The Labour of Distinction: Fieldnotes from an apprentice butler

Bryan Boyle from the Free University of Brussels introduces the novel concept of the ‘labour of distinction’.

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Abstract

The appropriation of labour not only serves the accumulation of economic capital but symbolic capital too. Thanks to previous research we are beginning to understand this more, but not to the theoretical and empirical extent that it deserves, especially at a time when this form of labour is growing in the high-end, private domestic service industry. The work I am presenting during this talk addresses this by developing the novel concept of the ‘labour of distinction’ and using the butler occupation as a case study.

This concept highlights how the ability of economically dominant groups to implement a ‘distinct lifestyle’ (Bourdieu, 1984) may often depend upon specialised labour power. Incorporating findings from an ‘enactive ethnography’ (Wacquant, 2015), where I trained at a butler school and worked as a butler in private houses and at events in the UK, my talk conceptualises and empirically grounds four fundamental properties of the labour of distinction that are observable in the butler craft: (1) curatorship, in the labour’s concern and ability to aesthetically manage employer’s class symbols; (2) menialism, in the labour’s undertaking of necessary but ‘vulgar’ tasks in the running of the home so that employers can abstain from such for symbolic effect; (3) Veblenian embodiment, in the (self-)producing of the labourer’s body per se as an object of the employer’s conspicuous consumption; and (4) non-personship, in the Goffmanian performance of being symbolically and socially absent whilst physically present as a method of estrangement.

I argue that the labour of distinction is important for both cultural sociologists seeking to understand how elites symbolically distance themselves, and labour sociologists seeking to understand under-considered forms of labour appropriation. It is hoped that the concept developed may prove fruitful for future research on labour and elite lifestyle, in addition to other sites where status accumulation seems integral to the worksphere.

Presenter

Bryan Boyle is a PhD student and teaching assistant at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel’s (Free University of Brussels) sociology department. He is a member of the European Centre for the Study of Culture and Inequality and TOR research group. For his thesis, Bryan is conducting an ethnography of the ‘butler’ profession - a profession that has experienced a surprising revival as wealthy groups and other elites again seek their expertise in private service. His ethnography is supplemented by interviews and historical content analyses. He previously studied at the University of Amsterdam for his Master’s in Sociology and at Nottingham Trent University for his Bachelor’s in Sociology and Politics.

 

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