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Sociability in relations between paid domestic workers and customers

Vesa Leppänen

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Leppänen, V. (2015) Sociability in relations between paid domestic workers and customers. AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies. 3:1, pp. 19-39. doi: 10.5518/AMITY/15


Service relationships are very much a part of modern life. Sociability is an important aspect of many service relationships, and it is frequently a part of what customers are willing to pay for. Therefore many service organizations attempt to encourage their employees to behave in a sociable manner. For service workers, sociability can be a source of negative stress as well as a source of personal satisfaction. This article describes and analyses the meanings sociability has for domestic workers (an occupation which is dominated by women, internationally). Empirical data consist of qualitative interviews with 20 domestic workers in Sweden. Conceptually, this article expands upon Simmel’s (1950) notion of sociability as a social form characterized by democratic participation, playfulness, purposelessness, and a focus on relating to one another (Simmel, 1950). It is argued that sociability is a social form that is context-free, yet context-dependent, for it is shaped by the participant’s orientation to their particular view of the social context. The empirical results demonstrate that domestic workers describe sociability as lighthearted, with topics that are trivial and unrelated to work. However, sociability is also shaped by the context of work. It is argued to be asymmetrical, as customers decide the occurrence of a conversation as well as the topics that are discussed. Domestic workers also describe that they use sociability to achieve both work-related and private goals. The results have implications for understanding sociability in service relationships, especially as the findings indicate that sociability is fragile and can be damaged when participants introduce a sense of hierarchy or purpose into the social interaction.

Keywords: Domestic work; working conditions; service relationships; sociability; Simmel; interactionism; semistructured interviews

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