Edgework and Emotions: A Response to “Edgework and the Workplace”

Jeff’s piece is a very interesting post, and I’m particularly intrigued by two ideas. The first is that edgework and paid work can be integrated and accomplished in the same act. Typically we have seen edgework conceptualized as leisure, which implies a sequential relationship with paid work: spend all day at work becoming alienated and then pursue edgework to recapture an authentic sense of self. That bike messengering provides a way to seek authenticity through paid work is a novel angle, and the question this raises for me is how does that happen? What is it about integrating edgework with paid work that allows for such a powerful experience of authenticity? Is this experience different from the “sequenced” version of edgework, where the self alternates between work (alienation) and leisure (authenticity)?

Edgework and alienation have been paired analytically since Lyng’s original AJS article. When I think of the specific type of alienation that comes from paid work, however, it makes me think of Hochschild’s emotional labor—one known source of self-alienation in some paid workers. I have long been fascinated by the role of emotions in the edgework process, which I explored among search and rescue volunteers several years ago, so the points Jeff brings up lead me to wonder how emotions may be implicated when workers use edgework on the job to counteract alienation. If self-alienation at work can come from inauthentic emotional displays, and if risky situations are self-authenticating because of the intense emotions felt (which Jeff mentions above), engaging the sociology of emotions seems like a productive way to reveal the nuances of paid edgework. How are the emotions that are associated with edgework a) seen as authentic expressions of self, and b) used and manipulated to achieve this authenticity?

I’m also intrigued by the range of autonomy that different types of professional edgeworkers may have, and I wonder about the implications of this. What are the consequences of having to do edgework for your job? It seems Jeff’s bike messengers have a great degree of control over their edgework, whereas firefighters and police officers, because they are in more altruistic occupations, may have less autonomy in crafting their edgework experiences. Can bike messengers take fewer risks on a particular day if they aren’t feeling 100%? Can firefighters? In thinking back to my research with search and rescue volunteers (as well as to the literature on risky occupations and leisure), I would say that there are rationales in some edgework communities that warn against taking risk if you’re not up for it: “that’s when someone’s going to get hurt,” I can hear my SAR volunteers saying. I wonder whether taking risk in service to others constrains the worker and dilutes the edgework experience.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

Jennifer Lois is Associate Professor of Sociology at Western Washington University. Her interests in gender, emotions, and identity have led her to study the ways they play out in a variety of groups, including search and rescue volunteers (Heroic Efforts, NYU Press, 2003), homeschooling mothers (Savoring Motherhood, under contract with NYU Press), and romance novel writers.

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