Review of “The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times” by Arlie Hochschild

In reference to consulting for online dating:  “So part of getting the ‘real you’ out there required the suppression of the too real you” (Hochschild 25).

“The very ease with which we reach for market services may also prevent us from noticing the remarkable degree to which the market has come to dominate our very ideas about what can or should be for sale or rent, and who should be included in the dramatic cast-buyers, branders, and sellers—that we imagine as a part of a personal life” (Hochschild 223).

Although I teach introductory sociology at a community college, I discovered sociology by accident as an elective during my junior year of college.  Psychology and sociology both intrigue me.  For more than a decade, I’ve been a fan of Dr. Arlie Hochschild’s research and writing style.  Her previous research on the emotional labor that we perform to do our jobs, as well as her research on the second shift work that (mainly) women perform when they arrive home from their jobs fascinates me.  When I saw that she was publishing a new book on “The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times,” I knew that it had to go on my bookshelf.

While Hochschild performs outstanding research, I like the fact that she tries to reach a larger audience than academics with her writing style.  This trend continued in “The Outsourced Self.”  It was an easy read in terms of the language, but emotionally, I found it to be both a challenging and rewarding read.  At times, the topics addressed in the book were heartbreaking as people tried to muddle through their lives in modern times.  Many of the interviewees outsourced some work to others while maintaining control over other aspects of their lives.  Hochschild’s use of her own family experiences in the past and present to illustrate the differences over time were helpful and interesting. She begins the book by talking about the village from a century ago, where there was a spirit of “just do.”  This is the idea that the entire community would pitch in to help others without even questioning.  Today, we are moving more and more towards employing strangers to complete the work we need done instead of family, or even friends.  However, while there are many examples of how this change may be harming people, there are also examples in the book of positive relationships between the people hiring work to be done and those completing it.

It struck me as important that people drew the “line in the sand” about outsourcing in different places.  The book covers outsourcing throughout the entire life course, from birth to death.  It actually begins with a look at at online dating.  While many people are likely familiar with online dating, I was surprised to learn just how much of the process people were willing to turn over to a consultant.  This section disturbed me because it seems that people are allowing themselves to be quantified and objectified by the market.  I wonder how this impacts how people view themselves and others.

In the second chapter of the book, I was already well aware of the wedding planner phenomena, as my family decided to hire one for the day of our wedding.  We did this due to the fact that family members were in different places, similar to the people discussed in the book.  Hochschild points out that “through outsourcing, they repersonalized their lives” (55).  The consultant talked to the couple about their relationship and helped them come up with a very personal display of their wedding.  The couple (and others) got to choose what they did want to be in control of versus what they were willing to hand over to the consultant.  After the marriage, couples therapists can help the couple through difficulties in their relationship.  It used to be the case for many families that you did not talk to strangers about your problems.  In one of the cases in the book, Rachel and Roger visited Sophie for counseling.  Sophie was involved in their lives, even being present when Roger was dying.  I was mildly surprised about the fact that online couples counseling is growing.

There are two chapters on surrogacy: the first from the point of view of the parents employing a woman to carry their child and the second from the point of view of the surrogates.  For me, these chapters were the most emotionally difficult to read.  On the one hand, I don’t want to be inherently afraid of new technologies.  However, there is a huge component of global inequality involved in this.  There is great stigma attached to the women who are willing to be surrogates in many places like India.  Often, they are doing this because they don’t seem to have many other choices.  It isn’t always the case, but sometimes, the infants are removed after a Caesarean section.  This causes the surrogates to feel more alienated compared to when they are able to hand the infant over willingly to the other parents.  Then, for some, it feels more like a gift than just a cold financial interaction.  Surrogates were also instructed to “think of their wombs as carriers, bags, suitcases, something external to themselves” (99).  Perhaps this allows the women to be surrogates, but I still wonder what is the cost.  Does this create alienation from one’s own body?  Like many other goods and services, Hochschild also brings up important questions as to different clinics in various countries trying to undercut one another.  There are many other great sections in this book like a discussion of outsourcing care of the elderly.  With the baby boomer generation aging, combined with the fact that average life expectancy is longer, there are important norms to be established regarding the care of older individuals.

I highly recommend this book for anyone, academic or not.  From an academic standpoint, it is an important work.  Yet, it also resonated with me personally.  Many people I know, myself included, have to decide about how much of our lives we want to outsource to others.  What is ethical?  What isn’t?

Questions for thought:

(1) What outsourcing are you comfortable with in your life?  What do you feel like you should do for yourself or your family?

(2) If you’ve done this type of labor, how do you feel that it impacts you?  Positively?  Negatively?

(3) How do we avoid objectifying people?

(4) What should the community be responsible for?  Are we better off now or not?

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3 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Sociology

3 responses to “Review of “The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times” by Arlie Hochschild

  1. This was a book that I had checked out earlier this year, but had to return before I read it. Based on your recommendation, I’m going to check it out again over the week of Christmas. I’m looking forward to reading it so that we can talk about it!

    • I’ll look forward to discussing it with you. I bought a copy, and I wrote all kind of notes in it. My friend and coworker was telling me about her experience of outsourced birthday parties here in the Raleigh area. I was amazed!

  2. Pingback: Review: ‘The Outsourced Self’ by Arlie Russell Hochschild

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