Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Work and Identity

No one is their job, you say. People are more than the sum of their professions. What a limited view of humanity. Blah blah blah. This is certainly true. But then why do people introduce themselves as their professional roles? "Hi, I'm a doctor." "I'm a lawyer." "I'm a teacher." Etc., etc.

I was thinking about this last night. While I can take a joke (kind of), there's an upper limit to how much can be joshed at before I get defensive and really wonder "is this what you think of what I do?" mainly because it translates to the next psycho question, "is this really what you think of me?"

It is not especial to my field. I can imagine saying "all of medicine is quackery, and doctors are merely snake oil merchants seeking to pad their wallets by tending to the imagined pains of the delicate bourgeoisie" and really offending doctors who see their mission as noble--in addition to remunerative, and what is wrong with that? Many lawyers get the brunt of the professional denigration, but many of them also see their role as more than merely being corruptible hired guns--they do fill a need in our system of adversarial adjudication, and many who work in the public sector and in public interest law see their calling as noble indeed.

So let us turn to my third example: the academic. I really do see the work in my field as important, even if I don't exaggerate the transformative effect it will have on policy (and often it does have an effect, even if my particular contribution might not). But my work interests me, and I think the ideas are important, even if they are just "ideas." Theory isn't totally empty. The distinction between sex and gender is one that is still discussed in so many a seminar because the boundaries are constantly being redrawn and fought over in law and policy: what is essential to the definition of each, is gender merely socially constructed, and when do biological differences translate approriately into different gender roles? Is a policy disallowing female fire fighters rational and legal if based on biological differences of strength and height, which correlates with gender? What is discrimination on the basis of sex if we cannot define what sex is--is sex biology, or is sex the social construction of gender? What are the boundaries of race, and to what extent can we use the law to define the contours of race in terms of anti-discrimination law? What is a disability? Etc. etc. The theories matter, because they affect policy and legislation. The social science work matters, because they demonstrate empirically what happens to these protected categories in the absence or presence of discrimination and regulation.

This is not a petulant, foot-stomping defense of myself--"My work is important! My existence is not meaningless!" I think that the impact of my work is whatever it will be--but it is a part of a larger corpus of work that does matter. There's a lot of interesting, theoretical and empirical scholarship out now on defining "work"--what counts as work for the purposes of AFDC, how many hours and dollars does being a homemaker translate to such that we no longer think of stay-at-home-parents (SAHP) as "not working" and value their contributions to their family and the economy. No matter what you do, your work is important to someone. At the very least yourself, and very definitely to your family and the people in your life. Your work helps you contribute to your family, and your work also takes you away from your family. Your work isn't the only thing that defines you, but it certainly defines your day and life.

SAHP work too, although their contributions are often undervalued, as if they spent all day doing "nothing." Academics, for however flexible their schedules may be, often pull 80 hour weeks, with all of the committee meetings, advising of grad students, review of other papers, teaching, prepping to teach (one hour of lecture takes up to 2-3 hours of prep, at least), grading, and then the actual grunt of being a scholar--research and writing. Even if I can take a break in the afternoon to run, grocery shop, or cook, I'm often working the rest of the day and most nights. I work weekends. I seem to be barely digging myself out of a hole, and the work I do on Tuesday could always be done on Wednesday or Sunday as it is ongoing work (unless there is a deadline, which there is only periodically), but it is still something in my calendar, and always in the back of my mind. And yes, I think it is noble work.

Work defines my day, and it defines my life. Plenty of other stuff does too--I am defined by my social relationships: daughter, sister, friend, student, teacher, partner. It is hard to imagine these other definitions being mocked in a way that would really bother me or reach to the core of my identity, mainly because it is not easy or funny to mock them. And we should all have a sense of humor about ourselves, and not take ourselves too seriously. But it's an odd thing: work is so serious, and it is the cumulation of so many years of acquring human capital and it took so much work to get to the work, that it is one of the last boundaries of identity. We are daughters and sisters long before we are whatever job we end up being. And sure, we were made fun of when we were little, for "acting like a girl" or "throwing like one," but when we have worked so hard to achieve some measure of professoinal success, such that we demand to be taken seriously, it is hard to have a sense of humor about statements that seem to diminish our efforts or chosen profession.

This is partly why I don't comment on others' jobs. There's some interesting sociological studies that show, contrary to whatever you might think in your faux-populist elitism, that mine workers take pride in their work, and work really hard at being good at their job. In the most back-breaking, menial work with the lowest pay, people work hard and take pride in their work, and define themselves partly by what they do and how well they do it. Whenever I meet a SAHP, I don't pull a Caitlin Flanagan and say "oh really, that's all you do?" Because that would be a terrible thing to say. Having worked in daycare and having taken care of children full time, I remark on what a difficult job that is, and congratulate him/her for that. Just like I don't do that "oh really" whenever I meet someone who does ______. Because that is a mean thing to do, and I cannot imagine a context in which that is appropriate, even if in jest. Too much of a person's identity is bound in their work, and yet not solely defined by it. I cannot imagine deriding or devaluing a person for their level of education, the institutions at which they received their education, or the job that they have chosen to define their days by. I don't even do this when I learn that people have worked for evil corporations--because while work might define some aspect of their identity, it does not necessarily remark on all aspects of their moral character. Work defines, but it is not the definition. Most people can handle being joshed at for their less defensible choices (say, consumerist habits or affected mannerisms), but their work is one that they actually want to defend.

I should really write a paper on theories of work and identity and how they are bound by gender, class, and race--and citizenship.


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