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The book’s scope is sweeping:  it details a half century of the political landscape of social change and also attends to the micro–organizational and local–levels.  In other words, the authors successfully position themselves both on the balcony and the dance floor:  The balcony gives them the wide-ranging view, and the dance floor lets them show off the intricate footwork at the local and organizational levels.

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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.

In this holiday season, we hear a lot about what people want.

Most kids and many adults want presents of various sorts.  Other people may want to lose weight, eat healthier, or exercise more in the new year.

All this attention to what people want reminds me that I want something too.  I would like scholars who study work, occupations, and organizations, to spend more time collecting and analyzing what people want from their jobs (i.e., studying work-related preferences). Read More

Both men and women experience job discrimination when occupations are closely associated with either masculinity or femininity.  In my research on “men who do women’s work,” I found that men are often excluded from occupations that involve close contact with children due to stereotypes about male sexuality and suspicions of pedophilia.  Homophobia is often at the core of these damaging and destructive stereotypes.

Partially because of these stereotypes, men constitute only 2-3 percent of all preschool and kindergarten teachers.  However, those who remain in the occupation seem to do pretty well.  Data on median weekly earnings indicate that men out-earn women in this occupation by a sizeable amount—more than $700 compared to women’s $600.  (However, note that the occupation as a whole is woefully underpaid—no one is exactly thriving in these mostly dead-end jobs!)

So men are both discriminated against AND they earn more money than women.  How can we make sense of this paradox?

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Like Lata Murti, I, too, have been thinking, teaching, and writing about men and women at work for a long time, and my initial reaction to her story is one of regret for Adam.  Nearly simultaneously, though, I think about my own daughter and what my spouse and I expect of the people who care for her.  When I look back at the history of her baby-sitters, the majority of them (all but one) were women.  And when I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure I can dismiss the possibility that each of those independent decisions was gendered in some way.

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Religion is not territory we’ve covered in any real detail here on our blog. The Democratic Party Platform, however, has raised an interesting intersection between work and religion that deserves some attention. Last week, the Democratic Party opted to alter the language of its 2012 Party Platform to remove the word “God” (though they have since reinstated the language). This created an immediate stir among Democrats and Republicans, and elicited an highly critical response from Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (his comments on the removal of “God” are at the beginning of the video). What this debate reveals is the particular way in which the Democratic platform describes, in the same breath, individual labor, and religion.

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Last week the WSJ printed an article describing how CEOs around the world spend their time.  The article drew on data from a larger study, the Executive Time Use Project , and relied on reports of time use by CEO’s personal assistants.  The article indicates that assistants only tracked activities that lasted over 10 minutes in a single week selected by researchers.  That assistants, rather than the CEOs themselves, were keeping track of time use leads me to believe the reports are relatively accurate.  After all, the assistant probably does most of the scheduling of a CEOs day and CEOs are likely too busy to track data time or to agree to record their time use.

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A few days ago, I wrote about the ways in which the unemployment rate ‘hides’ the reality of unemployment. Yesterday, the Associated Press put out a story about long term unemployment that captures some of the daily struggles of several individuals who have been without work for some time. It was picked up by quite a few major newspapers, including the Washington Post. If you have not already seen the article, I highly encourage you to check it out.