Robin Leidner, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology
Ph.D., Northwestern University, 1988
M.A., Northwestern University, 1983
A.B., Radcliffe College, Harvard University, 1980
What accounts for the varying ways work, identity, and gender fit together? Everett Hughes’s 1951 comment that “a man’s work is one of the things by which he is judged, and certainly one of the more significant things by which he judges himself” is a frequent touchstone for me. Hughes’s ambiguous use of the ‘man’ begs the questions of how gender affects the salience of work to identity and how specific work identities come to be gendered. Given the changing conditions and availability of work, when is it a good thing for work to be an important basis of identity, when do workers shield themselves from the identity their jobs imply, and how much room do people have to construct work identities that are positive and meaningful to them? Much of my research concerns the relation between structural conditions of employment and its interactional components, as well as how work arrangements draw on and affect cultural understandings of the ways people do and should relate to each other. In Fast Food, Fast Talk: Service Work and the Routinization of Everyday Life, I examined what happens when organizations try to standardize interactions between workers and customers. The effects of employers’ oversight of many aspects of workers’ selves produces more varied reactions from workers than I expected, based on several kinds of variation: how much their routines constrained them, extended their power, protected them from demands, and allowed room for them to distance themselves from the implications of their interactive roles, or to interpret those roles in ways that preserved their dignity. My current research provides a sharp contrast to that study of low-status jobs in which people had incentives to separate themselves from the identity their work conferred. I’m examining work and identity among stage actors, a group of people who try hard to maintain a usually precarious work-based identity, since few of them make a full time living from theater work. My shorthand description of the project, only slightly facetious, is, “How can you hold on to the idea that you really are an actor when you look so much like a bartender?” Of particular interest is how casting processes strongly shaped by reconceptions about race, gender, and age – or audiences’ perceived preconceptions about them – affect actors’ opportunities and hopes.
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