Service Work Essay

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The presence of a service-recipient within the labor process is the central definitional element of service work. Service work is increasingly moving toward center stage in the sociology of work. This is appropriate because more Americans now work in physician’s offices than in auto plants, in laundries and dry cleaners than in “steel mills” (Herzenberg et al. 1998: 3).

At the very least, the worker-service recipient relationship constitutes an aspect unique to the sociology of service work. The worker-service recipient relationship has been examined in terms of sexualization, of degrees of worker or service-recipient servility, of who controls the interaction, and of degrees of social embeddedness and economic instrumentalism. More profoundly, it has been argued that the addition of the customer in the social relations of production has crucial knock-on effects upon key aspects of work organization, and upon the subjective experience of work (Korczynski 2002). Hochschild’s The Managed Heart (1983) with its exploration of emotional labor within service occupations constituted the first important step in this direction.

Notably, there is also an emerging current within macro-sociological theorizing to take an aspect of service work and to see in it a metaphor for the overall trajectory of society. George Ritzer’s thesis of the McDonaldization of society and Alan Bryman’s thesis of Disneyization of society have a shared provenance in that service firms serve as the basis for their root metaphors. At present, however, the movement to look across service jobs to create a macro-picture of service work per se remains an undeveloped process.


  1. Herzenberg, S., Alic, J., & Wial, H. (1998) New Rules for a New Economy. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
  2. Korczynski, M. (2002) Human Resource Management in Service Work. Palgrave/Macmillan, Basingstoke.

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