Professions, respect and social status – Sanat Sogani

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“Respect” was a motif of German Social Democratic leader Olaf Scholz’s successful election campaign in 2021. What is at stake?

Caregivers need a sense of positive appreciation, as well as recognition (Yaw Niel / shutterstock.com)

‘So what do you do for a living?’

The fact that we care so much about each other’s craft suggests that a job is more than just a source of survival. Occupation is an important component of individual identity. Imagine a person’s unconscious reaction to discovering that the person they just met is a physics teacher as opposed to, say, a full-time caregiver. There is a risk of automatically placing the foreigner in a social hierarchy, depending on his profession.

Few countries conduct large-scale surveys of how various professions are perceived within them, but available data suggests that prestige rankings are broadly similar across time and cultures. Four national surveys have been conducted in the United States along these lines: in 1947, 1963-65, 1989 and the last in 2012. Participants were asked to rank occupations according to social status and, over the course of nearly seven decades, these have been remarkably stable, at least at the extremes. Shoe shiners, telephonists, garbage collectors and cleaners are concentrated at the bottom of the scale, while scientists, senior civil servants, doctors and professors are among the most respected professional groups.

Similar surveys in the UK, New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines and Germany suggest that the hierarchies are not very different. Of course, there are variations and many professions have seen a change in status. But these seem more exceptions than the norm.

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Take note

If we care about the respect we receive and jobs significantly affect the degree of respect we receive, we need to pay more attention to these professional hierarchies. Political decision-makers and social partners are indeed slowly beginning to notice this. The European Care Strategy published by the European Commission in September acknowledges that care work is often undervalued. It urges EU member states to offer “attractive professional status” to long-term care workers to address staffing shortages. Eurocarers, the European association of carers’ organisations, identifies the ‘recognition’ of carers as the first of its ten guiding principles.

However, much less ink has been spilled on concrete ways to elevate low-status professions. Is increasing your salary enough? Would campaigning for higher status help? Or is a more fundamental change needed in job design?

Unfortunately, the answer is not simple: “respect” and “social status” are elusive concepts. Sometimes public appreciation and a change in job title can greatly influence how a worker is perceived by themselves and those around them. Yet, at other times, even a resounding applause is not enough.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the way people around the world applauded healthcare workers was heartwarming. You would think that all the attention these workers have received in recent years would have made up for any previous lack of appreciation. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite: nurses, care aides and others in the sector continue to feel undervalued, in part because of underinvestment in the conditions in which they work.

moral agent

Stephen Darwall, a philosopher at Yale University, draws a distinction between “recognition respect” and “evaluation respect”. Recognizing a person’s respect involves treating them as an individual moral agent. Workers are recognized and respected when they are seen not simply as means of production, but as thinking and feeling human beings. Unlike recognition respect, employees receive evaluation respect when their individual skills and talents are valued.


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It is possible to have one without the other. X might have a recognized respect for Y, treating Y as an individual moral agent, while regarding her as devoid of any admirable qualities. On the other hand, X might treat Y like a slave, while admiring Y’s efficiency in accomplishing a particular task.

Moral philosophers generally regard the “respect of recognition” as something sacred and irrevocable. We prefer to be in a situation where we respect our fundamental rights but where we receive no appreciation than in which we constantly say that we are an excellent worker but where we violate our fundamental rights.

One could then argue that policy makers, trade unions and other social partners should be concerned only with respect for recognition. No job should treat the worker as less than human and violate their dignity. Respect for appraisal may be desirable for other reasons: companies may want to ensure that their employees receive appreciation for their work, so that they are motivated and work effectively. From this perspective, however, it would not be a consideration of justice strictly speaking.

Not enough

In reality, ensuring compliance with recognition is not enough. Not only do we want to be recognized as equal human beings; we also want to be appreciated for our particular qualities and achievements. Imagine working as a cleaning lady in an organization where you are treated with dignity: decent pay and working conditions, fundamental rights protected, friendly colleagues. Yet workers in other roles are routinely praised for their accomplishments – hitting a sales target, hosting a successful event, or whatever – while the office is kept clean and sprawling without any remarks. Respecting the evaluation is therefore a consideration of justice: it is possible to be treated with dignity while having low self-esteem if one does not receive a positive evaluation.

Ensuring that workers such as those in the care sector enjoy an ‘attractive professional status’ therefore involves, among other things, giving workers an adequate opportunity to receive respect for evaluation. If a woman spends eight hours of her day cleaning or guarding someone else’s house and then performs household chores at home, she is deprived of the opportunity to undertake tasks that could enable her to earn the respect of others.

Of course, low pay and gender discrimination are largely responsible for the lower status of cleaners and social workers. But no less of a concern is the lack of opportunity to receive assessment compliance in these job profiles.

Improve participation

Social partners and policy makers can intervene in various ways to widen the opportunities to receive respect for evaluation, for example by providing training and improving workers’ participation in decision-making. A comparative study of two groups of Latino domestic workers in the United States found that domestic workers who had to undergo training, follow strict quality standards and participate in workers’ meetings were more likely to be considered worthy of respect. – by themselves and by others – that the workers expected none of this.

In his book Master Craftsmen: Old Crafts in the New Urban Economy, Richard Ocejo argues that jobs such as butchering, bartending and hairdressing are now considered more prestigious in some parts of the United States than they were a decade ago. Indeed, they are no longer considered to be limited to slicing meat, pouring drinks or cutting their hair. Instead, they are considered by many to be legitimate art forms, requiring talent and years of training. Moreover, the modern butcher and bartender are expected to innovate and customize their products according to the needs of their customers.

Unfortunately, in many cases, Fordism and (then) ‘new public management’ made it more difficult for workers to adhere to evaluation. In long-term care, for example, there has been a deskilling of feminized work and a shift of power from frontline workers to management. Workers often found themselves with little autonomy and workloads consisting almost entirely of standardized and repetitive tasks, such as feeding, bathing, showering, dispensing medication, and moving residents around a building. These trends tend to exacerbate existing status hierarchies.

Focus on both

Tackling the lower status and undervaluation of occupations such as cleaning and care work is important in itself and to overcoming staff shortages. Any serious attempt to address these issues must focus on both respecting recognition and respecting evaluation.

Ensuring recognition and respect for workers means ensuring that they are treated with dignity, that their fundamental rights are protected and that decent working conditions are guaranteed to them. Respect for evaluation ensures that workers have an adequate opportunity to have their skills and talents assessed.

Sanat Sogani is a doctoral candidate in political theory at the Central European University in Vienna. Her research focuses on the normative issues raised by professional status hierarchies. He is currently pursuing an internship at the European Federation of Public Service Unions.

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