Book Review – Class Acts

Rachel Sherman‘s Class Acts – Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels represents the best of sociology of labor, occupations and organizations all rolled up in one participant observation study, back by solid sociological concepts and theories. It is a highly readable book, all peppered with interesting anecdotes combined with sociological analysis. It is indubitably a good case of thick description of how social and status inequalities shape one’s identity and behavior.

Why does such a topic matter? According to Rachel Sherman:

“These issues matter for two reasons. First, they are important for our understanding of interactive work and its links to relationships and to selfhood. Second, they are significant for our conception of how work is connected to class. These questions are particularly important given the rise of both service work and economic inequality in the United States.” (3)

For Sherman, this is a “luxury moment”: high-end consumption is relatively recession-proof (it was quick to recover both after 9/11 and after the current depression). She notes several aspect of luxury production and consumption:

  1. the luxury economy is a global one. Luxury nodes (probably often matched with the global cities) in global spaces that are thoroughly networked across the world. The transnational capitalist class, whose one defining trait is its mobility, uses these nodes as they criss-cross the globe.
  2. the luxury economy is part of the larger service economy with even more intense emotional labor. In luxury-consuming settings, customers are limitlessly entitled to worker’s individualized and individualizing attention and effort.
  3. the luxury economy emerged in a context of rising inequality, a trait that thoroughly traverses it.

In this sense, this book is very much written with Hochschild’s work in mind as it looks at

“both the multiple ways workers and guests negotiate asymmetrical relationships and the consequences of these negotiations for the reproduction of unequal entitlements to material resources and attention.” (11)

Especially since, in the context of luxury service work, the worker’s self is highly involved due to the personalized service required. Such subservience may lead to damage to one’s dignity. How do workers deal with that, as a lot of labor research shows that workers value dignity greatly? At the same time, individualized service means that workers have some degree of autonomy as they perform individualized requests that may require creativity and innovative strategies. Structurally, the luxury hotel is its own stratification system in its own right and most interactions are based on such unequal distribution of resources. As a result, a great deal of interactive work is dedicated to the merging of “doing self” and “doing class”.

Sherman uses two central concepts in the book: (1) Consent:

“Used most notably in Michael Burawoy’s study of factory production, consent is active investment in work. In Burawoy’s formulation, workers who have some autonomy become involved in and engaged with their jobs by means of small incentives and choices, which become meaningful in the context of particular shoo-floor status hierarchies and cultures. In consenting to exert labor, workers unintentionally also legitimate the broader conditions of its appropriation.


Like resistance, consent highlights workers’ agency. Unlike the concept of resistance, however, the concept of consent allows us to think of workers as using their agency to participate in work rather than to refuse to participate. Explaining consent entails taking seriously the reasons that workers like their jobs and the rewards they derive from them, without losing a critical perspective on unequal social relations of appropriation. Like resistance, consent has the potential for oppositionality. Workers can withdraw their consent in several ways: by refusing to invest themselves in their work; by quitting; by organizing some kind of collective action that challenges the organization of work or the distribution of rewards from work.” (16-7)

And (2) normalization:

“[Normalization] refers to the taken-for-granted nature of both interactive and structural inequality. Unequal entitlements and responsibilities were not obscured, because they were perfectly obvious and well-known to interactive workers. Nor were they explicitly legitimated, since workers rarely talked about them as such. Rather, they simply became a feature of the everyday landscape of the hotel. Conflicts over unequal entitlement were couched in individual rather than collective terms and in the language of complaint rather than critique.” (17)

And as they are used by workers,

“consent and normalization arose as functions of workers strategies for constituting themselves as not subordinate vis-à-vis managers, co-workers, and especially guests. Rather than negotiate between authenticity and performativity or between agency and passivity, workers drew on a range of complex and sometimes contradictory strategies of self-articulation to cast themselves as powerful. First, they established themselves as autonomous, skilled, and in control of their work, especially by playing games. Second, they cast themselves as superior, both to their coworkers and to the guests they served, by using comparisons and judgments. Finally, they constituted themselves as equal to guests by establishing meaningful relationships with them on the basis of a standard of reciprocal treatment.” (17)

And in order to pursue these strategies, workers used the structure of the hotels as resources at their disposal to be used skillfully. In other words, and in very Goffmanian terms, the hotel is a space divided between front stage (performing workers) and backstage (invisible workers, often minorities) in a luxury service theater where class is performed constantly.

How these strategies are deployed by front stage workers, and with what results, within the luxury theater constitutes most of the book. The chapters are rich with observations and excerpts from interviews that are too thick to go into here. But such strategies towards guests involve

  1. personalization and recognition,
  2. anticipation and legitimation of needs,
  3. pampering as display of labor
  4. deference and sincerity

One theme that deserves particular attention though is that of games played by workers:

“These games do not involve cards, chips, or dice, but they do entail strategy – about how to finish tasks quickly, control the pace of work, and maximize tips. In playing these games, workers make their jobs meaningful, become invested in them, and construct images of themselves as skilled and autonomous.” (111)

Workers then are able to recast themselves not as subservient but as in control of their work and of the guests as they can manipulate the amount of tips they receive. Games were of various kinds:

Games of speed, service and control:

  • Controlling unpredictability (speed control of conversation with guests over the phone)
  • Maximizing sales
  • Room blocking
  • Needs anticipation (who can best recall details about guests demands)

Money games mostly through maximizing tips through a variety of strategies such as:

  • visible effort and guest recognition
  • highlighting labor
  • discreetly reminding guests that work had been done by a particular worker
  • various forms of performativity (such as joking with guests)

All of these strategies are risky, though, because workers have to walk fine lines. For instance, joking can easily go from friendliness to inappropriate with guests.

Other strategies to maximize tips involve creating typologies of guests in order to increase predictability of their requests and demands (“the sport”, “the blowhard”, “the lady shopper”). Sherman notes that unpredictability was the heart of the game. If that was removed, the game was over. For instance, workers often refused tips paid in advance because the intellectual play and the strategizing was removed.

“Playing money games not only helped workers avoid ‘unrelieved drudgery,’ as Davis put it, but also deflected the experience of interactive subordination by recasting asymmetrical relations as favorable to workers. Rather than highlight stratification and subordination, the large tip or high rate indicated that the worker had won the game.” (134)

At the same time, of course, these games could be a source of conflict with coworkers and managers. But they were also sources of comparison and evaluation and therefore played a major part in self-conception based on skills, control and autonomy. A great deal of self-work and performativity was also dedicated to recasting hierarchies:

“[Workers] invoked multiple, symbolic hierarchies of worth and advantage – status, privilege, intelligence, competence, morality, and cultural capital – and mobilized these hierarchies selectively to establish themselves as superior to others. Asserting capacities and advantages that others lacked allowed workers to resituate themselves as powerful. Ironically, this move led them to constitute guests’ entitlement as legitimate.” (155)

For instance, workers tended to often recast their job as superior to that of their coworkers, emphasizing their control and authority over entire segments of the service, or entire sections of the hotel. Concierges emphasized their vast cultural and social capital through their knowledge of the best restaurants or art galleries.

Workers also engaged in quite a bit of what C. Wright Mills called “borrowing prestige”, that is, gaining status by association: the high status of the guests allowed workers to recast themselves as exceptional compared to other hotels and their workers. And then, there were all the different ways of recasting themselves as superior to the guests:

  • guests as needy (strategy of empathy and condescension)
  • guests as incompetent in the basic operations of life (strategy of entertainment and judgment)
  • guests as in need of gatekeeping (controlling entitlement)
  • guests as unworthy (of luxury service because of boorish behavior)

In many ways, workers “calculated” how much service a guest deserved and symbolically enforced limits on how much they received.

There is also a major moral dimension to all this performativity. Workers expected some degree of recognition, respect and reciprocity with respect to their personhood and professionalism. Of course, guests had always the upper end in interaction but should they fail to show proper respect and reciprocity, workers could engage in revenge (and rewards for those guests who behaved in ways that recognized such things). When it came to revenge, workers engaged in what Goffman calls negative deference or standard forms of ritual contempt. This involves some passive-aggressive strategies (rolling one’s eyes to the back of the guest, giving them the finger from under the desk, giving them nicknames, making fun of them behind their backs.

More visibly, workers could withhold emotional labor through overly formal behavior. Conversely, workers can become what they call “fake nice”, a kind of “kill them with phony kindness” strategy. Another strategy is to deliberately waste the guest’s time or to withdraw attention. And then, there is “reverse customization” as mode of punishment: giving a guest a bad rate or a “bad” room (less than what he wants). Guests then can find themselves downgraded if they become difficult.

The book also goes into some details as to how the guests produced their entitlement. For instance, leisure travelers claimed some distance between themselves and the luxury of the hotel by claiming that it did not matter to them and engaged in some degree of denial by ignoring the hierarchies involved in the service. On the other hand, business travelers evaluated the service they got in “strictly business” terms, for instance, by recognizing the techniques of recognition and personalization used by the workers and therefore recasting themselves as quasi-managers rather than guests.

And both categories made a point of emphasizing how much they engaged in reciprocity and they saw “being nice” as emotional compensation for financial disparities. These guests also all stated that luxury consumption was their reward for their own hard work and men, especially, were keen on trying to elicit compassion from the workers by providing stories of how hard their life was, what with often away from home.

There is a lot more in the book. As with any participant observation or ethnographic work, the book is full of stories, descriptions, interviews that make the reading very pleasant and at the same time, Sherman does a great job of working in concepts, theories and other sociological work in a very approachable way.

Highly recommended.

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