Skilling and deskilling: technological change in classical economic theory and its empirical evidence
This article reviews and brings together two literatures: classical political economists’ views on the skilling or deskilling nature of technological change in England, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when they wrote, are compared with the empirical evidence about the skill effects of technological change that emerges from studies of economic historians. In both literatures, we look at both the skill impacts of technological change and at the “inducement mechanisms” that are envisaged for the introduction of new technologies. Adam Smith and Karl Marx both regarded the deskilling of the labour force as the predominant form of biased technical change, but other authors such as Charles Babbage also took account of capital-skill complementarities and skill-enhancing effects of technological change. For Smith, the deskilling bias was an unintended by-product of the increasing division of labour, which in his view “naturally” led to ever more simplification of workers’ tasks. As opposed to Smith, Marx considered unskilled-biased technical change as a bourgeois weapon in the class struggle for impairing the workers’ bargaining position. Studies of economic historians lend support to Marx’s hypothesis about the inducement mechanisms for the introduction of unskilled-biased innovations, but have produced no clear- cut empirical evidence for a deskilling tendency of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century technological change as a whole. Industrialization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rather led to labour polarization, by simultaneously deskilling a large part of the workforce and raising the demand for some (but fewer) high-skilled workers.
Brugger, F. und Gehrke, C. (2018): Skilling and deskilling: technological change in classical economic theory and its empirical evidence, in: Theory and Society, Vol. 47, No. 5, pp. 663-689, doi: doi.org/10.1007/s11186-018-9325-7.
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