Author Archives: Steven Vallas

Lately, I’ve become convinced that those of us who study work organizations have kind of missed the boat. Which boat? I suppose that vessel can best be described as popular culture. Let me explain.

I teach social theory pretty often, and if you do that, you more or less have to come to grips with the relation between power, culture, and social inequality. With me so far?

So. When I put on my sociology of work hat, and read through our various efforts to understand the working out of power, I find it hard not to feel as if this field is culturally deprived. Oh sure, there’s a slew of studies focusing on organizational culture (whatever that means). But very, very little that asks where and how workers acquire the images of work and authority  which they bring with them into their work situations.

It’s as if we’ve missed the “cultural turn” entirely, abandoning the whole field of popular culture to the cultural studies types (most of whom wouldn’t know honest employment if they fell over it).

lion as md

Kidding there! But I am serious when I opine that we need to pay much closer attention to media, television, movies, advertising, magazines, and children’s literature.

Which brings me to the odd-looking image shown above. One of my department’s graduate students gave me as a Christmas present Richard Scarry’s book, What Do People Do all Day? A classic kid’s book, it uses animals to represent the division of labor that exists in Busytown. On a lark (so to speak), I googled the book, and eventually came up with a brilliant piece of analysis by John Levi Martin (see his 2000 article, “What Do Animals Do All Day?” in Poetics). To oversimplify greatly: Martin constructs a sophisticated empirical analysis of nearly 300 children’s books, and finds that there is a marked tendency for these texts to represent certain animals in particular kinds of jobs. Jobs that allow the occupant to exercise authority over others tend to be held by predatory animals (especially foxes), but never by “lower” animals (mice or pigs). Pigs in particular are substantially overrepresented in  subordinate jobs (those with low skill and no authority), where their overweight bodies and (judging from the plots of these books) congenital stupidity seems to “naturally” equip them for subservient jobs. Here, see this additional image from Scarry’s book, showing construction work being performed by the above-mentioned swine.

pigs as laborers

In effect, Martin’s point is that there is a hidden language or code inscribed in children’s books, which teaches kids to view inequalities within the division of labor as a “natural” fact of life –that is, as a reflection of the inherent characteristics of the workers themselves.  Young readers learn (without realizing it, of course) that some species-beings are simply better equipped to hold manual or service jobs, while other creatures ought to be professionals. Once this code is acquired by pre-school children, he suggests, it becomes exceedingly difficult to unlearn.

Levi Martin’s paper reminds me of the important 1997 paper in ASR by Bernice Pescosolido and her colleagues, who studied the portrayal of blacks in children’s books (and found some very interesting patterns, involving the “symbolic annihilation” of African Americans in this literary genre). So it seems reasonable to ask: Why don’t we have more such studies in the sociology of work and social inequalities? In answering the question, “How do people learn to labor?” (the play on Paul Willis’s classic title is fully intended), haven’t we focused too narrowly on the workplace itself, to the neglect of earlier stages of life or extra-organizational life (e.g., popular culture) as such?

To be sure, there is a small handful of studies that have examined how work is represented in popular culture –but reviewing this literature doesn’t take much time. Beth Montemurro has written an interesting analysis of how sexual harassment is transformed into the substance of comedy on television (see her 2003 article, “Not a Laughing Matter,” in Sex Roles).

Kelly Massoni has a smart analysis called “Modeling Work: Occupational Messages in Seventeen Magazine” that appeared in Gender and Society, in 2004. The latter piece argues that the skewed occupational images presented to teenage girls generate highly distorted occupational aspirations, ill-equipping them to navigate the world of paid employment. But these studies are really the exception, with the larger patten a pronounced silence in this field. And there is virtually nothing that traces the “reception” of cultural objects by those who listen to, read, or watch them.

Which leads me to suggest that it’s time for us to think anew about work organizations. In a culture such as ours, which provides few if any outlets for discussion about the nature of work, maybe there’s a reason why “The Office,” and “Dilbert” are so popular. Or why some of the best and most engaging television shows –“The West Wing,” “House,” and even “The Wire” –are at their heart dramatizations of workplace life. The only puzzling thing is why we sociologists of work have largely neglected this point.

It’s an old debate, actually –think back to the 1950s, when a burgeoning literature emerged on the employment effect of automation. Or, think about fictitious portrayals such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, which provided a dystopian image of a corporate-dominated society in which paid employment was virtually obsolete. More recently, we’ve seen books by such well-known scholars as Stanley Aronowitz, Jeremy Rifkin, Andre Gorz, and Ulrich Beck, among others, all adopting the Cassandra-like cry: Bid Farewell to Work!

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One remarkable development, just aired live on line, concerning the administrative turmoil at the University of Virginia: the university’s board has relented, admitted its procedural misstep in ousting President Teresa Sullivan, and unanimously voted to reinstate her. She will therefore retain her position as President of the University. Terry is known to many of us as an accomplished sociologist of work and a visionary administrator. She will now have the ability to continue on in her appointed role. As I type, Sullivan is making a statement about this whole series of events and her hopes for the university in the coming years.

Obviously, this whole episode has raised any number of issues about the future of higher education: the bearing of institutional traditions on administrative decision making;  the right of various constituencies (students, faculty, deans) to participate in critical decisions about university strategy; and the relation between business thinking and the ideals of the liberal arts today. It also draws attention to the threats that higher education faces so frequently today, with Cassandra-like calls for urgent restructuring in ways that are sure to limit the space on which critical inquiry depends.  Had UVA students, faculty, 33 department chairs, and 10 deans not formed common cause in support of their institution’s mission, an autocratic process would surely have prevailed. To my mind, the threats facing American universities would have grown that much more pronounced.

There will be much coverage and commentary about this event; see the Washington Post for further reporting. Feel free to post comments on this whole affair –and on the changes convulsing your own institution.

UVA Faculty Senate convene in an emergency session, June 17, 2012

Many of us in OOW study the social organization of higher education, the emergence of the knowledge economy, or the growing influence of corporate logics on university campuses. So it is particularly ironic that we face a highly significant case involving the dismissal of the most administratively accomplished sociologist of work in the United States. I’m referring of course to the ouster, eight days ago, of Dr. Teresa Sullivan, a sociologist and a leading administrator. As the former Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Texas Austin, former Provost at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Sullivan brought a distinguished record into her term as President of the University of Virginia. All of us who know her, however obliquely (as in my case) perceive a razor sharp intellect, a self-effacing human being, and an inspiring instructor. (She continued to teach the sociology of work even while serving as UVA President.)

All of which would have provided the basis for pride –that is, until June 3rd, when UVA’s Board summarily announced Sullivan’s resignation. In truth, she’d been forced out under highly questionable circumstances, sending the campus into a roiling controversy ever since. The upshot? Powerful donors have called for an end to gift giving unless those who ousted Sullivan are sent packing. The university Senate held an emergency meeting on June 18, for the purpose of taking a no- confidence vote against the leaders of the University Board (in Virginia parlance, the Rector and Vice-Rector). Thirty-three department chairs wrote a letter to the Rector, protesting Sullivan’s summary dismissal and asking for her return. Even the sitting Provost of the university publicly distanced himself from the Board’s actions, expressed his ethical distaste for the process they invoked. Much if not most of the public commentary and debate has involved demands for Sullivan’s return and indignation at the treatment she and the institution have endured.

So why should non-Virginians care? The answer lies in the clash of visions that led to Sullivan’s ouster. Though the details are still somewhat murky –the Board has refused to give any account of the issues that led to their actions—some clarity is beginning to emerge, partly thanks to the Washington Post’s detailed coverage of this case, partly from leaks and statements of UVA faculty (see the insightful article by UVA scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan, in Slate magazine), and partly from the strategic vision memo that Sullivan wrote roughly six months ago. What all of this material suggests is that UVA has been the site of an intense organizational struggle for the soul of the modern public university. Those who forced Sullivan out –a billionaire hedge fund manager and a wealthy real estate developer— seem to hold a vision of the university that relegates the liberal arts to the periphery of the campus, while placing market-friendly organizational logics at the core of UVA’s operations. For her part, Sullivan sought to strengthen the historic foundations of the university, adapting its long-standing commitments in ways that comport with 21st century realities. Here, in other words, was a clash between two opposing entities: On the one hand, a small group of aggressive and ambitious businesspeople, appointed by yet another right-wing governor, seeking to remake UVA in their own image; and on the other hand, a staunch advocate of the liberal arts tradition that has served UVA so well for generations.

Questions abound. Is this higher education’s Wisconsin moment? Can the Board of Visitors prevail, in spite of growing opposition from students, faculty, donors, and alumni? If so sudden and arbitrary a change in an institution’s core mission can happen at the University of Virginia, what does that portend for less well endowed and less privileged institutions? What will happen to our own workplaces, in other words, if so venerable an institution can be lurched in a direction that is alien to its mission?

Sociologists of work organizations who wish to express their views of this case might want to send messages directly to Dr. John Simon, the Provost at UVA ( And of course, please feel free to post a comment on this case directly to the OOW blog, especially as these events unfold.

National Labor Relations Board officials count votes at Northeastern University
April 12, 2012
Author’s Photo

There is by now a sprawling literature on the spread of precarious employment. Arne Kalleberg’s important new book on this topic, Good Jobs, Bad Jobs, is a case in point. Guy Standing’s book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, is another. A few years ago, the harsher side of this phenomenon was documented by Annette Bernhardt and her colleagues, in The Gloves Off Economy on the growing willingness of employers to violate even the basics of employment law.

But we academics often seem to assume that bad jobs exist largely outside our own institutions. So it’s worth asking: How are the terms and conditions of employment changing at our home institutions? How are the workers who support our universities faring in the current economy? What is work like for employees performing functions that have been outsourced by our universities? And what opportunities exist that might help workers reshape the terms and conditions of employment they currently face? In other words, what do we do when outsourcing hits home?

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Many of us are watching with rapt attention as events in Oakland, Atlanta, and many other cities unfold. The police actions in NYC at the outset of the movement, and now the use of tear gas by police (and the serious injury inflicted on a Marine veteran) all play into the movement dynamics in very interesting ways. Readers will want to visit our sister blog, Sociological Images, for a very interesting story by Gwen Sharp, who presents a provocative graph charting what seems to be a dialectical relation between police repression and media coverage, in keeping with social movement theory. And yesterday, many national newspapers were reporting that many cities (New York, Oakland) were beginning to back off, perhaps sensing the tactical disadvantages that repression involves.

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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.

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