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DiAlogue 19

A Conversation on the Culture of Service and Inequality with Rachel Sherman

Rachel Sherman Associate Professor of Sociology 68

[00:00:00] Interviewer: What are your general research interests and how did you get started in those areas? Where do you see that research going in the future? [00:00:20] Rachel Sherman: My research interests mostly have to do with social class and culture, primarily in the United States. I’m especially interested in why we accept such high levels of inequality. I use qualitative methods—for example, interviewing and participant observation or ethnography. My first book, which was based on my dissertation, was an ethnographic study of two luxury hotels. In these hotels, there are high levels of obvious face-to-face inequality between workers and guests. So I looked at how both workers and guests negotiated this inequality interactively. I worked in many different jobs in these two hotels and mostly examined how workers managed inequality through their thoughts about and treatment of guests, their feelings about other workers and managers, and the games that they played on the job. I also interviewed managers and people who stay at luxury hotels, to get their perspectives. A relatively consistent aspect of my research has been my interest in service work, which is work that involves interactions between workers and customers. After completing the hotel project, I did some research on the personal concierge industry, in which clients pay personal concierges, or “lifestyle managers,” to complete tasks for them. I found a lot of resistance to the idea

of paying for things that you imagine you should be able to do yourself, or in the case of heterosexual men, that you imagine your wife or female partner should be able to do. So there’s a gendered aspect to what people are willing to pay for, while these concierges try to sell their services in a gender-neutral way. That was a deviation from the kind of social class focus of my previous work, although, of course, the people who tend to hire these services tend to have more money and people who tend to offer them have less. The project that I’m finishing now, a book under contract with Princeton University Press, entitled Uneasy Street, comes back to the question of class. But it is different from my earlier work in that it’s looking not so much at work but more at consumption. I have done an in-depth interview study with wealthy and affluent people in New York City and the surrounding suburbs about their consumption choices, such as where they send their kids to school and where they live. I have particularly focused on home renovation because it’s something that people really like to discuss and because this process brings together questions about finances, aesthetics, and family lifestyles. I researched these types of lifestyle decisions partly as a way of examining what it’s like to live with privilege, to have the option to send their children to private school, choose what neighborhood to live in, renovate a home or a second home, and so on. And I’m finding, and the argument of the book is, that living with privilege is not as easy as I think we tend to imagine. Our pop culture images of wealthy people are primarily negative. Supposedly the U.S. is the country of the American Dream and it’s great to have a lot of money and be at the top of the heap. But actually, the people that I’ve interviewed—who are mostly liberal New Yorkers, so maybe there’s something specific to that population—tend to be kind of conflicted about it, for reasons that I think are generalized in popular culture and the media that have to do with moral judgments of wealthy people. We tend to evaluate wealthy people on the basis of individual characteristics. Are they nice to their nanny? Are they nice to a waiter? Are they nice

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