An expanding sociological concept: emotional labor

As society changes, sociological concepts can be used in new ways or change their definition. As one example, sociologist Arlie Hochschild is asked about the expanding use of “emotional labor”:

Beck: Since the time you coined it, have you noticed the term becoming more popular? How is its use expanding?

Hochschild: It is being used to apply to a wider and wider range of experiences and acts. It’s being used, for example, to refer to the enacting of to-do lists in daily life—pick up the laundry, shop for potatoes, that kind of thing. Which I think is an overextension. It’s also being applied to perfectionism: You’ve absolutely got to do the perfect Christmas holiday. And that can be a confusion and an overextension. I do think that managing anxiety associated with obligatory chores is emotional labor. I would say that. But I don’t think that common examples I could give are necessarily emotional labor. It’s very blurry and over-applied…

We’re trying to have an important conversation but having it in a very hazy way, working with blunt concept. I think the answer is to be more precise and careful in our ideas and to bring this conversation into families and to the office in a helpful way.

If you have an important conversation using muddy ideas, you cannot accomplish your purpose. You won’t be understood by others. And you won’t be clear to yourself. That’s what’s going on. It’d be like going to a bad therapist—“Well, just try to have a better day tomorrow.” You’re doing the right thing, you’re seeking help, but you’re not getting clarification and communicating clearly. It can defeat the purpose; it can backfire.

Sociologists and other scholars can spend a lot of time developing precise definitions for particular social phenomena. While this may seem like arcane or unnecessary work, it is a critical task: having a clear definition then often leads to more precise measurement which can then lead to more productive use of data.

At the same time, sociologists need to be nimble in updating concepts to changing conditions. A great concept from several decades might no longer fit – or it could still be highly relevant. The originator of the concept could adjust the idea (though it is easy to see why this might be difficult to do given the amount of time one invests in the original concept) or the academic community could come to a consensus. Some concepts from the early days of sociology are still regularly discussed and taught while others were abandoned long ago. Such as in the case above, concepts might be adapted by others in unique ways. This could lead to disagreement or an acknowledgement that the concept now means something different in broader circles.

It would be interesting to analyze the changing conceptualization of key ideas within sociology. The concept of emotional labor is now 35 years old. Is that a normal lifetime adhering to an original definition?

Sociologists on the “chore wars”

Time magazine’s latest cover story on “chore wars” features two competing explanations from sociologists:

The assumption that working women had become the Clydesdales of contemporary marriage can be traced back to the publication of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Second Shift in 1989. In the 1970s, Hochschild was a sociologist with two young children who was trying to get tenure at Berkeley, where she saw her male colleagues unencumbered by demands at home and was inspired to write about the working women’s double day. “It came from my own anguish, my own conflict,” she says…

Hochschild came up with that number by averaging data collected in the 1960s, spotlighting what is now clearly the product of a culture in transition, a lag between women’s entry into the workforce and the great domestic shakeout in which working women cut back on housework, often by outsourcing, and men reduced office hours and chipped in more at home. Yet Hochschild’s interpretation of that statistical blip in the 1960s came to define the plight of women in the 1990s and 2000s. The Second Shift was a huge crossover hit and sparked a huge surge of academic writing on the inequalities of the household…

One American sociologist, Suzanne Bianchi, stood on the sidelines of the why-men-aren’t-doing-more debate for many years. From 1978 to 1994, she was a demographer and statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau working with large represtnative samples that shed light on long-term changes at thepopulation level. Bianchi was looking at almost everything but housework – education, earnings, changes in employment – so she became aware of the pitfalls of focusing only on the domestic sphere. “Maybe men really were all jerks and not doing their fair share, or maybe they were allocating their time to other things. By isolating housework from other kinds of work, you lost track of the fact that families need money as well as time,” she says. “I began to get interested in what we really know. We think men don’t do anything, but is that right? Are we systematically missing what they do do?”…

Bianchi and her colleagues analyzed time-diary data from 2003 to ’05 and found that among couples in which both partners work full time, men’s greater hours of paid work counterbalanced women’s greater hours of unpaid work. A second shift, where it still existed, was most evident in dual-earner couples with children under the age of 6, but it was a difference of five hours more of combined paid and unpaid work for women a week, not 15. “That didn’t mean that The Second Shift was completely wrong, just that it was misleading,” says Bianchi, who published her analysis in 2009. “Another thing that got missed was that women shed housework when they’re employed full time, but they hold on to a lot of child care, and that’s a big piece of why The Second Shift resonates so much.”

The article suggests that the gap between the work of men and women has closed and there needs to a more nuanced explanation about the subject. It seems like the larger conversation would also be enhanced with more data rather individuals relying on personal anecdotes. For the forthcoming edition of The Second Shift (January 2011), will Hochschild also include updated/new data?

Two further issues:

1. The argument in this story works because of a methodological concern: men’s paid work counts in their total. If we look at just the figures for work within the home, there is still a decent gap between men and women. On one hand, we could consider all kinds of work to be equal (and work at a paid job certainly has its own stress and advantages). On the other hand, if an earlier goal was for men and women to equally share work at home, it hasn’t happened.

2. Where do we go with this data? The article suggests the arguments of The Second Shift resonate with newer generations. Will this article convince anyone that men are doing more work (or more equal work) or will it simply reinforce existing divides?

Negative emotions in the workplace

A recent Time magazine piece discusses the role, or lack of a role, of negative emotions in the workplace:

In the binary shorthand we use to compartmentalize modern life, we think of home as the realm of emotion and work as the place where rationality rules — a tidy distinction that crumbles in the face of experience. As management scholar Blake Ashforth has written, it is a “convenient fiction that organizations are cool arenas for dispassionate thought and action.” In fact, in the workplace we are bombarded by emotions — our own and everyone else’s. Neuroscientists have demonstrated over and over in empirical ways just how integral emotion is in all aspects of our lives, including our work. But since companies have generally avoided the subject, there are no clear protocols about emotional expression in the office.

The only instance in which we acknowledge emotion is when doing so is seen as obviously beneficial, both personally and professionally…

But we’re still largely clueless about how to display and react to more commonplace emotions such as anger, fear and anxiety, so we handicap ourselves, trying to check our human side at the office door.

As the last paragraph of the article suggests, not being able to express these emotions leaves employees as less than human. It is one thing to be able to act professional or courteous in the workplace but another to suggest that people have to bottle emotions that we all have from time to time. In high stress environments where the personal identity of employees is often closely tied to job performance, negative emotions are bound to come up.

This reminds me of Arlie Hochschild’s concept of “emotion work.” While there are certain professions that require a public performance of cheerfulness (such as a flight attendant or waitress), this article suggests that most employees have to do some form of this. Just as Hochschild suggests, this is also a gendered issue: women are judged differently when expressing emotion.

So how could companies allow employees to express these emotions in positive ways?