March 6, 2014 Blogging: pervasive labour on the margins

We’re all blog­gers these days, aren’t we?  Writ­ing, con­sum­ing, they’ve become a part of the fab­ric of our rou­tine infor­ma­tion gath­er­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion.  The phenomena’s become an easy filler arti­cle for the week­end papers.  Taken over from the man­u­script in the bot­tom drawer.  Hasn’t it?  Work we want to do, so we just do it?  As a soci­ol­o­gist of work, both paid and unpaid, blog­ging holds a spe­cial allure.  And in the spirit of ethnog­ra­phy – or some­thing like that – hav­ing become a part of the blog­ging com­mu­nity over the past year, I’m just start­ing to get an idea of the labour invested in these liv­ing doc­u­ments so often dis­missed as hob­bies, van­ity projects.

Even the word blog­ging is mis­lead­ing, imply­ing a sin­gle type of writ­ing, when it runs the gamut from hob­by­ists, to pro­fes­sion­als writ­ing to pro­mote or com­ple­ment their work, come­di­ans, con­fes­sion­als, cre­ative, com­mer­cial blog­gers and pro­fes­sional blog­gers – those elu­sive writ­ers who have turned it into a prof­itable career sta­tus; a frac­tion of the esti­mated 152 mil­lion blogs out there (Gal­lie, 2013).  It’s a type of work that soci­ol­ogy can’t ignore – lit­tered with exam­ples of career tran­si­tions, cul­tural resis­tance, and some of the most cre­ative re-imaginings of work that I’ve ever seen.  Here we have exam­ples of train­ing and skills devel­op­ment, net­work­ing and work­place rela­tions, the spa­tial­ity of work­ing, and entre­pre­neurism.  But also of col­lab­o­ra­tion and men­tor­ing, care and emo­tion work – aspects of blog­ging that are neglected, to the loss of sociology.

Blog­gers are not just writ­ers, they are website-developers, audience-builders, SEO experts, coun­sel­lors and peer review­ers, and they move through these sta­tuses flu­idly and with­out need for job descrip­tion, or very often pay­ment.  As their income increases, so too their blog­ging work changes and evolves.  It might focus on a niche, like review­ing for exam­ple, and become less of a per­sonal doc­u­ment.  And then there is the blur­ring of the bound­aries between work and home – rare is the blog­ger who isn’t tin­ker­ing with their blog as an ongo­ing, end­less project; build­ing a social media pres­ence that extends far beyond their blog; com­ment­ing on blogs late into the night; delv­ing into and out of posts in con­struc­tion; check­ing their phones for sta­tis­tics; check­ing out sto­ries and new ideas to gen­er­ate or under­pin new posts.

It is a dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence of writ­ing – not the soli­tary lit­er­ary writ­ing, nor too the aca­d­e­mic writ­ing where toiled-upon words are sub­ject to crit­i­cal review, redraft­ing and redraft­ing.  Not so much review, as labour in dia­logue.  Because blog­gers are read­ers as much as they are writ­ers, and ICT has changed the way we con­sume, and trans­mit that con­sump­tion.  Blog­ging is writ­ing in process, a shak­ing of the self and allow­ing still-forming ideas to be released and for a dia­logue to develop.  The unfin­ished, a nar­ra­tive.  Writ­ing as exer­cise, writ­ing to be heard, writ­ing with a pur­pose, writ­ing to give wings to projects to fly out into the world.  It seems exper­i­men­tal and excit­ing, this diver­sity of work prac­tices.  If the con­tent stops flow­ing the blog falls silent, the URL a foot­print doc­u­ment­ing labour past.

 

Ref­er­ence

Gal­lie, B. (2013). How many blogs are on the inter­net? Avail­able: http://www.wpvirtuoso.com/how-many-blogs-are-on-the-internet/.

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Comments

  1. This is a fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject. What inter­ests me is some­thing I noticed recently: accord­ing to ebuzzing, par­ent blogs rank as the most pop­u­lar, along­side very well-known polit­i­cal blogs like Left Foot For­ward (which have a high pro­file in the main­steam media as well as through more spe­cial­ist blog­ging net­works). What is it about the par­ent blog­ging indus­try that makes it thrive so well — gives it that ‘buzz’?

  2. I blog for a liv­ing on eco­nom­ics, and cycling Though it some­times feels like my employer is Google.

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February 28, 2014 Still Life After The Office

still life after the office resized

Since Christ­mas Val Mur­ray and Lynn Pilling (Tea) have been using a space on the sec­ond floor of Fed­er­a­tion House on Bal­loon Street in Man­ches­ter as a play­ful, evolv­ing instal­la­tion. Cur­rently the build­ing is being used as artists’ stu­dios and exhi­bi­tion spaces in a period of tran­si­tion between its past uses as a Coop drap­ery ware­house and offices and its poten­tial future as apart­ments. The work explores these chang­ing iden­ti­ties within the space itself. You are invited to view “Place Pro­cess­ing: Still Life After The Office” and join Val and Lynn for tea and cakes on Thurs­day 13th March 6.00–9.00.

All eight floors of Fed­er­a­tion House are occu­pied by artists under the Castle­field Gallery New Art Spaces Scheme and will be open for a spe­cial view­ing event that evening. Speak­ers include Maria Bal­shaw (Direc­tor Man­ches­ter Art Gallery and The Whit­worth and Man­ches­ter City Council’s Strate­gic Lead for Cul­ture), Ali­son Clarke-Jenkins (Direc­tor Com­bined Arts and North, Arts Coun­cil) and others.

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December 21, 2013 Work, Non-Work, Ambition and Happiness

A short while ago I was pleased to have a poem included in the ‘Poems for Free­dom’ col­lec­tion, pub­lished in aid of the fire­bombed Free­dom Book­shop in Lon­don. I cer­tainly don’t con­sider myself a ‘poet’ and my con­tri­bu­tion (which began life as a daft rhyme writ­ten to fill in the silence of a long car jour­ney with a bro­ken CD player) was a thirty-six line rumi­na­tion on work and non-work called ‘In Praise of the Loafer’. The poem pon­dered the way in which we each under­stand and feel about work, what it does for us, what it does to us, how the promise of rich rewards for our efforts may come at a cost we often don’t see until it’s too late; it picked at notions of employ­ment, wel­fare, social expec­ta­tion, time-poverty, con­sumerism, jeal­ousy and ideas about what con­sti­tutes a rich life. Unlike my work on social class in acad­e­mia, poetry requires no real con­clu­sion beyond per­haps a mildly dex­ter­ous finale, and for that I am grate­ful as my car-cockpit mus­ings had reached none and had prob­a­bly raised more ques­tions than anything!

In Praise of the Loafer

Work is a bind

Of the most irk­some kind

You need it and simul­ta­ne­ously not

A salary or wage

til you reach your old age

Helps to tick things on your ‘must do’ list off

 

But what of the loafer

With noth­ing to show for

His decades of idling, his life­time of sloth?

You may think him thick

And that his list is un-ticked

But he never had such a list to kick off

 

You’ve no time to sit still

All those ticks make you ill

In a blur, not a sec­ond to sit and take stock

And think ‘do I feel rich?

Have I scratched very itch?’

Cos I tell you my friend I sus­pect you have not

 

Ensnared by the list

As it grows and it twists

You’ve a snow­man in hell’s chance of tick­ing the lot

You slave and you strive

For the things you can buy

Whether hol­i­day, telly or gold ocelot

 

Moral aspects eschewed

(you know, who pays for whom)

I long to be loafer, not ham­ster on wheel

But my nature’s been set

By school, fam­ily and friends

And my inner loafer won’t now be revealed

 

So I praise the loafer

But I hate the loafer

For why should he idle whilst I idle not?

Ensnared by my list

How it grows and it twists

A wise loafer knows not to worry one jot.

 

Whether this effort has achieved a ‘mildly dex­trous end­ing’ or not I’ll leave you to decide! This and other poems by rank ama­teurs like myself and those well known in the field, includ­ing Iain Sin­clair, William Rowe, Shi­rani Rajapakse, Pam Brown, Gavin Hud­son, Ushiku Crisa­fulli, Cathy Bryant, Niall McDe­vitt and Heath­cote Williams can be found in ‘Poems for Free­dom’ by The Free­dom Poets and can be pur­chased.

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December 10, 2013 It Shouldn’t Happen To A Santa

I have, for some time now, been mildly obsessed by Christ­mas. By this I don’t mean that I walk around for twelve months of the year hum­ming Christ­mas car­ols, or wear­ing rein­deer socks (though I must admit to own­ing a pair or two). It’s more to do with the fact that for an event that involves so much global eco­nomic and organ­i­sa­tional activ­ity, I sim­ply can’t under­stand while nobody has attempted to study it in such terms. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of schol­ar­ship in rela­tion to Christ­mas exists in say social his­tory (Pim­lott, 1978), cul­tural stud­ies (Belk, 1987) and even, occa­sion­ally, soci­ol­ogy (Eden­sor and Milling­ton, 2009). In what we might broadly term the field of work and organ­i­sa­tion stud­ies, how­ever, the silence has been over­whelm­ing. Of course there may be plenty of good rea­sons for this, but I don’t want to go into those right now. What I want to do is tell you a lit­tle about some work I have been doing in order to try and rec­tify this omission.

So what exactly is this? Well, I’ve been inter­view­ing men who dress up as Santa Claus. Okay, I know how this sounds, but hear me out. My ulti­mate ambi­tion is to con­duct the kind of com­pre­hen­sive study of Christ­mas that I have alluded to above. That is, a study that will explore every aspect of the socio-economic and organ­i­sa­tional phe­nom­e­non that is Christ­mas; rang­ing from the organ­i­sa­tion of global sup­ply chains that bring Christ­mas from the fac­to­ries of the East to the shop­ping malls of the West and beyond, to the sophis­ti­cated, but highly gen­dered rit­u­als and prac­tices that make Christ­mas, and its myr­iad of vari­a­tions, a real­ity in the homes of peo­ple around the globe. Nonethe­less, part of this ambi­tion is also to under­stand how the cul­tural edi­fice of Christ­mas is pro­duced and repro­duced not just through the mar­ket­ing cam­paigns, the Hol­ly­wood block­busters and the lifestyle media, but also through the every­day labour of those who annu­ally bring Christ­mas to life for hun­dreds of thou­sands of chil­dren (and their con­sum­ing par­ents and guardians). Which brings me, of course, to Santa Claus.

Every year the image of Santa Claus, or as we still fre­quently call him in the UK, Father Christ­mas, is one that adorns bill­boards, mag­a­zines, TV shows and their asso­ci­ated com­mer­cials on an annual basis. Rep­re­sent­ing per­haps the ulti­mate sim­u­lacra – a copy with no orig­i­nal — Santa is both the embod­i­ment of a rich mythol­ogy and an empty sig­ni­fier, one able to sell any­thing from fizzy drinks to cut-price fur­ni­ture. Yet there is some­thing even more unique about this char­ac­ter. For around two months he is not sim­ply an adver­tis­ing or mar­ket­ing image, but a man of flesh and blood who is spo­ken to, laughed with, believed in and trusted. Funded by a small grant from the British Acad­emy I set out to try and under­stand what kind of peo­ple under­take this role, why they do it, and just what it exactly means to ‘be Santa’.

santa-ad-with-white-rock-and-whiskey

While he is a dif­fi­cult man to track down, I was lucky to get myself invited to the annual ‘Santa School’ of a Lon­don based PR agency that claims to be the biggest and best provider of Santa Claus per­form­ers in the UK. Here, both estab­lished and aspir­ing San­tas were tutored in every­thing from the names of their rein­deer, though how to deal with dif­fi­cult chil­dren, to the lat­est toys on the high street. From here I was able to arrange a num­ber of inter­views, as well as take advan­tage of a unique snow­balling process (no pun intended) that led to fur­ther oppor­tu­ni­ties, not the least of which being a visit to the World Santa Claus Con­gress at Bakkan Amuse­ment Park, Copen­hagen. So what did all this tell me?

Well, first and fore­most, it quickly became clear that when it comes to per­form­ing Santa Claus there is a no lack of a hier­ar­chy. These were men who did not view them­selves as gar­den cen­tre fly-be-nights, but rather as semi-professional Santa per­form­ers. The major­ity of them had cred­i­ble the­atri­cal train­ing and worked for agen­cies that ensured them the most exclu­sive gigs, rang­ing from top Lon­don depart­ment stores to exclu­sive cor­po­rate par­ties. These were the nation’s Santa elite.

Santa school

Yet this was not, for the most part, a role per­formed solely for money. Rather it was the sense of recog­ni­tion they felt, not for their per­for­mance skills per se, but for their authen­tic embod­i­ment of the ideals and val­ues of Santa Claus. This was a theme stressed again and again by the per­form­ers I inter­viewed, in that one could not sim­ply act as Santa. For the dura­tion of the per­for­mance – and often beyond — one had to ‘be Santa’. As such, great empha­sis was placed on ensur­ing that in any pro­fes­sional encounter, the child was always put first, often above the wishes of the par­ents or guardians. It was also equally impor­tant that they would ‘know’ all that a child might know about Santa — such as where he lives, what his rein­deer are called and even the var­i­ous ori­gin sto­ries cre­ated for him by the world’s story tellers — that they would pay upmost atten­tion to their appear­ance and man­ner­isms and, above all else, they would always remain in char­ac­ter, what­ever the provocations.

Now, such provo­ca­tions took many forms. Some­times these involved the tales of chil­dren suf­fer­ing from bereave­ment or fam­ily breakup ask­ing Santa to ‘put things right’ for Christ­mas. This required intense acts of emo­tional labour on the part of the per­form­ers who had to be seen as appro­pri­ately reas­sur­ing and jolly, while hold­ing back tears. At other times, how­ever, such emo­tional man­age­ment was required to con­tain fear and anger rather than grief. Many reported a decline in tra­di­tional grotto set­tings for their work and an increas­ing require­ment that they walk around stores and shop­ping cen­tres, an activ­ity that often left them vul­ner­a­ble to abuse, both ver­bal and phys­i­cal. One per­former even recounted his expe­ri­ence of an attempted mug­ging; a sit­u­a­tion he man­aged to dif­fuse by explain­ing to his would be assailant that every­body knows that Santa is like the Queen and that ‘he doesn’t carry money’.

Indeed, despite the obvi­ous plea­sure and sense of esteem these men acquired from the role (Han­cock, 2013) this was, to all intents and pur­poses, an inter­ac­tive ser­vice role that brought with it all its asso­ci­ated dis­com­forts and chal­lenges. Along­side such tales of abuse, there were famil­iar sto­ries of long hours, poor facil­i­ties and work inten­si­fi­ca­tion prac­tices that resulted, as one per­former recounted, in hav­ing elves whose pri­mary respon­si­bil­ity seemed to be telling him, every few min­utes, to go faster in get­ting the chil­dren through the grotto. As in so many other magic fac­to­ries then, the cre­ation of the Christ­mas illu­sion is not itself an act of magic, but one that relies on the skills, effort and occa­sion­ally exploita­tion of those who work on its front line.

Hear Philip Han­cock talk about his work with Santa Claus per­form­ers on BBC Radio 4’s Think­ing Aloud on 25 Decem­ber 2013 at 4pm.

Ref­er­ences

Belk R (1987) A Child’s Christ­mas in Amer­ica: Santa Claus as Deity, Con­sump­tion as Reli­gion. Jour­nal of Amer­i­can Cul­ture 10(1): 87–100.

Eden­sor, T. and Milling­ton, S. (2009) ‘Illu­mi­na­tions, Class Iden­ti­ties and the Con­tested Land­scapes of Christ­mas’. Soci­ol­ogy 43(1): 103 – 121.

Han­cock, P. (2013) ‘”Being Santa Claus”: The Pur­suit of Recog­ni­tion in Inter­ac­tive Ser­vice Work’  Work, Employ­ment and Soci­ety.27(6): 1004 – 1020.

Pim­lott, J. A. R (1978) The Englishman’s Christ­mas: A Social His­tory. Has­socks: Har­vester Press.

Thomp­son, W.E. and Hickey, J.V. (1989)Myth, Iden­tity, and Social Inter­ac­tion: Encoun­ter­ing Santa Claus at the Mall’. Qual­i­ta­tive Soci­ol­ogy 12(4): 371–389.

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December 5, 2013 All in a Day’s Work: Changing Understandings of Occupations

Work acts as a pow­er­ful ‘class clue’, but the nature of our rela­tion­ship to, and under­stand­ing of, work is a change­able one. Bound­aries blur and par­tic­u­lar under­stand­ings of both role and worker seem less fixed than per­haps they once were. This, along­side the cur­rent eco­nomic cri­sis, with its asso­ci­ated polit­i­cal dis­courses around irre­spon­si­ble ‘scroungers’ and ‘cul­tures of workless­ness’ (e.g. Cameron, 2011) and sup­posed ‘strivers and skivers’ (e.g. Williams, 2013; Wal­ters and Car­lin, 2012) mean that work and the way we feel about it remains a hot topic.

I asked par­tic­i­pants about how they per­ceived the class of dif­fer­ent occu­pa­tions as part of the qual­i­ta­tive research I car­ried out for my doc­tor­ate (2009–2013). Plumb­ing was an occu­pa­tion con­sid­ered by many par­tic­i­pants to have enjoyed a ‘pos­i­tive’ swing in its asso­ci­ated mean­ings. Tom, 37, a Team Leader at a local char­ity notes the chang­ing per­cep­tion of those in the trade:

I know a plumber, he’s earn­ing 70 grand a year, he has his own busi­ness, he’s self-employed…maybe back in the for­ties, fifties it was just seen as man­ual labour, it may have been slightly seen differently…I think now it tends to be more mid­dle class, maybe back in the days when you didn’t have to have all the qual­i­fi­ca­tions it could’ve been seen as more work­ing class man­ual labour”

Sim­i­larly, Cather­ine, 49, who was hav­ing a finan­cially unprob­lem­atic ‘break’ from work and whose hus­band is a sur­geon noted that plumbers are:

…held in much higher esteem than per­haps they were 20 or 30 years ago so…I think it’s a good job…we had some build­ing work done a cou­ple of years ago, the plumber that came was y’know he was buy­ing his daugh­ter a brand new mini cooper and all this kind of stuff [laughs], fly­ing off to all sorts of places on hol­i­day and he was, actu­ally he was a very intel­li­gent and sort of gen­tle, sort of gen­teel I sup­pose, y’know he liked lis­ten­ing to clas­si­cal music and y’know not the sort of plumber I’d met before, they’d always tended to be more…well er…ordinary. I sup­pose you might say work­ing class in a way but maybe that’s chang­ing a bit now…I liked him y’know he was an inter­est­ing guy and he had lots of con­ver­sa­tion and was up on all world affairs and all that so I was quite sur­prised because of the plumbers I’d had previously…”

Employ­ment trends which see far higher finan­cial rewards for tra­di­tion­ally work­ing class occu­pa­tions such as plumber than for the more tra­di­tion­ally mid­dle class man­age­r­ial grade office work, have mud­died the waters of class and occu­pa­tion. Prior per­cep­tual link­ages are weak­ened and new ones form. For Tom and for other par­tic­i­pants, the trans­for­ma­tion in the class sta­tus of plumbers appears to be pred­i­cated on notions of increased finan­cial reward and increased com­plex­ity of the work. Cather­ine seems to be work­ing through what she feels about this. The idea that a plumber could be ‘intel­li­gent’, ‘gen­tle’, enjoy clas­si­cal music and be knowl­edge­able about world affairs — traits that she implies are more mid­dle class than work­ing class — was some­what of a rev­e­la­tion for her, such are the stereo­typ­i­cal images of man­ual work­ers and the sup­posed dichotomy of ‘blue col­lar’ = good with hands’,‘white col­lar’ = good with brain.

call centerphoto: Vitor Lima, via Flickr, cre­ative com­mons license

The Tay­lorism com­mon in much (work­ing class-associated) fac­tory work has breached the walls of the white-collar office. It has been argued that call cen­tres, with their con­stant mon­i­tor­ing of work­ers as they carry out their time-pressured and highly repet­i­tive work resem­ble ‘white col­lar fac­to­ries’ (see Tay­lor and Bain, 1999), thus fur­ther erod­ing the taken for granted dis­tinc­tions between blue collar/working class/manual and white collar/middle class/non-manual occu­pa­tions that for so long has been taken for granted. Per­haps unsur­pris­ingly, the employ­ment cat­e­gory of ‘Call Cen­tre Worker’ was one of the most dif­fi­cult for par­tic­i­pants to apply classed under­stand­ings to. This ambiva­lence appeared to be due to call cen­tre work being seen by many as rel­a­tively unskilled and/or unful­fill­ing work, but on the other hand not being man­ual labour. Par­tic­i­pants are pulled first in one direc­tion then the other when attempt­ing to clas­sify such work and those employed by it.

I did it for about six weeks when I first moved and it was awful…it’s quite monot­o­nous… pos­si­bly mid­dle class, work­ing class, it’s a dif­fi­cult one I think. I mean I don’t know how many peo­ple would respect them…a lot of stu­dents do that kind of work as kind of fill in work, quite often you get loads of, even in Eng­land, quite a lot of for­eign­ers doing that kind of job because it’s quite straight­for­ward… you have to be rel­a­tively elo­quent to a cer­tain extent any­way, to work in a call centre…so, a rel­a­tive amount of intel­li­gence I would say” (Vic­to­ria, 32, West Bergholt)

Vic­to­ria, a 32 year old teacher, embod­ies this ambiva­lence, not­ing the ‘sim­plic­ity’ of the work but that intel­li­gence and elo­quence is required; that it could be a job taken by both mid­dle class and work­ing class peo­ple (although the impli­ca­tion is that it is a ‘fill in’ job for the mid­dle classes) and that it is an occu­pa­tion that lacks respect from the wider pub­lic. Clearly, whether it con­jures feel­ings of ambiva­lence or per­cep­tions of change, work is still very much part and par­cel of our under­stand­ings of social class.

Ref­er­ences

  1. Cameron, D. ( (15 August 2011) ‘PM’s Speech on the Fight Back after the Riots’,.
  2. Tay­lor, P. and Bain, P. (1999) ‘An Assem­bly Line in the Head’: Work and Employee Rela­tions in the Call Cen­tre, Indus­trial Rela­tions Jour­nal Vol. 30, № 2, 101–117. Black­well, Oxford.
  3. Wal­ters, S. and Car­lin, B. (Sat­ur­day 29 Decem­ber 2012) Cameron Defends ‘Cruel’ Vow to Axe Dole for Shirk­ers in New Year Mes­sage as he Pre­pares to Launch Re-election Cam­paign The Daily Mail
  4. Williams, Z. (Wednes­day 9 Jan­u­ary 2013) Skivers v Strivers: The Argu­ment that Pol­lutes People’s Minds The Guardian .
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Comments

  1. Braver­man, H. (1974). Labor and monop­oly cap­i­tal: The degra­da­tion of work in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. NYU Press.… the same argument.

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December 3, 2013 Métier

Laura Braun’s new col­lec­tion of pho­tographs of small busi­nesses in Lon­don and the peo­ple who run them, Métier, has just been pub­lished by Paper Tigers Books. There is a book launch tonight at The Pho­tog­ra­phers’ Gallery in Lon­don – all are welcome!

The pho­tographs in this col­lec­tion and the sto­ries that accom­pany them are each lit­tle dis­cov­er­ies of ways of life and mak­ing a liv­ing in Lon­don today. They doc­u­ment the tra­jec­to­ries that peo­ple have taken — marked by hope, oblig­a­tion, and serendip­ity – and the mean­ings and rou­tines of their every­day life and work. Many of the accounts are marked by emo­tion. For instance, love and labour merge on a daily basis in Celia Mitchell’s Rip­ping Yarns book­shop. A for­mer actor, she col­lected books well before the prospect of hav­ing her own shop was on the hori­zon. The eclec­tic stock is a reflec­tion of her own wide-ranging inter­ests, cre­at­ing a space that is both deeply per­sonal and pub­lic. Rela­tions with cus­tomers in these sorts of spaces are much more than cold mar­ket exchanges. Inter­ac­tion gen­er­ates warm ties between those who are for­mally buy­ers and sell­ers, con­nec­tions that mark the phys­i­cal and affec­tive char­ac­ter of the space.

The slow accu­mu­la­tion of tools, mate­ri­als, and arte­facts has given rise to work­spaces that are crammed with things in lay­ers of time. These kinds of dis­play are not designed in a delib­er­ate way but emerge collage-like as a result of what has gone on in the space, through rou­tines and prac­tices over years, even decades. An appre­ci­a­tion of the way that space is made is hard to cap­ture except through pho­tog­ra­phy and this is one rea­son why such a col­lec­tion is impor­tant. In the pho­to­graph of shoe­maker Peter Schweiger in his work­shop, we see an ordered space, the per­son­al­i­sa­tion of his labour present in each set of lasts behind him. A sense of the work­place as inhab­ited is evi­dent in the scat­tered objects on the shelves and sur­faces of the rooms of the work­shop of Thoma­zos Costi, a Cypriot tai­lor who has been mak­ing for­mal men’s attire for decades. This every­day messi­ness con­trasts with the per­fectly angled sleeves of the newly made jack­ets hang­ing from a rail on another wall.

This remark­able col­lec­tion of pho­tographs of small busi­nesses in Lon­don is both a reminder of an era of the small shops and busi­nesses that once char­ac­terised High Streets and back streets across the cap­i­tal, and a doc­u­ment of the per­sis­tence of these ways of liv­ing and work­ing. But it is more than this. In Métier, we see the sites and spaces in which the work­ing lives of arti­sans and small-scale traders have taken shape, and how their work­ing spaces have lit­er­ally been shaped by the rou­tines and prac­tices that have gone on within them. And we learn some­thing about work­ing lives — the skill, atten­tion, and rela­tion­ships that give work its spe­cial­ist char­ac­ter and form the basis of strong work identities.

Métier includes an After­word by Dawn Lyon.

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August 27, 2013 Aspiration Nation? Young people’s working futures

George Osborne might have coined the catch­phrase ‘aspi­ra­tion nation’ in a bud­get speech ear­lier this year, but the ques­tion of young people’s ‘aspi­ra­tions’, or more broadly, their hopes, dreams, fears, ambi­tions and expec­ta­tions for the future have long been at the cen­tre of social sci­ence research projects in the field of youth stud­ies in particular.

At the forth­com­ing British Edu­ca­tional Research Asso­ci­a­tion con­fer­ence, 3–5 Sep­tem­ber 2013, there will be a sym­po­sium devoted to just this theme. The ses­sion includes pre­sen­ta­tions from three research projects which offer dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and find­ings about how young peo­ple are nav­i­gat­ing the con­straints and oppor­tu­nites they face.

The Cele­bY­outh project focuses – as the name sug­gests — on the role of celebrity in young people’s aspi­ra­tions rec­og­niz­ing how these are shaped by both class and gen­der, and by a con­text of polit­i­cal dis­courses and pub­lic con­cerns about the neg­a­tive impact of celebrity on your people’s aspi­ra­tions, i.e. that young peo­ple just want fame rather than achieve­ment based on hard work and skill. Unsur­pris­ing the pic­ture is more com­plex than that…! This project is led by Heather Men­dick and Laura Har­vey at Brunel Uni­ver­sity and Kim Allen at Man­ches­ter Met­ro­pol­i­tan University.

The ASPIRES project, led by Louise Archer at Kings Col­lege Lon­don, is specif­i­cally about sci­ence aspi­ra­tion and how young peo­ple between the ages of 10 and 14 are mak­ing edu­ca­tional choices with impli­ca­tions for later career options. The project seeks to under­stand what fac­tors influ­ence young people’s choices, includ­ing peers, par­ents and schools, and it explores the role gen­der, class and eth­nic­ity play in shap­ing these choices.

The Liv­ing and Work­ing on Shep­pey project, which was recently the focus of a fea­ture arti­cle in The Guardian and was dis­cussed on Soci­ety Cen­tral, explored quite lit­er­ally the ways in which young peo­ple about to leave school imag­ine their futures, by get­ting them to write ‘auto­bi­ogra­phies’ as if they were towards the end of their lives look­ing back. This pro­duced fas­ci­nat­ing accounts which the project leads – myself and Gra­ham Crow, Uni­ver­sity of Edin­burgh in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Blue Town Her­itage Cen­tre on the Isle of Shep­pey – con­trasted with sim­i­lar mate­r­ial col­lected by Ray Pahl in 1978. Key find­ings include a strong shift in gen­dered expec­ta­tions includ­ing more girls envis­ag­ing fur­ther and higher edu­ca­tion lead­ing to a pro­fes­sion, and a greater con­ver­gence between boys’ and girls’ imag­ined fam­ily lives.

See the project web­sites — links embed­ded above — for more details!

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July 30, 2013 The labour of ‘moving things along’: Rubbish collection and the bin bag

rubbish 1Hav­ing recently moved from a flat to a house, I am struck by the fact that my rub­bish gets col­lected from out­side my front door, that some­one actu­ally comes to my house to pick up my rub­bish bags to dis­pose of them. Since there is no rear access to the houses along my street, we are all obliged to bring our bin bags through our houses on the weekly col­lec­tion day and place them in the street out­side. And since these houses open directly onto the street, there is no buffer zone between the front of the house and the rub­bish bags, no space to estab­lish a dis­tance in the household’s rela­tion­ship to its waste. The bags remain of the house, sit­ting there naked and exposed, our pri­vate refuse in the pub­lic realm, with only the thin skin of the black plas­tic — the device for trans­fer from pub­lic to pri­vate — keep­ing the con­tents from becom­ing pub­lic knowl­edge. The num­ber of gen­eral bags reveals some­thing of the com­po­si­tion of the house­hold or at least the vol­ume of waste-producing con­sump­tion. Then on the fort­nightly recy­cling weeks, we learn more about one another as the pri­vate sits or quite lit­er­ally spills into the pub­lic. Paper, glass and plas­tic are to be placed in trans­par­ent recy­cling bags deliv­ered by the Coun­cil. Whilst recy­cling itself is widely viewed as morally good, the con­tent of what is recy­cled might be con­tentious. One of my neigh­bours is loathe to give any­thing away – all his paper is shred­ded. Oth­ers are less con­cerned as to who might notice how they live with beer and wine boxes stacked in plain sight and other objects con­spic­u­ously disregarded.

There is a grow­ing inter­est in the social sci­ences in waste includ­ing what counts as waste and how stuff, for exam­ple how food crosses the line from being food to waste (Wat­son and Meah, 2012) and pos­si­bly back again, and how this changes across time and place; the tech­nolo­gies of waste man­age­ment and their place in processes of con­sump­tion, for instance, the com­pul­sory dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of waste in many UK Local Author­ity areas; and even the ‘agency’ of bins (Met­calfe et al, 2012). Beyond what hap­pens on the doorstep, there is a ‘net­work of social and tech­ni­cal rela­tions’ and processes that ‘move things along’ and across this inter­face between domes­tic prac­tices and pub­lic arrange­ments (Chap­pells and Shove, 1999: 277; Greg­son et al, 2007).

How­ever, there is lit­tle in these dis­cus­sions about the work and the work­ers involved in mov­ing waste from one place to another. The archi­tec­ture of the street where I live (inhibit­ing the use of wheelie or other bins) means that rub­bish col­lec­tors must directly touch, smell and lift the bags – and at times the con­tents of the rub­bish. They not only use their bod­ies to haul and lift and walk to the next house but their bod­ies encounter the traces of things han­dled and dis­carded by other bod­ies – and they must live with some­times sig­nif­i­cant impacts on their health, as well as their own and other people’s every­day reac­tions to this ‘dirty work’.

rubbish 2 The rub­bish col­lec­tors in my town work smoothly. On the day I decide to write this post today whilst work­ing at home I am lis­ten­ing out for them but do not hear them until they are already far up the street. Still, it feels to me like a very per­sonal ges­ture that some­one is col­lect­ing my rub­bish. It strikes me all the more since I pre­vi­ously lived in a flat for many years and once I had placed my rub­bish in a com­mu­nal bin, I expe­ri­enced it as com­pletely dis­as­so­ci­ated from me. Now on rub­bish col­lec­tion days I come home to the plea­sure of see­ing that my bin bags have dis­ap­peared. How­ever, sev­eral weeks ago I saw that my bag had been over­looked, per­haps unseen behind the row of densely parked cars. I con­sulted the Coun­cil web­site and found a num­ber to call for ‘missed col­lec­tions’. After a brief con­ver­sa­tion the next morn­ing, I am assured that this will be reme­died and true enough, when I return home that day, my rub­bish is gone, fur­ther enhanc­ing my sense of this ser­vice rela­tion­ship as pro­foundly per­sonal and despite the fact that I have not yet spo­ken to the rub­bish col­lec­tors for my street. I’ll be sure to give them a gen­er­ous tip at Christ­mas though…

Ref­er­ences
Chap­pells, H. and Shove, E. (1999) ‘The dust­bin: A study of domes­tic waste, house­hold prac­tices and util­ity ser­vices’ Inter­na­tional Plan­ning Stud­ies 4(2): 267–280.
Greg­son, N., Met­calfe, A. and Crewe, L. (2007) ‘Mov­ing things along: the con­duits and prac­tices of divest­ment in con­sump­tion’ Trans­ac­tions of the Insti­tute of British Geo­g­ra­phers 32: 187–200.
Met­calfe, A., Riley, M., Barr, S., Tudor, T., Robin­son, G. and Guil­bert, S. (2012) ‘Food waste bins: bridg­ing infra­struc­tures and prac­tices’ The Soci­o­log­i­cal Review 60: 135–155.
Wat­son, M. and Meah, A. (2012) ‘Food, waste and safety: nego­ti­at­ing con­flict­ing social anx­i­eties into the prac­tices of domes­tic pro­vi­sion­ing’ The Soci­o­log­i­cal Review 60: 102–120.

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  1. The labour of sort­ing house­hold waste has been out­sourced to the house­holder.
    House­hold­ers have out­sourced pol­icy mak­ing on refuse col­lec­tion and dis­posal to local coun­cils, their con­trac­tors, staff and elected offi­cials — there are lots of snouts in the refuse trough in addi­tion to your collector.

    Are more bags missed if the refuse crews are on ‘work and fin­ish’ con­tract arrange­ments? Cer­tainly they are unlikely to want to stop and chat and make your ser­vice truly per­sonal but good luck engag­ing them in con­ver­sa­tion, from my expe­ri­ence they have some inter­est­ing tales to tell.‘
    Bags, more than wheelie bins, have reduced the abil­ity of refuse teams to be ‘tot­ting’ as they can no longer see what might have a sal­vage value. Again most employ­ers now ban ‘totting’.

  2. Next time you see Tracey, you and she should chat about bins! http://www.nowaytomakealiving.net/post/1872/

  3. In Aus­tralia there is talk of putting microchips in wheelie bins to mon­i­tor household’s waste. Sadly this was sparked by some­one plac­ing a dead dog in their recy­cling bin. How awful for the worker who found it.

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April 11, 2013 Pious Lies

The busi­ness of earn­ing your daily bread is really sad and weari­some. Peo­ple come up with the most pious lies about work. It’s just another abom­inable form of idol­a­try, a dog lick­ing the rod that beats it: work.” (Luther Blis­sett, 2004 [2000]: Q. Arrow Books: 28).

Recent sto­ries about work have got me think­ing about the pious lies we tell each other. The eth­i­cal conun­drum in these three cases is the way appar­ently solid and valid oppor­tu­ni­ties to work dis­guise the pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of inequal­i­ties of income and oppor­tu­nity.  Moral argu­ments about the rights and wrongs of ways of arrang­ing work should not rely solely on the cal­cu­la­tions of worth mea­sured by $£€.

Neigh­bours help­ing neighbours

If there’s some­thing that can be val­ued then there’s some­one who will assign it a value. Whilst the Time­banks use non-monetary value (an hour of iron­ing is worth an hour of gar­den­ing), taskrab­bits are there to make money – by under­bid­ding their taskrab­bit neigh­bours for the right to do your chores. And indeed, they will – if one of them is to be believed – find it pleasurable:

I try to approach many tasks you may find tedious as med­i­ta­tive so will attempt to make data entry and dishes a zen like expe­ri­ence. I feel good about the fact that this job affords me oppor­tu­ni­ties to per­haps lessen the daily stresses that may be attack­ing your psy­che or at least make them less over­whelm­ing” (Eliz­a­beth, task rab­bit from San Francisco).

Task rab­biters will also set up your wire­less net­work, pick up your dry clean­ing, and orga­nize a party for you – using their design skills on that party invi­ta­tion. As an old boss of mine would say dur­ing busy times ‘and stick a broom up my arse and I’ll sweep the floor as I go’. Task rab­bit­ing sounds full of pious lies that claim there’s virtue in subservience.

Lol­cats

A few weeks ago, ‘Bob’, a com­puter pro­gram­mer for Ver­i­zon caused some amuse­ment in the media for out­sourc­ing his job to a Chi­nese pro­gram­mer in order to free him­self some time to be on social media, watch­ing videos of cute cats. That’s an idea, you might think. Bob was no-one’s idea of an imag­i­na­tive entre­pre­neur, or cun­ning anti-hero (the inves­ti­ga­tor described him as a “fam­ily man, inof­fen­sive and quiet. Some­one you wouldn’t look twice at in an ele­va­tor.”) One fifth of Bob’s income went on pay­ing some­one else to do his job for him.

For as long as there’s some­one with the money to pay and some­one with the need to be paid, these things seem like an inevitable appli­ca­tion of mar­ket prin­ci­ples. As Sandel (2012) gets part way to argu­ing, just because some­thing can be mar­ke­tised, doesn’t mean it should be: there are moral prin­ci­ples at stake. Here, that prin­ci­ple is one of recog­ni­tion for the work, the skill and the exper­tise that a per­son has.

Mod­ern slavery

A sim­i­lar eth­i­cal prin­ci­ple of effort lead­ing to reward is vis­i­ble in the recent dis­cus­sions of work­fare, and com­pa­ra­ble eth­i­cal ques­tions about recog­ni­tion and redis­tri­b­u­tion arise. The court case taken out by Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wil­son against the UK gov­ern­ment scheme of forc­ing the unem­ployed to work for no pay was – in part– suc­cess­ful. ‘Vol­un­tary’ work­fare schemes are unlaw­ful. But the shame­ful attempt to avoid return­ing ‘sanc­tioned’ ben­e­fits taken from the 231,000 forced onto the work­fare schemes is a reminder of how deeply felt is the pious belief that such cit­i­zens were get­ting ‘some­thing for noth­ing’, and how pow­er­ful is the dis­course of the infer­nal alter­na­tive (the nation’s finances are at stake, after all, there is no alternative).

 

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April 7, 2013 When Work Intensity ‘Goes Up To Eleven’

Have you ever been attacked by some­one whose life you were try­ing to save? Have you ever been asked by the police to iden­tify human remains? Taken a phone call from some­one try­ing to save their dying child? Prob­a­bly not, but this is all part of pro­fes­sional life for many peo­ple work­ing in Britain’s National Health Ser­vice. For some, such ‘extreme work’ is part of their daily reality.

These expe­ri­ences emerged as we (with col­leagues Paula Hyde and John Has­sard) spent time with Nurses, Man­agers, Para­medics, Emer­gency Call Han­dlers and Dis­patch­ers and oth­ers as part of an immer­sive three year study of work­ing life in the NHS. Some of these expe­ri­ences were recounted in inter­views, or as we accom­pa­nied peo­ple through­out their work­ing day. We spent a day with call han­dlers at an Emer­gency Con­trol Cen­tre who took 999 calls from peo­ple at the worst moments of their lives – but also, occa­sion­ally, the best; more than one had talked some­one through deliv­er­ing a baby. Good or bad, what struck us as researchers was that many of these were mat­ters, quite lit­er­ally, of life and death. In light of this, we were sur­prised by how young many of the call han­dlers were; peo­ple in their early to mid twen­ties, some hav­ing just swapped the lec­ture the­atre of a uni­ver­sity for a busy inner city emer­gency call centre.

While the theme of ‘life and death’ ran through the research (maybe not sur­pris­ing given the con­text), not all of the work we saw involved hor­ror and high drama. Often, it was more a mat­ter of pace of work, as well as the stakes involved. Man­age­r­ial meet­ings are per­haps not the most obvi­ous set­ting for fast paced, high inten­sity work, but in an organ­i­sa­tion under as much pres­sure as the NHS, they were often con­ducted at a tempo quite in con­trast with that we our­selves were used to. Once again, what is at stake is key – the impor­tance of var­i­ous per­for­mance tar­gets, for exam­ple on wait­ing times or infec­tion rates, meant that sta­tis­tics flew back and forth with dizzy­ing rapid­ity. While hard tar­gets for exam­ple are impor­tant to the orga­ni­za­tion, they also had a more overt, and imme­di­ate human ele­ment. With allow­ing a patient to breach a wait­ing tar­get, or the hos­pi­tal run­ning out of beds very much not the ‘done thing’ for the NHS man­ager on the spot and want­ing to stay in their job, things can get rather fre­netic as the pos­si­bil­ity draws near – phones are ham­mered, favours are called in, patient moves are co-ordinated with some haste, wards are opened, oxy­gen tanks checked… and dis­as­ter is (usu­ally) averted.

Spend­ing time with an ambu­lance con­trol cen­tre man­ager, we asked him at inter­vals through­out his 12 hour shift to rate the level of inten­sity of work. At 10am things were pretty calm at ‘level six’, but as the day drew on and the weather wors­ened, road traf­fic inci­dents began to mount up and demand for ambu­lances rose. By 4pm the man­ager was deal­ing with cars — which might or might not con­tain decap­i­tated teenagers — stuck under bridges, ambu­lances break­ing down, and bor­row­ing a heli­copter from another ambu­lance ser­vice in order to fly some­one hun­dreds of miles for a life­sav­ing oper­a­tion. While his team of 15 junior col­leagues were almost as busy, it was the man­ager to whom the most crit­i­cal inci­dents were handed. At the same time, he had to deal with per­son­nel issues such as pro­ba­tion and sick leave. We had never, until observ­ing this man­ager, seen a phone ring as soon as it is put down – over and over again. The inten­sity level by 4:30pm?-‘ten, but here it can go up to eleven’….

The ‘rapid fire’ prob­lem solv­ing we saw in this and count­less other instances gave us the sense of ‘man­ager as fighter pilot’, crit­i­cal deci­sions made rapidly in an envi­ron­ment of pres­sure and inten­sity. Other researchers had noted sim­i­lar lev­els of inten­sity, with David Buchanan’s research team, for instance won­der­ing if health­care jobs were becom­ing ‘extreme jobs’ (Buchanan 2011). While the NHS col­leagues we spoke to all accepted their lot as part of their job as pro­fes­sion­als, high lev­els of stress lurked, unspo­ken, in the back­ground, and lev­els of stress in the NHS are for­mally reported as being very high. Aside from the inten­sity of work, many peo­ple we spoke to, par­tic­u­larly man­agers, found that the amount of work they were expected to get through seemed to be increas­ing. Very often, work was taken home to be com­pleted in evenings and week­ends, because the large vol­ume of paper­work or data entry sim­ply could not be dealt with in the hospital/ emer­gency con­trol centre/ ambu­lance sta­tion because of ‘con­stant interruptions’

Widen­ing the soci­o­log­i­cal dis­cus­sion fur­ther, we have become inter­ested in how intense work and long-hours cul­tures are increas­ingly under­stood as ‘the norm’ in con­tem­po­rary work­places. Increas­ingly, many peo­ple take long hours and very intense work for granted, believ­ing it to be inevitable; an unspo­ken part of the employ­ment con­tract. In an attempt to char­ac­terise this sit­u­a­tion, com­men­ta­tors have used seem­ingly para­dox­i­cal or tau­to­log­i­cal phrases such as ‘nor­mal­ized inten­sity’ (McCann et al 2008). For many in the twenty– first cen­tury work­force, extreme has become nor­mal, nor­mal has become extreme.

As part of our devel­op­ing inter­est in extreme work in all its forms, we are run­ning a stream at the 2013 Crit­i­cal Man­age­ment Stud­ies con­fer­ence here in Man­ches­ter, and there will also be a spe­cial issue of the jour­nal Orga­ni­za­tion on this theme; please look out for fur­ther details and calls for papers, or con­tact us at edward.granter@mbs.ac.uk.

Ref­er­ences

  1. Buchanan, D. (2011) Are health­care man­age­ment jobs becom­ing extreme jobs? , Cran­field Health­care Man­age­ment Group Research Brief­ing 7. Cran­field Uni­ver­sity, UK.
  2. McCann, L., Has­sard, J. and Mor­ris, J.L. (2008) ‘Nor­mal­ized Inten­sity: The New Labour Process of Mid­dle Man­age­ment’, Jour­nal of Man­age­ment Stud­ies , 45, 2: 343–71.

Acknowl­edge­ment and Disclaimer

Our project was funded by the National Insti­tute for Health Research Health Ser­vices and Deliv­ery Research (project num­ber 08/1808/241). Visit the HS&DR Pro­gramme web­site for more infor­ma­tion. The views and opin­ions expressed therein are those of the authors and do not nec­es­sar­ily reflect those of the HS&DR Pro­gramme, NIHR, NHS or the Depart­ment of Health.

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