By talking with and observing ragpickers in Mumbai, Dean A. Shepherd, Sally Maitlis, Vinit Parida, Joakim Wincent, and Thomas B. Lawrence gained considerable insight into how people make meaning of their work and lives in the context of intractable dirty work.
Making work meaningful is a contemporary fixation, with innumerable books, blogs, and Ted talks devoted to the subject. And for good reason. People are more likely to thrive both professionally and personally doing work they believe is meaningful. But what about jobs that involve what we call “intractable dirty work”—work that is both stigmatised because others perceive it as physically, socially, or morally degrading (think about garbage collectors, but also butchers, elder-care workers, and prison officers), and is difficult, or nearly impossible, for some people to avoid. While some people enter dirty work by choice, for many others, it is an inevitable and enduring facet of their membership in communities such as mining towns, where jobs are (or perhaps were) passed down across generations, immigrant communities with a tradition of domestic service, and criminal communities. In these groups, families and the broader community regularly induct children into the dirty work of their parents. How do these people make the dirty work into which they have been inducted meaningful?
To explore this question, we studied ragpickers and garbage removers in Mumbai, India. This group does the dirty work of handling and disposing of garbage. They are further tainted by their membership in the lowest caste in Indian society and by living in slums. By talking with and observing ragpickers in Mumbai, we gained considerable insight into how people make meaning of their work and lives in the context of intractable dirty work.
Whereas prior research on dirty work has tended to emphasise the positive meanings made by people in such jobs, we found that ragpickers constructed meaning that was distinctly ambivalent: there was a negative meaning that involved an overarching sense of helplessness along with a set of positive meanings—survival, destiny, and hope—that were rooted in specific facets of their lives. The ragpickers displayed an embodied wisdom that allowed them to combine these negative and positive meanings to ground and empower themselves from a position of what we describe as “functional ambivalence”—the simultaneous experience of opposing evaluations of one’s work and life that can facilitate the ability to carry on, even in desperate conditions.
Holistic and disaggregated meaning making
The ragpickers’ functional ambivalence enabled both the acceptance of external forces and a sense of agency. While one might expect positive and negative meanings to exist in tension, the ragpickers experienced functional ambivalence as constructive and empowering.
Key to this was how the ragpickers made sense of the complexity of their lives—attending to their jobs, their families, and their caste as separate dimensions of their lives, rather than collapsing them into a single, holistic assessment of their situation. Retaining this complexity in how they thought and talked about their lives allowed them to construct rich, complicated understandings of their work, not only as “dirty”, but as containing positive sources of meaning attached to each of these elements.
As a job, ragpicking was a basis for “survival”—a means of overcoming the everyday practical challenges these workers faced in feeding and housing themselves. As Shreya noted, “Our livelihood is in this work. Only then can we fill our stomachs. Work; earn in the day; and then get the flour, oil, rice, tomato, onion, etc.; and then cook food.”
The ragpickers’ families featured not only as a resource for making sense of immediate needs, but also as basis for hope—a belief that their work has long-term meaningfulness. Ragpickers hoped that their work might provide opportunities for their children to attain education and occupations that were unavailable to them. Sharu described how, “This is all that I have [ragpicking]. I just don’t want my children to do this; they are studying and getting good marks, so there is still hope.”
Finally, ragpickers made positive meaning out of their work’s relationship to their caste. Many of the ragpickers constructed this relationship as matter of destiny: Esh told us, “We have been doing this job since the very beginning. … Our entire community is known for doing this kind of work for generations.”
The value of functional ambivalence
Our study does not suggest a rosy picture for the ragpickers and garbage collectors, who worked in immensely challenging and physically exhausting conditions for little compensation. Nor does it suggest that people will simply “make lemonade” out of whatever situation they face. What it does suggest, though, is the potential for people in extremely demanding, precarious situations to hold both negative and positive evaluations—functional ambivalence—as a basis to move forward in their lives.
The ragpickers’ experience of helplessness as the overarching negative meaning of their work and lives might be discounted as pathological, or at least dysfunctional, by those from Western, developed countries. But for the ragpickers, a sense of helplessness allowed the acceptance of structurally determined conditions which were beyond their ability to overturn or even significantly transform. At the same time, the ragpickers’ experience of their lives as disaggregated dimensions allowed them to attach positive meanings to their work, including survival, hope, and destiny. These positive meanings underpinned a sense of agency that animated their work and lives. Perhaps most importantly, we observed a compatibility between acceptance and agency: rather than repel each other, the acceptance and agency that flowed from ragpickers’ functional ambivalence supported and constrained each other such that acceptance did not lead to passivity, nor agency to frustration.
- This blog post is based on Intersectionality in intractable dirty work: How Mumbai ragpickers make meaning of their work and lives. Academy of Management Journal, 65(5): 1680-1708. (2022)
- The post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Joshua Singh, under CC-BY-2.0 licence
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