The indignity of service work | My experiences as a fast-food worker | Part 6

Previous part is available here. In it, I describe how surveillance and monitoring are used to control workers and maximise productivity. I also suggest and explain how the uncritical acceptance of such methods is the result of an inculcation of values of propriety and the generalisation of discipline.

This article continues by looking at the concept of emotional labour and returning to the idea of dramaturgical analysis as useful for thinking about service work.


At the start of this series, I described how dramaturgical analysis, pioneered by the sociologist Erving Goffman, is a method of analysing social roles and their interaction by imagining a social situation as a kind of theatrical play. I feel this is particularly appropriate for analysing service work as these jobs really can be seen as dramatic performances in which the employees play the role of actors, and the customers are the audience.

At foodchain, one of the criteria by which worker performance was measured was literally how convincing their smile was- it was even rated on a 5-point scale. Using dramaturgical analysis, we see here how the actors need to perform convincingly enough that the audience doesn’t have the illusion of the overall interaction shattered- this is called impression management. Here, positive affect is a goal of the corporation because it increases profits but this extra work, which Arlie Hochschild labels “emotional labour” isn’t considered renumerable work.

This emotional labour not only compounds the exploitation of the worker, as they produce more surplus value for their employer, but it is a more obvious example of the alienation caused by capitalism. Alienation in this sense refers to the division between the worker and their labour power, which in this instance, means the worker must separate themselves from themselves- part of their work is the production of an inauthentic, performed self.

The psychic effects of this alienation are beyond the scope of this essay but I would also like to take this opportunity to explain briefly how this kind of thinking helps explain how Jean-Paul Sartre’s parable of the waiter-esque waiter to show what he meant by “bad faith”. I myself have in the past seen Sartre’s idea of bad faith, particularly in this example, as a form of classism but now I understand it more as a critique of the dehumanisation due to alienation of capitalist social relations (still with some classism as Sartre does not go far enough in his critique).

Under capitalism, in order to survive, the worker, in his case the waiter, in mine the fast-food till-operator, must alienate himself from his labour power, for as temporarily as they are selling it by performing wage-labour. Where I think the classism presents itself is how Sartre talks about radical freedom as though the worker can simply break free and rebel against this relation, and how his not doing so is “bad faith”. This goes against my own social theories about freedom as limited by material, and therefore psychosocial, constraints. This Sartrean kind of ignorance about the general plight of workers under the dominion of capital is ignorant and leads, I think, to the kind of short-sighted egotistical escapism which manifests itself in various forms of leftist militancy and pseudo-egoist “lifestylism” which still exists only in relation to the system of domination it tries to escape, and so never does.

Returning to the analysis of emotional labour at foodchain, further research into the concept of emotional labour in the services industries has found that companies will even present a “staged back-stage”. One form of this practice is putting happy-looking photographs and biographies in the back stage, for customers and workers, to reinforce the idea that workers are content with their subordinate position. This might be true, just as there were peasants in feudal times happy with their pre-ordained-by-God dominated position, but it doesn’t serve as a proper critique to the truth of the material analysis of the social relation and this essay makes no effort to condemn or promote the interests, material or thought, in moralistic terms. They are subordinate because they are exploited by not receiving the full value of their labour- i.e. the wage they are recompensated with is only a fraction of the amount of value they actually produce, the rest of which is profit.

Other research into the way workers must perform an inauthentic self have found that Western consumers prefer what Hochschild called “deep-acting” over “surface-acting” which is actually just a preference for pre-made scripts and scheme that better obfuscate worker dissatisfaction with their situation. Customers want to be served by workers that at least seem to actually enjoy their job, workers that are genuinely happy to serve. Of course, as previously mentioned, materially workers have a subordinate position and I posit that this often helps customers, which are usually also workers elsewhere, deal with the psychic tension of knowing in that interaction that the worker serving them might hate their job, as they might hate theirs. Of course, this may often be projection and there are probably workers who really do like their job and perhaps even get annoyed seeing workers who aren’t grateful for their position as they are, but this again is simply moralising.

More critical views of Hochschild re-imagine emotional labourers as emotional managers that are using their skills of re-defining situations for customers, but again this misses the distinction between surface and depth acting. It is irrelevant to the material analysis of the situation whether some workers may actually be sincere as I have just explained. Further research of this nature points to how the perception of organisational support and deep acting helps customers and employees feel more content about their position, but it also continues to take for-granted the true underlying materialistic reasons for these goals- to increase the amount of surplus value, profit, that workers produce.


In the following and final part of this series, I will be returning to my own experience of work at foodchain, the idea of dignity, and the lack of it I had there.

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