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Work and Dignity

From the new issue of The Hedgehog Review, a really interesting conversation on work and dignity. Here’s a key section:

Matt Crawford: I think dignity is something, like honor, that you feel before others, so it’s highly dependent on the social context, like you said. But it isn’t simply conferred by others; it’s something you can have in a more independent way. Let’s say you’re a carpenter, and you have a problem with your boss. If he doesn’t like the work you’ve done, you can say to him: “It’s plumb, it’s level, and it’s square. Go check it yourself.” But in so many professions we don’t have the ability to appeal to concrete standards like that. So everything’s open to interpretation, and you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. In that situation I think your dignity becomes “manipulable” by social techniques. Whereas when the work does answer to concrete standards, you have solid ground to stand on in your own self-assessment, and it’s the same ground on which others will assess you. Either you can bend conduit or you can’t, and either way it’s plain for all to see. There’s an inter-subjective validity to it.

Mike Rose: Right, particularly among your peers.

Crawford: And that seems like a very secure foundation for a kind of dignity, and it has a certain independence from various forms of manipulation. Contemporary management has gotten so sophisticated at using techniques of industrial psychology and various forms of smarmy, New Age, self-help lingo to massage peoples’ psyches. To have some independence from that is a very valuable thing.

Rose: So with physical work there are particular kinds of indicators.

Crawford: I’m not sure it needs to be physical. It just needs to have clear and objective standards that are apparent for others to see.

Rose: Right, but the more you move away from concrete, verifiable indicators of excellence, the more you’re in the symbolic realm, and the more ways others have to confer on you your worth or dignity. The price you receive for the work you do also has symbolic meaning.

Crawford: That’s interesting because you mentioned before that it’s particularly your peers who can really recognize the excellence of your work. One way to think of it is that your salary is a public validation of the value of your work. It’s sort of like the whole economy, the whole market, is assigning some recognition to it. On the other hand, your regard among your peers — who are qualified to appreciate the especially beautiful bend in your conduit or whatever — that’s a different kind of recognition. In a way it’s more aristocratic. Just think of the word “peer,” which is what the British call the aristocrats. It’s recognition from those who are qualified to recognize you, whereas a salary is recognition from the society as a whole. There’s a mismatch between those two sometimes that I think leads to a kind of counter-cultural mentality among workers: the rest of society doesn’t recognize the value of what we do, but amongst ourselves, we’re very discerning.

I wonder if it would be possible for some shrewd social scientist to construct a study that would discover the extent to which people are motivated by recognition from peers, when that’s available, versus recognition from “society as a whole” in the form of a salary. The desire to have one’s abilities confirmed by “those who know” is, I suspect, very powerful.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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