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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Comments

  1. thanks for sharing tihs

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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 .
2 Comments »

Comments

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

  2. hard work is one way to success

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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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Comments

  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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