Retail work lives : precarity and belonging in Queens
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[ACCESS RESTRICTED TO THE UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI AT AUTHOR'S REQUEST.] This dissertation is an ethnographic study of retail work in Queens, New York. Through 10 months of fieldwork and 52 interview with retail workers, I look at how workers find meaning and belonging in precarious jobs. Retail capitalism depends on precarity, or a flexible and disposable workforce. Most retail workers are part-time with low wages and little job security. Though many popular and scholarly works depict corporate retail as a "bad job," retail workers themselves are diverse, competent, and form meaningful relationships. My dissertation examines the effects of precarity on one hand and the "work lives" of retail workers on the other. I find that retail workers use retail brands to construct personal identity, often contradicting the meanings intended by the retailers themselves. I also find that workers value intimacy and friendship at work, often more than they value the work itself. I argue that multicultural identity is particularly important to retail workers in Queens and other super-diverse cities. Retailers attempt to profit from this diversity through multicultural management, but generally fail to create a truly inclusive environment. My dissertation is important for anyone interested in work and labor, particularly low-status service jobs and other precarious work. It is important not to view workers as cogs in a machine, even in the most exploitative and temporary conditions. Precarious workers are active agents in constructing their work lives, though they may not always recognize the social and economic conditions that shape their world. By considering the forms of belonging that matter to workers--identity, intimacy, and inclusivity--we may be able to imagine forms of labor politics that energize a new generation of workers.
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