Work, dirt and stigma

Dirty work is not only that work which is grubby or unpleasant, but also that which carries a stigma. We, as human beings have many rituals of order, from marking different periods of life as spaces apart from each other (such as the transition from child to adult), to keeping the vegetables and meat on separate shelves in the fridge. Certain topics and substances have been identified as having a sort of universal stigma or taboo, in that societies and cultures from many different times and places seem to manage them carefully; notably substances such as blood have this significance. Yet the strange part is that even when people who work with blood and encounter it everyday have been cleaned, sanitised and removed from their place of occupation, they often encounter behaviour based on the persistence of that ‘taint’. This concept is the basis of Goffman’s (1963) theory of stigma, which relies upon the idea that we often hold an idea of a person in our heads which is different from the qualities of the person in front of us. For Goffman, this is ‘virtual’ versus ‘actual’ identity and the gap between these two sets of characteristics is stigma.

When we think about work, then, it’s pretty clear that some types of work carry a polluted ‘virtual’ social identity, an identity tainted by association with the substance or status of work. Dr Hamilton has conducted a number of studies on work undertaken with animals, much of which involves contact with ‘dirt’. In her recent study with Professor McCabe, she looks at contemporary meat production, as compared with our expectations set out by the classic studies such as Ackroyd and Crowdy’s study of slaughterhouse workers. She pointed out that even within these industries, there are clear hierarchies, and some work might still be considered ‘dirty’, while other work is carefully distinguished as ‘above’ such pollutants. It is also the case that some workers might be simultaneously repelled and drawn to, dirty work.

This suddenly reminded me of a job I worked in prior to my career as an academic. As a customer account manager for a national company, I worked in a very clean and tidy office complex on an industrial estate. I spent hours on the telephone managing the relationship of the organization with our key customers, trying to ensure that we always met our contractual obligations and kept their business. However, this company was a waste disposal firm which had diversified from office cleaning and sanitary waste, to all kinds of specialist waste regulated by special environmental legislation as well as pest control (a function they had acquired through a corporate takeover). Our employees would visit client’s premises regularly to collect their waste and transport it to our disposal centres, which were distributed at key locations across the country.

This was a particular problem for some of our remote customers based in the rural countryside. For some sites, a waste collection van would have to drive for five hours to make the round-trip to collect the waste. If the building was locked or access by van prevented due to roadworks, the client would often complain to me by phone that the waste had not been removed, and my role was to liaise with the manager of our disposal centre to arrange a staff member to visit the site again. These repeat visits would often involve convincing staff to work unpaid overtime, to travel to sites where the waste might very well be overflowing the containers so visiting these sites could involve a long trip in a pungent van.

This work may well have been stigmatised by it’s contact with pollutants, from bins full of nappies or sanitary towels, through to used needles collected from tattoo parlours, hospitals or rehabilitation centres. But the contact with the ‘dirt’ of the job didn’t change in essence when workers were asked to work overtime – the difference lay in the fact that extra hours often didn’t result in extra pay.

This work was often rejected by employees. The managers of the disposal centres also often rejected the request for secondary visits, so my work largely involved persuasion and cajoling of these workers on the one hand, while also convincing our customers to keep their accounts with us. This work did not involve contact with pollutants, and as such bore little obvious stigma. Yet this work, having contact with the aggressive emotions of customers and the defensive attitudes of managers carries its own ‘taint’ – such emotion work is usually the undervalued preserve of women (see previous post).
This anecdote highlights the sort of hierarchies and distinctions in an organization that focuses on an industry classically ‘tainted’ as dirty work. Can the hierarchy ameliorate the stigma? Do you think that my work as a customer account manager was stigmatised by the industry we worked within? Plenty of food for thought here.

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