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Tag Archives: aesthetic labor

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Media headlines of late are challenging our presumptions about what is invisible labor.

Amazon, for instance, announced the opening of a store that eliminates the frontline job of cashiers – as well as the checkout lane and all the self-checkout machines. Instead, this work will be done through the automatic scanning of consumer movements around the store and on the shelves. Live employment will be diverted to locations behind the scenes, in labors of preparing and stocking the food.

Likewise, in my home state of Missouri, a waitress at Hooters was fired for failing to do the work of looking right on the job. That labor involved wearing a wig (bought at her own expense) to cover scar on her head after returning from brain surgery, and thus upholding gendered and sexualized appearance rules at work.

Even acts of resistance on the job are telling, like when an African-American employee broke a stained-glass window in the Yale dining hall where he washed dishes. Outraged by a scene depicting slaves picking cotton, he was no longer willing to do the work of idly supporting in a discriminatory organizational environment.

Automation, aesthetic labor, and racial tasks are examples of contemporary ways that the workplace is disempowering workers and submerging the types of tasks they are expected to do. This is the starting point of a new book I co-edited with two legal scholars, Marion Crain and Miriam Cherry.

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Teen barista

Source: Wikimedia Commons

On a bitterly cold day, Josh, like many other teenagers, traveled many miles to get to the coffee shop, where he works part-time. Despite experiencing car troubles, nearly having a car accident, and spending hours in heavy traffic, he arrived at the coffee shop only to do a double shift, carry heavy loads of garbage in the cold, and deal with a hectic day of selling hot beverages to demanding customers.

Even though his school was in session, he chose to come to work instead of going to class at the local college, where he is getting his degree in theater and humanities. When I asked him why he chose his work over his studies, he told me they need him here: “Nobody notices when I am not [in class].” Unlike at school, they notice him at work. He feels needed—like a hot cup of cocoa on a cold day.

Josh, like many other teenagers, works “part-time” while still in school, but do not be fooled by what he calls part-time work. “Part-time” sounds like a few hours of work scattered throughout the week, but he was at the coffee shop every day of the past week. Even on the days when he was not scheduled to work, he stopped by to hang out with his friends. He did not just stand idly by; he also helped the friends who were working.

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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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While the first flight attendants were male and many early airlines had a ban on hiring women, flight attending would eventually become a quintessentially female occupation.  Airline marketers exploited the presence of these female flight attendants.  Based on my reading — especially Phil Tiemeyer‘s Plane Queer and Kathleen Barry’s history of flight attendants’ labor activism — there seem to have been three stages.

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young good looking retail workers

It has become something of an orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic that job quality is polarising into good and bad jobs. A lot of attention in the US and UK is focused on making these bad jobs better. It is less well appreciated that good jobs can go bad and that bad jobs can get even worse. It might be that aesthetic labour contributes to the latter.

Much of the initial research into aesthetic labour has analysed retail jobs. Employment in retail constitutes what might be termed a ‘bad job’. Most jobs in retail are low skill and retail is one of the main low wage industries in the US and UK.

It seems that this bad job is getting worse however as retail companies seek to aestheticise their workforce, hiring employees who look good or sound right. Two developments have emerged as a consequence of this aestheticisation strategy by employers.

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Cream

If it’s springtime in Paris, it has to be if not sex then at least summer in the city – New York City. Luckily the American Sociological Association held its annual conference in Manhattan this August. The theme was ‘Interrogating Inquality’. Playing to this theme Ashley Mears of Boston University had organised a panel session on the sociology of appearance.

Along with my colleague Dennis Nickson, I’d been asked to present on the ‘dark side’ of aesthetic labour – ‘lookism’. Lookism is discrimination on the grounds of appearance. Or as Ayto bluntly states, ‘uglies are done down and beautiful people get all the breaks’. According to Tietje and Cresap, the term was first used in print by the Washington Post in the late 1970s. For us the issue is inequalities in access to employment based on prescribed and proscribed looks. I finished reading through my presentation notes as my plane touched down in Newark. As it taxied to the apron, I found myself wondering, Carry Bradshaw style, if the uglies are being put down, who or what decides who is good looking or at least has the right look?

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You shouldn’t keep a good tattoo hidden – unless that is if you’re a company worried about scaring your customers. Air New Zealand is one such company. It has refused to hire a job applicant because she had a visible traditional Maori tattoo; Maoris of course being the first people of what became New Zealand. The applicant, Claire Nathan thought the company ‘would be quite proud to have someone with a ta moko working and representing New Zealand’. Instead the company stated that  ‘We want all of our customers to feel comfortable and happy when travelling on our services and this has been a key driver of our grooming standard which, like many other international airlines, prevents customer facing staff from having visible tattoos.’

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