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Baristas: The artisan precariat

My research on the work identit(ies) of baristas demonstrates that different workplaces, in conjunction with individual biographies, produce different kinds of work identities. Connected to these differences are the actual and perceived levels of skill and/or social status ascribed to workers within the service work triadic relationship (customers, coworkers/managers and workers). The higher the level of skill or social status, the greater the capacity of workers to experience more autonomy in their work and/or access improved working conditions. These findings are informed by my research approach, which incorporates three key methods: key informant interviews; observation/participant observation; life history interviews; all of which is underpinned by the mystory approach and autoethnography. My findings from the case study research on the barista work identity are expressed in the following. (1) The different work identities within a specific occupation contribute to the heterogeneity of service workers and service work. This heterogeneity, in turn, obscures the range of skills utilised in the technical and presentational labour mobilised in service work. The skills are obscured by the social and practice-based nature of knowledge transmission in service work like that of baristas, as well as by the dynamic and shifting alliances that may occur in the triadic relationship of customer, workers and employer/manager. (2) Interactive service workers are involved in providing labour or work that is more complex than is socially understood and recognised. This complexity stems from the ways in which presentational labour is commodified, appropriated and mobilised in the workplace within the spaces of the organisational context, internal practices, and the service encounter. (3) I further argue that service workers are also dehumanised as part of the service encounter through the structure of capitalism, specifically the application of commodity fetishism to workers by customers, colleagues, managers, capital and at times themselves. Commodity fetishism dehumanises workers, creating an empathy gap between customers/managers and workers. As such, the commodity fetishisation of service workers also reinforces and promotes compliance with the insecure and precarious employment practices common to occupations in the service sector. (4) As the conditions of precarious work continue to spread, the employment relationship is being altered in relation to consumption practices. Based on this shift in employment relations, I argue that we are moving towards a labour market and society shaped by the practices of the consumer society as well as the traditional production-based economy. However, the increasing influence of consumption practices stems from neoliberal inspired changes in employment relationships rather than the consumer society emphasis on agentic identity projects. As such, the self-determining identity projects highlighted by researchers engaged in aspects of service work and consumption-based research also need to be accompanied by an understanding of the political economy and structural forces which shape the labour process.
Type of thesis
Piercy, G. L. (2018). Baristas: The artisan precariat (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/12038
The University of Waikato
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