Kim Voss. Worker Identities In a New Era of Information

Monday, March 17, 2014 - 2:00pm to 3:30pm
Blumer Room - 402 Barrows Hall

Worker Identities in a New Era of Immigration

Since 1990, immigrants and their children have been the fastest growing component of the American population and their presence is profoundly altering the nation’s racial and ethnic landscape. Nowhere are such changes as profound as in the workplaces of California, where the number of immigrant workers exceeds that of every other state. Yet little research has assessed how these immigrants understand social hierarchy in America or how their workplace presence might be shaping both their own identities and that of native-born workers. In this talk, which draws on research done with Fabiana Silva, I will report preliminary findings about the ways in which white and Latino working-class Californians construct the boundaries that define “people like me” and “people different from me.”  Building on an approach pioneered by Michèle Lamont and based on data from 79 in-depth interviews, I will argue that Latinos are replacing African Americans as the most salient comparative group for whites and that this is altering how both white and Latino workers see themselves and each other. These changes in reference groups also appear to affect the type and strength of distinctions workers draw between themselves and those they perceive to be in both the upper and lower classes. Workers interviewed for this study were considerably more critical of those above and compassionate toward those below than has been found in prior research. These preliminary findings suggest how much workers’ identities may be changing in today’s new era of immigration.

Kim Voss is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. She studies labor, social movements, and social inequality. Her research has appeared in leading journals, as well as in several books, including Rallying for Immigrant Rights: The Fight for Inclusion in 21st Century America(coedited with Irene Bloemraad, University of California Press 2011), Hard Work: Remaking the America Labor Movement (with Rick Fantasia, University of California Press 2004), Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement (co-edited with Ruth Milkman, Cornell University Press 2004), Inequality By Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth (with 5 Berkeley colleagues, Princeton University Press 1996), and The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century (Cornell University Press, 1993). Aside from the project discussed in the talk, her current research focuses on the framing of immigrant rights (with Irene Bloemraad and Fabiana Silva) and the shifting competitiveness of college admissions, including a collaborative project on access and post-college outcomes for freshman cohorts between 1982-2004 (with Kristin George and Mike Hout).