This is a superb ethnography that describes the social distortions created in one Philadelphia neighborhood by the constant interventions of law enfor...moreThis is a superb ethnography that describes the social distortions created in one Philadelphia neighborhood by the constant interventions of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Alice Goffman, now a professor of sociology in Wisconsin, draws upon her experiences as an "embedded" observer of the neighborhood dubbed "6th Street," which she frequented as an undergraduate and later graduate student. In a series of themed chapters, Goffman provides an accessible and striking overview of the major categories of people in the neighbor (tellingly, defined by their level of entanglement in the court system) and their complex social environment. Codes of social conduct are described, alongside rituals of loyalty, betrayal, and restored relationships.
Other Goodreads reviews have faulted this book for its lack of emphasis on statistics and reliance on first-hand accounts. That criticism misses the mark entirely, for this book is an ethnography that aims to accurately capture the subjective experiences of one group of people in one place at one point in time. Goffman clearly believes that at least some of her observations are representative of broader cultural experiences in urban minority neighborhoods, but the validity of that idea is beyond the scope of her work. This book is the spiritual successor to Sudhir Venkatesh's "Gang Leader for a Day" and Elijah Anderson's "Code of the Street" - particularly the former, which was the last urban ethnography to receive so much media attention. More abstract and analytical works like Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" are a supplement to this ethnography, not a competitor or a substitute.
Goffman's writing is honest and self-effacing. She largely removes herself from the narrative of her book until the last few chapters, when she talks about the difficulties she faces transitioning into (and later transitioning out of) the relationships and neighborhood surroundings, as well as the personal impact of the murder of one of her main subjects and friends. These chapters have received less popular attention but provide an important recognition of the difficulties inherent in ethnography and a better appreciation for the cultural divide that Goffman had to straddle for a number of years.
This is a rich, well-researched, and accessible look at the social dynamics our policing and sentencing policies have created in poor minority communities. (less)
In this slim, surprisingly readable book, MIT business professor Zeynep Ton delivers an exciting, counter-intuitive message: miserable, low-wage jobs...moreIn this slim, surprisingly readable book, MIT business professor Zeynep Ton delivers an exciting, counter-intuitive message: miserable, low-wage jobs do not help business profitability or deliver low prices to consumers. Instead, good jobs can go hand in hand with profits, low prices, and customer satisfaction.
Ton's area of expertise is the decidedly unsexy field of operations management, the discipline that studies how businesses turn raw inputs (like supplies and labor) into sales. In the course of over ten years of research and extensive case studies, Ton has found certain "model retailers" have adopted specific organizational practices that have enabled them to beat their competitors. These practices include reducing the variety of their products, dividing tasks into those that need to be standardized and those where workers should be empowered to make decisions, cross-training employees to do multiple tasks, and erring slightly on the side of overstaffing instead of engaging in pervasive understaffing. These strategies and practices, if used together, can increase profitability and customer satisfaction - but they can only be executed by a workforce that is treated with respect and dignity.
Ton's book focuses on the retail sector, because as she sees it, if her ideas about operations work for retail, they can probably work in almost any low-wage area of the economy. To illustrate her points, Ton returns again and again to the case studies of a few successful retailers: Costco (the bulk discount store), QuikTrip (a gas and convenience store chain), Mercadona (Spain's largest grocery chain), and Trader Joe's (the trendy American grocery chain). Ton also uses examples of other retailers than have stumbled along the way (Home Depot, Circuit City, and Borders), as well as non-retailers that have seen success. It's worth noting that none of these are small or obscure companies, but high-profile enterprises with significant market share.
At the core of Ton's book is the idea that business managers relentlessly seek to reduce direct labor costs while being oblivious to the numerous indirect costs those cuts create. In a worst case scenario, this results in a self-destructive cycle of lower profits leading to worse working conditions leading to even lower profits. Even where a business like Wal-Mart has managed to maintain its overall profitability by squeezing suppliers and improving its back-end operations, the obsession over labor costs is counterproductive. Higher wages and working conditions are NOT presented as a panacea, but as a necessary enabler of good customer service, efficient operations, and continuous improvement in business performance.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this message could be lost in pages of dry, academic prose. But Ton has won awards for her teaching from the Harvard Business School, and it shows: Her book is barely 200 pages long, with easy to understand examples. When Ton moves into business school jargon, she does so judiciously and provides clear explanations of core concepts. And yet there is never a sense that the author is "talking down" to her audience or oversimplifying the issues involved. This book should be studied as a model for academics trying to describe their research to a broader audience.
At the very end, Ton acknowledges what most readers will have instantly grasped - that her suggested business practices offer a massive potential benefit to society. But the first nine-tenths of the book focuses almost exclusively on the economic benefits to the businesses themselves, building an impressive case that business managers are leaving money on the table by treating their workers so poorly. It's deeply satisfying to read about how Mercadona paid out bonuses to 95 percent of its employers at the start of the global recession, cut prices 10 percent, and then proceeded to increase sales and market share even while Spain's economy sustained serious damage. It's a stunning rebuke to those who insist that poor working conditions are necessary for success in retail, and a challenge even to those critics of capitalism who believe businesses are inherently exploitative. Ton makes a persuasive case that the real fault lies with our short-sighted businessmen and their lack of vision, rather than with the workers themselves.
This is an incisive, sophisticated criticism of mediocre business thinking whose stories of real-world success have you rooting for large corporations and questioning a lot of the conventional wisdom about the relationship between labor and capital. (less)