April 30, 2018

Hobbies, Ghost Work, and Identity


Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

Work and occupations occupy a dominant position in our lives and, perhaps correspondingly, in our sociological scholarship. For good reason, of course. Work is a central component of our lives. Work fills our days (or nights) and pays the bills.

Work is also a resource for who we are, as what we do is often a central part of our identities. Although you may still be a college student, and if so, you’re probably only working a part time job. (70% of students work while in school and 25% of students work full time.) Eventually, however, you will graduate and have a job doing something. And at some point not too far down the road, you’ll be at a party and someone will ask you: “So, what do you do for a living?” Is it a lazy question, or should our work provide a key insight into who we are?

Seven out of 10 college graduates “get a sense of their identity from their job” but only 55% of Americans do overall. And so, what of those who do not identify with their work? What if you identify with your work, but do not like it?

Here’s something I wish we had a language for, both culturally and sociologically: the side activities that don’t really pay the bills but that, importantly, enrich lives, giving meaning and value to them. When I studied tour guides, most of them did the work as a side hustle and a hobby. I found that this was often a gig that brought in some money, yet satisfied an intellectual and creative supplement to their more (in their words) “ho-hum lives.” It was a hobby that happened to pay a little.

Here’s my favorite example: a documentary called Darkon, which follows a set of people who participate in a Live Action Role Playing (LARP) game, acting out characters, Game of Thrones style, on the weekends. (This documentary was from 2007, well before George H.H. Martin’s book series became an inescapable cultural phenomenon.)

One of the people in the documentary says, “Everybody wants to be the hero, and in everyday life most of the time don’t get to be the hero.” Another puts it a different way: you could passively watch Brad Pitt star in a weekend movie, or you can participate in LARPing and be Brad Pitt for the weekend. The film follows these men and women in their jobs as office workers and service industry workers, as well as in their suburban home lives—taking out the trash, watering the lawn—to contrast with their rich, even epic, social lives. Often movies are about “two worlds colliding” but rarely are they about these two worlds colliding.

A book I recently enjoyed demonstrates this disciplinary limitation in our thinking about how to think about careers and hobbies in a more nuanced way. Jooyoung Lee’s Blowin Up: Rap dreams in South Central follows a group of people who participate in a hip hop open mic in Los Angeles. The book does a lot of wonderful stuff, so this is only a minor quibble about it. Because these men want to make a career of hip hop, readers miss out on learning how participating in what is essentially a hobby (with the slim hopes of “making it” in the entertainment industry) lends value to these men’s lives in the same way that LARPing does for those who participate in Darkon.

Lee asks early on in the book: Why shouldn’t we afford these men the opportunity to chase a creative endeavor, no matter how unlikely? It’s true! We should. But the focus only on careers causes us to overlook the subtler nuance of how hobbies can improve our lives. Lee does mention that participating in these open mics can be an outlet, or, as we learn at the end of the book, a kind of therapy when things are really rough. That’s a great insight. Hobbies can be a resource just like work can be a resource for our senses of self.

At the same time there might be jobs that people don’t want others to know about. There are some jobs people do not see as central to their identities, or don’t want people to associate them with, and will adjust their presentation of self accordingly in order to compartmentalize their work lives from their social lives.

As a graduate student I remember interviewing a few people for a professor working on a project about “ghost work” that he never published. The idea was that there are certain lines of work that people prefer to hide in social situations for fear of altering people’s behaviors toward them or perceptions of them.

For example, a police officer at a party did not want to say what he did for a living and, instead, would say he “worked for the city” or that he “works in the public sector.” Another interviewee was a priest who didn’t want to make people uncomfortable in a social setting and just said that he “did social work.” What, the research asked, do you do when our culturally defined primary source of an identity is stigmatized in some way? How do folks develop and deploy interactional tricks to gloss over potential roadblocks in social transactions?

This idea has stuck with me for years, and I remembered it recently when speaking with a black professor at Columbia University who would tell people he just met that he was “a teacher in Harlem,” as a way to manage and deflect prolonged conversations of what it is like to be an African American professor at an elite institution. There are some lines of work that can negatively define the situation—or in the case of the professor, just a raise a conversation he was tired of having—and work then operates as a kind of phantom component of the self that shapes social interactions.

I now wonder: would these people deflect their conversations toward talking about hobbies instead?

I was thinking about all of this while watching the new HBO show, Barry, which revolves around the title character who has a crisis of faith, realizing that he was not really enjoying his career and stumbles into an acting class only to realize that he wanted to become an actor and leave behind his career. His primary career is professional hit man—it’s HBO after all—and he definitely does want people to know what he does for a living. I’ve only watched two episodes, so I have no idea if he makes a career out of his new hobby, or leaves his ghost work. Barry is relatable because most people find their careers to be unfulfilling, even without having to murder people for money. It’s a wondrous trick of capitalism to make us think that our careers must define who we are, and give us so little time to pursue the things that might give us greater meaning and purpose.  

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