1) Where did your interests in organizations, occupations, and work originate? How have you found concepts and theories from this scholarship useful in your work?
Josh Seim: I’m broadly interested in how the poor are processed, regulated, or “governed” across a number of institutions. My first research project brought me into a penitentiary in Oregon where I was set on explicating the aspirations and actions of soon-to-be-released prisoners. There, I quickly realized that I would need to account for the internal organization of the facility if I hoped to make sense of what previous scholars described as a “perplexing optimism” among prisoners approaching the gate. I drew on the Gresham Sykes’ Society of Captives, Donald Clemmer’s The Prison Community, and other texts to examine my interview transcripts and field notes. While these books are not usually claimed by organizational sociology, they motivated me to consider how penal domination, a basic organizational feature of the prison, shaped inmate subjectivity.
My second project led me into ambulances in California. My dissertation rethinks the 911 ambulance as a frontline institution of poverty governance. It was through this project that I discovered a few of my favorite books that are more obviously classified as organizational sociology, namely Michael Lipsky’s Street-Level Bureaucracy and Jeffrey Prottas’ People-Processing. However, this project really sharpened my interests in the sociology of work. Beyond rethinking the ambulance as an institution of poverty governance, I began to draw on the writings of Harry Braverman, Michael Burawoy, Jeff Sallaz, and others to more generally rethink poverty governance as a labor process. The sociology of work also motivated a methodological shift. Inspired by books like Donald Metz’s Running Hot, Matt Desmond’s On the Fireline, and Peter Moskos’ Cop in the Hood, I became an ambulance worker halfway through my fieldwork to help me better understand the tacit aspects of my case.
So, I guess I developed an interest in organizations while inside a prison and then an interest in work while inside an ambulance.
Benjamin Shestakofsky: I first developed an interest in studying work and organizations as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, where Jonathan Cutler introduced me to some provocative, big-picture questions about the politics of work. Why do we work as much as we do? And how might work be organized differently? These questions were percolating in the back of my mind during my stint as an editor at a tech startup in New York. After I left that job to start graduate school, I quickly realized that I wanted to learn more about how technology was changing both how we work and what work means to us.
My current research intervenes in debates surrounding the future of work. There is no shortage of speculation about how the rise of artificial intelligence and software automation will affect work, but so far we’ve seen little in the way of systematic, empirical research on this important topic.
My ethnographic study of a company that designed and implemented software systems is grounded in an array of concepts from the sociology of work and organizations. My theoretical touchstone has been Steve Barley’s classic comparison of how the introduction of CT scanners altered work roles in two hospitals. Steve’s research showed me that if scholars want to understand the unpredictable pathways through which technological change affects work, it’s important for us to situate these developments within the concrete organizational contexts in which they play out. The writings of Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman have also helped me think more broadly about technology’s complex and contingent effects on our social world. And like many researchers of work and technology, I was inspired by the debate over de-skilling and up-skilling and the work of Harry Braverman and Shoshanna Zuboff. I was initially surprised to find that Arlie Hochschild’s evergreen insights about emotional labor played such a significant role in the technologically mediated relations that I studied in my field site. Methodologically, I draw from ethnographers of work and organizations like Michael Burawoy, Michel Anteby, and Cal Morrill to think about the relationship between theory and data, and about generating theoretical insights from deep participation in a field site.
2) You have both conducted ethnographies that transcended traditional work boundaries, across spaces and places. How do these new configurations of work present challenges for ethnographic studies of labor, and how did you confront these in your respective works?
JS: I entered the field with a somewhat dated understanding of ambulance work. I approached upper management at my studied firm and requested access to at least two “ambulance stations,” one in a relatively poor neighborhood and one in a relatively wealthy neighborhood. I’m pretty sure they wanted to laugh at me but were too polite to actually do so. There are no static ambulance stations at the company I studied and this is increasingly the case across a number of ambulance operations throughout the nation. When ambulance crews are not running calls at my studied firm, they are “posted” at particular street intersections. I quickly learned through my fieldwork that such posting locations can shift on a minute-to-minute basis. This diffusion and flexibility of labor produced a couple unique methodological challenges I didn’t anticipate. It disrupted my plans to execute a clean geographic comparison and it limited my ability to sit down with workers in a quiet space to conduct interviews. Still, the major challenges I faced as an ethnographer – and the ones that cost me the most sleepless nights – were not unique to the ambulance or even to examinations of work. In temporal order, these were access, fatigue, and exit.
BS: My research site allowed me to observe some of the many ways in which technological change is altering both the organization and geographic distribution of work. The company I studied, which I call AllDone, managed a digital labor platform connecting buyers and sellers of local services (like plumbers, DJs, house cleaners, and math tutors) throughout the U.S. AllDone was built by a San Francisco-based team of software engineers and designers who used another digital labor platform—then known as oDesk—to hire and supervise an army of distributed, work-from-home employees spread across the Philippines and the Las Vegas area. These remote workers performed a variety of tasks that complemented the company’s software systems. So I had the opportunity to see how local service providers across the U.S. experienced work that was structured by a platform developed in San Francisco and supported by workers in Las Vegas and the Philippines.
One of the major challenges that I faced was untangling this complex socio-technical system that was shaped by relations between the company’s investors, its software engineers, the software systems they created, the complementary workforce without whom these systems wouldn’t function, and the customers who used and responded to the software. It took many months of engagement in the field for me to understand how the system worked and the role of each component in shaping the others. I hadn’t expected to find that remote workers would play such an integral role in training, tuning, substituting for, or cleaning up after machine-learning algorithms. Ethnographers of work have an important role to play in interrogating technologists’ claims about the purported autonomy of new technologies and surfacing the invisible labor that often keeps software systems running.
It was also important for me to triangulate data gathered from digitally mediated interactions with far-flung colleagues with data from “offline” gatherings. I was able to travel to Las Vegas and the Philippines on a regular basis to join in-person meetings. This helped me better understand their daily work practices, how workers influenced and were affected by the company’s technological systems, the challenges they faced in communicating with colleagues across great distances, the meaning that they created around their jobs, and how they understood their place in the organization and their relation to the broader Silicon Valley startup economy.
3) Where do you see the field of OOW heading in the coming years? What excites you about our subfield?
JS: This is difficult for me to say as a rookie in the field. I’ll leave the predictions to the veterans. That said, I’m very excited about a number of themes that I hope will maintain salience in the scholarship on work. In addition to the research on precarity, I’m optimistic that examinations of new technologies for surveilling, eliminating, and complementing work will grow. I’m also hopeful that labor-centric analyses will continue to inform the ways sociologists examine a number of poverty regulating institutions like the welfare office, the jail, and the emergency department. Related to this, it’s my wish that more scholars will examine what Erving Goffman in Asylums calls “people-work,” a form of labor he brilliantly distinguishes from both factory and service work. Often overlooked, this concept, which Goffman developed to make sense of staff labor inside total institutions, can be incredibly insightful as we consider a plethora of occupations that take people as the primary material to work upon (e.g., nursing, correctional officers, teachers).
BS: The proliferation of big data and artificial intelligence are likely to contribute to significant changes in work and organization in the coming years. I tend to be skeptical of the more apocalyptic narratives about how “the robots are taking over,” but it is clear that digital technologies will continue to displace some workers while changing the nature of work for many others. These developments will have far-reaching implications. Will new technologies alter how firms generate wealth and who is able to lay claim to the profits they produce? How will technological change further transform the geographic distribution of work? How will managers use AI to monitor and supervise workers, and how will workers “game” technological systems to evade or resist managerial directives? How will governments regulate digital labor platforms, and to what benefits will “gig economy” workers be entitled?
Nothing is inevitable about how digital technologies will affect work and organizations. Individuals, managers, advocacy groups, and government actors will continue to make consequential choices that will shape both the nature of technological change and how broadly the benefits that it generates are shared. I can’t imagine a more exciting time in which to be studying work and organizations. Sociologists who are able to compare the effects of technological change across organizational and national contexts will have a lot to contribute to these conversations.
4) As advanced graduate students and student representations of the Section, how do you recommend other students maximize their involvement in the Section?
JS: I’m not entirely sure, as my current role as a student representative marks my first “real” involvement in the ASA beyond the one time I served as a discussant in Montreal. I was simply asked to share this position in OOW with Ben Shestakofsky after I won the 2017 James D. Thompson Award. As such, my advice is simple: don’t do what I did. Don’t wait for someone to invite you to become involved. If you’re interested, then you should simply email student and faculty representatives. In my limited experience, the folks in OOW are very nice and are encouraging of student involvement.
BS: Volunteer! Over the past two years the Section has begun each academic year with an open call for participants on various OOW committees. This is a great opportunity to find out more about what the Section does and to connect with other scholars who share your interests. Also, if you attend ASA, go to the OOW business meeting. In 2017, a few faculty members stuck around for lively, informal “mentoring” conversations with graduate students. In general, the folks who attend the business meeting are people who care about the Section and its members, so nearly all of them will be happy to chat with you about your research interests.
5) Finally, do you have any recommendations of books you’ve read recently for Section members?
JS: In no particular order: Steve Viscelli’s The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream, Jason Rodriquez’s Labors of Love: Nursing Homes and the Structures of Care Work, Peter Ikeler’s Hard Sell: Work and Resistance in Retail Chains, and Michael Corman’s Paramedics On and Off the Streets: Emergency Medical Services in the Age of Technological Governance.
BS: One book that I would recommend is The Disrupted Workplace by Benjamin Snyder. Snyder examines how the institutions that constitute what we commonly refer to as “flexible capitalism” shape workers’ experiences of time on the job. His ethnographic study compares financial professionals, long-haul truckers, and white-collar job seekers. Most striking is Snyder’s finding that, in spite of their many differences, individuals in each context derived energy and excitement from bringing order to disordered work time—even as their work activities were simultaneously the source of physical suffering, cognitive and emotional overload, and thorny moral dilemmas. Like other excellent ethnographies of work, the book offers a creative and compelling examination of the micro-level consequences of large-scale economic forces.