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Sticking to it or Opting for Alternatives: Managing Contested Work Identities in Nonstandard Work

Abstract

Research shows that people who face stigmatized work identities attempt to reconfigure their employment more positively, such as by concealing their involvement with their jobs or reframing the value of it. Yet, in an era of rising nonstandard work, how might managing work identities also involve managing multiple jobs across fluid employment contexts? We draw insights from two cases of nonstandard workers facing differing degrees of contested work identity—frontline restaurant workers and sex workers. We find that these workers use similar strategies to manage their employment that involve identity work and job searching, yet their decision to stick to their line of work or opt for alternatives stems in part from the symbolic characteristics of their respective jobs. We conclude by laying out a broader framework for how workers manage contested work identities in an era of nonstandard employment.

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Notes

  1. Halpin and Smith (2017) use the term “employment management work” to describe the variety of way people engage in and manage their employment throughout their lives. We consciously shortened this phrase to “employment management” to differentiate between the background work one does to maintain employment over time, and the literal work one does in a job to earn an income.

  2. The straight adult film industry refers to the sector of the California adult film industry that makes films marketed towards straight men, and the gay industry refers to the sector of the California adult film industry that makes films marketed towards gay men. Although some male crossover performers appear in both straight and gay films, crossover performers from the gay industry are stigmatized within the straight industry because of the perceived risk that they could introduce HIV into the straight industry (Schieber 2018b).

  3. Findings from this larger study are reported in Wilson 2021.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Gary Alan Fine, Neil Gong, Andrew Deener, and several anonymous reviewers for their comments on prior versions of this paper. All remaining errors are our own.

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Wilson, E.R., Schieber, D. Sticking to it or Opting for Alternatives: Managing Contested Work Identities in Nonstandard Work. Qual Sociol 45, 219–239 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-021-09506-y

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Keywords

  • Work identity
  • Nonstandard work
  • Stigma
  • Restaurant work
  • Sex work