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Created: August 4, 2003
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Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, August 2003.
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This lecture is based on White Collar Blues By David Friedman. LA Times, Sunday, August 3, 2003. Backup.

Increasingly, the tendency to move jobs to the global market for cheaper wages is eroding the job market for white collar workers with college degrees, "educated workers." When this seemed to affect only industrial laborers, the larger middle class responded in terms of seeing the displaced workers as those who had "no skills." Now, that form of denial will no longer work.

As we consider the issues of labor and social class, we're going to have to consider lots of questions. On the Habermas listserv a year or so ago I referred to myself as a bluecollar worker. And one of the list members expressed considerable surprise, and suggested tha some blue colloar workers might be offended by my using that label. Good point. And I did consider it. I never meant to usurp a status characteristic they embraced. But I didn't change my mind. I am a blue collar worker, within my own identity, and that's my identity, and I can't substitute labels there that others suggest I might.

As I thought over the validity of my colleague's surprise, I admit to feeling tension and conflict. Growing up, I didn't want to be a "worker." I wanted to be a "professional." And so I have been, for nearly thirty years of my working life. As a woman, I started late because I had to follow husbands around the country while I pursued my doctorate. And then, just as I approached my doctorate, the job market in academia changed, and I had to pursue a different doctorate. I think if I hadn't come for the lower class, where I still felt concern about being able to afford shelter and food on my own, I would have given up. Tenacity guarantees me supper, "Inshallah."

Joining the faculty union held considerable conflict for me. Though I agreed with the union's agenda, I was uncomfortable with acknowledging my own identity as "labor." Professionals are not fungible; we each have specialized areas of study that permit us to form different interpretations of the data with which we work. But wouldn't labor have those same specialized experiences that permit different perspectives and alternative processes for their work? No, the labor contractor doesn't usually permit such aesthetic answerability on the part of the worker. That doesn't mean she is incapable of it. It means she is trapped in a structural context of monologic non-answerability.

When one considers the "blue collar" concept from the perspective of the aesthetics of answerability permitted the worker by the community, including the employer, the "white collar" worker is trapped by the same monologic non-answerability, as David Friedman's article points out is happening with the "educated worker." Well, what's the professional, except the "excessively" educated and specialized worker? What's that old joke about "Piled Higher and Deeper?" Or maybe Jammed Deeper? Or Mashed Deeper?

As I consider my own job at the university (never, no, never, say school; that's a status violation), when was the last time the administration addressed me with dialogic answerability an option? Hmmm. As long as I don't directly confront the titular authority of the academy, as long as I delimit my aesthetic answerability to the classroom, I'm left alone. And isn't the laborer left alone, in just the same way, so long as he doesn't confront or challenge the titular boss? Am I reading aesthetic answerability into my work description because that's part of the status badge that separates the worker from the professional?

As I consider J.D.s and M.D.s of my acquaintance, I hear the same complaints of the administrative component of their organizations or workplaces imposing restraints on the aesthetic of answerability as soon as it intereferes with the bottom line, or the political intraorganization battle for scarce funding.

So my sense of identity hasn't changed, as a "worker," blue, white, pink or black robed or any other color collar, in today's marketplace, in spite of my colleague's objection. The paychecks aren't too different; the privileges aren't too different (plumbers seem loved more); and I fear that the aesthetic answerability of what was once the professions is rapidly disappearing. For me, the aesthetic answerability was what mattered most. I would be consulted as an equal. Hah! That was the illusion I gave up when I joined the faculty union. I thought I stayed joined to the union when I retired. Later I discovered I'd been somehow deunionized. And guess what? My campus union has never approached me about rejoining.

All this poses lots of questions about who's making these non-answerable utterances. The administration at my school (oops! university) considers the proliferation of committees some form of answerability. I never met a committee in my life that answered an administrator for longer than it took that administrator to organize a new committee. Monologic committee answerability is not aesthetic answerability. Aesthetic answerability is a process in which the right of each is guarded to answer the utterances of the other. That's what I bargained for when I studied for a Ph.D. And studied, and studied, and studied through disciplines that disappeared and others that lost status, and others that "already had enough women." (no, no, quota is another of those words we mustn't say)

And why shouldn't blue collar workers have aesthetic answerability as well as all the rest of us? Freire would teach them. I'd help. Susan would keep all the files. Every citizen artist I know of would relish the opportunity to bring the performance to the community and welcome the community to share in the performance, adapting skills as new people appear, not insisting that they remedially learn the traditional skills. How did we make the decision that the worker wasn't as entitled to aesthetic answerability as the professional? How did we make that decision after Marx? Have we confused humanity with wealth or power? Neither wealth nor power a community makes.

I don't need to adapt these big issue questions to sociology. They ARE sociology. But I do need perhaps to do some conceptual linking for specific areas we address in our teaching.

Social Work: Aging, Gay Studies, Poverty Support, Health Care, Incarceration, Education

Social work is a broad term that has changed drastically over the years. Once an entree to professional work aimed at helping others, it now suffers from the same monologic non-answerability as all other professions. The non-answerability is more painful in attempting to help those in need because they are silenced from more avenues. For the poor and those who need help, at the daily process of surviving (and we all do sometimes) the importance of the aesthetic of answerability cannot be over emphasized. All of our studies on silencing bring us to an awareness of the harm of such exploitation and exclusion. Frantz Fanon expressed eloquently the anger at the base of such humiliation. But anger is the least acceptable answer when aesthetic answerability is denied.

In discussing each of our fields and specializations, we will focus on this issue of silencing and its harm. The aged are one such group for which we are concerned. With age, titular authority changes. Younger professionals pass older professionals as they quite naturally take over the reins of titular authority. We postulate a lovely theory that the older professionals will "disengage" as this occurs, so they won't be harmed by these changes. Hah! The older professionals are losing their monologic non-answerable authority and watching new young people exercise their former privilege. Speak to me now of disengagement.

And this is certainly not limited to professionals. The younger worker overtakes the older worker in strength and knowledge gained from experience. If the older has ten years left before retirement, let us not speak of disengagement. We are speaking of pay difference, work opportunities, titular advancement. And the work scene is neither slowing nor taming its competitors. If anything, industry itself is driving the competition. How does all of this affect the workers' aesthetic of answerability, out of which community is formed?

But the social worker deals with more than work. The same processes are tearing the family apart. The parents once had the titular "head of household" position which permitted monologic non-answerability. But with retirement or unemployment and the insufficiency of most of our safety nets like social security, the titular roles are disappearing, and at the same time losing any functional sense they once had. The middle aged adult dealing with elderly parents hardly enjoys the status of "head of household" as that phrase once suggested. Normative answerability is changing, along with communities that are proliferating in new ways, with new needs, and new governance attitudes on the part of the corporate and governmental sectors. Somehow we're going to need to draw on an aesthetic process of answerability because Mom and Dad are just not going to sit through "basket weaving" and bingo, while their lives fall apart around them.

Meanwhile, we have whole generations that have been trained to bingo as the sop for their lack of community. All across the nation corporations are supplying the money to establish huge gambling operations. Gambling is adversarial. One wins; most others lose. I know, I know, there are lots of prizes. But how would the corporations make money if it were not from those who do not win? Why would the corporations fund these enterprises if they were not profitable. For the sake of Native Americans? If you answer that positively, we'll send you for counseling. Gambling is the hope of the have nots. Luck. Not control. Not answerability. Not emancipation. Luck.

The social worker who wants to change the structural limitations of the communities in which we live, must consider all these complex issues that underlie our present dysfunction, wealth gap, unemployment, insecure futures, and local violence enhanced, if not caused in part, by thes disparate pressures in our lives. How do you train for and where do you find jobs at this level? Cross disciplinary understanding of the ways in which many fields ask and answer, at least tentatively, these questions will help you train. Some jobs, if you go far enough with your education, exist at think tanks. But many jobs at this level have to be created. Consider writing legislation for politicians who share your views and understanding. Consider actual work with the people who need it. That will often mean applying continuously for funding, since the people who need help can't often pay for it, and they lack the power of answerability. After a while, applying for funding sucks. You just plain get tired of it. You'd rather work with the people themselves. Look at the origins of liberation theology in Central and South America and then in the Third World generally.

There are no perfect answers to how those who want to do social work really can. I followed a teaching path. Like every other road travelled toward social work, it allowed me minimal aesthetic answerability, it got me in trouble, it did give me the "privileged" title of professor, except tht I'm kidding myself if I pretend that a professorship spent trying to change the social world in which we live is anything like a professorship writing theory and presenting professional papers in professional organizations. Not only am I kidding myself, the professional organizations are kidding themselves, and we all need to be sent for counseling. Like the colleague who challenged me on my blue collar identity, the work environment in which some "professors" live is worlds away from that of some of the "professors" in less elite institutions who are struggling for social change and social justice.

That doesn't mean you can't do social work, as you want to. It just means you can't have it all. You have to make choices. But there are more choices out there than most of us think. Thirty years of teaching at Dominguez has given me more opportunity to work on social justice and peace and community than I had ever dreamed would be possible. But I missed the collegial sharing that I might have found in an elite school, really missed it. That's the road I didn't take. But look at all the things I might not have got to do if I had taken that other road. Lived experience is about choices. You just have to keep looking for interesting roads along the way. And the career you choose is about your lived experiences. Be creative. Don't be scared to take another road.


Sociology, as a social science discipline, is very different from social work. I have a social work orientation; that bias affects my view of sociology. So be sure to look at other perspectives, if it's sociology as a discipline that intrigues you. My bias is that I want to change the world. I want to make it better. Many purists in sociology insist that sociology is the study of the social world, not the practical attempt to make it better. Critical theory opposes that. Critical theory, starting with the Frankfurt School, insists that just describing "what is" and why and how it got that way is not enough; we need to fix it; to make it better; to end exploitation and injustice and promote a life well lived.

Not all sociologists oppose practice and critical approaches to the discipline. But enough do that there's a special ASA section on Practicing Sociology or Applied Sociology. There are even some groups of Clinical Sociology, right up there with clinical social work and clinical psychology. For the most part the concept of doing something about what's not working in sociology and the society we're studying is a murky concept. Some people are satisfied to offer conclusions to their studies that suggest what might produce different results. And some, like Giddens, suggest that sociologists study society so that they can teach people how it works so they can live better, and then the people change it to make it work even better for them, and then sociologists have to study the new changes so they can teach people how it works, and on and on and on. That's not a purist position. But many of our present-day teachers were trained by purists who thought the only good reason for having a university sociology department was to train future Ph.D. sociologists. That's a purist position. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. If you want to go out and change the world, let's face it, you can be an effective activist without being a Ph.D. But some activists need Ph.D.s to be able to teach the others how the system works so they can make it better, a la Giddens.

If you are more interested in writing theory and doing research, then you will need to begin preparing for that with a fairly solid and demanding curriculum. If you are going to go on to an elite school for an advanced degree, you need to supplement what you are learning with as much extracurricular learning as you can, for commuter schools are limited by the many and diverse demands on their students. Extra reading, and writing for undergraduate journals (of which there are several), will prepare you for the more formal academic work you face. I know that takes discipline. But so will a Ph.D. program.

Criminal Justice:

Criminal justice is one of those fields that split off from sociology. Criminology is still included in most sociology curricula. Certainly the causes of crime, the effects of violence on a community, the effects of violence on the aesthic process of answerability and the creation and maintenance of community, are all sociological issues.

But incarceration in the U.S. has reached such proportions that the criminal justice system has become a sector in its own right, with both governmental and corporate components, with a huge labor force, and with inmates for whom aesthetic answerability is beyond any measure of possibility at the moment. We will address the role that art plays in the emancipation of some kind of answerability, but certainly not the aesthetic process of answerability that creates community in our sense of the word. Yes, the system creates the community of law enforcement and the community of the incarcerated, but neither of those moves toward the community we seek in emancipated governance and interpersonal relations.

If you choose a formal criminal justice career, you will have limited occasions to employ the aesthetic of answerability within your workplace. That doesn't mean that the aesthetic process of answerability won't create for you opportunities to see how it might make both worlds better, especially if you had an opportunity to experience it while in training. For those of you who would work with criminal justice in any of its many aspects, we hope that our fostering of answerability and the creative community it fosters will expand your thinking and help you find wise solutions within a world that still largely seeks vengeance and control, not rehabilitation and mutual growth.


I can't begin to tell you what careers will exist out there in journalism. But as we hear such challenges as CBS aired recently, charging that the media fury had some responsibility to bear for the false conviction of the Central Park rapists. Of course the falsely convicted young men aren't suing the media; they're suing the City of New York. Once again, myriad issues to be sorted out politically and economically.

To the extent that the CBS accusation is true, media does have considerable responsibility when celebrity cases are tried in the media. OJ Simpson. Kobey Bryant. The Central Park Rapists. Tyson. The Kennedys. None of us have the answers. But these are surely questions that have to be addressed over the next couple of decades. Policy institutes will be one source of information. You might find work to your likeing there.

Another important field is investigative journalism. Many people like Alfie Kohn and Jonathan Kozol, who in the past might have entered the academy, have chosen to go their own individual paths in investigative reporting on issues that concern them. There is less peer review traditionally available, so there is less acceptance in the formal academy. But these journalists have major impact on our thinking, and they reach a large audience, much larger than most of us can boast as professors.

Certainly if you are willing to engage in careful research and want a measure of independence for that work, journalism offers good possilities. As in most fields, if you wish to earn a living, which most of us have to, this probably means working for at least some part of your career for the formal media, or a think tank, or a college media department.

And now to wind up this section, most of those problems you will be investigating, if this is your choice, will be sociological. For that reason we would like you to have good grounding in the aesthetic process of answerability.


This, like the journalism career, is an ancillary career for sociology, social work, education, and criminal justice. There are counseling jobs connected to almost every organization. Unfortunately, it's also a uniquely crowded field, and employment can mean that you are tightly caught in a monologic non-answerability work place. Pretty darned hard to do effective counseling that way, so stress is often high for those who seek such a career.

As in issues of criminal justice, parole, probation, courtroom work, etc. we recognize that most of the workplaces will be bureaucratically dogmatic. Our hope is that the experience during your college education with the aesthetic of answerability will help prepare you to see and move on creative ways around the ritual monologic non-answerability. Recall that the aesthetic process of answerability works through respect, recognition, and good faith listening to the Other. Sometimes that can be accomplished, even when you have no titular power, simply by a sincer look in the eyes that lets the Other know you care. That may not solve the real world problems, and you may never be there again for that Other. But each bit of warmth and caring counts in the community that emerges. Don't hesitate to love just because you can't always be there or can't always fix things. Each moment and each instance of love counts for each of us over a lifetime.


  • New America Foundation Puts up stuff like the Radical Center.
  • Senior Fellows at New America Foundation. David Friedman, author of White Collar Blues is a Senior Fellow at New America Foundation.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you suppose David Friedman had professorships in mind when he wrote the White Collar Blues?

    Judging by at least one of my colleagues on the Habermas list, I'll bet he didn't. But if he looks at it from the perspective of the aesthetic process of answerability, I bet he will.

  2. What is the aesthetic process of answerability?

    The Aesthetic Process of Answerability Answerability is the expectancy that every utterance may be answered by an Other. The aesthetic process involving the fact that an Other may respond is the process of interdependence in which Person and Other, through the exchange of utterances, change each of their identities.Through such changes Person and Other develop an illocutionary understanding of one another and begin the process of creating and developing a community in which they can co-exist at peace. I suspect I've made an awful unprovable intellectual leap in that last statement, but I sure hope they will be able to co-exist in peace. Theoretically if they continue the dialogic process, they ought to be able to. jeanne

  3. What kind of labor in which we as college educated "professionals" engage could conceivably be shifted to cheaper labor over seas or borders?

    Consider the preparation of some standard disciplinary classes. They could be offered by distance, standardized, and the jobs of all those who once taught them on separate campuses would be lost. All work on questions, answers, tutoring, testing, could be handled by any could write gramatically in English. Actors could be hired to deliver the lectures.

    Social workers who do intake with clients could be replace with overseas workers who could handle the intake by telephone, making available to the client any language desired for intake. Overseas workers could then enter the data into a world-wide data base and maintain that database with information supplied by field workers.

    Police reports of incidents could be given by telephone to overseas operators who would then enter the data into a crime database. Periodically the database could be checked for data entry errors. As once happened with a Southern California database, no one would ever check the original reporting for errors. Once garbage in the computer; garbage permanently available for output. By the way, you should become very sensitive to the operational definition of checking data for errors.

    Journalists could telephone in r e-mail stories from most anywhere to overseas where the print media could be prepared and then the data forwarded to local printers.

    I'm depressing myself. Maybe I should be a journalist. Sounds like they're the only ones safe.

  4. If the large majority of production can be done over seas or borders with a cheaper labor force, then will we need so many administrators?

    Consider the component of administration that includes supervision. With jobs will go supervision. So even administration isn't safe.

  5. How do we teach you to cope with White Collar Blues?

    Consider that the only antidote we have found to such competitiveness and focus on power and profit to the exculsion of human beings is awareness. Another way to put that is answerability. To the extent that we refuse to be silenced, to accept monologic non-answerability as a norm in our workplaces, then we may be able to cope.