Sociologist Hochschild Asks, “How Much Should You Outsource Yourself?”

Arlie Russell Hochschild, emerita professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, is known for her trenchant commentary regarding all facets of life.  But in Hochschild’s newest non-fiction work, THE OUTSOURCED SELF, Hochschild has come up with an entirely new premise, which is this: how much is too much when it comes to outsourcing?

Now, this may seem odd, because outsourcing is a word that’s been used predominantly by various companies when they’ve moved jobs from large countries like the United States to countries that pay lower wages and have fewer environmental regulations, or by the newly unemployed workers of these companies when they complain about the practice of outsourcing.  Yet Hochschild makes a compelling case that in our modern life, far too much of what used to be considered our private lives are now instead in the public domain because we’ve outsourced these jobs to others as it’s become more socially acceptable to do so.

Consider, please, the plethora of “love coaches,” the phenomenon of e-Harmony.com, and wedding planners.  All of these things have moved into the mainstream, and no one thinks anything of it if you wish to hire these services.  Yet thirty years ago, while wedding planners surely existed, there weren’t anywhere near so many of them, while there was no such thing as a paid “love coach,” and the closest anyone got to online dating was putting a personal ad in the newspaper.

Now, consider the newer professions Hochschild came up with in the research of her book — “nameologists,” who will come up with just the right name, but for a hefty price; “wantologists,” which seems to be a subset of psychology — these people will tell you what you really want rather than what you say you want; and last, but not least, the baby surrogacy movement from both sides (people seeking a surrogate to carry their child, and surrogates seeking parents in turn in order to stay financially afloat).  None of these industries were extant thirty years ago, and while many people scoff at the first two professions, most people believe that if you really want a child, you should do whatever it takes to have one, which is why the whole surrogacy movement has become quasi-legal in the United States and outright legal in other countries (such as India).

See, the problem with surrogacy isn’t that mothers want to rent their wombs out, or desperate parents want to try whatever they possibly can in order to bring a baby to term when all else has failed.  It’s that it’s become a profitable business that Hochschild finds so appalling; in its profiteering, many women surrogates who live in disadvantaged places end up getting taken advantage of — usually not by the desperate parents, but by the doctors who are attempting to make a child to order.  In this case, the doctor becomes the surrogate’s employer, and has complete and total control over the woman in question until she delivers.  The emotional, psychological, and sociological consequences of such actions is appalling, which Hochschild quite rightly points out.

Now, there are some jobs that do need to be outsourced, which Hochschild points out with great skill and flair.  For example, very few people have the right skills to take care of an elderly relative, so finding someone who can help there is socially acceptable for very good reasons.  Another job that needs to be outsourced relates to nursing homes; there are way too many patients in there who have no visitors, and yet, these are human beings.

It’s the latter version of positive outsourcing that motivated Hochschild to write her poignant chapter 13 about elder-care consultant Barbara Strand and her dachshund, Itty-Bitty.  Strand often visits nursing homes at the behest of relatives who live far away, and evaluates the patient and the nursing home in order to give the absent, yet caring, relatives the best possible idea of what Strand believes should be done with regards to the patient’s care.  Yet Strand, if she had her “druthers,” would work full-time in a nursing home, perhaps as an activity director, perhaps as something else — the reason she doesn’t is because the money is just not there to pay her.  But her gifts to work with the elderly are quite strong, so she found another way.

Overall, Hochschild’s premise is this: society is changing.  Many things we used to do for ourselves are now outsourced to others.  But we need to do our best to hang on to whatever private life we possibly can, otherwise, what’s the point of living?

The one drawback to THE OUTSOURCED SELF is that Hochschild puts most of her attention on the upper middle class, either those who work for people in that class (such as au pairs and personal assistants) or those in that class who believe they must “keep up with the Joneses.”  While this narrow focus is interesting, I would’ve preferred to see Hochschild deal more broadly with the real economic burdens many people in the United States deal with; if she had found a few people who’d saved for years to afford an expensive wedding planner (yes, some people do this), that would’ve helped a great deal to give this book a bit more depth and breadth.

That said, this is a strong effort that anyone concerned about society and how it adapts (or doesn’t) to changing circumstances should read.    Best of all, this is a book that reads well and almost too easily, so the ideas Hochschild deals with creep up slowly, then explode with great power.

Grade: B-plus.

– reviewed by Barb

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  1. Just Reviewed “The Outsourced Self” at SBR « Barb Caffrey's Blog
  2. Pick of the Day: The Outsourced Self | Left Eye On Books

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