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Are we Homo Ludens? Huizinga’s 5-point definition of play.

Homo Ludens is a text frequently cited yet less often read with respect to games and culture. Establishing the concept of the ‘magic circle’, many subsequent studies of games use this work of historical analysis to convey authority and gravitas to the field, and Huizinga’s key message is still a compelling one: that to play is necessary to human life and culture.

This post will shortly be available as a video on the Seriously Learned Youtube channel, meanwhile you can hear Laura talking about Huizinga on BBC Radio 3 here.

Who was Johan Huizinga?

Johan Huizinga was a linguist and historian based at Leiden University when he wrote Homo Ludens in the 1930s. He was particularly interested in the behaviours of courtly life in the medieval, renaissance and late baroque periods, and noted their tendency towards play. However, in scholarly circles in the Netherlands he was a controversial figure and branded a detached recluse for concentrating on telling tales of a beautiful and idealised past, rather than addressing the contemporary dangers of Fascism and Nazism. Nonetheless, anti-Nazi actions he had taken in the 1930s and later criticism of the occupation of the Netherlands had him detained in 1942 and he was subsequently refused permission to return to Leiden. He died in 1945.

Colie (1964) was instrumental in foregrounding Huizinga’s contribution to English-speaking scholars in the post-war period. She highlights that Homo Ludens is not a theory of games, but rather a theory of the function of play in human culture. Colie implies that Huizinga’s work on play is important for recognising that as social beings we don’t only come up with rules to get along together, but also allow for spaces where we can break those rules in order to explore alternative ways of organising.

What is play?

In Homo Ludens, Huizinga points out that Ancient Greek culture distinguished between paidia – lighthearted or child’s play, and agon – sport or games, but to the Romans, all was included in the term ludus – play. By exploring the challenges and contests in Greek sport and identifying the linguistic approach to play in Germanic and Romance languages, as well as Sanskrit, Sinitic (Chinese) and Native American (Blackfoot), Huizinga sides with the Roman characterisation of both types of activity as the same. He identifies that play incorporates descriptions of nature and human action, pretence and limits, freedom of movement and of competition. Most frequently, Huizinga identifies play as comprising a pledge to undergo some kind of risk and tension, even to the degree of deadly seriousness as in violent sporting matches.

The 5 characteristics.

Huizinga outlines five characteristics of play;

Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life”

1. Play is voluntary

The voluntary nature of play is in contrast to the involuntary nature of the things we must do for survival. This is obvious in tasks such as washing or tending crops but less obvious when we start to consider ‘playful’ activities such as craft or artistry which require toil or training. Huizinga debates this in the distinction between the musical (arts) and plastic (crafts) to argue that while performance is a type of free play which may rely upon expertise and training, the training or crafting of skill or a piece of art is work. In this distinction, the showing of a painting might be play, but the production of it is labour.

2. Play is Rule Ordered

When we enter into play, we agree to play by explicit or implied rules, which are often different to those we normally follow. These rules are rules of behaviour as well as of material significance. For example, the idea of taking turns, and that everyone shall have a turn to act or speak is a frequent unwritten rule of most conversational games. The use of physical tokens to represent action is another frequent rule, along with details such as how many tokens a player has and how actions through them may be performed.

3. Play happens within fixed boundaries: the ‘magic circle’

The setting aside of play as a distinct practice is closely related to the understanding of the specific order and binding rules of play. When we agree to the restriction of rules, we also agree that these restrictions will only apply for a time and/or place. We allow ourselves the freedom to step outside of that space or time, whether loser or victor, and return to a different set of rules of behaviour. Those who breach the boundaries are contemptuous, spoil-sports or barbarians, and are swiftly excluded.

4. Play is different

When we play, we are distinctly aware that what we are doing is not ‘ordinary life’, though we might mimic everyday activities. We inhabit a different ‘mental world’ where there might be consequences to what we are doing, but those consequences usually adhere to different rules. This is one of the main reasons why play can be so satisfying, as we sometimes need to enter a space where the rules are different to everyday life – fairer or more clearly specified, in order to explore why some practices have been successful or unsuccessful.

5. Play is not useful or in a material interest

One of the important elements of play is “what is at stake”. Although gambling and risk-taking are identified by Huizinga as key to understanding the tension and excitement of play, play is nonetheless non-purposeful. Huizinga compares professional and amateur sports in this respect, highlighting that once the playing of a game is subservient to a material interest it no longer can be understood as pure play. However, in conjunction with the concept of the magic circle, it remains possible to identify play as having serious and material consequences without necessarily invalidating its status. Importantly, although satisfaction is key to play, Huizinga’s definition does not rely solely upon a psychological perspective of play as producing a ‘feeling’ of engagement (or flow) as a definitive factor.

Play and Culture

Huizinga explores a wide range of social activities in Homo Ludens that we might not identify as play. These include ‘sporting’ activities such as duels to the death or verbal ‘battles’ such as public debates. He also points out the importance of play to ceremony and performance. Both dance and music are play performances, though we would not often think of these as we do games.

Gifts: Conspicuous consumption and destruction

A significant type of play identified in Homo Ludens is drawn from Mauss’ work on gift-exchange, which shares similarities with Veblen’s work on conspicuous consumption.

one proves one’s superiority not merely by the lavish prodigality of one’s gifts but, what is even more striking, by the wholesale destruction of one’s possessions just to show that one can do without them.

This highlights how the practice of giving away high-value items conveys a message regarding the wealth and virtue of the gift-giver, and places an obligation on the receiver to reciprocate, or in the case of the destruction of property, to compete.

This type of competition compares with boasting or slanging matches, and is labelled a ‘squandering match’ by Huizinga. The expression of excessive politeness is a comparable reversed game to that of the boasting match, in which each participant strives to be more courteous than the other.

Knowledge: play to learn

Just as there are forms of contest based on chance, dexterity or physical ability, Huizinga points out the common occurrence of knowledge contests in history and myth. Knowledge contests also remain so central to contemporary life we don’t even recognise them as such – though we call them ‘tests’ and ‘qualifying exams’! In Homo Ludens, Huizinga focuses on the role of wordplay and riddles in schooling particular types of thinking or expertise.

The answer to an enigmatic question is not found by reflection or logical reasoning. It comes quite literally as a sudden solution – a loosening of the tie by which the questioner holds you bound. The corollary of this is that by giving the correct answer you strike him powerless. In principle there is only one answer to every question. It can be found if you know the rules of the game.

While this resembles being quizzed in front of a class, the riddle-question can also push the limit of knowledge by motivating participation in the challenge. Huizinga presents the example of the ‘superlative question’ game, such as “what is sweeter than…” where each answer become the next question. To answer “I don’t know” is to lose the game, so it motivates scholarship. If we take a different version of this question, such as “what is smaller than…” our eventual result today would be to study advanced mathematics or particle physics!

Law: the courtroom as a ‘magic circle’

the lawsuit can be regarded as a game of chance, a contest, or a verbal battle

When we consider the seriousness of a court of law, Huizinga’s assertion that we can identify law as a type of play seems an extreme one. It relies upon the recognition of  historical and cultural approaches to justice which rely upon the setting aside of a context in which a trial may be fairly conducted. The pursuit of justice must be set apart from other social activity in order to establish principles of fairness, and as such it utilises the characteristics of a play contest. This setting-apart of the courtroom also applies to the judge and other roles within it – as these individuals must set aside personal attitudes and concerns. This presents some explanation, Huizinga suggests, for the peculiar use of costume or regalia in the legal profession.

Play and War: worlds apart?

Its principle of reciprocal rights, its diplomatic forms, its mutual obligations in the matter of honouring treaties and, in the event of war, officially abrogating peace, all bear a formal resemblance to play-rules inasmuch as they are only binding while the game itself – i.e. the need for order in human affairs – is recognized.

If we look to ancient civilization it is not difficult to find a link between violent sports and the training of skills for war. From ancient strategy games to contemporary computer games, the theme of warplay is a popular one. Unlike the moral panics which propose that warplay encourages violence, Huizinga proposes that the limiting rules of play are fundamentally necessary to distinguishing between human engagement in war, an aggressive combat between equals, and animal violence in the pursuit of survival.

Implicit to Huizinga’s writing on this seems to be the proposal that war without limitations is a challenge to all human civilisation; war without limitations is not an activity that may be claimed by homo sapiens without placing that very categorisation in jeopardy.

We might, in a purely formal sense, call all society a game if we bear in mind that this game is the living principle of all civilization.

Is everything play?

Since Huizinga, other influential scholars have presented definitions of play which make different distinctions. Caillois’ Man, Play and Games (1961) reintroduced the distinction between ‘play’ (imaginative fantasy) and ‘sport’ (skill-based games), while some psychologists have proposed a definition of ‘unstructured’ play as the individual experience of creativity or improvisation.

Purposeful play, or the appropriation of play-like characteristics to activity which is not different to “ordinary life”, for Huizinga, is false play. In the final chapter of Homo Ludens, Huizinga expresses concerns about the use of play to conceal political or social agendas or to promote ‘barbaric’ tendencies such as the infantilisation, subjugation or oppression of others.

Overall, Homo Ludens highlights how many cultural activities incorporate play-like characteristics, and also indicates that new cultural practices can emerge from playing with existing norms and formats. Yet Huizinga makes no assumption about the quality of play activity; suggesting that it can be debased to meaningless repetition, or can be elevated to ritual or sacred status. Where play offers scope for development and improvisation of culture, it may be seen as a productive force. Yet some characteristics of play may be employed to inhibit the development of collective culture, and the victories achieved through play are empty ones.

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SCOS 2018 Tokyo

This summer I was privileged to attend the Standing Conference on Organisational Symbolism to present the collaborative work I have been developing with colleagues elsewhere in Europe on how the playing of games support learning in entrepreneurial communities. The broader theme of the conference was Wabi-Sabi, or the Japanese aesthetic philosophy which privileges imperfection, impermanence and restraint. This aesthetic is most commonly associated with the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, yet is also significant throughout Japanese culture.

A number of presentations explored how this particular aesthetic manifests in an interest in setting aside differences in power and position in the interests of employee well-being, whether through the promotion of particular values or activities which might often be excluded from everyday business. The long association of Japanese manufacturing and lean production methods might initially seem to contradict such messages, and a range of scholars explored how contemporary types of organising often focus on extreme mechanised and documented perfection, enforced by technological surveillance systems. However, AGILE methodologies were also questioned as unsuccessful revolutions in employee management, too successful to live up to the romantic aspirations of their founders.

As yet, there are few conclusions to the questions provoked by these cultural conundrums. However, the range of studies presented there are likely to contribute towards ongoing theorising about the impact and potential of cultural awareness in both the practical organising of business and the study of its operations. If I took away one useful message from this event, it was that thinking about how cultural business practices can be represented by artistic themes can be highly thought provoking!

 

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Crowdfunding and capabilities

My recent project to investigate the implications of using a crowdfunding model to promote more dignified workplace relations managed to raise pledges to the tune of almost £400, highlighting a very simple beneficial feature of crowdfunding – the potential to develop support for an idea through co-operation with like-minded others. Though this fell short of the target financial figure, this exercise has been both promising in terms of the future of the project (for which I will re-scale the initial stage and return to supporters about whether they would still be willing to contribute in combination with seeking other funding support), and in terms of my own capability development.

Westermann-Behaylo, Buren and Berman (2016) write about the possibility of capability enhancing practices to promote win-win outcomes between diverse stakeholders, and the potential for contributions to human dignity by pursuit of reciprocity rather than stakeholder tradeoffs.  Capabilities are a foundational concept in the work of Amartya Sen and are understood in conjunction with functionings. Functionings describe a wide range of activities, including the basics of healthy living, having a good job, or even the feeling of self-respect. While Sen defines development as the enhancement of functionings, capabilities are the opportunity to achieve functionings. In existing studies of poverty-stricken economies or regions, some activities such as the support of micro-finance are already acknowledged as contributing to enhanced capabilities. If these capabilities can support improved functionings then there is a strong case for their contribution to human dignity. However, where areas struggle to acquire investment, these practices are a more obvious response to poverty alleviation than we might expect in economies where credit is easier to come by. Yet crowdfunding is not only about the raising of money, but also about establishing networks and communication practices. Consequently, I will still be looking for a further opportunity to test this theory with examination of the real experience of crowdfunders…. watch this space!

0 comments on “Crowdfunding and meaningful work”

Crowdfunding and meaningful work

Crowdfunding is a fascinating financial innovation through which individuals or groups can use an online platform to raise funds from a diverse range of supporters. It comes in a wide range of types, and increasingly platforms are specialised for hosting particular kinds of projects, distinguishing start-ups from community or charitable causes. In the USA there is now even a specialist platform for raising funds for research projects.

I’m interested in crowdfunding as a social innovation, based on some work I did for my masters project 10 years ago. When interviewing self-employed entrepreneurs, the contributors to that project all agreed that they hadn’t become entrepreneurs for the earning potential, or even for better work-life balance. Instead they talked about how being an entrepreneur felt; the self-satisfaction of their achievements, being part of a local business community, and being respected by others, feelings they had found absent from waged employment. Independence was key to these individuals, but they also admitted a need for a community of support. These factors (and others) closely matched research on the search for dignity and meaning in work, often hindered by ‘management’ practices or individuals in conventional wage relations.

With the advent of crowdfunding, I began to wonder if the mechanics of the financial innovation could also support this search for dignity. Meaningful work is not only to be found in employment, but also in voluntary work, and either type of project can build a community of supporters through a crowdfunding platform. One successful project near me has been the transformation of Star and Shadow, a project to develop a cinema and community space which relies on crowd sourced funds and work. Individual photography projects and innovative technological start ups successfully obtaining crowdfunding also seem to follow the same path to build a community for whom the project is meaningful – and often as more than an investment.

I, too, am using crowdfunding. As an attempt to fund further research into this phenomenon. Because if crowdfunding is a route to dignity and meaningful work, that’s a message which needs to spread. If you are interested in following or donating to the project you can find it on Kickstarter here.

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Halloween as a basis for Universal Income

The appeal of Halloween today, according to the views of costume-rental businesses, comes from the fact that it is one of the few major (Anglo-American-Abrahamic) festivals which allows us to treat ourselves. It’s a perfect opportunity for consumerism. However, it is also a festival premised on giving charity to others, who challenge us to extend our hospitality not only to friends and family but to ghosts and ghouls.

Gift-giving is distinct from charity in that gifts carry an obligation to the reciever. Throughout history this has been intensely entwined with obligations to the provider (for example through hospitality in the provision of food, drink and lodging to passing soldiers, pilgrims or other travellers) as a matter of honour.

Policies regarding state welfare payments are frequently contested due to differing views on whether they should be understood as charity, economic mechanism, or gift. The extensive critiques of the application of the UK welfare system in recent years have highlighted how these state ‘gifts’ can be accompanied by toxic obligations which nullify their value. Horror stories of those with terminal illness or accessing church and charity-run food banks on state support attempt to bring to government attention that our collective hospitality is failing, and this is a cause for shame. Unlike the householder who fails to stock enough apples and sweets for the trick-or-treaters, however, governments react hardly at all to their house being egged.

Universal basic income attempts to promote a different model of welfare akin to promising all trick-or-treating monsters the same reward regardless of the quality of their costume. It’s promotion lies not only in its potential as an economic mechanism, but also in the characterisation of such payments as hospitality rather than an obligation-conferring gift. 

Although today’s Halloween festival is one that in our society is not compulsory, it’s cultural significance as a mechanism for allowing ourselves to give freely to unknown others is one we should examine more closely. The spectre of generations in poverty and stifled economic growth may otherwise haunt us for much of the future.

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What to do in Lectures: a guide

It’s that time of the year again and campus is filling up with fresh-faced undergraduates wondering just what they’ve let themselves in for. The more confident second year undergraduates are returning from their holidays, looking forward to seeing friends and perhaps a little worried about the fact that their second year is beginning and the work ‘counts’ now (as it contributes towards their degree classification). So for both the newbies and the experienced students now is a great time to get prepared for the sessions ahead. But, really, what are you actually supposed to do in lectures?

hint

I’m going to ramble about this, but for those who’d prefer a one-page graphic guide I have taken inspiration from my friend Matt over at Errant Science and made you a comic. First of all, let me introduce you to my comic self…

me

 

Hi there!

In a traditional lecture, an academic will spend most of the time talking to you about a specific subject in which they have expertise. We like to talk! But while we talk, what do you do?

The point of having a lecturer is that they are a subject expert, and as such they have lots of information and expertise that it would take you years to read up on. Think of them as being like a knowledge funnel, condensing all of that information down into a smaller space (and time). The problem is, that in many university degrees (and almost certainly in the lecture) you won’t be using that information straight away, so it can be hard to absorb.

You might have heard about learning styles – the idea that some people learn better by listening, or reading, or drawing…. that’s actually now been shown to be incorrect. Though you might have a preference for the way you like to be taught, you mostly learn the same as everyone else – by problem solving. Human beings are hard-wired problem solvers. But when the problem isn’t immediate, it can be hard to understand what you should be doing while your lecturer is there at the front rambling away!

But actually, everybody there does have a problem to solve – how to get a great degree! Often, this also includes an ambition to get the knowledge you need for a great career afterwards too. And to attack these problems requires a more focused approach in your lecture. Your immediate problems to focus on are:

  • How can I pay attention throughout this lecture (especially if I’m really sleepy)?
  • How can I transform this lecture into a record I can learn from?
  • How can I identify the most important information in this lecture?
  • How can I work out what areas I understand and where I need to ask questions to make sure I will do well in my assessments?
  • How do I come up with the right sort of questions?

 

tech

For most students, the wonder of technology seems to promise an answer to many of these questions – after all, the lecturer has provided powerpoint slides or notes that you can download, right? Also, it’s pretty easy to use your smartphone to record what they say!

Unfortunately, powerpoint is not a great resource to learn from, especially as it’s a pretty poor format for communicating complicated or non-linear ideas. Also, as it’s such a boring format, it’s more…. likely….. to………..zzzzzZZZZZ

Oh, is that the time? Sorry, I was snoozing there for a second.

The best thing you can do in a lecture is use techniques to help you engage with what is being said. One such technique is taking notes! Taking notes will help you pay attention and create great personalised records for you to learn from. If you use a method such as the Cornell Method presented here, it will also help set up your learning activities to do after the class time is over.

The Cornell Method relies upon you taking written notes, but helps you use a standard format to organise the page to encourage you to 1) create a summary of what you hear, 2) pinpoint key ideas and concepts by looking for verbal or non-verbal cues such as repetition or gesturing, as well as flag points you don’t understand so you can ask questions about it at an appropriate time, 3) collate your key messages together from each page in preparation for your follow-up work.

Organising your page according to the Cornell Method is really simple.

page

In Part 1, the main section of your page, you should aim to make comprehensive notes on what is being said according to what you hear from the lecturer (which may or may not reflect what they have put online). You won’t be able to capture every word, so abbreviate and focus on things that are repeated, emphasised with gestures or tone, or which seem to form the central or most significant points of the discussion.

In Part 2 of your page, the side column, you can note slide numbers or references, so if a section of the lecture refers to a specific reading or theory you could mark this next to the section you have written on it. This makes it much easier to review these notes later. You could also put question marks next to parts that confuse you, or that you might need to investigate further.

In the bottom section of your page, Part 3, you should leave blank during the lecture to give you space to go back and review your notes after the lecture is over. This will help you see the ‘bigger picture’ and may help come up with questions you need to ask your lecturer or tutor. It’s also a really useful space in which to summarise the lecture or section of your notes so you can find relevant material to prepare your assessments or revise for exams!


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Are we adventurers in Platform Capitalism?

A review of Srnicek, Nick (2016) Platform Capitalism, Polity Press: Cambridge

 

At 171 pages and only three chapters, Nick Srnicek’s book is a brief and digestible entrance to the shifting territory of an increasingly digitally-mediated form of economics and labour that is beginning to be debated under a diversity of terms, including the ‘gig economy’ or ‘the fourth industrial revolution’. In particular, I had high hopes for the text as a way of catching up on debates on the social impact of technology on work, the changing conceptualisation of capitalism as the free-surfing internet age has transformed into the ‘app for that’ age of smartphones and social media, and possibly the way in which this has impacted on our notion of value in a global economy. Unfortunately I have to admit that I found the book disappointing in these areas, particularly considering that the content of the BBC’s Thinking Allowed interview was considerably more thought-provoking.

Overall, the book focuses mainly on the context of the United States, appropriate considering the location of many tech headquarters in Silicon Valley, California and their historical role in the development and emergence of new digital technologies and in the promulgation of alternative business models for technological enterprises (most notoriously in the unsuccessful dot-com boom and bust). The first chapter of the book paints an abbreviated historical picture of shifts in the regulatory and economic context affecting business (mainly manufacturing) from the 1950s to the present. This focuses primarily on the role of government investment, accessibility of venture capital and economic interventions such as quantitative easing and how these responded to and effected change in corporate strategies. While the chapter highlights the impact of changing economic environments in heightening global competition, I would have liked to have seen a more explicit statement here on the author’s theoretical position on the source of economic value. While the focus on the United States may have been appropriate to the book’s intended audience, I also think this omits important reflection on the economic transformations in India and China which are of significant importance to any analysis identifying outsourcing and technological transformation as key to it’s historical arguments.

The second chapter sets out to consider whether we are living in a new age of capitalism, defined by the new technologies supported by extensive smartphone use. In the first few pages of this chapter, the author skims over a wide range of debate regarding how we theorise the source of value in contemporary capitalism, and while there is some further discussion in the notes the limited presentation of this debate was disappointing. Briefly alluding to Italian autonomism and debates on collaboration and knowledge as a source of value, the author also speeds past the contentious debate regarding immaterial labour[i] to claim that we can analyse platforms by viewing data as a raw material extracted from service users. Despite this allusion to Marxist analysis, there are points in the book where the analysis seems to rely on a conventional economic framing regarding the problems of marginal utility faced by these firms. The discussion then moves to a description of the characteristics of platforms in general, specifically how they stand in relation to monopolising the acquisition of this ‘resource’ and tailoring their services to ever-increase this monopolising tendency such that all user activity is captured. By this reasoning, the strategy of applications such as Uber, for example, is to aim to acquire all records of requests for transportation and their fulfillment in all geographic spaces. In becoming ubiquitous, this service drives out any and all interactions that do not comply with the model.

The presentation of different types of platform; advertising, cloud, industrial, product and lean comprises the remainder of the chapter, and offers some interesting areas of insight for those undertaking research and analysis in platform activities.

The final chapter of the book, dramatically entitled ‘Great Platform Wars’ outlines the structural and strategic activities and tendencies of specific firms in the attempt to capture or acquire more data. This makes a few allusions to the influence of the practices and policies of different nation-states in industries such as manufacturing, including China’s overproduction of steel, and hints at the way in which the behaviour of platform enterprises may perhaps be understood in an American search for continued strategic economic power. Unfortunately this line of discussion is not much pursued by the book, and although it offers a tantalising glimpse of what areas of research may be possible through a focus on the dynamics of platform based enterprises, readers may have to undertake their own further research to get a more satisfying picture.


[i] in general, the analysis presented by Srnick (as in publications by Langley and Leyshon and others) focus on material economic relations and have little to say about the contribution of labour other than as a free source of data generation or the means by which algorithms are developed for it’s organisation. For a more in depth discussion regarding the question of labour’s contribution see Toms 2008, Beverungen, Bohm & Land 2015, and Pitts 2016.

0 comments on “Anti-Slavery – in all its forms”

Anti-Slavery – in all its forms

Today is Anti-Slavery day. You, like my students, may have thought that slavery was a thing of the past, but over 13,000 people are estimated to be in modern slavery in the UK today. Slavery was considered acceptable in historical periods for multiple reasons, one significant reason being the concept that there were categories of human being who did not deserve the full freedom from domination enjoyed by the elite. This very concept is rearing its ugly head again today, as modern slavery incarcerates people not only through physical imprisonment and retention of identity documents, but also through perpetuating fear and ignorance among its victims.

The Declaration of Human Rights prohibits slavery not only in protection of the individual, but also in recognition of the universal status of all human beings as persons worthy of the chance to determine their own lives, pursue their own work and family lives and strive to overcome the difficulties we all face. It is so often in an attempt to escape from threats to these goals that people become entrapped in debt and forced labour. And in this we should recognise that their troubles are not dissimilar to those any of us might face, despite the stigma we have traditionally associated with slavery. Slavery is no longer something confined to illegal spaces of drugs and prostitution, but now a large number of seemingly legitimate service businesses (from nail bars to car washes) are engaged in using forced labour. These businesses have survived on the very fringes of profitability for a long time, but the dignity of those who labour legitimately is being tarnished by this illegal practice and its unfortunate victims.

In the United Kingdom we are often proud of our industrial heritage, our scenic country homes open to the public and our historic town centres. Yet so much of this innovation, industry and architecture relied upon the sufferring of others forced to work until death in order to support our past Imperial ambitions. While we may like to recall only the historic rejection of the slave trade, our ancestors benefited directly from it for multiple generations. In respect of this fact, we ought to strive all the harder to prevent the flourishing of its modern incarnation.

You can find out more about modern slavery here.

0 comments on “Next update on Monday – meanwhile some thoughts on work and love”

Next update on Monday – meanwhile some thoughts on work and love

Busy week with a lot of admin and marking to catch up on so as the next blog update will come on Monday, perhaps this article by Alain de Botton will fuel some happy thoughts about how the way we organize our work lives is sometimes kinder and better for general harmony than other parts of our life such as in our pursuit of love.

0 comments on “Work, dirt and stigma”

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.