Personal Trouble and Public Issues: The Flight Attendant and The Service Economy

Of course, by now, you have all heard about Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant who quit his job in a rather dramatic fashion after being abused by a passenger, something that was probably the last straw for him. This seems to me to be a perfect illustration of the “personal trouble – public issue” theme developed in C. Wright Mill’s The Sociological Imagination.

Let’s review:

Troubles occur within the character of the individual and within the range of his immediate relations with others; they have to do with his self and with those limited areas of social life of which he is directly and personally aware. Accordingly, the statement and the resolution of troubles properly lie within the individual as a biographical entity and within the scope of his immediate milieu-the social setting that is directly open to his personal experience and to some extent his willful activity. A trouble is a private matter: values cherished by an individual are felt by him to be threatened.

Issues have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the range of his inner life. They have to do with the organization of many such milieux into the institutions of an historical society as a whole, with the ways in which various milieux overlap and interpenetrate to form the larger structure of social and historical life. An issue is a public matter: some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened. Often there is a debate about what that value really is and about what it is that really threatens it. This debate is often without focus if only because it is the very nature of an issue, unlike even widespread trouble, that it cannot very well be defined in terms of the immediate and everyday environments of ordinary men. An issue, in fact, often involves a crisis in institutional arrangements, and often too it involves what Marxists call ‘contradictions’ or ‘antagonisms.’

In these terms, consider unemployment. When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.”

So, when looking at the flight attendant case, one could look at the individual level (“disgruntled employee” is the expression often used to reduce an incident to an individual condition, no consideration of the context, really) or at the interactive level (how did the interaction between the flight attendant and the passenger degeneration into a confrontation with verbal abuse, taking into account the respective statuses of the individuals involved: it is the job of the flight attendants to provide instructions to passengers, it is the role of the passengers to comply with such instructions. In this case, the passenger deviated from role expectations by not conforming to the instructions).

And then, we can look at this interaction in the broader context of social issues relating to labor in the service economy, mainly, the dehumanization that characterizes such employment as well as the emotional work entailed at the same time: clients / customers dehumanize service employees whereas service employees have to manage the emotions of clients / customers. and scripting theirs. We know that this power imbalance takes a toll on employees. From the Guardian article:

“Modern western society has largely become an exercise in perfecting the tertiary sector, and many of us are endlessly at the service of someone else. We are rewarded for these services, but this system affects how we treat one another.

When the woman who caused Steven Slater to quit his job bought her flight tickets, she also purchased a specific relationship: that between her and the employees of JetBlue. This happens everywhere that consumer consumption takes place. The human aspect of that process becomes part of a consumer experience, and is therefore essentially equated with whatever we’ve purchased. So, when Slater’s unnamed foe bought her flight, she was buying many things – such as time, space, a seat, perhaps some food, and fuel. She was also buying Slater.

Slater’s confrontation is symptomatic of a culture hooked into a service society where we all take part, acting out a kind of institutionalised intimacy where real relationships don’t exist. Cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that this system of exchanges (further encouraged by the loss of relations in our society) that reduces each interaction to a series of abstract signs, is actually a form of consumption in itself. The faux hospitality that we receive in a number of places every day is itself a system of production. “It is the production,” Baudrillard wrote, “of communication, of human relations in the service-sector style. What it produces is sociability. Now, as a system of production, it cannot but obey the same laws as those of the mode of production of material goods.”

So while Slater was no doubt sick of being spoken to rudely by irate passengers, his anger speaks to a familiar recognition that because of the way our system operates, we, and our interactions with others, are all eventually consumer products. It’s simply the way of the service industry. When this happens in a society that is so used to disposing of its products without much thought, those human interactions become just another throwaway item in a long line of consumer detritus. In effect, we are dehumanised while fulfilling a role that purports to enhance a personal experience.

And while this perspective helps us sympathise even more with Slater, it might also help us understand the attitude of his alleged verbal assailant. Because, along with accepting this system of faux relationships, comes the potential for anger when that system begins to break down.

That anger is based on the idea of consumer supremacy, and of a system that not only caters to the individual, but that requires the consumer to be an active part of it. If that can’t happen, then the illusion constructed by the millions of hours of advertising promoting products designed for the consumer – that is, that the system works from the bottom up – is destroyed.

In effect, the consumer’s ego isn’t being stroked, as they find that they are not the centre of attention. That infantile feeling of security is gone, replaced by the fear of being rejected by a societal framework that has been wholly accepted. Effectively, Slater’s angry JetBlue passenger was suddenly aware that the customer is not always right, and that she wasn’t getting everything she thought she’d paid for: the consumer industry’s ultimate insult.”

Actually, it is quite surprising that more incidents like these do not happen more often, be they with respect to nasty customers or tyrannical bosses.

3 thoughts on “Personal Trouble and Public Issues: The Flight Attendant and The Service Economy

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Personal Trouble and Public Issues: The Flight Attendant and The Service Economy | The Global Sociology Blog --

  2. As a sociology undergraduate who just finished reviewing the canon, I wonder how a Marxist lens would apply here in terms of alienation and the estrangement of labor, and finally, the fetishization of commodities. This last point seems most likely to have given Marx a headache. Now we fetishize the commodity that IS the relationship between the producer of labor, and of objects of labor, and the consumer/bourgoisie. As I just had the whirlwind tour undergraduate style, maybe someone with deeper knowledge could look at this episode and phenomena through a Marxist viewpoint for me?

  3. I shop, therefore, I am: I am seen, therefore I exist….Zygmunt Bauman fuses the Marxian notion of “commodity fetishism” with Descartes’ “Cogito” to develop his concept of “commodity fetishism”.

    recommended read: Consuming life(2007), Zygmunt Bauman

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