The Work and Occupations symposium issue on “The New Labor Activism” has just been released. The fifteen symposium essays present a new generation of labor sociology research for comprehending and sustaining the contemporary labor mobilization in the U.S., the largest labor mobilization since the 1930s. The mobilization is occurring throughout the U.S. economy, including in the logistics, tech, retail, hospitality, automotive, healthcare, civil society, arts, and education sectors. The essays, written by a diverse group of social scientists, focus on the themes of “history,” “intersectionality,” “worker agency,” and “hierarchy” and continue the post-World War II transition of the field from a union-centered toward a worker-centered labor sociology. The symposium essays are written in dialogue with the June, 2022 report on U.S. labor organizing issued by the Worker Empowerment Research Network, a new network of labor market researchers associated with the MIT Sloan School of Management, Cornell, Rutgers, and Columbia Universities, and other universities and colleges. The symposium issue can be accessed from the “OnlineFirst” section of the Work and Occupations website.
Book Review: The Mindful Elite
As part of our July newsletter, Max Coleman contributes a review of a recently published book: The Mindful Elite by Jaime Kucinskas.
Max Coleman is a PhD student in sociology at Indiana University. His research lies at the intersection of mental health, culture, and social stratification. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources of stress and anxiety are everywhere: in our jobs, in our intimate relationships, and even in our political climate. As Americans face disturbing rates of psychological distress, they have become eager for novel coping strategies. Enter meditation, a centuries-old practice that has spread rapidly in the last few decades. Yet meditation is not just a form of stress-relief: at its core, meditation offers an antidote to capitalist self-interest. By teaching individuals to detach from desire and focus instead on the neutral sensations of the body and breath, regular meditators find that they are not only calmer, but that they have more empathy, patience, and selflessness than non-meditators.
Why, then, has meditation—along with its Americanized cousin, “mindfulness”—faced such a backlash in recent years? Consider an article by Robert Purser, which recently appeared in the Guardian under the title “The Mindfulness Conspiracy.” While Buddhist meditation may have laudable goals, Purser wrote, it has been coöpted by a neoliberal system designed to reduce social issues to personal problems that can—and therefore must—be mastered with self-discipline. Building on the neuroscientific finding that “you can change your brain,” mindfulness has become a panacea for all social and emotional challenges. In this formulation, the source of one’s suffering is never in society itself; rather, suffering is based on our own maladaptive thinking, our neuroses, our clinging, our desire—and by liberating ourselves through meditation, we can not only cure these problems but render irrelevant their social foundations. Mindfulness, becomes a tool not of transformation, but of quiescence.
Invited Essay: Teaching the Organizational Imagination
As part of our February newsletter, Nicholas Membrez-Weiler contributes a piece on teaching the sociology of organizations to undergraduate students. Nicholas is a PhD student at North Carolina State University. His work examines the social dynamics of organizational wrongdoing and corporate crime, with current projects focused on the problem of wage theft. He is involved in several projects with topics ranging from transnational mobilization and contested illness, franchise organizations and the fissured workplace, and shifting work relations in the platform/gig-economy.
When I started teaching the sociology of organizations, I noticed that students seemed particularly resistant to letting go of their implicit assumptions about organizations. Most students come into the sociology of organizations with some prior experience in sociology, usually an introductory or social problems course, where they learned to question many of their taken-for-granted assumptions about social life. Students learn early on about the socially constructed nature of race, gender, and class. We drill Mills’ (1959) Sociological Imagination into their heads and teach the importance of connecting biography and history, the macro and the micro, in order to better understand both.
But what of the meso? Formal organizations have come to dominate society, yet organizational dynamics remain invisible within most introductory sociology courses. As I quickly realized in my first go at teaching organizations, my students come with a great grounding in sociology and an understanding of important sociological concepts, yet certain images of organizations seem persistent and immovable in their minds. Especially entrenched are ideas about efficiency as an organizational goal rather than the means to reach that goal and the belief that productive organizations’ primary goal is (and should be) profit. In attempting to address these misconceptions, and in order to present a more complete introduction to the scholarship on organizations, I employ two strategies: semester-long observations of the same organization, and constant experiential immersion in the classroom.
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Invited Essay: Corruption, Gender, And The Violation Of Public-Private Boundaries
As part of our January newsletter, Fauzia Husain contributes a piece on what corruption studies can teach us about the flow of power in organizations, informed by her research in Pakistan. Fauzia Husain is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia. Her work explores the local and global dynamics of gender, agency and power through a focus on state security. She is also one of the organizers of JTS 2019.
Over the years several studies have shown gender and corruption to be related, with rates of corruption falling as women’s participation in government rises. Some scholars assume that this relationship is based on gendered traits. Corruption, they argue, is gendered because women are more prone to honesty and good civic sense. Others suggest that not essential gender traits but systemic factors explain the relationship between gender and corruption—it is liberal democracy that explains both, gender integration as well as honest government. In the course of fieldwork with women police in Pakistan, however, I found that the gendered character of corruption might be the outcome not of quantity or propensity but of opportunity and quality. In other words, both men and women do corruption, they just do it differently.
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Invited Essay: Gendered Organizational Change — Insights from the Archives of the International Olympic Committee
As part of our November newsletter, Madeleine Pape shares findings from her 2018 ASA paper on gendered organizational change within the International Olympic Committee. Madeleine Pape (www.madeleinepape.com) is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose research and teaching interests include gender, Science and Technology Studies (STS), health and medicine, political sociology, organizations, socio-legal studies, and physical cultural studies.
Every four years the Summer Olympic Games capture the imagination of millions of people across the world… and provoke the ire of feminist activists, scholars, and sports fans when again, still, the sporting field bears witness to blatant gender discrepancies. In Rio di Janeiro in 2016, for instance, a major talking point was the US media’s representation of high achieving female athletes: triple-world record holder Katie Ledecky was described as “the female Michael Phelps;” trap shooter and bronze medalist Corey Cogdell-Unrein was referred to simply as the “wife of a Bears’ lineman;” and one commentator attributed the successes of Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu to her husband, describing him as “the man responsible” for her gold medal and world record. Just when we appear to be closing in on gender parity in terms of the numbers of male and female athletes competing at the Summer Olympic Games, these commentators remind us how far we still have to go before sport becomes a space where women athletes truly enjoy equal respect and recognition. In the words of feminist sports historian Susan K. Cahn, “you’ve come a long way, maybe…” (1994, p. 279).
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Invited Essay: The Wage Gap Is Getting Worse, Now What?
As part of our September newsletter, Sharla Alegria comments on the growth of the gender wage gap amidst changing employment structures. Alegria is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her research investigates race, class and gender inequalities within contexts that disavow discrimination.
Over the last few years, I have been forced to the realization that neither the gender pay gap, nor the race pay gap have improved since before I learned the meaning of the word pay. Not only did the gender pay gap nearly stop narrowing in the mid-1990s, even the modest improvement since then is from older workers, who had the largest gap, retiring (Campbell and Pearlman 2013). Meanwhile, the pay gap between all black and white men is now on par with 1950s levels (Bayer and Charles 2018).
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How work ethnographers are adapting to the changing nature of work
As part of our March newsletter, Benjamin Snyder comments on how ethnographers of work are responding to changes in the character of labor and employment. Snyder is the author of The Disrupted Workplace (Oxford University Press, 2016) and a Lecturer in Sociology & Social Policy at Victoria University of Wellington. He will join the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Williams College in Fall 2018.
In 2001, Stephen Barley and Gideon Kunda called upon organizational and work sociologists to revisit the field’s core concepts. Time, place, schedule, wage, job, career, employment, management, ownership, head versus hand, work versus leisure, and a host of other taken for granted ways of describing economic life under bureaucratic organizing, they argued, are increasingly obscured by new post-industrial forms. They prescribed a return to an older tradition of detailed ethnographic studies of work and workplaces to adapt to the changing times. Sit with working people. Watch what they do. Listen to what work means to them. Build new concepts. For ethnographically inclined sociologists of my generation, for whom this call was part of our introduction to the field in graduate school, this message felt like a warm welcome. Many of us took up the invitation. When I look out on the field now, almost two decades later, I get the sense that the seed Barley and Kunda planted has begun to bear fruit. Work-oriented ethnographers are deeply engaged in this much needed conceptual reconstruction.
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