Sociologists at Work

The Sociologists at Work feature exposes students to the importance and application of social science research.

Mike Rose

The Mind at Work

Author Mike Rose (2004) grew up in a modest home, the son of working-class immigrants. Most of the adults in his family and in his neighborhood never graduated from high school, and all of them worked in blue-collar or service jobs their whole lives. He was fully aware, early on, that these manual laborers did not occupy a particularly valued place in American society. Low-paying jobs are often labeled “unskilled.” Such workers are consistently marginalized, either by more affluent people who treat them as if they are invisible or by widely held cultural stereotypes that they are unintelligent and unrefined. Because their work doesn’t usually require advanced educational credentials, there’s a belief that those who do it aren’t that bright.

Rose set out to examine these stereotypes. He observed working-class people on the job—waitresses, hair stylists, plumbers, welders, and so on—and took detailed notes of their activities. Once he became aware of the rhythms of their work, he began asking them questions, casual ones to start with and more specific ones as he got to know them better.

What he found was that apparently “mindless” working-class occupations require high levels of skill, judgment, and intelligence. Hair stylists, for example, must show an astonishing amount of aesthetic and mental agility when they turn vague requests (“I want something light and summery”) into an actual hairstyle pleasing to the client. They must also have command of a remarkable range of knowledge—nutrition, hair growth patterns, the biology of skin, hair treatment chemicals, and popular images of beauty—in order to provide their clients not only with a look they want but with advice on how to maintain a stylish appearance. As one stylist described it,

You’ve got to add up all these pieces of the puzzle, and then at the end you’ve got to come up with a thought, OK, it’s gotta be this length, it’s gotta be layered here, it’s gotta be textured there . . . It’s not like we just start cutting. By the time I take my client to the shampoo bowl, after the consultation, I already have a little road map as to how I’m going to cut this haircut. (quoted in Rose, 2004, p. 33)

Similarly, working-class women who wait on tables in inexpensive diners and coffee shops must have advanced information-processing skills, including a sharp memory and the ability to make lightning-fast mathematical calculations. On the surface, restaurant work seems highly structured and routine—from the physical layout that guides people’s movements to the norms of dining that are well known to customers and waitstaff. Once seated, customers expect a series of events to unfold along a familiar time line. Indeed, their satisfaction (and the size of the tip they leave) is based on the manner in which the service meets these expectations.

On closer inspection, however, the restaurant environment is exceedingly complex and unpredictable. For instance, customers enter at different times and make requests at different stages of their meals, so each table proceeds at a different pace. This staggering of schedules maximizes the restaurant’s flow of trade, but it increases the physical and cognitive demands on waitresses, especially during peak hours or when customers are particularly demanding. The meals themselves develop under their own different timetables. Some items cook quickly; others take a long time. Some meals have only a limited amount of time in which they can be served. So servers must also be aware of the temporal rhythm of the kitchen. And since the restaurant’s profit depends on the constant turnover of customers, all this occurs under the pressure to move people along quickly.

Our collective failure to acknowledge the qualities and skills that even lower-status jobs require has helped to undermine a large chunk of the American working-class population. Rose’s research is less of an objective assessment of these occupations than it is a plea to broaden our definitions of intelligence and to see dignity in the jobs that keep American society running.