Author Archives: Steven Vallas

vip imageAshley Mears, Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston University, has gone where few sociologists have gone: First, the world of high fashion and runway modeling, and now the world of VIP clubs, which often traffic in women. Combining multiple strands of social science theory, her 2011 book, Pricing Beauty (University of California Press), has won multiple prizes. Her recent article in the American Sociological Review, “Working for Free in the VIP,” asks why women workers participate in their own commercial exploitation. Here we sit down with Ashley and ask some “back stage” questions about the course and conduct of her fieldwork.

Steve: Your book, Pricing Beauty, addresses three distinct but overlapping bodies of knowledge (so to speak) –the sociology of economic institutions, of gender, and of work. Wasn’t it a daunting prospect to try to speak to three areas of study, al this while you were a graduate student? Any thoughts about managing one’s ambitions while also addressing broad intellectual challenges?

Ashley: Don’t forget field theory and the sociology of culture! To me, each of these literatures is a tool to be mobilized to solve empirical problems. My work has always been driven by puzzles and phenomena I encounter Read More

randyAcademic readers will recognize not only the name but also the many scholarly contributions of Randy Hodson, who passed away a little more than a year ago. Remembrances, both personal and intellectual, have circulated intensely since Randy’s death, but until now they have been limited to the oral tradition. With the publication of the most recent edition of Research in the Sociology of Work, all that has changed.

In this brief article I want to provide an overview of this volume, in effect providing an invitation for readers to engage the articles therein.

Edited by Lisa Keister and Vincent Roscigno, the volume carries the hefty title A Gedenkschrift to Randy Hodson: Working with Dignity. And indeed, this is a hefty collection, for it contains much that leverages Hodson’s contributions, extracts their value, and leads the field forward in much the way that he would have hoped. This is must-reading for sociologists of work.

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It may seem strange to say, but we academics who study work sometimes get too caught up in the workplace itself. By that I mean that, much like the workers we study, we get so fixated on workplace events and processes that we forget to attend to the sphere of non-work. If we really want to understand the meanings that work acquires, then it behooves us to attend to the messages about work that are increasingly encoded in popular media –most notably, in film and TV. Here we can often find instances of what Paul Willis once called “penetrations,” or insights into the truth about work and inequality that debunk socially dominant myths.

As Exhibits A and B, consider two recent films that center on the struggles that workers confront in this era of neo-liberalism and new technologies. Both films derive their power at least partly from the sites they invoke, which lie at the very center of power and authority in the advanced capitalist nations. In the one case –“Nightcrawler,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo— we get a vivid account of freelance cameramen trawling for lurid footage of violent crime, which they can sell to local TV stations wanting to jump start their ratings.

In the other case –“Good Kill,” starring Ethan Hawke and January Jones— the film centers on military officers assigned to work as drone operators, ordered to rain Hellfire missiles down at Afghani peasants vaguely suspected of being militants. These films seem on their face to be worlds apart. Yet in truth, both capture deeply troubling situations in which workers are compelled to produce and reproduce the very culture of violence that envelops us in our everyday lives. These films raise far reaching questions of concern to workers generally: What to do when morality and authority diverge –and how to achieve a modicum of agency and autonomy in a system designed to support neither.

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Image: Geisel Library by Amerique, via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

[Ed note: This is the fifth of six articles in a virtual panel on Who should benefit from organizational research?]

We are all indebted to Jerry Davis for his provocative piece. The issues he raises are frequent objects of discussion but have seldom generated such an insightful challenge to scholarship generally, and to the field of organization studies in particular. Yet I must confess some misgivings with this line of analysis. Let me explain why.

Davis’s argument raises two interrelated points. The first concerns the reward structure that governs academic publication. This reward structure, he contends, has unduly fostered the production of novel (“interesting,” or counter-intuitive) findings, even if these run the risk of being misleading, distorted or even untrue. This is especially the case, given the use of metrics that judge academic merit by virtue of “impact” (a faulty metric if ever there were one). Especially when individual careers (hiring, promotion, mobility) all depend on the individual’s metrics, the production of knowledge is now governed by a system that tends implicitly to pervert the development of knowledge, to lead away from cumulative knowledge, and even to fuel the generation of illusions. His chosen metaphor –the Winchester Mystery House— stands as an object example: a concerted, generations-long effort that serves little or no use, save as a program of job creation whose only product is the very embodiment of irrationality itself.

Davis’s second claim is that we now live in an era when the large corporation has undergone a major shift. Put simply, corporations no longer offer organization studies the same primary constituency as in the past, since the management of human beings has now been given over to computer algorithms, which govern fluctuations in corporate workforces without need for managerial intervention. Under such a regime, the study of management must reconsider the audience for whom it speaks.

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Credit: The New York Times

Credit: The New York Times

LAST WEEK The New York Times ran a set of stories that illustrate just how vital investigative journalism is, especially in an era in which savage capitalism seizes upon vulnerable groups-–immigrant women in powerless positions—and exploits them with impunity, knowing that governmental institutions lack the power, authority, or will to intervene. Written by Sarah Maslin Nir, the stories showed us that the outposts of bourgeois femininity—nail salons– located in virtually all commercial areas, have a dark side to them that is often quite hidden, even to the customers: rampant wage theft and health hazards that are everyday realities facing workers.

In a two part series that will likely win a Pulitzer prize (you read it here first!), Nir reports on the ways in which immigrant networks connect salon owners to a nearly endless flow of Chinese, Viet Namese and Latin American women, many of whom lack documentation or English language facility, and who are easily coerced to work long hours, even for no wages at all. Nir reports that “new employees must pay $100 [for being hired], then work unpaid for several weeks, before they are started at $30 or $40,” this for as many as sixty hours, or more. The highest paid worker in Nir’s report was an Ecuadorean women named Nora Cacho, who “earned 50 percent of the price of every manicure or lip wax she did at a Harlem shop that was part of a chain, Envy Nails.” But Cacho still routinely earned “about $200 for each 66-hour workweek — about $3 an hour” –less than half the federal minimum wage. The industry has developed a skill hierarchy, and especially diligent workers might try to climb it. But doing so requires further payment to owners, who often charge $100 –half a week’s wage—to teach such skills as eyebrow waxing and gel sculpting.

Surviving as a manicurist also requires exposure to substances that are banned in many other nations, are known to disrupt women’s reproductive systems, and that expose workers to a sharply elevated risk of lung disease, skin disorders, and breast cancer. Though manicurists are aware of these risks –they share stories among themselves in hushed tones, and older women advise their younger counterparts to pursue other forms of work if they can— but often, they can’t. Lacking money, documents, and English, they continue working at the salons despite knowing that their bodies (and those of their children, if they are live births) may well pay a heavy price. The object of this labor process –the production of beauty— has a rather different (at times, a disfiguring) appearance from the worker’s point of view. One worker, having survived a struggle with breast cancer, tried but failed to conceal a scar that stretched from her collarbone across her torso. Miscarriages are a commonplace among the manicurists. And one woman’s story is especially tragic, as her son’s cognitive and bodily functioning have been stunted in horrible ways, probably due to her exposure to salon chemicals while she was pregnant..

These sad realities raise at least three far-reaching questions: First, they prompt us to interrogate the politics of femininity in an age of consumer capitalism. Second, they provide us with an image of the abject failure of governmental institutions (until they are shamed into action –see below), which seem unable or unwilling to protect vulnerable workers of color. Third, and by implication, they enable us to glimpse the real nature of the unregulated market capitalism –that is, what you get when you foster a capitalism driven by the race to the bottom. This is an eloquent reminder to those who advocate reduced governmental regulation and who worship at the altar of entrepreneurial activity: This is the face of a perfect, unregulated capitalism, its glamorous mask stripped away, however momentarily.

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greenhouse head shotSteven Greenhouse has had a distinguished career as a journalist. Trained initially as an attorney, he served as a longtime correspondent for The New York Times. He is perhaps best known as the Times’s senior labor reporter and as the author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (Anchor, 2009). Upon announcing his recent decision to step down from his post at the Times, many readers lamented the loss of the nation’s most important reporter on the labor beat –a tribe that some feel has faced major challenges. Work in Progress is pleased to post this interview with Steven Greenhouse, with much gratitude. Read More

not4sale From time to time I write about the commercialization of higher education. Some of my writings are even based on actual research, using interviews with administrators and faculty at various universities. Yet, I have to confess that my own administrative involvements –two long stints as chair of large departments– have provided me with insights that no interview could provide, sensitizing me to the commercial pressures affecting virtually everything about higher education these days.

A case in point: the emergence of revenue generating Master’s programs. This is of course a global phenomenon –one in which European universities  are actually ahead of their US counterparts. American universities are catching up rapidly, though, largely due to declining levels of state support for higher education and to demographic shifts that have reduced the supply of naïve 18-year olds with access to federal loans. Another factor (which sorely needs attention) is the spread of new budget systems such as “resource centered management” which require each academic division to generate its own revenue, rather than relying on the largesse of the central administration. The results of these pressures have compelled many universities to fetishize enrollments to an unprecedented degree. Thus one exasperated colleague of mine, appalled by the revenue-driven nature of curricular design these days, remarked that she had begun to feel “we’re not trying to educate students so much as capture them.” It seems that we’ve moved beyond seeing students as mere “customers,” and now view them as virtual ATMs.

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Northeastern University adjuncts organized successfully on their own behalf.

Northeastern University adjuncts organized successfully on their own behalf.

There’s a great deal of discussion about the “corporatization” of the university, or about “academic capitalism,” and the infusion of market logics into higher education. Much of this literature has followed the money and –reasonably enough— emphasized the growing academic effort to capture commercially lucrative knowledge, large public grants, or tuition dollars. I myself have contributed to this literature, however modestly. But because I have also held administrative positions, I have access to at least some inside knowledge about the “corporatization” of the academy. And this more experiential form of data convinces me that the study of higher education has been somewhat one-sided, in that it has ignored important changes in budget and accounting systems within the academy (such as “resource-centered management”), or the spread of marketing and institutional “branding,” which have powerfully infused market logics into many leading American universities. Another issue that warrants much closer attention than it has received is what we might call (however inelegantly) the “adjunctification” of the professoriat.

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Chris Warhurst raises a number of issues that warrant careful attention. One stems from the still-considerable boundary between UK and US sociology – trends “over there” don’t map on to what’s happening in the USA (to the detriment of both sides, I might add). A second and related issue concerns the fate of the sociology of work and employment –empirically rich and ascendant, relative to economics? Or in the doldrums and losing its audience? A third is the jurisdictional struggle between culturally attuned areas of study (cultural studies, gender studies) on the one hand, and more structurally oriented approaches toward the “hidden abode.” Let me comment on these in turn.

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In making sense of the desegregation trajectories that have developed since passage of the Civil Rights Act, the book makes highly creative use of social closure theory, applied alongside the shifting American political landscape. The book finds that racial and gender segregation has remained especially pronounced in higher paying industries and occupations (much as closure theory would predict). But the book also finds that organizations that rely on formal professional credentials exhibit a much more level playing field than do firms that rely on less formal markers of skill and expertise. This finding calls for important modifications in social closure theory, since it suggests that educational credentials can enable (and not merely block) access to job rewards among historically excluded groups. This is a vital and important finding. But in presenting these results, the book does not always show us why this pattern is the case. Did the class or racial advantages that white women enjoy give them easier access to credentialing institutions? Was the effect of meritocracy also apparent in industries that rely heavily personnel in STEM fields? Or are the leveling effects of educational credentials limited to professional contexts such as law, accounting, social work and teaching? Arguably, heavily feminized professions account for much of this meritocracy effect. My point is that the nature and sources of the meritocracy trend need more discussion than the authors provide.

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