Letters

Letters Archive
Fall 98, Vol. 7, No. 1
  • Inventing Work
  • 1998/99 Fellows
  • Warren Center Honors Susan Ford Wiltshire
  • Announcements
  • Inventing Work

    Work is a fact of life, but how often do we step back and think about what it really is or means? The 1998/99 fellows are pursuing questions like this in their seminar, "Inventing Work." The seminar includes Vanderbilt scholars from the communication studies, English, history, and sociology departments and the Owen Graduate School of Management, as well as a visiting anthropologist. The seminar is codirected by Daniel B. Cornfield, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology, and Mark L. Schoenfield, associate professor of English. Professors Cornfield and Schoenfield recently met with Letters to discuss the seminar.

    Letters: Could you explain your motivations for directing a Fellows Program on work?

    Cornfield: Work is a central professional and intellectual concern. In this time of interdisciplinary understanding and inquiry, a Fellows Program dealing with the world of work, concepts of work, and different meanings of work from an interdisciplinary perspective is very timely.

    Schoenfield: Dan and I seem to approach the concept of work quite differently. As a sociologist of labor, Dan has always expected the subject of work to be central to what he does. As someone interested in Romantic literature, I -- and my field in general, I think -- come at it from the opposite view. The cliché of poetic production that William Butler Yeats, a "high Romantic," espouses is that, for poets, "A line will take us hours maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught." The poem, "Adam's Curse," begins with a languid summer's day and a man weary about his own love; so why are the characters talking about labor for most of the poem? The extent to which "work" keeps emerging as surprisingly central still takes me aback. Of course, critics have been asking this kind of question of specific poems for a long time, but I see this seminar as a chance to understand better the wider cultural vista in which one finds literature obsessed with work.

    Cornfield: I am curious about why social scientists and many actors in the community give work the primacy that they do. I hope the interpretive methods of the literary critics in the group will help me understand the question better. I hope, with the analysis of literature and our understanding of methods of criticism, we can gain an under-standing of why people have given as much importance to work as they have in configuring many other features of their lives.

    Schoenfield: What has interested me as I have studied William Wordsworth and the periodicals of the Romantic period is how often work erupts on the scene, or, even more, ends up defining the scene. One poem by Wordsworth, "Point Rash Judgment," is basically about Wordsworth and a couple of friends walking along and looking at someone way across the way and thinking something like, "What is this guy doing just fishing, when he should be out in the fields working? How improvident this fellow must be, or how much he must just trust to luck." Then they get closer and realize that here is someone whose body has been so battered by work that he can no longer continue to do it. Here is this shock of recognition that what they thought was all about leisure was actually about work. Their own leisure becomes transformed, and then Wordsworth, as a compensation or atonement for his own rash judgment, feels compelled to recoup the experience by transforming the experience again, this time through the work of poetry.
    I have always been very struck by that poem, but for years and years I misread it as merely didactic. Now I read it much more as being about the way in which concepts of work configure so many different social relationships, such as the friendship of the walkers and the community in which they are strolling, mistakenly imagining they are walking through nature. Once you have arrived at work as a central problem, then it is all over the place. Everyone you meet somehow has to be a worker.

    Cornfield: The multiple connections of work with individuals, groups, nations, and many different features of humanity are what make work central for me. One of the things that may emerge in this seminar is a convergence in an understanding of the centrality of work and labor to multiple disciplines and, at the same time, divergence in the ways in which practitioners of different disciplines attempt to understand the centrality of work to human lives.

    Schoenfield: One of the things I have been working on is discussions of the rise of money and the economy in the Romantic period. These discussions, from even before Adam Smith and David Hume, repeat the notion that an increasingly complex economic system requires more complex divisions of labor and, therefore, a greater emphasis on expertise and specificity.
    One could say (maybe hope) that these discussions pertain to your working day, but then you go home and become yourself again, or go on vacation and become yourself again. The Romantic essayist Charles Lamb, writing about being on vacation from his job as a clerk, cleverly asserts that what you are doing when you are on vacation is being that worker in absentia, so that there is not ever quite that escape from work. In Seinfeld, what it means to be a show about nothing is to be a show about work, unemployment, avoiding work, and getting fired. There is an interesting feminist critique of that show, beginning from the simple observation that Elaine sweats and Jerry does not.
    In reading romanticist considerations of work, I am also struck by the way in which gender enters into the issue. The theoretical model I use at this point is rather unsophisticated; by the end of the Fellows Program, it will, I hope, be much more sophisticated, because we have very sharp feminists in the group. A philosopher, Judith Butler, has done a really smart job of arguing that gender is not derivable from sex. But I think one can shift that and say one of the main things gender is derivable from, produced from, or materialized out of, is labor. In the division of labor that the political economists of the Romantic period discuss--and you could probably follow it out through today's political economists--what is being systematically produced in the bodies of workers is a genderization of those bodies. So women do certain things; men do certain things. Those are valued in certain ways. But what makes the division of labor plausible and often seemingly inevitable, is nothing about biology, but about labor systems.
    The division of labor is a very specific way in which work configures social relationships. The configuration needs very specific analysis by looking at professionals, such as storytellers in China or nurse practitioners in the United States, which are two subjects that Center fellows are investigating.

    Cornfield: Social scientists since Karl Marx--if not earlier--attribute, at least partly, the degree of alienation and connection that an individual has to other people to his or her involvement in the world of work. An individual's state of mind, mental health, and world view also depend on work.
    In the twentieth century, social scientists have also investigated the impact of work on the family and the family's impact on work. There are many studies of the Great Depression that examined what happened to families in the absence of work. They just bottomed out; they dissolved, in many cases. They suffered from many social problems in the absence of work. These studies give us a tremendous window on the impact of work on a family when there is or is not work.
    On a higher level of aggregation, we can see the connectedness between work and community. One can see from the absence of work what happens to communities in terms of the tremendous support that work provides. In examples such as plant shutdowns around the world and the creation of a new work system in formerly agricultural parts of the world, one can see how changes in work completely transform the way of life for individuals, families, and their roles in their communities.
    Beyond the community is the nation-state. Work today informs much of public policy debates of national and international importance, including such gender-related issues as affirmative action and comparable worth. Identity politics and group relations in most nations not only have a demographic, symbolic, and cultural dimension to them, but often in conflict between groups, the conflict is carried out in terms of work and employment. Most major political conflicts inside the system, such as identity politics, and outside the system, such as political revolution, involve some access to work, meaning of work, and economic implications of work.

    Schoenfield: Work is now a means to attain things that could primarily be attained by status in certain other historical periods and perhaps in other places. In a tightly structured guild town, for example, your status determined what work you would get. Work provides access to so much else; it becomes a metonymy or way to discuss everything else.
    The dominance of work has provided certain fantasies as well. Although, of course, I am in favor of equal pay for equal work, there is a certain level on which I suspect a certain fantasy exists that equal pay for equal work will necessarily translate into other kinds of equalities. There is a post-feminist rhetoric that asserts, against all evidence, that such a translation has successfully been achieved, that I think many of our students, and even ourselves in less vigilant moods, tacitly accept. My guess is that, in fact, an unequal system will find ways of disavowing that particular equality of work and pay and producing other inequalities in response. It does not follow that if a certain group has enough of its members in the middle class and enough in the upper class, then the group will have gained a certain presence or an adequate equality.

    Cornfield: My book, Becoming a Mighty Voice: Conflict and Change in the United Furniture Workers of America (Russell Sage Foundation 1989), addressed change in the gender and ethnic-racial composition of elected labor union officials. I studied the United Furniture Workers of America and found that some social conditions promote labor solidarity across gender and ethnic lines. The union became demographically diverse in its membership and leadership over time. As Mark mentioned, work is, in one way, an important determinant of status. In the case of this union, gender is an important aspect of this status. The labor movement of the United States has been one of the chief ways in which working people have attempted to develop self-organization and to democratize not only the workplace but society in an era of large institutions. That process of self-organization has had, since its inception, a gendered dimension. The experience of this particular union included the issue of how democratizing agents of different genders came together through a common source of work and solidified into a viable institution to carry on their cause and establish change.
    During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the United States and many other industrialized nations, workers have been important agents of societal democratization, not only of the workplace, but also of other institutions. Work, in part, is an avenue or an institutional channel by which agents of different genders, ethnic backgrounds, and racial backgrounds have attempted to democratize society.

    Letters: How do your own roles as academic workers affect your analyses of work?

    Schoenfield: There is a definite self-referential loop in my analysis of work. One of the targets of the political economists and the periodical workers whom I am studying is the development of a professional class. One way of defining a professional class is that it is composed of people who produce words rather than something else. One can still see, in certain organizations, the dependence of professionalization on writing. A friend of mine has done some research on professionalization in organizations. For example, engineers, in professionalizing, did not do more engineering, like building more bridges; they started forming organizations that produced newsletters, papers, and conferences. In other words, what it meant to professionalize a certain profession was to make that profession produce more words than it used to.
    Of course, the people I am most interested in, writers, have always produced words, but they did not always view themselves as professionals. In fact, in the Romantic period, Wordsworth relentlessly produces himself as a professional, whereas Lord Byron says something like, "I heard that someone has put Wordsworth at the top of our profession. Anyone but him. And who the hell called this a profession anyway? I thought it was an art." That is a really telling moment, when an aristocrat enters the argument over professionalization.
    Given issues of professionalization and given that what we do in the academy is produce words, and that we are under a great deal of attack for doing nothing more than producing words, it is very hard to disentangle investment in understanding professions from understanding what it means to do academic work. We can be very self-demeaning about what it means to produce words, like Eliza Doolittle's "words, words, words . . . first from him, now from you, is that all you blighters can do" critique of both the quasi-professional Higgins and her quasi-aristocratic suitor in My Fair Lady. But words do circulate representations that influence how events are experienced and, thus, actual events. There would not be such an attack on the academy if the academy were not a threat, were not doing a critical--in both senses--task. We need to do a better job at identifying who is threatened and why. But in seeing ourselves genuinely as a threat, we should take some comfort in the power of the work we can do. Our concept of objective distance in analysis has been the fantasy of professional work for a long time, but one I think the study of early professionalization can teach us to abandon.

    Cornfield: One of the historical reasons why tenure as an institution exists in U.S. universities is to promote the academic freedom of the professor by removing the work connection between the professor and the university as employer. The "absence" of a paid work connection through tenure frees the academic to think about what he or she wants to think about.
    One of the patterns that led to tenuring is that frequently universities were censoring not humanists and natural scientists, but social scientists, because social scientists often played a dual and questioning role about society. The dual role that they played, and that they continue to play in a very constructive way, is to be theoreticians and liberal arts professors, on the one hand, but also to work on so-called applied and policy-relevant research, on the other hand.

    Schoenfield: One of the weird things about academic work is that if you ask someone, "What are you being paid to do?" there are a lot of ways that question can be understood. One answer is, "I am being paid to teach, but I also have to do research," or vice versa. Another is, "I am paid directly to do a, b, and c and only indirectly to do d and e." There is a question of what is actually being counted as work and what is considered a moral obligation instead. When someone wants you to review a book, the tag line is always something like, "We appreciate this service to the professional community," as if this is a moral obligation that stands outside what you are being paid to do.
    Some people feel that moral obligation and some people do not. Both of those groups depend on people reviewing their work, of course. The academy remains very fluid about what it is, precisely, that any given individual is being paid for. Two people can have exactly the same track lives, so to speak, with one doing a great deal of service and one doing little service. Does that mean someone is paid for that service or not?

    Cornfield: Yes, professors have a blurry position. We get a salary. From a market exchange perspective, we are paid workers. But much of what constitutes professional self-determination is based on a faith, yearning, and passionate commitment to a mission to help develop and disseminate knowledge. This commitment is basically a volunteer commitment. But there is an economic stratum that supports it at the same time.
    I have tried to investigate the world of work in my teaching at the university. For many years, I have taught "Human Behavior in Organizations," which has dealt primarily with paid work and its social, psychological, career, and status implications. I recently created a new course, "Self, Society, and Social Change," which is the flip side of paid work. It deals with unpaid work, not of the homemaking variety, but rather, volunteerism. In this course, we go back to Alexis de Tocqueville to explore the meaning of voluntary associations, the "work" associated with them, and their effect on the maintenance of democracy. The students then read more contemporary works as well, to try to reflect on the meaning of their own volunteer work. I have become more self-aware, not only as an academic, but as a journal editor, about how the work of academics as a group, as a collective phenomenon, plays a major role in the production of meanings and new ideas, including the concept of work itself.

    Schoenfield: Your classes raise the question of what the status of a student is. Students do something that we want to call "work" and that they often want to call "pleasure," "pain," or "pre-work." There are all kinds of ways in which the student activity can be conceptualized. Some students are paid with scholarships. Two people can do exactly the same labor; one of them is paying several thousand dollars a year to do it and another gets paid to do it. Do you remember a case a while back--I do not know how it turned out--in which an injured college football player sued for workers' compensation? Part of the grounds for the case was pointing to both the money that football brought to the university and to his scholarship depending on his "playing" football; in concert, the claim was that this amounted to work.

    Cornfield: In labor law right now, this philosophical issue is of fundamental importance to the unionization of teaching assistants. The employer argument against this unionization is that they are not workers, but students. The teaching assistant and union argument is that they might be students but are also workers. That philosophical point is a beautiful example of how the liberal arts, philosophical, and theoretical sides of the meaning of work systems have profound public policy implications.

    Schoenfield: It is good that the seminar has some scholars whose primary interest is the way in which the body is configured, is understood, and enters into social systems. Sometimes these systems seem to fall clearly into the category of labor; sometimes they are clearly anti-labor or non-labor. But if you look closely, such clarity dissolves. Some systems, such as sexual systems, are extended in indeterminate relationships with labor.
    The laborer in some sense commodifies his or her body. Of course, it cannot be perfectly commodified. A body differs from some other commodities, which can be conveniently stored, disseminated in various ways and at various times, and so on. The worker's body does not have that flexibility. It either gets used or dies away. People are fascinated with the abuse of the body. Thomas De Quincey makes a career out of telling his story as an opium eater; he makes a career out of self abuse.

    Letters: Is there a category that is either historically specific or theoretically general that you can say stands outside of work?

    Schoenfield: Any given understanding of work is going to operate by producing, envisioning, or even fantasizing its opposition. Often the configuration is interestingly the opposition between "real" work and other sorts of work. Some would say that laborers in factories are doing real work and those in the ivory tower are not. Others might say that those who go out to work every day are doing real work, but homemakers are making rather than working. Obviously, by this point, the example of homemakers is somewhat trite, though actually persistent in the television imagination.
    The classic opposition between worker and owner evolves from times when owners basically worked in ways that were more identifiable with what workers did. At any given moment of analysis, what would constitute work is going to vary. But that work will always be unstable from another perspective, so that no given act will stand utterly outside of the question of work. Work is not the only concept, at this moment, which has that dominance. For example, I do not think anything stands outside the category of gender either, even though at any given moment of analysis gender could be opposed to something else.

    Cornfield: Some non-work realms of human existence would include community and belonging, dimensions of humanity that have to do with how people group together and derive meaning for themselves. There is also the issue of how individuals and groups in a cultural symbolic realm represent what they call reality to themselves and others. Finally, there is the interpersonal realm and issues of love and deep individual attachments that are at least conceptually distinct from work. One of the master themes underlying this seminar will be how work interfaces or is enmeshed in the web of very complex and evolving relationships among all of the work and non-work realms of life. We will use different modes, different methods of inquiry, and different disciplines to untangle or discern this complex web of relations.

    Schoenfield: When you mention deep interpersonal relations, I am reminded of a news story, which is often disseminated, that money is the primary issue that married couples argue about and that leads them to the edge of divorce. Some assert that when couples argue about money, they are really arguing about something else. The fantasy that money, earning, and purchase-power represent self-value is persistent. At the same time, the money one earns represents one's labor, what one's body has been spent in acquiring. So, an argument about money might be, at an unspoken level, about the misuse of the things one associates with that money. The clear and hidden links between work and interpersonal relationships need exploration. What does it mean even to have a fantasy of a realm that is distinct from work when, in lived experience, it is not going to be distinct? One could imagine that such a fantasy is part of why all these arguments about money happen.
    In pop song after pop song, we are told that relationships are as private and self-sustaining as "I Got You, Babe" by Sonny and Cher. It is not accidental that that song has been instrumental in producing two extremely different and very gendered careers. The fantasy involved in that song is that there is an interpersonal realm in which one can be happy and then leave in order to slave in another realm, as if one realm can be a non-work compensation for the other. That bifurcation of realms strikes Marx as a fundamental illusion, one reproduced throughout popular culture. What does the Beav's dad do? Why does Darren always have to get the credit for Samantha's quick thinking? How does Kramer pay his rent?

    Cornfield: The question about work and other realms of life is of fundamental importance. One way that I have attempted to deal with this issue is in the classroom. There is an undergraduate course that I created a few years ago called "Work and Family in American Life," which is cross-listed in sociology and women's studies. From a sociological perspective, the issue is how one problematizes this relationship between work and non-work realms. A sociological approach deals with the historical conditions under which those realms were distinct or perceived by many to be distinct or not distinct.
    One of the enduring understandings in sociology about this particular link between work and a non-work realm deals with the family. There is much historical and sociological understanding that earlier in the nineteenth century, the family and work for many people were one. Those two institutions or realms had not, at least in people's daily lives, become distinct the way they are today. Even "public" and "private," from a family-work perspective, was a blurred distinction in that largely agrarian period in the United States, when a family farm was a family and a farm. Work and family were the same and, even in the early industrial revolution, many of the non-agricultural pursuits were family businesses.
    But by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we could really start distinguishing between family and the world of work. The so-called cult of domesticity presumed a distinction between family and work, and then those two institutional realms became gendered. One of the issues that we might pursue in the seminar is what the conditions are, as we can gauge them through literature, historical analysis, and social scientific analysis, that lead people to distinguish or not distinguish work from other realms of life.

    Schoenfield: "Michael," a poem by Wordsworth, is essentially the story of a family that falls apart over money and labor. One way of discussing what the poem thematizes is precisely the way in which a distinction between labor and leisure enters into Michael's life and family. When the poem begins, Michael and his cottage are proverbial for industry. By the end there is a moment in which Wordsworth has Michael visit a sheepfold when "he could find a leisure hour." This phrase and the concept of Michael having, needing, or wanting free time, explode into the poem to represent an already shattered life, as his family is simultaneously shattered in a way typical of narratives of the period--the son goes to the dissolute city to find work.
    The poem also suggests the importance of ownership to configurations of work. In England at this time, ownership, such as the ownership of land, is being restructured. Ownership of what will classically be called the means of production was shifting a great deal.

    Letters: Why do you consider work a timely subject for interdisciplinary study?

    Schoenfield: I am not sure I would want to make a claim for the subject being more timely than some other subjects, such as the body, gender, information technologies, or race. But all of these other subjects relate to work. Given its level of transformation and complexity, work is suitable for interdisciplinary examination. There is a collection of methods within interdisciplinarity that makes it a useful way into a subject which was as timely thirty years ago as it is today.

    Cornfield: The timeliness of the meaning of work results from the fact that the world of work, as we conventionally understand it, is undergoing profound transformation right now. The employment relationship is being redefined globally. One indicator of this redefinition is the development of "post-hierarchical" forms of employment relations, of which the Saturn plant is a leading example. Another trend is the decline of unionization that has occurred in many industrialized and industrializing nations. The distribution of power in the workplace today is quite uncertain. As we devolve more power to production teams, which are the essence of the post-hierarchical employment relationship, unionization, a traditional source of decentralized power, has almost disappeared. There is a great ambiguity in the distribution of power for working people around the world right now.
    In addition, many public policy issues today are linked to the profound economic restructuring that is occurring worldwide, not the least of which has to do with the geographical redistribution of capital and, hence, work within and across national boundaries. This redistribution has led to a very wide range of social problems, including the devastation of our inner cities, joblessness, and many other social problems that are visited upon individuals, families, and whole communities. These problems are associated not only with the redefinition of the employment relationship, but literally the physical removal of work and, for many people, the opportunity to earn a livelihood.
    Some of the results of the redefinition seem to be racial and gender polarization of attitudes and political action. Many countries will witness the rise of fascist right-wing movements. Marital dissolution is also linked to some degree to the changing world of work. A redefinition of family life and of attitudes toward gender roles seems to be connected to the economic restructuring and redefinition of work relations.
    The meaning of work for many social scientists is linked to the profound changes in the development of transnational capital and the fact that workers in different parts of the globe are inextricably and increasingly linked to one another competitively and cooperatively, with all kinds of implications for how they organize themselves and their livelihoods.
    One of the largest and most quickly growing sections within the American Sociological Association is the Organizations, Occupations and Work Section. In general, there is a growing recognition among social scientists of the profound interconnectedness between work and identity politics. There is a growing desire among social scientists to examine the intersections among what have historically been considered distinct systems of domination and racial, gender, and economic stratification. There is a growing theoretical orientation towards looking at competing systems of domination.
    Affirmative action and comparable worth are efforts to harmonize group relations that are intimately connected to redefinitions of work and the issue of who will be doing what kinds of work. For all of these policy reasons, the time could not be better to discuss, from multidisciplinary perspectives, what work is and how it relates to gender, race, and class in many different ways.

    Letters Archive Index

    For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.


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