Writing as if the Public Mattered

More than a decade ago I was asked to organize an “Author Meets Critics” session dealing with Richard Sennett’s Corrosion of Character.  Given the author’s prominence, it was no surprise when 200 people showed up for the session, and heard a set of probing comments from a distinguished panel. I reserved a few minutes for my own humble comments, and took that opportunity to lament how rarely our works succeed (as Sennett’s often do) in resonating with lay audiences. An old lament, I know. But it’s true. As a former colleague once put it, it’s as if many of us aren’t entirely comfortable allowing perfect strangers to buy our books.

That it needn’t be that way is evident in op-ed pieces recently written by two sociologists and one fellow traveller, all of which turned a keen eye toward questions of work and the social organization of economic activity. These pieces are worth pondering –and their example of public intervention well worth emulating in whatever manner we find possible.

Hard upon fashion week, sociologist Ashley Mears wrote a thoughtful and provocative op-ed that ran under the title “Poor Models. Seriously“.  Drawing on her just-published book, Mears made a number of points that warrant wide attention: that the great bulk of runway models are actually paid little if anything (sometimes, their pay involves little more than free clothing), and that our now familiar concepts of contingent and uncertain employment apply quite well to important segments of this occupation. Mears went so far as to suggest that greater empowerment of fashion models might enable them to challenge the anorexic look they are expected to adopt. A short piece, it powerfully dispels the illusions that surround so much of the fashion industry (in effect, one end of a commodity chain that ensnares garment workers at the other). Her book, Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, is a significant contribution to literatures on work, economic institutions, and the value placed on cultural practices, too.

A second piece worth mentioning here was contributed by the eminently sociological economist Paul Osterman. Timing his piece to run just after Labor Day, Osterman’s piece ran with the title “Yes We Need Jobs. But What Kind?” The piece reported on Osterman’s current research on the human consequences of low wage work, and focused on the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Rather than accepting at face value the claims currently being made about economic growth in that state, Osterman reminds his audience that low-wage work without sick days, health benefits, or basic legal rights inflicts real damage on workers’ families, on children’s schooling, and even on productivity. Osterman cites research showing that living wage ordinances do not in fact have anti-competitive effects. Notions of “job-killing regulations” are largely myth.

A third piece worth seeking out is sociologist Doug Massey’s “Isolated, Vulnerable, and Broke.” Here, Massey draws attention to the massive depletion of wealth that has gripped Latino workers and their families, who have suffered the effects of the great recession more intensely than any other ethnic group. One reason for this, Massey notes, stems from the perverse effects of U.S. immigration enforcement. By eliminating return migration (principally to Mexico), U.S. policy has tended to trap undocumented Latinos in our country. Lacking papers (and concentrated in construction trades), these workers have come to constitute a growing, ethnically bound economic segment that enjoys few rights and precious little power in the labor market.

Three interventions, several implicit messages: First, that public impressions of particular occupations and economic realms can be (and often are) profoundly misleading. Second, that common sense thinking and assumptions about work and economic activity often provide poor guides to current realities. Third, and perhaps most fundamentally: Social scientific thinking about work has a vital contribution to make to public discussions and debates –all the more so, ironically, given the decline of labor journalism in recent decades. A generation ago, virtually every large daily newspaper in the United States had at least one writer on the labor beat. Now, it seems as if the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse is the last member of a dying breed.

Surely, few sociologists can expect to win very many column inches in the Times. I’ve certainly had no luck along those lines. But it’s worth reminding sociologists that many public audiences, decision making bodies, and media outlets are in fact keen to include new ideas – and increasingly aware that the concepts and methods of economics do not provide a sufficient guide to occupational realities. Perhaps it’s time for sociologists to assert our analyses and perspectives more forcefully than we’ve typically done.

    • stevenvallas said:

      thanks, Tanya!

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