This text was adapted by The Saylor Foundation under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 0 License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensee. Preface



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Symbolic Interactionism


Recall that symbolic interactionism focuses on the interaction of individuals and on how they interpret their interaction. In line with this “micro” focus, many scholars have generated rich descriptions of how certain workplaces’ behaviors and understandings are “negotiated” and of how certain kinds of workers view aspects of their work and interpret the meaning of their work. Numerous studies of this type exist of police officers, prostitutes, attorneys, nurses and physicians, teachers, and a variety of other occupations. Most of these studies are based on intensive interviews of people in these occupations. Taken together, they provide a sensitive portrait of why people enter these various jobs and careers, what they like and dislike about their jobs, how they interact with other people in their workplaces, and a host of other issues.

A classic study of the workplace grounded in the symbolic interactionist tradition was sociologist Joan Emerson’s (1970) [3] study of gynecological exams. At the time Emerson wrote her study, most gynecologists were men. Because they are necessarily viewing and touching their women patients’ genitals, they have to ensure their patients do not think their doctor is behaving in a sexual manner. For this to happen, Emerson wrote, (male) gynecologists take pains to appear as medical professionals rather than as men interested in having sex or aroused by what they were seeing and feeling. In this way, they “define the situation” as a professional encounter rather than as a sexual encounter.

Male gynecologists use several strategies to appear as professionals, according to Emerson. For example, they have a (female) nurse present during the exam to help the patient feel comfortable. They also certainly avoid saying anything that might suggest they are sexually aroused. More generally, gynecologists and nurses always act in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact manner, which sends the patient an implicit message: “In the medical world the pelvic area is like any other part of the body; its private and sexual connotations are left behind when you enter the hospital” (Emerson, 1970, p. 78). [4] In all these ways, gynecological exams are defined only as medical encounters, and patients are helped to feel as comfortable as possible under rather uncomfortable circumstances.

In another classic study grounded in the symbolic interactionist tradition, Jonathan Rubinstein (1993) [5] spent a year riding around and otherwise interacting with police officers in Philadelphia. He later wrote compellingly about police officers’ constant fear for their safety, about how they try to control suspects and other threatening people without drawing their guns, about how they interact with each other and with their superiors, and many other matters. In one passage, he wrote about how officers (he interviewed policemen) try to win and keep the respect of other officers: “A patrolman must learn to avoid any appearance or incompetency if he hopes to maintain the respect of his colleagues. Every man must go to considerable lengths to cover up any weakness or error that might reflect poorly on his competence” (Rubinstein, 1993, p. 105). [6] Thus officers learn to record dispatchers’ information promptly and accurately, and they avoid remarks that question the competence of other officers.




KEY TAKEAWAYS


  • Functionalism emphasizes the importance of the economy for any society, and the income and self-fulfillment that work often provides.

  • Conflict theory highlights the control of the economy by the economic elite, the alienation of work, and various problems in the workplace.

  • Symbolic interactionism focuses on interaction in the workplace and how workers perceive many aspects of their work and workplace interaction.



FOR YOUR REVIEW


  1. Which of the three major sociological approaches to understanding work and the economy do you most prefer? Why?

  2. Write a brief essay in which you use a symbolic interactionist approach to understand some aspect of a job you have held or hold now.

[1] McGuire, G. M. (2007). Intimate work: A typology of the social support that workers provide to their network members. Work and Occupations, 34, 125–147.

[2] Mauno, S., Kinnunen, U., & Feldt, T. (2012). Work-family culture and job satisfaction: Does gender and parenting status alter the relationship? Community, Work & Family, 15(1), 101–129.

[3] Emerson, J. P. (1970). Behavior in private places: Sustaining definitions of reality in gynecological examinations. In H. P. Dreitzel (Ed.), Recent sociology (Vol. 2, pp. 74–97). New York, NY: Collier.

[4] Emerson, J. P. (1970). Behavior in private places: Sustaining definitions of reality in gynecological examinations. In H. P. Dreitzel (Ed.), Recent sociology (Vol. 2, pp. 74–97). New York, NY: Collier.

[5] Rubinstein, J. (1993). City police. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

[6] Rubinstein, J. (1993). City police. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

12.3 Problems in Work and the Economy

LEARNING OBJECTIVES


  1. Outline recent trends in jobs and wages.

  2. Discuss the effects of unemployment.

  3. Summarize the problems associated with increasing economic inequality.

The economy and the quality and quantity of work certainly affect the lives of all Americans. At the same time, work and the economy give rise to many kinds of problems that also affect millions of Americans. This section examines several of these problems.

The Loss of Jobs and Wages


Because the American economy greatly weakened as the nation went into a deep recession in late 2007, it should come as no surprise that millions of jobs have been lost during the past half-decade and that wages have declined for many Americans. Yet long before the recession began, certain ominous trends in the American economy were evident. These trends involved a general loss of jobs in many sectors of the American economy and stagnating wages.

These trends partly reflected the fact that the United States has joined other industrial nations in moving into a postindustrial economy. In a postindustrial economy, information technology and service jobs replace the machines and manufacturing jobs that are hallmarks of an industrial economy. If physical prowess and skill with one’s hands were prerequisites for many industrial jobs, mental prowess and communication skills are prerequisites for postindustrial jobs.

This move to a postindustrial economy has been a mixed blessing for many Americans. The information age has obvious benefits too numerous to mention, but there has also been a cost to the many workers whom postindustrialization and the globalization of the economy have left behind. Since the 1980s, many manufacturing companies moved their plants from US cities to sites in the developing world in Asia and elsewhere, a problem called capital flight. Along with the faltering economy, these trends have helped fuel a loss of 5.5 million manufacturing jobs from the American economy since 2000 (Hall, 2011). [1]

A related problem is outsourcing, in which US companies hire workers overseas for customer care, billing services, and other jobs that Americans used to do. China, India, and the Philippines, which have skilled workforces relatively fluent in English, are the primary nations to which US companies outsource their work. According to projections, some 3.4 million jobs will have been lost by 2015 because of outsourcing (Levine, 2012). [2] Many call centers employ workers in India, and when you call up a computer company or some other business for technical help, you might very well talk with an Indian. Because these call centers have cost Americans jobs and also because Americans and Indians often have trouble understanding each other’s accents, outsourcing has been very controversial since it became popular in the early 2000s.

All these problems reflect a more general shift in the United States from goods-producing jobs to service jobs. Although some of these service jobs, such as many in the financial and computer industries, are high paying, many are in low-wage occupations, such as restaurant and clerical work, that pay less than the goods-producing jobs they replaced. Partly as a result, the average hourly wage (in 2009 dollars) in the United States for workers (excluding managers and supervisors) rose by only one dollar from $17.46 in 1979 to $18.63 in 2009. This change represented an increase of just 0.2 percent per year during that three-decade span, as workers’ wages have essentially stagnated during the last three decades (Economic Policy Institute, 2012). [3]

Wage changes in recent years also depend on what social class someone is in. While the average compensation of chief executive officers (CEOs) of large corporations grew by 167 percent from 1989 to 2007, the average compensation of the typical worker grew by only 10 percent (Mishel, Bernstein, & Shierholz, 2009). [4] Another way of understanding this disparity is perhaps more striking. In 1965, the average compensation of CEOs was twenty-four times greater than that of the typical worker; in 2009, their compensation was 185 times greater than that of the typical worker (Economic Policy Institute, 2012).[5] These figures reflect growing economic inequality in the United States, a problem we further examine later in this chapter.



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