political work and labours of love


Rosie Anderson

As any fule kno, Work as defined by physics is Force times Distance. I don’t remember much from GCSE science but I do remember that. When I took up running I was told by an old hand that every extra pound you carry adds a minute to your time in a half-marathon, and by the end of my first race I knew my physics teacher had been right. Moving my carcass up thirteen miles of hills and riverbank did indeed take force, rather more force than I was comfortable with.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of work a lot recently. I’ve been writing a paper for What Works Scotland about my findings from some recent research of mine which thinks about emotion in policy making. Emotional labour is a concept which was first developed by Arlie Russell Hochschild, and it is basically about the way workers are expected to manage their own feelings according to the expectations of their employers, often to produce a desired emotional experience for their client or customer.

I’ve been using the idea of emotional labour to talk about how managing their own and others’ emotions has become a part of public servant’s role now that policy making is increasingly about face-to-face encounters with the public, and how that aspect of their paid work isn’t really acknowledged or supported.

Another way of thinking about Work in physics is the concept of Effort (the two are sort of the same in the moron-level formulae that I used). Perhaps another way of thinking about emotional labour in policy making is that it is present as an unacknowledged Effort that participants have to put in, whether they are paid to do so – and no-one is explicitly – or if they’re there out of sheer intensity of belief.

While I was at the recent Emotional Geographies conference here in Edinburgh I attended a panel  about emotional and relational governance – broadly speaking the way in which human relationships are implicated in governing society. I was very pleased to hear other people talk about the way they had worked with the idea of emotional labour in policy studies, but a few of us sounded a note of caution in using the term in this context.

Take, for instance, the session workers at a breakfast club near me in the North East of England. They’ve had their funding cut dramatically and are struggling to keep their staff on. Those people passionately believe in what they are doing, though, and they also believe that their community needs their services. Perhaps most acutely of all they have strong, personal connections to the young people they work with and they know they will miss out without their care and support. So they are doing the work for free – including and because of the emotional dimension of it – and the conclusion is that they would do that work anyway. Is it really adequate to call that emotional work “labour”? It seems to belong in a different category to the other things in their job description.

Lots of the people who get involved in politics and governance in the broadest sense of those terms share that passion, that commitment, those intense and personal relationships, and our professional and private selves cannot be neatly separated out. I fully accept my colleagues’ criticism of the term “emotional labour” on that level.

On the other hand there is some danger too in ignoring the laborious part of emotional energy/ work. I vividly remember hosting an event at a party conference (which will remain nameless) back when I was a jobbing policy wonk. We were talking about voluntary sector and how best to support it, and the prominent MP sat beside me (who will also remain nameless) announced that voluntary organisations could provide public services for less than the state because they are run by volunteers, and ‘research shows that volunteering is good for your mental health’. Everyone wins!

Leaving aside the many factual errors – voluntary organisations for the most part aren’t run by volunteers alone, they require no resourcing to do the same job as statutory services, what the f*** “research” is when it’s at home – he also seemed to be unaware of the sometimes unquantifiable costs of caring as a professional or a volunteer. I have come across far too many cases of “burnout” in my career. If volunteering means jam and Jerusalem to you then perhaps you could be forgiven for thinking like my co-panellist, but no amount of jam will put a roof over a homeless child’s head or provide counselling for an addict in recovery.

I wanted to write about this conundrum – how far does work equate to (paid) labour and/ or (voluntary) effort – because they have been vividly present in my own research into the emotional dimension of politics and policy, but also because it might help us think about the possibilities and pitfalls of using the word “work” to talk about something that takes huge commitment from its paid functionaries and unpaid citizens alike.

Policy and politics in general can seem very rule-bound, very defined by processes and outputs and very goal-oriented. It helps participants and researchers throw a fence around something which arguably is present whenever there are two people in a space with a finite resource, whether it’s an IMF bailout or you, your partner and the last slice of cake. If we say that the work of politics is making certain types of documents, following the steps to get your bill through parliament or looking at who ended up getting what at the end that is fair enough on one level. But we ought to ask where the Effort is too, the Force required to go the Distance, and it may not be found in the usual places.