Emotional baggage? Dirty occupation – Don’t taint our profession

Why would you want to do that?’: Defining emotional dirty work

From Human Relations

Social scientists suggest that we view workers in distasteful professions who do our “dirty work” as tainted – physically, socially or morally. Now researchers have named emotion as a fourth form of dirt and explain why professions dealing with difficult or threatening emotions are stigmatised by society. The authors say we are effectively outsourcing our emotional dirt, to distance ourselves and maintain order.  This study with the Samaritans set out to answer three key questions: is it reasonable to speak of emotional dirt? What are the sociological implications of working with the emotional dirt of others in terms of taint? And if doing emotional dirty work leaves you ‘tainted,’ then, “why would you want to do that?” Other “dirty” occupations might include meat cutters, janitors, sex workers or abortion clinic nurses. A common reaction to these occupations is repulsion. Samaritans typically field calls about mental health issues, self-harm, sexual abuse, relationship concerns, loneliness, sadness, and suicide. In the case of callers whose emotional outbursts led to their being barred from calling public services such as police, hospitals or social services ­– Samaritans felt that their organization was a last resort: Difficult callers’ emotional needs are outsourced to the Samaritans.
The authors observe: “Samaritans take on the burden of maintaining the boundary between clean and dirty, by willingly exposing themselves to the immoral acts, taboos and misplaced feelings of others that threaten the wider community’s sense of solidarity.”


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Article details
Robert McMurray and Jenna Ward
‘Why would you want to do that?’: Defining emotional dirty work Human Relations 0018726714525975, first published on April 10, 2014 doi:10.1177/0018726714525975

This article considers how and why people work with difficult emotions. Extending Hughes’ typology of the physical, social and moral taints that constitute ‘dirty work’, the article explores the nature of a previously neglected and undefined concept, emotional dirt. Drawing on data from a situated ethnographic study of Samaritans, we consider how the handling of difficult and burdensome emotions, which are often written out of rational accounts of work, is outsourced to others who act as society’s agents in the containment of emotional dirt. We provide the first explicit definition of emotional dirt, and contribute an extension to the existing tripartite classification of occupational taint. Moreover, in naming emotional dirt we seek to open up a sphere of research dedicated to understanding its emergence, nature and relational effects. To this end, we demonstrate how taint emerges as a sociological consequence of the performance of emotional labour as emotional dirty work, while considering how management of the difficult, negative or out-of-place emotions of others can be framed as a positive experience such that it can be good to feel bad when handling emotional dirt.




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