The indignity of service work | My experiences as a fast-food worker | Part 1

Back during my second year of university, whilst still under many an illusion about what university was, I was assigned an essay in which we were encouraged to incorporate our own experiences as empirical data supporting our arguments. Upon reflection, although I wasn’t as proficient at writing as now (not that I’m the best, obviously) I have come to understand how I already was aware of my social position in a way that has provided the critical impetus and motivation for all further work I have done. It is this realisation that has helped fuel my investigations into the social determinants of free will in my upcoming dissertation (and hopefully a couple of book versions) as I have come to believe that I, like many other workers and minorities, are at least partially aware of their domination in the illegitimate hierarchies that are typical and ubiquitous in capitalist society, yet we lacked the embodied cognitive capital in which to explain our predicament to others- what Zizek in his formulations calls the lack of a precise “language to articulate our unfreedom”.

I have wanted to re-write this essay for years but have held back due to a lack of time and, more importantly, because it brings up painful memories. I did, and will, abstract away from the contents of my empirical experience to make arguments about how the structuring of experience and lack of agency and expression possible for workers is evidence that capitalist society is immoral (if we can assume so much without getting into a debate about meta-ethics) but it is paramount to understanding this thesis that you keep in mind that the data provided here is not itself some abstract fantasy used to support the argument, but my real lived experience.

At the time of writing the original version of this essay, I was only beginning to develop a more systematic sociological imagination, a concept which I’ve developed in earlier articles on UnWelfareState and was first explained by Charles Wright Mills in 1959. To recap, the sociological imagination is an ability one develops which allows us to perceive how individual problems relate to the larger problems of society. From my essay, I also say how this allows us synthesise personal biography with the broader history of society, thus contextualising everyday experience within social history and helping us to imagine society as a historical product, the sum of all these separate biographies, as insignificant as they might seem prima facie. Where psychoanalysts analyse neuroses as the products of psychic disturbances, which are perhaps unconscious, and maybe the produce of earlier developmental experiences, the sociologist analyses individual problems as indicative of wider social problems- individual problems in society are the symptoms of a society’s illness, or to Marxists, they highlight the contradictions of capitalism.

Another key theoretical framework I utilised in this essay was dramaturgical analysis. This was developed by renowned social theorist Erving Goffman in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (1959) and allows for analysis of social roles and their interaction by way of theatrical analogy. Let us take as our starting point the famous Shakespearean idiom: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…” (from As You Like It). From here, we can imagine social situations as plays, and social roles or jobs as acting roles.


Continued in part 2

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