Sunday, February 17, 2013

Invisible Labor: The Eye Does Not See What the Mind Does Not Know

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of participating in a very stimulating conference on invisible labor hosted by Washington University's Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work and Social Capital. My contribution was reflected in an old adage that states that the eye does not see what the mind does not know.

We only see and value work when it conforms to our mental models of what work is. In the public imagination, why is work less visible than other key aspects of human life? Because dominant ways of thinking about work reduce it to a curse or to a commodified, instrumental activity that supports consumption. So we do not think of work as having deeper value, and therefore we overlook work in favor of other human activities. Similarly, why are certain forms of work invisible? Because when we think of work in certain ways, especially as a commodified, instrumental activity, then forms of work that are thought of as different from or only weakly fulfilling these dominant conceptualizations of work are devalued and rendered invisible.

In these ways, then, how we think about and conceptualize work have real consequences for what is seen and valued as work. Unfortunately, conceptualizations of work are frequently narrowly-conceived and typically unstated. To better understand issues of invisible work and questions of what forms of work are valued and why, it is important to explicitly consider the diverse ways in which work can be conceptualized.

I have written about these conceptualizations in my book The Thought of Work, and in earlier blog posts (e.g., What is Work, and Why Does It Matter?), so I will summarize my ideas in the following table:

Work as...


Implications for Invisible Labor

1. A Curse

An unquestioned burden necessary for human survival or maintenance of the social order.

All work is devalued; other human activities are more
important and receive more attention.

2. Freedom

A way to achieve independence from nature or other humans, and to express human creativity.

Work that fails to achieve economic independence or lacks creativity is less likely to be valued and visible.

3. A Commodity

An abstract quantity of productive effort that has
tradable economic value.

Visible work is exchanged in primary labor markets; high
pay required to indicate economic value.

4. Occupational Citizenship

An activity pursued by human members of a community
entitled to certain rights.

All forms of work should be valued more highly with rights
provided to all types of workers.

5. Disutility

A lousy activity tolerated to obtain goods and services
that provide pleasure.

Work that does not support high levels of consumption is
less likely to be valued and visible.

6. Personal 

Physical and psychological functioning that (ideally)
satisfies individual needs.

Work that does not provide intrinsic rewards is less
likely to be valued and visible.

7. A Social

Human interaction embedded in social norms, institutions,
and power structures.

Invisibility of work reflects socially-created
institutions and power structures.

8. Caring for Others

The physical, cognitive, and emotional effort required to
attend to and maintain others.

Though frequently invisible, caring work should be valued
as real work.

9. Identity

A method for understanding who you are and where you stand in the social structure.

All forms of work should be valued more highly and more

10. Service

The devotion of effort to others, such as God, household, community, or country.

Though frequently invisible, service towards others should
be valued as real work.

By making these conceptualizations explicit, we have a better foundation for thinking more clearly about how we define work and for gaining a deeper understanding of why all work or some forms work are invisible. By broadening our thinking on work, this framework can further provide a foundation for crafting inclusive definitions of work that recognize not only the deep importance of work for individuals and society, but also the value of diverse forms of human activity that should be fully embraced as work rather than overlooked or marginalized. In short, in order for the eye to recognize wider forms of work, we need to train the mind to think more broadly and deeply about work.

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