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Image: UNIDO via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Image: UNIDO via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

by Maria Azocar and Myra Marx Ferree

Important changes are under way in the world of lawyers. Their work has become increasingly dominated by large organizations, globalization has re-structured their work to be increasingly transnational, and demographic changes have redefined the profession. For example, an increasing participation of women in the legal profession is a global trend, with Latin American countries leading the rankings in terms of the number of women who enroll in and graduate from law schools.

What can the sociology of professions say about these changes? The consensus view of the field would be that these changes will translate into increasing jurisdictional battles over lawyers’ claims to expertise. Expertise is sociologically understood as knowledge that people have to accomplish a given task (Abbott 1988; Freidson 2001; Larson 1979). In this scholarship, the focus of study is often on the sites where expertise is produced and recognized, for example in practices of credentialing and licensing. Gender (and other) inequalities in a profession would be analyzed in terms of women’s struggles with men who are often considered more valuable workers or through considering the causes and effects of sex segregation in setting values, rewards or access to power.

These are important insights, but from a gender perspective, expertise not only involves practices of discrimination against women or the segregation of women from men. Expertise can itself be gendered through the differential evaluations of competences and expert claims. Science studies, especially actor-network theory (Latour 1987, Eyal 2013), also suggest asking how objects, technologies, and institutions are gendered and how they acquire stability as jurisdictional boundaries. In addition to claims and competences, networks of social arrangements can be gendered, and their gender can work independently of the gender of the individuals making use of them to advance their relative position.

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Wal-Mart Warehouse in Chile

Warehouse work, hidden by its very nature from the view of the general public, is increasingly a low wage job. Dave Jamieson, a reporter for the Huffington Post recently wrote an excellent piece on working conditions inside U.S. warehouses http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/20/new-blue-collar-temp-warehouses_n_1158490.html. While his discoveries about piece rate systems and subcontracting are not new, he shows how the industry has significantly changed in the last decade. The article reminded me a lot of my early work on the garment industry in Los Angeles, where mostly Asian and Latina workers toiled in sweatshops. It has become clear that warehouse work for corporations such as Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon are examples of the new American sweatshop. Read More

In April I participated in the union assembly of Wal-Mart warehouse workers in Santiago, Chile. When I was invited to the meeting I thought to myself “how many workers are really going to come to a meeting on a Sunday morning at 9am.” Much to my surprise, the union had rented a theatre. Of the 1500 warehouse workers in Santiago, 1200 showed up that morning. I was blown away.

Wal-Mart workers in Chile are overwhelmingly unionized. This is in stark contrast to the U.S. situation where workers who have been trying to unionize have been shut down time and again with Wal-Mart’s aggressive anti-union tactics.

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