Dirty Work

Everett Hughes invoked the term dirty work in reference to jobs and tasks that are often seen as degrading, disgusting, or debasing. Dirty work is often seen as a necessary evil in society—someone needs to clean the streets, save lives in an emergency room, or guard inmates in a prison. Yet, although society acknowledges a need for this dirty work, it stigmatizes the workers who perform it. And because individuals generally define themselves (and are defined by others) at least partly by what they do, those who engage in dirty work are often cast by society and themselves as dirty workers.

Dirty Work as a Form of Stigma

Dirty work is typically thought of as a subset of the larger notion of stigma, which also includes nonwork aspects of an individual or group that reflect some type of taint. Stigma results in a wide variety of psychological predicaments that individuals react to with a diverse set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral coping strategies. Stigma may be experienced at multiple levels, including individual, group, occupational, and organizational. Researchers on stigma often focus on individual differences that bring on stigma, such as physical impairment, unethical behavior, or homosexuality. Occupational research tends to focus on how individuals and groups cope with the stigma brought on by work in specific jobs. Unlike many other sources of stigma, an individual’s occupation is seen as controllable. Therefore, society often casts doubt on those who hold dirty work jobs, despite many of the jobs being deemed necessary.

Classifications of Dirty Work

Multiple classifications of dirty work are found in the literature, including classifying the sources of the stigma, documenting the degree and breadth of the stigma, and distinguishing between high and low prestige types of stigmatized occupations.

Three Sources of Stigma

Early work on occupational stigma by sociologists Erving Goffman and Everett Hughes outlined threeways that an occupation could be labeled as stigmatized: through physical, social, or moral taint. Although neither Goffman nor Hughes offered exact definitions of these types of stigma, organizational scholars Blake Ashforth and Glen Kreiner gave more specific examples and parameters for each of them. Physical taint refers to occupations connected to tangibly offensive things such as dirt, garbage, or death (e.g., embalmers, trash collectors, janitors) or performed under highly noxious or dangerous conditions (e.g., miners, soldiers). Social taint refers to occupations involving frequent interaction with stigmatized groups (such as a probation officer’s or lawyer’s association with criminals) or with markedly servile relationships accepted by society (e.g., taxi driver, butler). Moral taint refers to occupations that are regarded by a significant segment of society to be sinful or of dubious virtue (such as exotic dancers, casino workers) or in which deceptive or intrusive methods are commonly employed (e.g., telemarketers, internal affairs officers).

Breadth and Depth of Stigma

Not all dirty work research focuses on extremely tainted jobs. Rather, it has been argued that stigma exists in many jobs, but to varying degrees. Indeed, some degree of stigma can be found in virtually all occupations. One dimension on which dirty work can vary is breadth of taint. This depends on (a) the proportion of work that is dirty and/or (b) the centrality of the dirt to the occupational identity. The second dimension on which dirty work can vary is the depth of taint. This refers to (a) the intensity of dirtiness and (b) the extent to which a job incumbent is directly involved in the dirt.

Prestige Level of Occupation

As with all occupations, dirty work jobs can be distinguished between relatively low and relatively high prestige. Prestige is generally acknowledged to be a function of variables including status, power, education, and income. Prestige can provide a status shield that protects job incumbents from some of the stigma encountered in lower-prestige occupations. For example, although lawyers, police officers, and prison guards each deal with criminals, their prestige level varies, thus altering the degree to which a social stigma might stick to them. High prestige offers a fallback cognitive position in the face of pervasive taint from other dimensions of the job.

Coping With Dirty Work

Ashforth and Kreiner outlined a multipart model that detailed several aspects of coping with the ill effects of dirty work. Each aspect is detailed below.

  1. Strength of occupational culture. Because of the pervasive influence of societal stigma, and the need to counter its negative effects, dirty work members tend to form work-group or occupational subcultures. Job titles, public visibility, interpersonal interactions, and so forth make the occupation salient. Yet, society is reluctant to confirm positive attributes to dirty work incumbents. So, those in dirty work occupations often create strong subcultures that create an us-versus-them mentality and reinforce positive evaluations of themselves. These strong subcultures then collectively create, reinforce, and provide mecha-nisms for coping to individuals, as described below.
  2. Social weighting. Outsiders to a dirty work occupation often are seen as a threat to personal and occupational identity, as they are likely to reinforce the negative stereotypes about the dirty work job. Therefore, those in dirty work jobs often invoke tactics to change the importance of various social groups’ perceptions of them.
    1. Condemning condemners. This tactic involves devaluing the perceptions and opinions of those who look down on the dirty workers. By pointing out flaws or shortcomings of those who criticize them, the dirty worker lessens the impact of the criticism. This tactic seeks to decrease the legitimacy of certain outside groups.
    2. Supporting supporters. Similarly, this tactic involves giving additional credence and attention to those individuals and groups who are friendly to the dirty workers (such as friends, family, or workers in similarly stigmatized occupations). By placing greater weight on friendly audiences, the dirty worker can reinforce the positive elements of the appraisal. Note that this tactic increases the legitimacy of certain outside groups.
    3. Selective social comparisons. Social comparison theory is based on the notion that at least part of our self-esteem derives from comparisons we make with other individuals and groups. Highly creative social comparisons have been found in many occupations, and particularly in dirty work jobs. Social comparisons can occur within broad occupational classifications (e.g., a call girl looking down on a streetwalker because of more prestige in her relative position) or between occupational classifications (e.g., an exotic dancer feeling superior to her businessmen clients).
  3. Occupational ideology tactics. Coupled with social weighting techniques are ideological tactics that offer comparatively rosier interpretations of reality. Ideological tactics invoke systems of beliefs that help make sense of the social world and do so in a way that typically benefits the group or individual invoking them.
    1. Reframing. This tactic involves changing the meaning associated with a dirty work job. One way to do this is through infusing, which injects positive values into the occupation. This can be done through occupational missions, which describe the purported reason for the occupation’s existence. Another way to reframe aspects of an occupation is through neutralizing, which deflects or decreases the negative aspects of the occupation.
    2. Recalibrating. This tactic adjusts the criteria that are used to evaluate the dirty work job by either increasing the importance of something others might see as small (e.g., trash collectors saying that society could not function without proper waste removal) or decreasing the importance of something others might see as large (e.g., abortion providers casting abortion as merely one of many women’s health services offered by their clinic).
    3. Refocusing. This tactic shifts the attention from the stigmatized aspects of the job to the nonstigmatized aspects. Whereas the other two ideological tactics involve changing the perception of the stigma, refocusing ignores it. This is like the proverbial shell game, in which focus is purposefully diverted from one thing to another. For example, dirty workers could focus on good pay, benefits, flexible hours, or other traditional job design features that are desirable. Key to this tactic, though, is that these positive features (rather than the stigmatized ones) are cast as the central components of the job.
  4. Normalization. The process of normalization takes extraordinary things (events, stimuli, etc.) and transforms them into seemingly ordinary things. The taint of dirty work can be normalized over time through various means, thereby relieving workers of the omnipresent effects of stigma. These means can be employed idiosyncratically by individuals, or become institutionalized over time by organizations or occupations, and include diffusing, adaptation, and ritualism.
    1. Diffusing attempts to dissipate unwanted emotions or to weaken their impact. For example, fear of various dirty stimuli (e.g., insects, heights, blood, dead bodies) can be diffused through humor or shared war stories.
    2. Adaptation refers to the process through which reactions to negative stimuli are reduced. This can be achieved through habituation (meaning the stimulus stays the same but a person grows numb to it) or through desensitization (meaning the stimulus is gradually increased to slowly ease the person into change).
    3. Ritualism refers to standardized behaviors and techniques that are used to manage anxieties toward negative stimuli. By engaging in ritual, individuals gain a sense of control over otherwise negative situations. Also, rituals create a momentum of means that carries individuals through dirty work procedures; this occurs because rituals allow cognitive functions to become routinized such that the negative features of a process are not dealt with at a level of noticeable consciousness.

Implications for Industrial/ Organizational Psychology

Key to understanding the management of dirty work is that each of the aforementioned tactics can be invoked purposefully by individuals (workers, supervisors, managers) or by collectives (workgroups, subcultures, occupations, organizations). That is, these processes can be managed idiosyncratically, institutionally, or both. Hence, dirty workers have available to them a wide variety of individual and collective tactics to alleviate or change the negative consequences of social stigma. Yet, because of the pervasiveness of stigma, dirty workers face a dilemma of personal identity that is not always solved in either the short or long term.


  1. Ashforth, B. E., & Kreiner, G. E. (1999). “How can you do it?” Dirty work and the challenge of constructing a positive identity. Academy of Management Review, 24, 413-434.
  2. Ashforth, B. E., & Kreiner, G. E. (2002). Normalizing emotion in organizations: Making the extraordinary seem ordinary. Human Resource Management Review, 12, 215-235.
  3. Crocker, J., Major, B., & Steele, C. (1998). Social stigma. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 504-553).
  4. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
  5. Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  6. Heatherton, T. F., Kleck, R. E., Hebl, M. R., & Hull, J. G. (Eds.). (2000). The social psychology of stigma. New York: Guilford. Hughes, E. C. (1962). Good people and dirty work. Social Problems, 10, 3-11.

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