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?footnote1 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.footnote2

To some extent I am in sympathy with this and consider the argument made here worth venturing because it is informed not just by my own reflections, but by those of the people that I worked alongside in supermarkets, shops, bars, delis and fast-food outlets, who did spend time mulling over the work and the relationships it entailed. But for that very reason I am unwilling to reject altogether the visual metaphor of ‘looking at’ something, from the outside, as a means of knowing it better. The question rather is who it is that seeks to know things in this way, and why. In discussing the job, many of those I worked with sought precisely to turn it into something to be ‘looked at’, as a way of asserting a clarifying conceptual control over the work and its contradictions.

For example, not long after starting work in a supermarket, I asked an older colleague during a lunch-break about the nature of the job. He began by saying: ‘This place, it’s like . . .’ In the pause that followed I waited for him to choose some appropriate analogy. But instead, he said: ‘It’s like being asked to do one thing and then, bang, bang, bang, being asked to do all this other shit, so you can never get on with the first thing. So it never gets done, and then you get given grief for it.’ This was, of course, exactly what the work was ‘like’. Yet by framing his summary of the experience as something ‘like’ but other than itself—as a simile of itself, so to speak—my colleague was also turning it into something to be looked at, in a way that helped him, and me, make sense of it. Similarly, there can be a process of commuting labour into something to be ‘looked at’ when shopworkers are socializing after hours, amidst the chat and gossip, and the salvaging of a kind of comedy out of the experience of small belittlements.

This sort of collective looking cannot deny the necessities determining the experience of labour; the start of the next shift always casts its long shadow over such conversations. But what is asserted, all the same, is the fact that making meaning out of that experience is a power workers can claim as their own. The ‘meta-method’ may be important precisely because it helps to constitute what is otherwise merely given experience into something meaningful, through critical investigation by those most implicated in the thing itself. It would be presumptuous to claim that what follows is straightforwardly an expression of that kind of vernacular sociology. One problem with the reflexive turn in social sciences is that it risks descending into a self-interested false modesty, which discounts the relative privilege that is the condition of its possibility. I want to be open about the fact that what I present here is a reflection after the event, and that I have been able to develop and organize my argument thanks to the real advantages of a university position. That said, I hope the argument that follows will be at least contiguous with my co-workers’ reflections in ‘looking at’ our jobs; it has been put together in solidarity with them.

There are several reasons why the relationship with the boss or owner might not be the defining one in service-sector work. In many cases, complicated chains of subcontracted ownership mean that the shopworker’s relationship to their ultimate employer is rendered ‘illegible’, as Richard Sennett has put it.footnote3 The high-visibility logo under which the fast-food worker labours is often simply a set of imagery sold under franchise, so that ‘the company’ invoked in staff-training exercises or induction sessions is an entirely other entity from the one whose presence is emblazoned over the workplace itself. Indeed, ‘the company’ often appears to be little more than a convenient blank around which various ideological messages about loyalty, effort, commitment and ‘team play’ are set in motion. All of this means that the relationship between labour and capital, in such contexts, can be profoundly difficult to pin down.

There is, of course, always the supervisor, who represents an immediate figure of authority in the workplace. Everywhere I have worked, learning how to deal with supervisors was part of the body of ‘meta’ skills that workers developed amongst themselves to negotiate the hierarchical relationships of the workplace to their best advantage. For example, those who had been in a ‘unit’ longest would teach new recruits to carry bottles of cleaning spray and a cloth, or a pricing gun tucked into the belt of their uniform, in order to be able to look busy at a moment’s notice when a shift manager showed up unexpectedly, in an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse surveillance. These skills also required considerable attentiveness to the particular relationship and a fine-tuned ability to read the mood of the individual concerned, to know when they had been drinking in their office, when they were sulking or when liberties could be taken.

Yet the relationship with these immediate superiors was rarely the one that most obviously mattered to my colleagues; it was the relationship with the customers that largely defined the particular character of the work they did. I am not talking here about the acquaintanceships that might be formed with individual shoppers, in all their social particularity. Mostly, encounters between shopworkers and individual customers are fleeting, but they could take on a more enduring character—closeness approaching friendship, or animosity approaching hatred—in the case of ‘regular’ customers who became better known to staff over a longer period. In my experience, the texture of these encounters with customers as distinctive, characterful human beings constituted one of the pleasures of shopwork. Those who came in frequently were given not just nicknames—‘Elvis’, ‘The Catholic Misery’, ‘Kaiser Söze’, ‘That Bastard’—but intricate back-stories, made more elaborate with each successive visit. Shops are, after all, distinctly ‘stagey’ spaces, with their designated entrances and exits, and a common response to the experience of shopwork among employees is a game that turns the service counter imaginatively inside-out, so that it becomes a kind of proscenium arch beyond which lies the stage, onto which step an endless series of characters to take their turns. Not the least of the consolations of this game is that it makes shopwork, again, something to be looked at, as if from the viewpoint of an audience in the stalls; as if the shop itself were arranged only for the shopworkers’ own entertainment.