To Suck or Not To Suck - Part of a Series
Cross-posted from The Global Sociology Blog.
Progress!! I managed to get Japanese food AND utensils, which avoided my having to resort to the same creative, yet shameful, solution as I did yesterday.
Things that suck
Please, my fellow sociologists: do NOT bring a goddamn infant to a presentation... believe it or not, it'll end up crying (no way??!!)... and you may be used to your spawn wailing, but it annoys the rest of us (especially me, which is all that matters).
CLIQUES!! Star sociologists hang out together and with the few non-stars that managed to latch on to them and ignore the rest of the vulgum pecus.
Things that do NOT suck
Being reminded why sociology is great and important and why I majored in it in the first place.
Panel 1 - Public Sociology
Ok, so, on to business. The first panel I attended was a panel on public sociology regarding sociology and the media.
[Disclaimer: I'm a big supporter of public sociology, which is why I blog... duh.]
The reality is that sociology gets a short shrift in the media. We're not the ones being called to comment or provide expertise on news stories. Usually, when one sees social scientists on TV or elsewhere, it's economists (who don't challenge market mechanisms) or psychologists (who reinforce the individualistic ideology) and both categories like to play hard scientists.
It's a shame and it's partially our fault: there are no academic rewards in terms of engaging the public or the media. Heck, blogging or writing op-eds usually does not count toward tenure or pay raises. And we write badly. Writing op-eds and columns should be part of the curriculum. Usually, the sociologists who get calls from the media are the "stars" from the field and they are usually identified by their specialization ("expert on race relations") rather than by the discipline as a whole.
And then, there is always the risk of "tainting" oneself by going to the media and the risk of being misquoted or to have one's comments distorted to fit into a media narrative that one does not want to be associated with.
Finally, the topics we deal with are so diverse that the media and the public have a very poor understanding of what exactly it is we do. They know what economists and psychologists do. It's not so clear for sociology.
And as usual, the Scandinavians, in this case, Norway, put us to shame with their university missions based on research, teaching and dissemination (geez, what a concept) inscribed in national law: "Specialized research groups shall ensure that scientific knowledge is communicated to a broader audience outside of the research community." That is, they require their academics to be public intellectuals through the popularization of their findings and participation in public discourse. This is something not only missing in the US, but potentially dangerous to one's job and career as public participation is seen as contradictory with the academic mission. Norway is the country that has the largest number of sociologists per capita and they are the most active public intellectuals. And to quote my Norwegian colleague:
"The role of academics as public intellectuals are oriented toward creating and maintaining rationality in cultural reproduction and democratic discourse."
Like I said, Scandinavians put us to shame.
Of course, I made a forceful case for blogging... there are quite a few socbloggers (see my sidebar at my blog) but they often blog about academia and that is only of interest to academics. Heck, even I get bored with that. It may help in terms of networking but it's often more self-help than public sociology. Also, blogging is a form of writing in itself that fits the theme of popularization fairly well and it would not be a bad idea for some of us to learn to write without the jargon and the never-ending sentences.
So, let's disseminate through blogging, I say!
Panel 2 - The meaning of work - What is Work?
Work is the theme of this year's meeting. This is truly a reflection of ASA President Arne Kallenberg. The panelists were Richard Sennett and Arlie Hochschild (she of The Second Shift). It was masterful on the part of either presenters.
Arlie Hochschild started her presentation with noting that a lot of discussions have centered on outsourcing and off-shoring and that the jobs affected by that were mostly men's jobs, industrial jobs. At the same time, there is limited discussion of the jobs imported into the US, mostly done by women of color, and that are a part of what she calls the Emotional Life Industry (something explored incredibly powerfully in her book with Barbara Ehrenreich, Global Woman).
Like many labor markets, the Emotional Life Industry has a high end and a low end. At the high end, we find nurses, therapists, life coaches, management gurus, heck, there are even coaches to help you pick the name of your child (not kidding). These are usually white men, fairly decently paid, born in the US, well-educated. At the low end, there the maids, nannies, child/elder care workers, women, badly paid, with variable education levels (especially for immigrants), with a high turnover, often migrants and usually non-White. There does not seem to be a noticeable middle category here.
All these occupations have in common to that they deal with emotional labor (as opposed to manual or intellectual labor), that is, when face-to-face contact and management of emotional dynamics and interactions is an integral part of the job. Emotional labor requires that such workers be able to suppress their own feelings and emotions to be open to those of their clients. This is the sector in which there has been a lot of job creation.
As the majority of women in the US find themselves in the labor market, the result has not been a more equal distribution of domestic labor (including emotional labor) but rather an outsourcing of it onto to others: nannies, maids, etc. It is something that Western countries extract from the Global South because we can pay for it. We buy emotional labor like any other commodity.
At the same time, corporations themselves have long engaged in emotional management (as Hochschild studied in her other book, The Managed Heart) because at the same time that corporations have embraced short-termism as labor policy, they still want to pretend to provide the illusion of communities for their workers, what Hochschild calls "corporation minus Durkheim".
Short-termism is actually one of the topics that Richard Sennett developed in terms of structural and human consequences. Short-term (and actually shorter-term) is at the heart of the new economy. The main problem in the new economy is not the absence of capital but the organization of work in pursuit of short-term profits. When reading the investment press, there is a clear push to re-organize a variety of sectors and organizations - hospitals, schools - based on the model of the investment firm, especially in terms of reconfiguration of time. For instance, in the 1980, stocks were held for an average of 6 months. Today, it is 3.8 months.
What drives the new economy is the price structure of stocks, not profits [FD's note: something Will Hutton describes well in his book, A Declaration of Interdependence] an because of his driving principle, it is desirable practice to invest in failing companies if there are returns on investments to be made. In a sense, it is possible to have stockholders working against managers. This is also makes the influx of investments or capital more erratic in the system. For investors, it does not matter whether a company has viable projects or products but the factors that affect stock value, on the short-term.
This short-term logic also affects the organization of work and mechanisms of surveillance and control. The disaggregation of work means that teams are constantly shifting and that chains of management are also constantly dismantled. In addition to no more careers for life (Sennett explored the consequences of that in The Corrosion of Character and Respect in a World of Inequality), the elimination of middle layers in corporate structure (dismissed as fat... the organization has to be lean and mean... I'll let you ponder the symbolic dimension of that).
So, in terms of control, there is now a situation, intra-firms, where the core/centers control the periphery (as opposed to the top-middle-down structure of control of the Weberian bureaucracy). Power ends up being more centralized than in the Fordist model. The core can relatively easily reconfigure the parts in terms of structure, function and division of labor. In other words, there is more flexibility AND more control within organizations.
What are the human consequences of this?
On the + side, it's great for people who want to work short-term. On the other hand, there is now less autonomy. There is also an issue that one of Sennett's students focuses on: the lackof procedural justice. When the person who evaluates you is gone two weeks later, who do you appeal to? Where do you get rewards for your work in the absence of relatively constant face-to-face contacts (this ties up with Hochschild's work on emotional labor). Instead, what is left is impersonal assessment technology (for instance) and impersonal processes which strip away at the human dimension and the negotiation component of interaction.
Another human consequence of short-termism and the stripping of the middle layer of corporations is the lack of investment in skills. In this context, it is counter-productive for firms to build skills or train people. The goal is not to make workers more skilled but to buy skills or just hire skilled workers for as long as their skills are needed, then discard them. Investing in "en-skilling" workers requires a long-term logic.
In this sense, obtaining skills is no longer a collective project at the level of the firm, but an individual one. It is up to the worker to obtain whatever skills the labor market finds desirable and market oneself. This process of individualization is also a source of insecurity and stress.
[FD's note: this ties in well with the devaluation of experience and the valuation of skills that I mentioned in my review of Making the Cut.]
So, for Sennett, we are witnessing an epochal shift in what it means to live by one's work, a transformation as great as that of the 19th century and there are still ambiguities and we often get the trends wrong: "working from home" has not become the new form of work because it lacks the informal dimensions of sociability and information transmission that organizations implicitly rely on. Remember the "paperless office"... that was supposed to be the next trend! In other words, management and business experts keep getting processes wrong as to what's going on. This is something he also examines in his book The Culture of the New Capitalism.
Gosh I REALLY need to post on the culture of management!