The Social Aesthetics of Maintenance

Jessica Meyerson, Senior Research Officer, Educopia Institute
Andrew Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences SUNY Polytechnic Institute
Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, Virginia Tech

The Maintainers is a global research network interested in maintenance, repair, infrastructure, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world. Since we founded the network five years ago, two topics have consistently dominated the discussions, publications, and conferences we’ve organized: our culture’s obsession with innovation and novelty, and the maintenance and repair work that keeps our world going.

We, the co-directors of the network, took our original inspiration from histories of technology. For example, David Edgerton’s Shock of the Old (2006) emphasizes the role of old technology and its maintenance in everyday life. Ruth Cowan’s More Work for Mother (1983) examines the relationship between supposedly labor-saving devices and women’s housework, most of which focuses on maintaining domestic order and cleanliness. As our interests moved from history to related fields, we discovered communities of social scientists working on maintenance and repair, from whom we have learned a great deal (we’re thinking especially of Henke and Sims; Denis and Pontille; Jackson; Rosner and Ames; and Houston). 

 In late 2018, The Maintainers received a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to help build its organizational capacities. We initially focused on building a framework and processes for forming communities in specific maintenance contexts. These communities work together to define their own goals, research questions, and outcomes by working through processes that we have defined in our Maintenance Community Framework. These communities build bonds between people who share common experiences, but who otherwise might not be in contact with one another. For example, one of the communities, known as Information Maintainers, has been examining status issues around maintenance work in libraries, archives, and other information systems. The group has decided to conduct research with network members, to produce a richer understanding of the challenges faced by information maintainers. In this case, we hope that research can be a foundation for advocacy and institutional change. More generally, our goal is to foster a variety of communities that will, in sum, create an infrastructure through which the meaning of maintenance and repair can be produced and maintained. 

 There are many questions about maintenance and repair that overlap with interests in cultural sociology. For the purpose of this brief note, we will focus on one: how maintenance and the lives of people who do that work – who we call maintainers – are intertwined with social aesthetics. Building on Pierre Bourdieu (especially 1984) and others, John Levi Martin (2011: 239, see also Martin and Merriman 2015:132) defines social aesthetics as “a study of the processes whereby actors take in the qualities of the social world around them.” The word “qualities” plays an important role here because ultimately social aesthetics centers on the sociology of judgment – how individuals and groups sort the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly, the fitting from the unfitting, the maintained from the disordered (see also Miyahara 2014). 

 We believe that social aesthetics connects both to the experiences of maintainers and to maintenance itself. The social aesthetics of maintainers and maintenance require more systematic and especially quantitative empirical exploration. First, long-running studies of occupational prestige have found that individuals have remarkably stable judgments about where jobs fall in social hierarchies (for a summary see Ashforth and Kreiner 1999). Beyond studies of individual jobs like auto mechanics (Borg 2007) and janitors (Rabelo and Mahalingam 2019), we lack empirical research on how such ideas apply to maintenance work and the mechanisms by which understandings of labor hierarchies, including Gramscian and other forms of hegemony, take root. In his examination of Richard Scarry’s children’s book series Busytown, for example, Martin (2000) points out that our parents and other authority figures teach us what jobs are desirable and undesirable. In this way, Martin suggests we develop concrete ideas about what kinds of people fit particular roles and who might benefit from certain kinds of work. Much more remains to be explored. 

 Second, the same set of questions applies to technological systems and infrastructures. All of us have had the experience of going somewhere or looking at some object and finding it shabby, untidy, or rundown. But where exactly do such notions come from? To what degree do they vary across cultures? And how do factors like economic status and personal identity shape them?

Similarly, the terms “invisible” and “invisibility” are applied to both maintenance work (see Daniels 1987) and technological infrastructures (Star and Ruhleder 1996). The discourse of (in)visibility often has a moral tinge–it can imply that the object at hand should not be invisible and that by ignoring it we are failing morally. Others emphasize that the important question is “invisible to whom?” Neither the work nor the thing being maintained is invisible to maintenance laborers, obviously. We believe that these discussions of visibility would benefit from more systematic research, especially into the cognitive underpinnings of what individuals do and do not take note of. Given humans’ very real cognitive limits (Martin 2010), we likely miss, or fail to take note of, most of the activities and structures that we pass by every day. In this way, social aesthetics can also account for the social structuring of human attention, and we can work to better understand why people notice what they notice, including maintenance and repair.  

 We suspect that the recent focus on maintenance and repair in social science is, at some level, a fad. Like all fads, it will become less fashionable over time, and other fads will attract scholarly attention. In the meantime, it is beyond question that the many people working on maintenance, repair, and infrastructure are raising deep and important questions. We believe that these questions, and the results of their research, have the potential to contribute to lasting, positive, societal change. Finally, we believe that additional empirical research aimed at institutional and policy interventions could do much to elevate the status of maintainers and the systems they care for.

Ashforth, Blake and Glen E. Kreiner. “How can you do it? Dirty work and the challenge of constructing a positive identity.” Academy of Management Review 24, No. 3, 1999: 413-434.

Borg, Kevin. Auto Mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1985

Daniels, Arlene Kaplan. “Invisible Work.” Social Problems 34, No. 5, 1987: 403-415.Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Martin, John Levi. “What Do Animals Do All Day?: On the Totemic Logic of Class Bodies.” Poetics 27, 2000: 195-231

Martin, John Levi. “Life’s a Beach but You’re an Ant, and Other Unwelcome News for the Sociology of Culture.” Poetics 38, 2010: 228-243.

Martin, John Levi. The Explanation of Social Action. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Martin, John Levi and Ben Merriman. “A social aesthetics as a general cultural sociology?” In Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Art and Culture, edited by Laurie Hanquinet and Mike Savage, 132-148. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Miyahara, Kojiro. “Exploring Social Aesthetics: Aesthetic Appreciation as a Method for Qualitative Sociology and Social Research.” International Journal of Japanese Sociology 23, No 1, 2014: 63-79.

Rabelo, Verónica Caridad and Ramaswami Mahalingam, “‘They really don’t want to see us’: How cleaners experience invisible ‘dirty’ work.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 113, 2019: 103-114.

Star, Susan Leigh and Karen Ruhleder. “Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces.” Information Systems Research 7, No. 1, 1996: 111-134.