann, Georges. 1955. Industrial society: The emergence of the human problems of automation. New York: Free Press.

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    Originally published in French in 1946, this is the classic version of the deskilling argument. This book founded the French tradition of “sociologie du travail.” Generalizing from the Taylorist “scientific management” principles, it emphasized the use of time and motion study and of mechanization to subdivide and simplify tasks, with destructive effects both for the experience of work and for opportunities for self-development.

  • Gallie, D. 2007. Production regimes and the quality of work in Europe. Annual Review of Sociology 33:5.1–5.20.

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    A critical assessment of the argument that national differences in production regimes lead to different levels and types of skills in the workforce, with significant implications for the broader quality of work.

  • Kalleberg, A. L. 2011. Good jobs, bad jobs: The rise of polarized and precarious employment systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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    An impressive overview of the changing nature of US employment. Argues strongly for the long-term tendencies for skill polarization, with increases both in high- and low-skilled jobs but a decline in intermediate skills. Also claims that job insecurity is becoming more pervasive even among those with higher skills.

  • Kerr, C., J. T. Dunlop, F. Harbison, and C. A. Myers. 1960. Industrialism and industrial man. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Highly influential synthesis of a vast postwar cross-national research program on changes in management, industrial relations, and skills. The principal theoretical statement of the liberal theory of industrialism. It argued for a long-term trend to convergence between advanced societies, involving rising levels of specialized skills that would transform the power balance between management and labor and lead to “pluralistic industrialism.”

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