Colloquium Shines Light on Invisible Labor

Arlie Hochschild’s lecture on her 2012 book, The Outsourced Life: Intimate Life in Market Times, kicked off the Invisible Labor Colloquium hosted during the spring semester by the law school’s Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work & Social Capital (CIS). Read More 

The two-day event—organized by Marion Crain, vice provost, the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law, and CIS director; Winifred Poster, professor, Washington University, Brown School; and Miriam Cherry, professor, Saint Louis University School of Law—gathered 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.”

“We wanted to consider three fundamental questions,” says Crain. “First, what counts as work? Second, why are some workers ‘invisible’? And third, what difference would visibility make for law and policy?”

In their presentations and discussions at the colloquium, the scholars offered various answers to these questions. Some argued that labor is not viewed as work when it is unpaid or perceived as pleasurable or “voluntary,” for example. Others described how work is sometimes not valued because of who performs it—particularly work disproportionately done by women, minorities, youth, or members of marginalized groups. Scholars argued that invisibility has implications for employment law, labor policy, equality theory, and democracy.

In the process, participants highlighted the shifting boundaries among market work and leisure, economic coercion and choice, embodied and disembodied labor, commercial and social labor, and virtual and material work.

“By looking at all sorts of work, from professional to manual, from embodied to virtual and all points in between, the colloquium helped to broaden our understanding of labor in the contemporary era,” Crain says. Conference organizers plan to publish the papers as a book with a university press.

Conference Organizers: 
Marion Crain, Vice Provost, Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law, and CIS Director, Washington University School of Law
Miriam Cherry, professor of law, Saint Louis University School of Law
Winifred Poster, professor, Washington University, Brown School

Keynote Speaker: 
Arlie Hochschild, professor emerita, University of California–Berkeley, Sociology Department

Participants: 
Adam Arvidsson, University of Milan, “Productive Publics: How Knowledge Work Re-Organizes After Neoliberalism”
Dianne Avery, SUNY Buffalo Law School, “The Female Breast as Brand: The Aesthetic Labor of Breastaurant Servers”
John Budd, University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management, “What Is Work?”
Devon Carbado, UCLA School of Law, “Acting White”
Miriam Cherry, Saint Louis University School of Law, “Invisible Labor and Virtual Work”
Marion Crain, Washington University School of Law, “Consuming Work”
Adrienne Davis, Washington University School of Law, “Regulating Sex Work”
Erin Hatton, University at Buffalo–SUNY, “Towards a New Theoretical Framework of Invisible Work: Cultural Disadvantage and the Making of ‘Bad’ Jobs”
Lisa Nakamura, University of Michigan, “The Mirror of Production: Digital Media Workers and Vanishing Women of Color 
Eileen Otis, University of Oregon, “Producing Service: Managing Fresh Produce in the Backstage of a Retail Giant in China”
Winifred Poster, Washington University, Brown School, “The Virtual Receptionist with a Human Touch:  Opposing Pressures of Digital Automation and Outsourcing in Interactive Services 
Laura Rosenbury, Washington University School of Law, “Gender Work”
Trebor Scholz, The New School, “Current Discussions and the Future of Digital Labor 
Peggie Smith, Washington University School of Law, “Love and Money: Compensating Family Members to Care for Elderly Relatives”
Chris Warhurst, The University of Sydney, “Squashed Cabbage Leaves: Aesthetic Labour and the New Invisibilities of Interactive Service Work”
Christine Williams, University of Texas–Austin, “Aesthetic Labor and the Fetishism of Commodities”

Moderators: 
Matt Bodie, Saint Louis University School of Law
Rafael Gely, University of Missouri, Columbia, School of Law
Pauline Kim, Washington University School of Law
Marcia McCormick, Saint Louis University School of Law
Karen Tokarz, Washington University School of Law