Sociologists from the Chicago School onward have understood that work is a meaningful pursuit. The meanings of work are multiple and often conflict, pulling people in different directions as they seek balance and fulfillment in their careers. The meaning of work is especially important to study now, given the radical changes to work in the last fifty years, as careers cross boundaries more freely and more workers–including professionals–lack the security and sense of direction that long-term employment can provide. While sociologists track the disparate effects of these changes on workers, they have only begun to study how people navigate successfully in these new circumstances.

My research joins this effort by developing cultural constructs to create new understandings of the meaning of work today. First, I use in-depth interviews to explore the social experience of work. Second, I compare across fields to draw conclusions about how resource environments shape meaning-making among different groups of similarly-situated workers. These themes cut across my current, post-doctoral research and my dissertation at U.C. Berkeley.

The Paradox of Activist Professionals

How do professionals who are committed to social justice find ways to bring those values into their working lives? How do they translate the goals of positive social change into grounded professional practices? Why do some fields provide a more hospitable environment for these efforts than others?

Many firms and professional organizations take corporate responsibility, workplace diversity, and environmental stewardship seriously. Social movements such as #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and the March for Science rely on professionals for leadership and support. Yet professionals who seek to address social problems through their work are often unable to do so, seemingly blocked by market forces and political agendas in conservative fields. The identities and practices of activist professionals are not well understood in sociology, and the topic deserves more attention.

As Postdoctoral Researcher on a small, interdisciplinary team at the C.U. Boulder Program in Environmental Design, I am answering these questions in a study of design professions. In-depth interviews with architects and civil engineers illustrate the variety of ways in which professionals leverage resources to advance causes they care about, and how institutional arrangements can channel interests in certain directions or block them altogether.

While we’re still in data-gathering phase, my colleagues and I have developed several manuscripts and conference presentations. One paper, on which I am lead author, identifies gaps in the architecture scholarship on social engagement and proposes three sociological concepts to guide future research. This paper is currently under review at the journal Architecture Theory Review. Two other papers proposing conceptual frameworks for studying activist professionals are under review at Research in the Sociology of Work (special issue on professionals) and Architecture Research Quarterly. 

Meaningful Work: A Sociological Agenda

In the next five years, I plan to research and write a book-length manuscript on the economy of meaningful work. This project will build upon my postdoctoral research by investigating the personal experience and structural causes of mismatch between training and outcomes in the careers of socially engaged professionals. Professionals have access to extraordinary resources, yet they face obstacles to contributing to social progress through their work. My research will identify pathways to meaningful professional work and contribute to strengthening these pathways as I share my findings with researchers and advocates.

Career Navigation and Occupational Identification in Creative Fields

How do college students understand their future roles and take the first steps toward a career? How do creatives working on commercial projects figure out where they fit, as opportunity takes them into new kinds of roles and environments? How do they justify the artistic nature of their contribution to large-scale projects hemmed in by firms’ need to meet the bottom line?

My dissertation answers these questions by exploring the meaning of work and the formation of career trajectories in the creative economy. The project draws upon more than 100 in-depth interviews I conducted with students, teachers, and alumni of one  art school, with a focus on its Visual Design and Media Arts departments.

The first substantive chapter looks at the early careers of creative professionals, including graphic designers and animators. As they experience work in different settings, these workers address the tension between creative freedom and bureaucratic constraint through boundary work. They either: (1) integrate the competing motivations of their work, becoming corporate managers or entrepreneurs; (2) reinforce their segregation, such as by finding creatively rewarding alternatives to unfulfilling day jobs; or (3) remain ambivalent, advancing professionally in firms or freelance labor markets while remaining flexible to opportunities and life’s demands. An article based on this chapter was published in the February 2019 edition of Poetics, cultural sociology’s pre-eminent journal.

The dissertation’s next chapter examines how creative workers navigate their careers across disparate contexts. Using detailed work histories, I find that workers commonly cross multiple labor market boundaries in the first five years after college, changing work roles, industries, and contractual arrangements (such as moving from freelance to full-time employment). As they do so, workers learn to map their personal capabilities–their skills and personal styles–to the expectations of firms and clients. I propose the concept of “self-accounting” to describe the continual process of making sense of oneself as an economic agent. An article based on this chapter will be submitted soon to an academic journal in sociology.

The third substantive chapter looks at the experience of art students seeking a B.F.A. in applied arts fields. Within the same school, two departments practice similar training methods but infuse them with different meanings, resulting in what I call distinct “pedagogic cultures.” Whereas one department, Media Arts, trains workers for occupational roles in specific industries, the other, Visual Design, prioritizes training in the discipline of graphic design. The chapter has implications for the sociology of higher education broadly, as the majority of U.S. bachelor’s degrees are in applied majors.

Becoming and Belonging: The Social Process of Identification

My previous work looked at identity narratives and community attachment with a focus on LGBT community health. In an article published in Sociological Perspectives, I find strikingly similar use of the “coming out” story among gay men of two age-based cohorts, suggesting the enduring power of this narrative form. In a co-authored piece in Culture, Health & Sexuality, I discuss the complexity of community attachment and the challenge this poses for community-based interventions such as HIV prevention. And I contributed to a series of studies at the HIV Center, Columbia University, including one co-authored article in the Journal of Sex Research that examines race-based stereotypes, online hook-ups, and HIV risk among gay men.

I have presented work on both research and theory at the American Sociological Association and other professional conferences in sociology and public health.

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