Research in the Sociology of Work: Volume 29

Cover of Research in the Sociology of Work

Table of contents

(16 chapters)
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Part I: Identity Work

Abstract

Work has historically been an important basis of identity, but the sharp decline in the availability of stable attachments to jobs, organizations, or occupations jeopardizes paid work’s capacity to sustain identity. If available work opportunities are increasingly precarious and short-term, can the same be said for identities? Analysis of the efforts of members of an unusual occupational group – stage actors – to support an identity based on unstable work provides insights into the variability and indeterminacy of responses to structural employment uncertainty. Despite manifold identity threats, actors struggle to maintain identity as actors both in others’ eyes and in their own.

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Abstract

In this paper we build upon previous research that examines how workers in devalued occupations transform structural conditions that threaten their dignity into resources with which to protect themselves. Through in-depth interviews and fieldwork with early childhood educators (ECE), we examine the work experiences of teachers in four distinct work contexts: daycare centers and within elementary schools, each in either the public or private sector. We find that these different school organizational contexts shape what kinds of identity challenges early childhood teachers experience. Different organizational contexts not only subject teachers to different threats to their work-related identity but also have different potential identity resources embedded within them that teachers can use on their own behalf. Thus, while all the early childhood educators in our sample struggle with being employed within a devalued occupation, the identity strategies they have developed to protect their self-worth vary across employment contexts. We show that the strategies these interactive service workers use to solve identity-related problems of dignity at work involve the creative conversion of constraints they face at work into resources that help them achieve valued work identities.

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Part II: Authority and Control at Work

Abstract

Sociological research on work and job authority, while most often highlighting the material implications of workplace status, has largely overlooked the implications of experiential aspects of work for broader orientations toward the social world including, most poignantly, stratification beliefs. Building on classic and contemporary statements regarding the centrality of workplace experiences, and utilizing data from the 2012 General Social Survey, we analyze job authority specifically and its consequences for general beliefs surrounding inequality. Results, which account for a variety of other status attributes and material benefits of employment, demonstrate how authority tasks, especially in concert with authority tenure, shape traditionally conservative ideological stances, specifically: (1) restrictive support for socioeconomic redistributive policy, and; (2) perceptions of the functional necessity of socioeconomic inequality. These patterns are robust in the face of controls, though tend to be stronger among Whites and private sector workers compared to African American and public sector workers. Our findings inform inequality scholarship by highlighting the significance of workplace experiences for stratification worldviews and arguably support for redistributive policy. They also extend the sociology of work literature by relating how workplace experiences are carried into the broader social world.

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Abstract

In high-end interactive service work settings, asymmetries between workers and customers are typically reflected in the service interaction. Workers must carefully control their emotional and aesthetic displays towards customers by relying on protocol provided by management. Customers, in turn, need not reciprocate such acts. By contrast, this paper theorizes service interactions that, paradoxically, aim to narrow the social distance between those on either side of the counter. Drawing on ethnographic data from a higher-end Los Angeles restaurant, I introduce the concept of proximal service as performed relationships in which server and served engage in peer-like interactions in a commercial setting. I show how management structures this drama through hiring, training, and shopfloor policies, all of which encourage select workers to approach customers using informal, flexible, and peer-like performances. I close by discussing how a branded experience of service amongst equals relates to symbolic exclusion and social inequality, and suggest that proximal service may be on the rise within upscale, urban service establishments seeking to offer a more “authentic” consumption experience.

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This chapter addresses research on worker skill, technology, and control over the labor process by focusing on routine immaterial labor or knowledge work. Based on participant observation conducted among analytics workers at a digital publishing network, I find that analytics workers appear paradoxically autonomous and empowered by management while being bound by ever-evolving, calculative cloud-based information and communication technologies (ICTs). Workers appear free to “be creative,” while ever-evolving ICTs exert unpredictable control over work. Based on this finding, I argue that sociology’s tendency to take organizational boundaries and technological stability for granted hampers analyses of contemporary forms of work. Thus, sociologists of work must extend outward – beyond communities of practice, labor markets, and the state – to include the ever-evolving, infrastructural, socio-technical networks in which work and organizations are embedded. Additionally, research on the experience of immaterial labor suggests that ICTs afford pleasurably immersive experiences that bind workers to organizations and their fields. Complicating this emerging body of research, I find workers acutely frustrated by these unpredictable, ever-evolving, cloud-based ICTs.

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Abstract

Service work is often differentiated from manufacturing by the interactive labor workers perform as they come into direct contact with customers. Service organizations are particularly interested in regulating these interactions because they are a key opportunity for developing quality customer service, customer retention, and ultimately generation of sales revenue. An important stream of sociological literature focuses on managerial attempts to exert control over interactions through various techniques including routinization, standardization, and surveillance. Scripting is a common method of directing workers’ behavior, yet studies show that workers are extremely reluctant to administer scripts, judging them to be inappropriate to particular interactions or because they undermine their own sense of self. This paper examines a panoptic method of regulating service workers, embodied in undercover corporate agents who patrol employee’s adherence to scripts. How do workers required to recite scripts for customers respond to undercover control? What does it reveal about the nature of interactive labor? In-depth interviews with interactive workers in a range of retail contexts reveal that they mobilize their own interactional competence to challenge the effects of the panoptic, as they utilize strategies to identify and adapt to these “mystery shoppers,” all the while maintaining their cover. The paper shows the limits on control of interactive workers, as they maintain their own socialized sense of civility and preserve a limited realm of autonomy in their work.

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Part III: Gender, Sexuality and Precarity

Abstract

Since the 1950s, the closet has been the chief metaphor for conceptualizing the experience of sexual minorities. Social change over the last four decades has begun to dismantle some of the social structures that historically policed heteronormativity and forced queer people to manage information about their sexuality in everyday life. Although scholars argue that these changes make it possible for some sexual minorities to live “beyond the closet” (Seidman, 2002), evidence shows the dynamics of the closet persist in organizations. Drawing on a case study of theme park entertainment workers, whose jobs exist at the nexus of structural conditions that research anticipates would end heterosexual domination, I find that what initially appears to be a post-closeted workplace is, in fact, a new iteration: the walk-in closet. More expansive than the corporate or gay-friendly closets, the walk-in closet provides some sexual minorities with a space to disclose their identities, seemingly without cost. Yet the fundamental dynamics of the closet – the subordination of homosexuality to heterosexuality and the continued need for LGB workers to manage information about their sexuality at work – persist through a set of boundaries that contain gayness to organizationally desired places.

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This study investigates how federal and state-level laws designed to reduce workplace sexual harassment relate to the content of sexual harassment training programs in a sample of private U.S. companies. To gauge the effect of the law on the regulation of sexual harassment, we draw on unique data containing information on federal and state-level legal environments, formal discrimination charges filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and establishment-level sexual harassment training initiatives. State-level legal regulation of sexual harassment at work is linked to more elaborate sexual harassment training programs, even when federal legal regulations are not. Our findings underscore the importance of state-level legal regimes in the workplace regulation of gender-based rights and provide an example for future studies of work inequality and the law.

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Research on the social determinants of health demonstrates that workers who feel insecure in their jobs suffer poorer health as a result. However, relatively few studies have examined the relationship between job insecurity and illegal substance use, which is closely related to health. In this study, we develop a theoretical model focusing on two intervening mechanisms: health and life satisfaction. Additionally, we examine differences in this relationship between women and men. We test this model using logistic regression models of substance use for women and men based on longitudinal data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States. The results indicate that job insecurity is associated with a significantly higher probability of illegal substance use among women but not men. We interpret this as further evidence of the gendering of precarious employment. This relationship is not channeled through health or life satisfaction, but there is evidence that job insecurity has a stronger association with illegal substance use for women with poorer overall health.

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Cover of Research in the Sociology of Work
DOI
10.1108/S0277-2833201629
Publication date
2016-08-19
Book series
Research in the Sociology of Work
Editor
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-1-78635-405-1
Book series ISSN
0277-2833