Sociologist Hochschild Explores “Outsourced” Personal Life

When Arlie Hochschild, author of The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times, was invited to present at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Australia, she wondered, “What might be dangerous about this benign, harmless book?” 

That was the question the University of California-Berkeley sociologist posed recently at Washington University School of Law as part of the 15th Annual Public Interest Law & Policy Speakers Series, coordinated by Karen Tokarz, the Charles Nagel Professor of Public Interest Law & Public Service. 

The lecture kicked off the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work & Social Capital’s Invisible Labor Colloquium. The colloquium brought more than 20 scholars from around the world to examine the many forms of labor that remain hidden from public view because they are not conceptualized as “work.” Read More  

Hochschild was introduced by Marion Crain, vice provost, the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law, CIS director, and one of the coordinators of the colloquium. Crain called Hochschild’s work “groundbreaking” and said that she “has changed the way generations of scholars and people in the ‘real world’ think about women and work.” 

Hochschild’s 2012 book documents, through hundreds of interviews, how our personal lives are now being “outsourced,” from birth to death and beyond. Surrogate mothers, birthday party planners, online dating “love coaches,” family photo organizers, funeral planners, gravesite attendants—it seems that everyone is an expert, and everything is for sale in the “market frontier.” 

In her talk, Hochschild described how the market frontier “introduces market-type ways of thinking about intimate bonds.” For example, a program called “Family 360” promises to make mothers and fathers better parents by adapting the model of the “360 evaluations” corporate America uses to improve management skills. Such offerings “bring the culture of work home,” she said. 

What’s more, the market frontier forces its participants to establish “new terms of emotional engagement” as they walk the fuzzy line between what is—and what isn’t—too personal to outsource. For example, a woman who was negotiating through email with her “love coach” drew the line at paying him to evaluate the responses to her carefully crafted online profile, as she wanted to personally select her matches. 

Another phenomenon is the “re-personalization of personal life” using “mechanisms of defense or substitution,” Hochschild notes. For example, an upper-middle-class man decided to personally serve as an entertainer for his 5-year-old daughter’s birthday rather than hiring one. When his act failed, a neighbor admonished him, “Party planners know what 5-year-olds think is funny.” However, when Hochschild interviewed the child, she said that while at first it was embarrassing, it then became funny, and ultimately made her proud of her father.

Such is the “sad paradox” of the outsourced life, Hochschild said. While we focus on the result of a service—like “the perfect birthday party”—it’s the spontaneous events and even failures that are remembered and valued. “We have punch-lined the expectation of the purchase point and made the destination the focus, rather than focusing on where the memory actually is,” she noted.

So what is “dangerous” about these ideas? First, Hochschild said, they can be seen as an assault on individualism. While we think of ourselves as “self-made,” we have a lot of helping hands along the way. “We should put the ‘we’ back into ‘I,’” Hochschild said.  

Additionally, society invites us to escape stress by outsourcing, but it also encourages us  to be curious about the lives of those who are providing services—“the lives underneath the services we receive.” 

Finally, outsourcing affects our faith in the market. In some ways, she said, we look to the market the way we once looked at church—as the place to go when life’s questions seem unanswerable. 

However, Hochschild stressed that while the solution is not a return to “the good old days,” we do have to be aware of the market’s limitations. 

“The market has much to offer, but we have to ask what happens when the brakes come off—if there’s a strike, or the market becomes the only game in town,” she said. “And we have to understand how deeply it affects our language, and how it makes us think.”