Book Review: Undoing Work, Rethinking Community: A Critique of the Social Function of Work, by James A. Chamberlain

Published date01 June 2021
AuthorJoel Winkelman
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(3) 508 –522
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
Book Reviews
Book Reviews
Undoing Work, Rethinking Community: A Critique of the Social Function of Work, by
James A. Chamberlain. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018, 192 pp.
Reviewed by: Joel Winkelman, Department of Government, Hamilton College, Clinton,
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720939041
I agreed to review this book a few weeks before the global pandemic upended
society and forced us all to reexamine our underlying ideas about work and
community. It may be that the coming years force us all to reckon with urgent
questions about our society’s relationship to work, from what we consider
“essential” services to how we compensate paid labor. The limits of our
imagination may be stretched beyond what we had once considered possible.
Or, we may return to business as usual without any fundamental changes to
our ideas or institutions. In a time of profound uncertainty, it’s valuable to
have texts that can help us rethink our society’s deep assumptions. James
Chamberlain’s Undoing Work, Rethinking Community is one such book. It
confronts the deepest conceptual challenges that face us as we turn toward
building a common future amid the devastating evidence of our shared human
Chamberlain’s book comprises six chapters, each focused on a particular
conceptual thread that forms our contemporary regime of work. The analysis
moves from abstract themes of identity and membership in the first two chap-
ters to the material conditions of contemporary work in the middle two chap-
ters, which treat workplace flexibility and debate about how work is rewarded.
The book concludes with two chapters on the idea of community and the
postwork society. Chamberlain’s interlocutors vary, but in each chapter the
critical idea he targets is the “work society,” his term for the underlying
assumption that work reifies social attachments. In the work society, indi-
viduals precede communities, which are themselves created by work. An
individual who fails to work has weakened society. The main purpose of the
book is to convince readers to “abandon the view that community is con-
structed by work, whether paid or not” (2). Instances of the “work society”
939041PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720939041Political TheoryBook Reviews

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