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.11xGrateful thanks are due to Russ Muirhead and Jennifer Cyd Rubenstein for helpful comments. This essay includes findings from a recent study supported by an Alfred P. Sloan foundation Work-family Career Development Grant and a Bankard fund for Political Economy Research Award.

Yet what if we thought about dignity instead as a social construct, something that refers to our capacity to stand as fully recognized participants in our social world, that derives its very meaning from its social context? What if we understood ourselves to be living in an “economy of dignity,” in which people contest and negotiate the terms of their social world and what it takes to belong? I developed this notion elsewhere, writing at the time about the more picayune details of life—of the electronic games and sneakers that comprise children’s consumer desires.22xAllison J. Pugh, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009). Nonetheless, we can apply the concept to thinking about adults, even as they operate in the world of work.

To broaden our concept of dignity, I turn to Amartya Sen’s notion of basic participation in one’s social world, the “absolute capacity to take part in the life of the community.”33xAmartya Sen, “The Possibility of Social Choice,” The American Economic Review 89.3 (1999): 361–62. An “economy of dignity,” then, refers to the complex system of meanings by which people come to parley and manage what counts as the “life of their community,” the collective measure of what counts for social citizenship, the right to be heard and seen, to be an active participant. Dignity, in this view, is supremely social, not simply in the way of being conferred by others like some sort of prize, but in its cultural essence, in the collective process of making a social world, in the shifting cultural contestation and consensus by which people achieve their own (and others’) participation.

When we see dignity as a private, static attribute, one that the lucky wear like a cape around their shoulders, we can separate good jobs from bad jobs. We can critique different kinds of work for the detachment from the physical fruits of our labor that they impose, and for the degree to which they enable us some sort of ideal vision of distance from someone else’s needs, desires, or estimation. Service work, particularly personal work done to care for others, is, under this view, too often too close to servility work (with the attendant gendered distribution of this work often unremarked). Just as some jobs are monotonous, dirty, or dangerous, and others are not, some work allows us to have dignity, and other work does not.

But when we see dignity as a social construct, an interactional accomplishment, one that reflects and is made of social meanings that shape people’s active participation in their own environments, we do not have to bless or condemn certain occupations as inherently with or without dignity. Instead, we can focus on how they are organized, how they create a social world and those who count as citizens within it, how they more or less enable people to act as full participants—and what marks full participation—in a particular community.44xNote that “dignity” is not reducible to “visibility,” but instead is embedded in a mutual process of mutual recognition. Nancy fraser describes the lack of something similar when she names “social sub- ordination—in the sense of being prevented from participating as a peer in social life.” See Nancy fraser, “Rethinking Recognition,” New Left Review 3 (May–June 2000): 107–21. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Christine Williams, and others have written usefully about how gender or race tokenism can make one too visible, which we should not take as a sign of dignity or full participation in a social world. Tokens are objects, not subjects. See Kanter’s 1977 classic, Men and Women of the Corporation (New York, NY: Basic, 1977). Williams notes that gender visibility costs women but benefits men working in nontradi- tional occupations. See Christine Williams, Still a Man’s World: Men Who Do “Women’s Work” (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995). In particular, we do not have to demonize the interdependent social relations of much contemporary work, but instead can subject all jobs to the critical evaluation of whether or not they allow true mutual recognition and dignity.

How are people fully seen and heard by others at work? Workers create economies of dignity in their everyday interactions, within institutionalized con- straints, by “adopting a line,” as Erving Goffman put it—a particular way of talking that portrays a particular version of the situation, others, and the self, created from a fixed set of socially legitimated options. We can posit that economies of dignity at work (just like in children’s school environments) vary in the substantive content of claims to dignity (the topics that people must master, or pretend to master, to belong) and other characteristics.

In addition to what people talk about, however, economies of dignity shape how people can talk about them. In particular, these systems influence their emotional tenor, the very tone that people adopt in their talk. Work environments have “feeling rules” that establish the range and kind of appropriate emotions.55xArlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983). Some intriguing research documents the feeling rules workers must navigate.66x  See, for example, Eva Illouz’s Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (New York, NY: Polity, 2007), documenting the emotional fluency required in contemporary workplaces; or, Gideon Kunda, Engineering Culture: Control and Commitment in a High-Tech Corporation (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006) for the prevailing ironic stance in a high-tech firm. Workers thus adapt their emotional register to be able to be heard in a particular work culture, to claim dignity.77xSee Nina Eliasoph, Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Nina Eliasoph and Paul Lichterman, “Culture in Interaction,” American Journal of Sociology 108.4 (January 2003): 735–94 for a portrayal of what happens to those who violate emotionally “light” feeling rules in groups.

Workers help to create economies of dignity in everyday interactions, however, research tells us that the employer has a lot to do with delineating the boundaries of social citizenship in the workplace. In some firms, the distinction between core and periphery workers—the long-term career employees versus free-lance, temp, or contract workers—serves as an institutionalized marker of full personhood (although those distinctions are increasingly blurred in practice).88xStephen R. Barley and Gideon Kunda, Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies: Itinerant Experts in a Knowledge Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006). In other firms, gender, sexuality, race, or a host of other characteristics can be a marker of full personhood. Personal service work for elites is often undertaken in conditions that deny the mutual recognition of workers’ social citizenship,99xWitness Mary Romero’s account of her invisibility at the kitchen table: Maid in the USA (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006); see also Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York, NY: Holt, 2002). See also Cameron L. Macdonald and David A. Merrill, “It Shouldn’t Have to Be a Trade: Recognition and Redistribution in Care Work Advocacy,” Hypatia 17 (2002): 67–83. although some scholars have found poignant cases of acute mutual recognition in personal care, such as among the givers and receivers of nursing home care.1010x See, for example, Steven Lopez, “Emotional Labor and Emotional Care: Conceptualizing Nursing Home Care Work,” Work and Occupations 33.2 (2006): 133–60.

The social vision of dignity gives us a different kind of purchase on contemporary trends in work, such as what has been called “the flexible turn,” “postindustrialism,” or the advent of “precarious work.” These terms capture the economic shift from stable, industrial employment to the fluid, modular, networked economy that features other kinds of jobs. Trends include the increase in employers’ use of temporary or contract employment and of outsourcing as a tactic in good times and bad, the shrinking of men’s job tenure, the increase in long-term unemployment and in perceived job insecurity, and the shifting of risk from employers to employees through changes in and curtailment of benefits.1111xArne L. Kalleberg, “Precarious Work, Insecure Workers: Employment Relations in Transition,” American Sociological Review 74.1 (2009): 1–22.

In The Tumbleweed Society, a study of job insecurity and personal commitment, I found that work communities had feeling rules that depended in part on workers’ expectations on the job of themselves and others, in particular how they viewed notions of “commitment,” “loyalty,” or “dedication,” versus “flexibility,” “adaptability,” or “resilience.”1212xAllison J. Pugh, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Insecure Age (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). How workers talked about these ideas varied based on whether they were employed in insecure jobs—those who had faced frequent relocation or layoffs—or still-stable ones, such as firefighters, police, or public school teachers. Many of those with direct experience of job insecurity evinced few expectations of their bosses, accepting what they viewed as the cost of an inevitably precarious workplace: the death of employer loyalty, even as their own work ethic remained unshakeable. I came to call this imbalance of expectations the “one-way honor system.”

The disjuncture between the way these workers talked about employers and employees was striking. It was as if any employer obligation was dependent on the changing terms of a social contract, a social contract “we all know” has disappeared, and thus no longer part of reasonable expectations. Employee obligation, on the other hand, was a private reflection of self, an identity issue, with pronouncements of work ethic serving as claims of honor as fundamental as “I strive to be a good parent” or “I don’t lie, cheat, or steal.” Employer obligations were somehow not part of an individual’s identity, even when the employer was the head of the company. In the economies of dignity prevailing at these workplaces, it seemed, a certain pyramidical ruthlessness was viewed as inevitable, and to be a full citizen of this world meant evincing some savviness about that, a knowing get-real attitude.1313xSee also Karen Ho, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); and Carrie M. Lane, A Company of One: Insecurity, Independence and the New World of White-Collar Unemployment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).

The case of Martha, a white, part-time, retail worker, illustrates this irony.1414xAll quotes are from Pugh forthcoming. Names and some identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality. Martha had been a high-powered marketing executive before she was let go of her job because, she says, her boss wanted to give it to a woman with whom he was having an affair. Even as she muses in retrospect that she should have sued to get her job back, she shrugs her shoulders.

Well, it’s a very competitive corporate environment. few people were promoted, but we were also hired at the top of the pyramid, so there was no place to go. It wasn’t like the company was expanding…. They would re-shuffle and they’d save money. And if they would want to make a change, then they just shuffled the deck and people were let go. And that’s okay, they didn’t care—they’re there to make money, not there to hear complaints or problems.

Martha is now a single mother cobbling together a stark living from part-time service work despite her college degree and corporate experience, and her income is a fraction of what it once was. Still, as she narrates the corporate culture she once knew, it is clear from her words—“and that’s okay, they didn’t care”—that she does not harbor any expectations of commitment on the part of her employer. In fact, she said:

I think business bends over backwards to help people do their job well, or to give them reasonable doubt, because they don’t want lawsuits. But if you don’t have the talent for that job, they have to let people [go]— you’ve got to find something you’re good at. Martha is so understanding of the employer’s problems—lawsuits, uneven personnel— that she even adopts their perspective, before re-adjusting her language to adopt the persona of the jobseeker: “you’ve got to find something you’re good at.”

Research suggests this sort of “insecurity discourse” prevails at many workplaces reshaped by contemporary economic trends.1515xSee Ho; Lane; and Vicki Smith, Crossing the Great Divide: Worker Risk and Opportunity in the New Economy (Oxford, England: ILR, 2002). Many workers managing their economies of dignity feel pressure to adopt a certain acceptance (either resigned or gleeful) towards insecurity; for some workers this stance is easier to maintain than others. I found that many—like Martha, when she says “that’s okay…they’re there to make money, not there to hear complaints or problems”—actively worked on their feelings to generate the “right” sort of detachment. furthermore, culturally produced expectations shaped the kind of emotions people talked about feeling.

Gary was a tradesman, for example, who had a long and successful career in self-employment, with his own tools, industry contacts, and client base. Thinking to improve the sort of job opportunities he might be able to offer his son, he joined up with a construction company as their second-in-command. A few years later, the company laid off all of its managers, including Gary. “Just blindsided us. We had no idea,” Gary said bitterly, remembering that business was good, as “we were making great money. We were—our reputation was growing really fast. We were doing amazing work and the company was really functioning well.”

We would not be surprised if Gary reported feeling betrayed by this experience, given that business was going well, his surprise and shock about the layoff, and the high stakes—the future he hoped for his son—involved: “it was devastating,” he said. But Gary refuses to blame the company, or its owner, even as he admits that he was 

crushed. I thought I had found the last job I would ever have. I felt like I had nowhere to go, but up in that company. I mean the only person above was the owner, so there was nothing but expansion. At least, that’s what I thought. 

Instead, when things went woefully awry, Gary ultimately blames himself:

I had spent so much of my working life depending on nobody but myself to find the work, and to make the money and to handle everything, my work was based on me, my performance. My hustle, everything was based on me. I went to them and put my livelihood and my career in their hands and all [at] once it hit me, it was the biggest mistake I ever made…. I place it on myself for letting—for allowing myself to get blindsided that way. I never should have let my guard down. I never should have put my livelihood in somebody else’s hands. I shouldn’t have done that. But, of course, I do blame them for not structuring things well and not controlling the money well. So it’s their fault the company fell apart, but it was my fault for being in the position in the first place.

Most people I talked to who had been laid off, like Gary, blame themselves for losing their job. They report, wistfully or tragically, that they should not have taken that job in the first place, they should have come to the job with better training or education, or they should not have complained about a problem or coworker. In Gary’s case, he doesn’t take all the blame, as he is willing to concede that the company should have “structured things and controlled the money” better. But the offhand way in which he mentions that “of course” they should have, when contrasted with his lengthy discourse on “the biggest mistake he ever made,” demonstrates the emphasis he places here. The loss goes to his very heart: his inability to provide more for his son in his teenage years, to buy him a car, to contribute to college, is crippling. “I’ve cried at night about it,” he said simply. It’s not betrayal, but a dreadful, powerful sorrow that he feels.

Why do the expectations that we carry, for ourselves and for others, matter? Because they act as a sieve for culturally appropriate feelings, the emotional component of claims to dignity. The sieve is a useful metaphor here because it does not imply that other emotions are not felt, but simply that they don’t make it through the screen of available cultural meanings to get fully expressed. Low expectations for employers, and high ones for workers, shape the feelings that people claim about the new ways of working, occupational insecurity, and the ascendance of flexibility.

At insecure workplaces, the economy of dignity embodies what it takes to be a full participant in the Tumbleweed Society, one that prizes mobility, choice, and independence.1616x If insecurity culture makes light of commitment at work, where does it reside? Many people employed in insecure workplaces kept quite distinct their expectations for honorable behavior at work and at home. In contrast to what I found at work, many maintained high, almost sacralized, expectations for others at home that were then unmet, leading to narratives of betrayal. Most thus sought out ways to redefine and reduce what they owed other people in their intimate lives. Their assiduous efforts to separate the two spheres built a moral wall: on the one side, the cool rational calculus of insecurity culture with its stripped-down obligation regime; on the other, the warm anticipation of the family’s irrational altruism. Informants used the moral wall to impose sharp distinctions between work—where insecurity reigned— and intimate life—where you were supposed to be able to count on people—even when the distinctions between these domains were blurry, when they labored in family-like workplaces, or when paid work pervaded their intimate lives as well. They thus deployed the moral wall to delineate a symbolic “attachment border,” marking off where insecurity left off and where commitment, they hoped, began. These are not random virtues, but rather ones ensconced in the free market ideology of the postindustrial economy and the neoliberal withdrawal of the state, values ensconced in corporate capitalism in the late modern age.

There are costs to the one-way honor system beyond the scant comfort it offers to those who end up being postindustrial flotsam and jetsam. By reshaping, defusing, or distracting themselves from anger, laid-off workers are taking part in a process of structural change whose contours are neither inevitable nor necessarily desirable. While they protect themselves from their feelings, they also protect their employers, suppress what could be an important impetus for collective action, and further a privatization of risk that brings the burdens of globalization to rest on their shoulders. In part in order to move forward as individuals, laid-off employees are, through their emotional labor, shunting aside a potentially important collective resource for social change: their own antagonism.

I have sketched out a notion of dignity as a social construct, exploring the economy of dignity for adults at work as a collective emotional culture, with particular personal and social ramifications. This definition strips dignity of some (but not all) of its normative dimensions, so that it can sometimes signify, as it does to those in precarious workplaces, adopting a line of resignation to insecurity culture, or taking on an ironic or cool detachment from others. In the Tumbleweed Society, we might say the price of dignity—what it takes to be seen and heard—is that workers need to pretend that insecurity comes at little or no cost and present themselves as ready to embrace the new economy—and furthermore, that they need to hide the true price they pay, the losses they suffer.

We need more information about the origins, variations, and impacts of these economies of dignity for those within their sphere as well as without, because, I argue, the stakes are more than academic, the feelings more than just epiphenomena. Clark was one of the few I spoke to who declined to adapt, who refused to shape his anger into a gentler mournfulness or to channel his outrage into acceptance. A white man over fifty years old, he had always sought to get jobs in large, publicly traded firms in the hopes of some stability, but had experienced a string of layoffs as a result of mergers and downsizings. He railed against the new precariousness, comparing it to his father’s experience with long-term stable employment. “Because of my upbringing, when I take a job, I assume I’m going to have that job for the rest of my life,” Clark declared.

I realize that that’s not going to happen anymore. I mean, intellectually, I can make that realization. Okay. But in terms of what my heart says, because of my upbringing, I still expect things to be like they were in the 50s and 60s, where you get a job and that’s the same job you have for the rest of [your] life.

Ultimately, however, this outlook did not help him navigate the new era, and his isolated frustration makes visible the costs others are trying to avoid in their efforts to navigate an insecure age: Clark is profoundly unmoored.

I hate looking for jobs. I really hate the whole procedure. you know. Some people like job-hopping, I don’t. I like the stability. Just like I like the stability of having a steady relationship with somebody.

And how does he feel without that stability?

Lost... Lost and wandering, kind of like I am right now.