Work and Dignity   /   Fall 2012   /    Work And Dignity

The Social Meanings of Dignity at Work

Allison J. Pugh

Navajo worker on the Salt River Project, 1972, by Terry Eiler; US National Archives;

Conventional understandings of dignity at work focus on dignity as an inherent concept, related to a mix of agency, craft, and skill, often captured in the capacity to point to something that you have made, or made better. Many of these accounts locate dignity in manual labor, or in the working class. Dignity wells from within, in this scenario, much like pride, with little influence from other people. Indeed, according to this vision, the dignity derived from what you do is measured in the independence of that act from its symbolic meaning, in its very tangibility. When you build a cabinet or fix a vehicle, you gain dignity from already knowing the worth of what you have done. There is a certain distance from others embodied in this vision: if you depend too much on others, most particularly for the significance or meaning or validation of your work, then you lose dignity.

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