Visiting sociologist: People lose intimacy by outsourcing personal services

Would you hire a "want-ologist"? How about a love coach? Can money really buy happiness?

These are just some of the questions Arlie Hochschild, a University of California-Berkeley sociologist, explores as she interviews people across the United States and around the world.

She talked about her research in her presentation "Commercialization of Intimate Life," to a standing-room-only crowd at the ILR School's Fifth Distinguished Lecture in Honor of Alice Hanson Cook, Sept. 3. The stories Hochschild shared about the lengths people will go to in an effort to find balance and feel human connection prompted laughter, as well as surprise.

Take, for instance, her story about the "want-ologist" who helps clients de-commercialize their wants. The client wanted a bigger house, she said, but when the want-ologist probed about what the client really wanted, she said "peace." When the want-ologist learned that walking by the water gave her client peace, she ultimately steered her from wanting a new house to adding more plants and the sound of running water to her existing living space.

Use of market services, with people hiring want-ologists and others, is happening partly in response to what Hochschild calls a "growing care deficit," especially for women. With women now comprising half of the total labor force, family needs are increasing, and women feel more pressure to balance work and home needs.

"The bigger effect of the rise of a market culture is that it directs attention away from the means to the ends. It's not the planning of the party, but that it needs to be the perfect party. It's not about the search for the partner, but about finding your soul mate," Hochschild said.

People draw different lines in their use of these services, she added.

She interviewed a man, for example, who decided to plan his child's birthday party himself instead of hiring a party planner. While the party did not go so well, and other parents criticized him for not hiring an expert, he felt he made the right decision because it helped him be closer to his family.

Contrast that with a man she spoke to who joined a dating service, but hired an assistant to screen the replies and manage that process for him.

Hochschild said that a main focus of her work is to examine the question of how this growing commodity frontier is potentially leading to estrangement and isolation.

"We need to rebalance society, put community back in the picture … to create a more balanced human society," she concluded.

Joe Zappala is director of communications for the ILR School.

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