The Production of Distinctions: Class, Gender, and Taste Work in the Lifestyle Management Industry

Abstract

Drawing on participant observation and interviews, this paper analyzes the paid labor of lifestyle production. In particular, I look at jobs in the lifestyle management industry that involve making consumption-related aesthetic choices with and for clients. This is taste work, and workers are taste brokers, who mediate between clients and markets, between clients and other people, and between clients and their own desires. Taste brokers shape not only clients’ consumption decisions but also their class performances and dispositions. I argue that taste brokers also reproduce legitimate social differences in three ways: by fostering distinctions between “good” and “bad” taste; by reinforcing the association between particular tastes and particular class positions; and by casting women as both better at and responsible for making aesthetic decisions.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Although I do not draw on these data significantly here, I also conducted participant observation at a three-day training for people starting a concierge and errand service business in the fall of 2006. I have analyzed newspaper articles and the other limited literature on the industry (see, e.g. Giovanni and Giovanni 2006; Entrepreneur Magazine 2002), looked at dozens of concierge websites, and reviewed 4 years’ worth of postings on the iVillage message board devoted to the industry (numbering several hundred).

  2. 2.

    This is a pseudonym, as are all names used here. I have also changed minor details of some of the tasks I describe, in order to preserve confidentiality.

  3. 3.

    As thanks for my work I was given $400 in gift certificates to a local spa and restaurant.

  4. 4.

    Concierge entrepreneurs who were more focused on the execution-oriented errands tended to emphasize their status as entrepreneurs as a method of distinguishing themselves from others, as I have shown elsewhere (Sherman 2010).

  5. 5.

    This work is also often associated with gay men, as in the Bravo reality TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I suspect that I encountered very few gay male concierges because the work is quite miscellaneous and not especially well paid. It is likely, however, that taste work in its more specialized and prestigious variants is performed by more men, gay and straight.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the personal concierges who participated in this project, especially those employed by At Your Service, for sharing their work and their experiences with me. I am also grateful to Laura Amelio, Javier Auyero, Elizabeth Borland, Averil Clarke, Leslie Gates, Amy Hanser, Kesha Moore, Jacqueline Olvera, Lucia Trimbur, and Christine Williams for their helpful comments on this paper. Caitlin Zaloom deserves special thanks for indispensable conceptual insights at a critical moment.

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Correspondence to Rachel Sherman.

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This article was accepted by the former editor-in-chief Javier Auyero. The current editor, David Smilde, has approved of its publication.

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Sherman, R. The Production of Distinctions: Class, Gender, and Taste Work in the Lifestyle Management Industry. Qual Sociol 34, 201–219 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-010-9178-5

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Keywords

  • Class
  • Dispositions
  • Taste
  • Lifestyle management
  • Gender