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Neumann1

by Pamela Neumann

Why do so many people put up with highly contaminated living conditions? Conventional academic wisdom suggests that many communities do not protest environmental degradation because they are afraid of losing their jobs. They trade their health for the promise of employment.

My recent research in the Peruvian town of La Oroya, which is plagued by dangerously high lead levels, questions this dominant framework for understanding community responses to environmental hazards.

Instead, I argue that many residents’ reluctance to protest against pervasive lead contamination is tied to deeply held perceptions and beliefs about their town’s identity, and particularly a desire to protect their community from perceived outsiders. While material incentives do drive social action (or inaction) at times, it is also imperative to analyze how localized cultural processes—such as how people make sense of their own surroundings—contribute to the dynamics of social mobilization, as well as the reproduction of economic and environmental inequalities.

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It’s an old question, really, but an important one — are managerial practices and work design responsible for the behavior of employees? Or does worker engagement and behavior come down to individual personalities, with responsibility thus resting primarily with workers? And what are the impacts on a firm’s financial success?

These questions received newfound attention with the publication of a study conducted by the Gallup organization, based on deceptively interesting survey data. Interesting, because they mirror critical concepts we sociologists of work use in our research. Deceptive, because the report stands as a textbook example of the kind of shallow reasoning that results when analysts proceed without concepts such as power, organizational design, and the normative climate fostered by management.

The report, titled “State of the American Workplace:  Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders ” uses data collected from individuals and their employers to show that a variety of factors that Gallup terms “employee engagement” enhance productivity, profitability and customer ratings while reducing accidents, theft, absenteeism, turnover and defects.

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Young and Isolated

by Jennifer M. Silva

(This article was originally published in the New York Times. The original version can be read here.)

In a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Mass., in early 2009, I sat across the table from Diana, then 24, in the kitchen of her mother’s house. Diana had planned to graduate from college, marry, buy a home in the suburbs and have kids, a dog and a cat by the time she was 30. But she had recently dropped out of a nearby private university after two years of study and with nearly $80,000 in student loans. Now she worked at Dunkin’ Donuts.

“With college,” she explained, “I would have had to wait five years to get a degree, and once I get that, who knows if I will be working and if I would find something I wanted to do. I don’t want to be a cop or anything. I don’t know what to do with it. My manager says some people are born to make coffee, and I guess I was born to make coffee.”

Young working-class men and women like Diana are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks. Today, only 20 percent of men and women between 18 and 29 are married. They live at home longer, spend more years in college, change jobs more frequently and start families later.

For more affluent young adults, this may look a lot like freedom. But for the hundred-some working-class 20- and 30-somethings I interviewed between 2008 and 2010 in Lowell and Richmond, Va., at gas stations, fast-food chains, community colleges and temp agencies, the view is very different.

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The Luddite sees industrial robots everywhere and, fearing negative effects on employment, begins to rage against the machines.

Seeing the same robots, the (liberal) economist exclaims, “What marvelous labor-saving technology. This will maximize productivity, and jobs that are lost in this factory will be replaced with high-tech jobs elsewhere in the economy!”

The Marxist sighs, and responds, “Is this some sort of joke? In the US today, seventeen percent of the American workforce – 27 million individual workers – is unemployed or underemployed.”

 

I imagined this scenario as I read the most recent entry in the New York Times’ consistently excellent series on the iEconomy, which focused on a new generation of robots being deployed in manufacturing.

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Last week saw the release of monthly employment data by the Labor Department. At face value, the overall news was good – the unemployment rate in the United States, at approximately 8.6%, is at its lowest projected level in years. However, as a recent op-ed in The Economist noted, the state of the union remains dire. Much of the malaise can be felt within the ostensibly improving American job market, where in spite of some good news there are plenty of reasons to remain cautious.

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