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To Suck or Not To Suck - Part of a Series

FrenchDoc's picture

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!

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vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

1. What's the # of months in "For instance, in the 1980, stocks were held for an average of months"?

2. Both work-from-home and paperlessness have been legitimate trends for some time. They've been much more evolutionary than the promised revolution, but I think they are indeed notable trends of the post-1995 business world.

Interesting commentary on short-termism. I understand that even in jobs with long educational investments, including law, firms are finding that people no longer make anything close to lifetime commitments to them. This trend is being fed both by increasingly utilitarian companies and by increasingly detached employees.

FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

1. 6 months in the 1980s, 3.8 now. (Corrected the post).

2. Actually, I remember reading several studies indicating that the use of paper had increased in companies after the IT revolution because more documents circulated and more were actually printed (I'm on my way out but I'll look for those). Similarly, in Europe, Andersen (pre-Enron) was suppressing office space and replacing them with cubicles that employees could "rent" for specific tasks but otherwise, they were expected to be out in the field or at home. That was presented as cutting edge at the time.

But there was a backlash against that in terms of morale.

You're right on 2... of course, this follows the massive layoffs of the 80 and 90s where firms showed no commitment to their employees. Again, this is an individualizing trend.

badger's picture
Submitted by badger on

that offshoring and outsourcing affect "mostly" men's jobs.

In terms of numbers, it might be 60-40 male to female, or even 80-20, but if the "mostly" allows people to gloss over the fact that it affects women or to consider it not a women's issue that would be very unfortunate.

For example, a lot of the jobs lost to China and similar places are light assembly and similar jobs (electronics, electro-mechanical, appliances, injection molding, etc) - traditionally women's jobs and, where unionized, paying nearly as well as men's factory work. As early as the 1970s (from personal experience), those industries also provided paths for women to advance to low level or even mid-to-upper level management jobs as foremen, in production control, purchasing or other materials management areas, and even in related fields like sales. In addition, the outsourcing trend reduces the opportunities for women to follow a "non-traditional" employment track (eg - engineering, technician) - something I participated in during the early 1980s, but is now disappearing. All of this also included advancement for women of color, and was largely merit-based. It also impacts the number of women with necessary skills to start their own business in the affected areas. If nothing else, watch Norma Rae, which depicts women's industrial jobs now largely offshored.

Similarly, a lot of reasonably good-paying jobs traditionally held by a larger percentage of women have been offshored or automated out of existence (effectively the same thing) including things like telephone operators, various call-center jobs, and even many clerical positions.

Male participation in the workforce has been steadily declining since WW II, but until recently women's participation had been steadily increasing over the same period. Workforce participation by women has now been declining as well in recent years. I doubt that's because women are winning the lottery in large numbers, or getting married and staying home.

FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

And I would agree with "most" of what you write. One note of caution, I write these posts from my notes and therefore, any inaccuracy is probably mine and note the panelist I'm reporting on or I'm not conveying clearly what s/he said.

With Arlie Hochschild on the panel, you bet that women's issues are front and center. Again, my writing might not have conveyed that well enough. Her focus was not on what we usually consider outsourcing / offshoring (manufacturing moving from Detroit to a maquiladora) but on the type of domestic / emotional outsourcing being done when women who are already in the workforce (mostly professionals) outsource emotional work to mostly immigrant women and the dynamics at work in that labor situation.

One comment that was made was that of progressive devaluation of work (in both the symbolic and $$ ways) so that job values kinda climb down the social ladder or become more feminized and then go to women of color or immigrants (if the job has to be done here, like certain types of services) or is outsourced / offshored. That seems to be somewhat what happened with call centers.

Of course, it is all made possible because there are entire categories of women here and abroad for whom worrying about the work/family balance is a luxury because their lives are completely imbalanced.

Trust me on this, there is an extensive body of research on pretty much every sector and every type of workers (see what I wrote earlier about having 4 sessions I wanted to attend going on at the same time).

IF there's one thing sociology does well, and considerably better than economics or psychology, it's work, organizations and occupations studies.

Sarah's picture
Submitted by Sarah on

and "pink collar" jobs are seen by the brass as expendable.

Just the way it is.

Look at newspapers, nowadays -- it's not managers getting the axe, it's reporters and mid-level editors. It's not columnists like Broder, either.

The system as a whole sucks.

The culture in the US considers proper women's jobs to be "beauty operator, school teacher, nurse, homemaker."

Damn hard to outsource those, but not a one of them pays as well as "stockbroker." Even only a few of those pay on the level of "MLB relief pitcher."

Which is another symptom of what's wrong with the culture. Living off your stock earnings and spending your time watching pro sports is not the way to advance a civilization, if instead of using your hands and mind to do things like what Kepler and Newton and Edison did, you use your hands and mind the way Ken Lay and Karl Rove do.

(That dying business was awful damn convenient, wasn't it?)

We can admit that we're killers ... but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes! Knowing that we're not going to kill today! ~ Captain James T. Kirk, Stardate 3193.0

FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

are part of the elite whose positions are quite secure in terms of both $$ and status. They rank high enough on the corporate ladder to be safe.

Precariousness is the most extreme for middle and low levels, in many occupations, not just the media.

ON your paragraph on living off of your stocks, it's something addressed in the book Richistan. Studies of the super and new rich shows that they are not the old stereotype of the idle rich but rather guys who keep on creating companies and selling them to big corporations if they're profitable, and dumping them if they're not in a never ending cycle. Whether or not value is actually created in this cycle is a different issue. More than that, what is striking when you read Richistan is that you would think that all these companies created by the super rich have no employees and that there are no labor issues involved in all this shuffling around.

The only labor mentioned there are the people who service the rich and their ever more eccentric and increasing demands... there's a lot of demand in that niche.

amberglow's picture
Submitted by amberglow on

but pesky reality keeps proving otherwise? And the declining standards of living since the 70s for wage earners simply is brushed aside but is felt deeply by people, just as gas prices and increased food prices are as well?

It's one reason why the media (who literally can't afford to report accurately on how bad things are because advertisers won't buy time/space) has lost credibility--along with the utterly false/massaged "official" numbers on employment/unemployment spread by the govt of course, no?

FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

For the top of the social ladder, things keep getting better... that's THEIR reality in which food and gas prices are trivial. What is costly to them is the constant competition as to who's getting the bigger yacht.

Regarding the media, it's interesting as to the number of programs on cable you have dedicated to investments but I've never seen a "Labor hour" or some such thing... why, because the attitude is that talking about labor and social class issues is - OMG - CLASS WARFARE (duh, it is). Besides, everybody knows it's just a matter of people getting off their lazy butts and getting something done! */snark*

And the wealth of the dominant media class does not make them sympathetic or even understanding ofthe conditions of average Americans... vacuous protests to the contrary notwithstanding.

amberglow's picture
Submitted by amberglow on

and that's always been a bedrock thing the whole country did.

I think it's getting like Jenga, where one after another, the things that stimulated the economy and jobs and profits are all being removed from the bottom of the stack, making it totally unstable.

amberglow's picture
Submitted by amberglow on

all things that even temporarily increase profit and price for them--no matter what cost to the company or to the products or to the workers, etc.

It's russian roulette or that knife thing where you stab between your fingers--but they win when we lose a finger or the gun goes off.

FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

I read about them in the news and my first thought was that the Bush Administration had doctored the numbers all these years to make itself look good.

As a general rule, sociologists have a love/hate relationship with government data. On the one hand, the govt does some really good survey: there is no equivalent to the Census, and the GSS has a pretty good track record. + the govt has means of collecting data that no one else has (in terms of $$ and logistics).

On the other hand, it's GOVT data... so, caution. Which is why we always look for variety of data sources on any given topic. On health, however, yeah, there's a lot of reliance on the CDC, which has not been such a problem until this administration. I know, shocker, huh?

FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

because it's proprietary data.

You can have joint research or funding of research but then, the soc people are then involved in generating said data.

Sarah's picture
Submitted by Sarah on

isn't interested in product quality or company longevity.
Wall Street is interested in short-term profit, period.
Wall Street is a gambling concern.
They bet on the numbers.
Rumors can set the price of stock back as fast as or faster than facts can.
For more than 30 years "the Street" has been interested not in what's best for the US economy (as in, sustainability and product quality, company reputation and innovative, inventive, good engineering) but in short-term bottom-line "what's in it for ME" numbers. This is in direct conflict with the real interests of the nation not just in terms of the individual worker and/or consumer, but in terms of our ability to continue to be a first-world nation. The race to the bottom in wages, driven by the Reagan destruction of unions, cheers Wall Street up no end. Most "traders" aren't really moguls there, but all of them think they are. A nation of wannabes is not a good thing -- particularly when it's driven by greed and nearsightedness.

An addiction to gambling starts with, and depends upon, the "hope" that your luck will turn or the numbers will get better. The country needs an intervention. Maybe the subprime crisis and the oil shock will do it, maybe not.

The economic model of Trickle-Down has just about run its course.

We can admit that we're killers ... but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes! Knowing that we're not going to kill today! ~ Captain James T. Kirk, Stardate 3193.0

Bruce F's picture
Submitted by Bruce F on

One of your sentences caught my attention:

The main problem in the new economy is not the absence of capital but the organization of work in pursuit of short-term profits.

It's something that Jerome a Paris, at The European Tribune, has been writing about for a while.

The Anglo Disease is a label invented to describe the economic consequences of the domination of the financial sphere over the rest of the economy, and over all political discourse. It has been explored in various texts which are listed here.

Is this the kind of thing that gets talked about at a Sociologists' Convention?

FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

It's pervasive: in all sorts of sessions: politics, economics, social inequalities, labor / organizations / occupations, globalization...

All these issues are front and center, trust me.

(Sociologists are a bunch of lefties... which is why they won't let us on TV!)

corinne's picture
Submitted by corinne on

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.

The rarefied air of stardom. I remember when Peter Blau was goosing female graduate students in the elevator.

Submitted by cg.eye on

social workers, silly.

Child welfare agents, humane society workers, adoption agency workers, counselors of all sorts that don't prescribe drugs -- the ones who see the worst and can do the least about it, the way our society works now.

Oh, and don't forget clergy, especially nuns.

Submitted by cg.eye on

-- at least those who do have to pretend they like the skanky guy (or the rich guy, or the team of workers lining up outside the shack) in order for their pimp to get the cash.

They do the hardest emotional work, for the greatest mental and physical risks.