Understanding the unemployment experience of low-wage workers: Implications for ethnographic research

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


One characteristic of low-wage work that is particularly important to the ethnographic research reported in this volume is its insecurity. As shown in figure 2C.1, average unemployment rates for persons with fewer than four years of high school are more than four times as high as corresponding rates for persons with four or more years of college. This means that even in periods of relative prosperity, low-wage workers experience levels of unemployment normally associated with recessions; during recessions, their unemployment rises to depression levels. The negative personal effects of this joblessness on individual workers are likely to be significant. Unemployment is associated with increased poverty rates (Sawhill 1988; Hakim 1982; Marmor, Mashaw, and Harvey 1990), a wide range of adverse physical and mental health effects (Brenner and Mooney 1983; Liem and Rayman 1982; Burchell 1994), the corrosion of family life and personal relationships (Jahoda 1982; Kelvin and Jarrett 1985; O'Brien 1986), and increased criminal activity (Hakim 1982; Britt 1994; Smith, Devine, and Sheley 1992; Box 1987). Ethnographic research is well suited for studying these adverse effects, and particularly for exploring how the experience of being unemployed (or being affected by the unemployment of others) is subjectively felt and understood. When unemployment is widespread, as it was in the United States during the 1930s, the experience can shape the identity of an entire generation. When particular population groups experience unemployment in concentrated doses, as racial minorities and the poor regularly do, it can have equally significant effects on the way members of the group view themselves and are viewed by others. Being unemployed can inspire self-pity, self-loathing, or rage at society, depending on how the experience is understood. Similarly, the unemployment of others may inspire the public's sympathy or contempt, depending on whether members of the affected group are perceived as victims of circumstance or of their own behavioral shortcomings. Ethnographic research provides an excellent window for observing how these varied responses emerge and interact with other factors shaping the life experience, attitudes, and behavior of different population groups. Since unemployment and the social problems that attend it are an important public policy concern, insights drawn from this type of research can provide useful data for policy debate. To properly assess this data, however, we must understand how the experiences of individuals or discrete groups of individuals can mislead as well as enlighten us. The fallacy of composition- the mistake of assuming that what is true for individual members of a population is necessarily true for the whole population-is an ever-present danger when public policies are devised based on the teachings of individual experience. Just because each and every person attending a concert could see better if he or she were to stand up doesn't mean the entire audience would see better if everyone were encouraged to stand up. Does the unemployment experience of individuals-either our own or that of people we observe-provide a good vantage point for understanding the causes of the problem and its remedies? The answer to this question is surprisingly complex. The purpose of this commentary is to explore that complexity in order to better understand the policy implications of the research reported in this volume.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationLaboring Below The Line
Subtitle of host publicationThe New Ethnography of Poverty, Low-Wage Work, and Survival in the Global Economy
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)0871546175, 9780871546197
StatePublished - 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)


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