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New Left Review 78, November-December 2012

andrew smith


Service workers now make up nearly 80 per cent of the labour force in Britain, with a still higher proportion in the United States, and the sector constitutes a fast-growing field in the sociology of work. Recent investigations have focused on the hitherto overlooked relationship between front-line service workers and their customers: what effect does this have on the ‘lived experience’ of their work? [1] See, for example, Marek Korczynski, ‘The Mystery Customer: Continuing Absences in the Sociology of Service Work’, Sociology, vol. 43, no. 5, 2009, pp. 955–6. I would like to thank Matt Dawson and Bridget Fowler for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. In what follows I offer some thoughts on conceptualizing the interactions between employees and customers, shaped in part by critical reflection on my own experience of working in a long series of service-sector and retail jobs. For that very reason, a brief epistemological comment may be in order here. ‘Reflexive’ consideration of researchers’ involvement in their research context has become a familiar feature of social-science inquiries, along with a wariness about claims of objectivity; a range of more experimental approaches to participant observation have celebrated subjective expression—for example, auto-ethnography—as a methodological virtue. Investigations ‘looking at’ something, with all that this implies about the apparently self-contained cognition of the observer, have come under attack; they are counterposed to a sociology that is willing to be part of ‘talking about’ things, to share in the ongoing, everyday attempt at a reckoning with social experience. [2] See Charles Lemert, ‘Poetry and Public Life’, Cultural Studies—Critical Methodologies, vol. 2, no. 3, 2002, pp. 378–9.

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Andrew Smith, ‘On Shopworking’, NLR 78: £3

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