Sunday, February 23, 2014

Is Making Work More Visible Always Better?

The theme of this year's Eastern Sociological Society Annual Meeting was Invisible Labor. Work can be invisible in two broad ways. First, within the domain of work, some forms of work are celebrated and highly-valued while other forms are marginalized or not even socially recognized as work. In this way, undervalued and overlooked forms of work are "invisible labor." The classic example is unpaid household work, but the conference illustrated that invisible labor can take many forms. Second, within the broader socio-politico-economic realm, other issues and interests are commonly prioritized over those pertaining to work and workers. For each of these aspects, invisible work is almost universally seen as a bad thing. That is, we should be striving to combat invisible labor by increasing the social standing, status, and rewards that are accorded to work and workers (generally or specifically). But is more visible work always better?

At the Eastern Sociological Society Annual Meeting, I presented a conceptual framework for deepening our understanding of invisible labor which follows convention by seeing invisible labor as a problem (see my blog posting "The Eye Does Not See What the Mind Does Not Know"). But as I sat listening to the two other presentations in my session, I started to question whether this is always the case.

First, Eileen Otis, a sociologist at the University of Oregon, presented her research on produce department workers in Wal-Mart in China. These workers are very much invisible to the customers, which is problematic in that this shows a lack of respect for the workers and leads to greater stress levels due to customer demands. But the workers are not invisible to supervisors, who watch their movements through cameras, secret shoppers, and unrecognized managers.

Second, Chris Warhurst, a sociologist at Warwick University, presented his research on the new invisibilities of interactive service work. While showing how many service worker are invisible because they work behind the scenes (such as dish washers and room cleaners) and how contemporary emphases on knowledge work have removed considerations of the body from academic analyses (thus rendering it analytically invisible), at least one element of front-line service workers has become starkly visible. That is, for positions that directly deal with customers, there is an increasing drive by restaurants, hotels, shops, and other service establishments to hire workers who look good and sound right. So in the UK, working class individuals who say "lovely" (which has Celtic origins, and thus working class associations) are discriminated against, while workers who say "exquisite" (which has Norman origins, and thus middle class associations) are favored.

These papers, then, seem to reveal that a more nuanced thinking about invisible labor is required. In particular, some degree of invisibility might be good for workers. The Chinese produce workers search out areas beyond the reach of managerial surveillance systems, such as the coolers, where they can have some dignity and autonomy. If their managers gave them more autonomy through less surveillance (a form of greater invisibility in some respects), this wouldn't be necessary. Moreover, if the UK service workers were less visible to the customers--by which I mean the customers were less sensitive to the characteristics of service staff--then perhaps service sector employers would be less likely to discriminate against those who don't look good or sound right.

Ideally, work and workers of all types would be fully respected so that problems of manager surveillance, customer disrespect, and discrimination would disappear. From this idealistic perspective, greater levels of visibility for work would always be better. But for the time being, perhaps greater visibility is not always better for all workers.

Epilogue: The day after I made this posting, a commentary piece "Where Have All the Workers Gone?" appeared. This similarly raises issues about the new invisibility of work (e.g., no one ever sees an Amazon worker) and is well worth reading. But I think it overstates the extent to which work has been visible before the rise of the supposed new technology era. And to the extent it was visible as claimed in that piece, the visible workers were largely white men.

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