Everywhere and nowhere

Reconceiving service work as culture

Authored by: Eileen M. Otis

Routledge Handbook of Cultural Sociology

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  November  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138288621
eBook ISBN: 9781315267784
Adobe ISBN:


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More employees than ever are tasked with performing some kind of service. According to scholars the key feature of service labor is its immateriality as workers are required to generate an affect among customers. Researchers tackle studying an intangible phenomenon by conceptualizing its emotional, aesthetic, and interactive facets. This chapter insists that the study of service also acknowledge the rich bedrock of culture that sustains and contours this form of labor. An absence of research that attends to variation in rules guiding presentation of body and feeling in service labor limits our understanding of the fundamental role of culture in its performance. This foundation of service becomes apparent when research moves between cultural boundaries. Heeding this, the present chapter introduces a case study of service professionals in China who straddle cultures by reaching beyond their primary body and feeling rules to learn to perform interactive styles familiar to their customers. This bridging process generates value in that it frees customers to traverse spatial boundaries and become “cosmopolitan.” Such services sustain global power relations by preserving travelers’ (in this case mostly Western, male elites) sense of cultural competence across international boundaries, even as workers enact new cultural competencies involved in engagement with their patrons’ body and feeling rules. Drawing lessons from this case study, the author suggests that instead of simply inventorying the potentially endless diversity to be found in service cultures, researchers use culture to think about how power relations are created and naturalized in the dynamics of service labor processes.

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