Justifying Work: Occupational Rhetorics as Resources in Restaurant Kitchens

By Fine, Gary Alan | Administrative Science Quarterly, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Justifying Work: Occupational Rhetorics as Resources in Restaurant Kitchens


Fine, Gary Alan, Administrative Science Quarterly


The chef is not an employee in the common meaning of the word, but a practitioner, an artist, a fabricator.

Jean-Paul Aron, The Art of Eating in France (1975: 150)

Occupations are, in some measure, a collection of tasks and assignments, set in an organizational environment. Yet to both insiders and outsiders, practitioners and clients, occupations also involve meaningful work identities, understood in light of a division of labor. Occupations vary in status, authority, prestige, and stigma. Within occupations are tasks (Strauss, 1991): activities that are not only physical but also cultural (Wacquant, 1995). They are a means of placing oneself and being placed by others within a social system (Abbott, 1988). Discursive strategies define our selves and our work (Bruner, 1986; Gergen and Gergen, 1988; Boden, 1994; Baumeister and Newman, 1994). In this sense, occupational presentation is a bundle of accounts, a set of role resources (Baker and Faulkner, 1991) that explain who one is and how one should be taken by others.

Focusing on how workers define themselves, I speak of the process of fitting work into a meaning system as constituting an occupational rhetoric.(1) Neophytes are often uncertain about their role and abilities (Van Maanen and Schein, 1979); these rhetorics provide a structure by which they define their competence (Haas and Shaffir, 1982) and address the central question, as far as one's work role is concerned, of what kind of person am I? Through occupational rhetoric, workers justify their work and explain to themselves and their public why what they do is admirable and/or necessary, a form of impression management. Fitting into an organization and occupation depends on identity as well as instrumental competence (Zabusky and Barley, 1994).

Occupational rhetoric reflects what Kenneth Burke (1969) termed the "pronounced character of mind" of occupations. Burke suggested that lawyers interpret the world legally, physicians medically, gardeners horticulturally, and, presumably, cooks edibly. Becker and Carper (1956), describing schoolteachers, spoke of an "occupational personality." Following Everett Hughes and the Chicago school of occupational sociology, this underlines that work is a bulwark of identity (Snow and Anderson, 1987) and that occupational identity is constructed by a community of workers in light of the responses of others and workplace interaction (Abbott, 1988; Colomy and Brown, 1995: 45-49). A dilemma of being unemployed and impoverished is that this fundamental identity has been eliminated, with no self-enhancing replacement or no organizational community to provide support. Hughes (1971:338-339) asserted:

[A] man's work is one of the things by which he is judged, and certainly one of the more significant things by which he judges himself. Many people in our society work in named occupations. The names are tags, a combination of price tag and calling card. One has only to hear casual conversation to sense how important these tags are. Hear a salesman, who has just been asked what he does, reply, "I am in sales work," or "I am in promotional work," not "I sell skillets." It happens over and over that the people who practice an occupation attempt to revise the conceptions which their various publics have of the occupation and of the people in it. In so doing, they also attempt to revise their own conception of themselves and their work.

Yet a fundamental problem exists with regard to the traditional occupational identity perspective. Typically, occupational identity is seen as a closely linked set of images that connects one to an unambiguous work world. While other self-schemas may apply to other spheres of life (e.g., family, leisure), a dominant schema organizes how one places oneself in light of a single set of occupational standards. Such a perspective, emphasizing a dominant occupational "character of mind" does not do justice to the diversities of work and its interpretations (Dornbusch and Scott, 1975).

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