Work and Dignity   /   Fall 2012   /    Work And Dignity

Work and Dignity: A Conversation between Mike Rose and Matthew Crawford

Rose: Let’s begin with the notion of an economy of dignity, the idea that a quality like dignity is not simply an individual property. It emerges in a time, a place, and a context among particular people. Thinking this way gives rise to some interesting comparisons. While some of the writing I’ve done is directly related to work, some of it’s related to adult education. And what hit me was so many of the qualities that we tend to attribute to individuals—intelligence, ability, literacy—every one of those powerful terms, which we tend to regard as personal attributes, could easily fit into this same contextual slot as dignity. For example, take a remedial writing class in a community college: How well a student does in that course is not only going to depend on the student’s efforts. Just as much, if not more, it’s going to depend on the curriculum the student’s given, which is a function of the whole history of teaching similar courses and the assumptions embedded in those ways of teaching, assumptions about literacy development and what kinds of people reach adulthood without being literate. When you start to look at almost any setting and any of the “individual” qualities—ability or intelligence, as well as dignity—that contextual framework really has some resonance.

Crawford: I think dignity is something, like honor, that you feel before others, so it’s highly dependent on the social context, like you said. But it isn’t simply conferred by others; it’s something you can have in a more independent way. Let’s say you’re a carpenter, and you have a problem with your boss. If he doesn’t like the work you’ve done, you can say to him: “It’s plumb, it’s level, and it’s square. Go check it yourself.” But in so many professions we don’t have the ability to appeal to concrete standards like that. So everything’s open to interpretation, and you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. In that situation I think your dignity becomes “manipulable” by social techniques. Whereas when the work does answer to concrete standards, you have solid ground to stand on in your own self-assessment, and it’s the same ground on which others will assess you. Either you can bend conduit or you can’t, and either way it’s plain for all to see. There’s an inter-subjective validity to it.

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