Work From Home: Emile Durkheim defined “anomie” as a condition where society becomes unstable due to a breakdown in society. What happened in the world when Covid-19 struck can be the most recent example to understand what Durkheim meant by a state of anomie. The norm of daily lives changed altogether. In this article today, let us have a discussion where we sociologically look at the new normal of “ working from home”. Some of the questions which we will try to grapple with are: Does work from home mean the same for everyone? In a nation like India which is internally divided on multiple bases such as caste, class, gender, and religion, is working from home really a feasible solution? Is the population of India equipped to handle this situation where the boundary between private and formal gets tarnished completely? To understand the circumstances better, we will be looking at four aspects and looking through the lens of technology, class, gender, and space.
Sociological Perspective: Work From Home
Technology and its Bias
The foremost condition needed for work from home is to own an electronic gadget. The second condition is to understand the technology which you have to use to be able to work from home. It is well known that technology is ever-changing. What is technological common sense today might not be the knowledge which existed yesterday, and it might become something irrelevant in the near future. The entire setup of work from home depends on the technological understanding that one holds. What came along with working from home was the challenge to adapt to new forms of technology while sitting at home, often without any guidance and/or counseling.
A prominent sociologist called Pierre Bourdieu gave us the concept of three types of capital, namely Economic, Cultural, and Social. When it comes to the relationship between having ingrained knowledge about technology and on the other hand learning this skill, we apply the concept of “Social Capital”. Bourdieu defines social capital as resources that are gained by being a part of a network of social relationships. The people who most probably belong to the upper strata of the society will already hold the social capital that allows them to be much more skillful and adapt faster to change. Your placement in society affects your daily lives and being richer in the capital will certainly make working from home smoother for you.
Technological understanding is not free from bias. To stay on par with the growing complexities of technology, one has to be formally educated and acquainted with how to operate a laptop, understand the working of the internet, and be aware of the basics regarding software and hardware. The main criteria of discrimination are due to “age”. A younger person can adapt to change more quickly than an older person. A younger individual can relearn and adjust more smoothly. An older individual is more adapted to their working apparatus and doesn’t like to change out of the blue.
Talking about technology brings us to a point where we ask who are the people who can access this technology. One will be in possession of an electronic gadget if one can afford it. An electronic gadget with access to the internet is a luxury. To have fast-speed internet is a luxury too. Owning a computer, laptop, or smartphone is still a far-fetched dream for a lot of people in India. Who owns what, who can afford what, who spends how much, and many more dimensions like such are determined by the “class” a person belongs to.
The class situation of India is not easy to understand. Though the most basic way to categorize classes based on India’s demography will be:
Under these eight subcategories of classes in India, only the top three tiers of classes are able to afford the equipment which is needed to work from home. The sudden announcement of the closing of offices has created a much larger rift between the upper and the lower classes. Karl Marx divided the world into two broad categories of “have” and “have nots”. During the first lockdown of March 2020, it got out in the open who belonged to which category in India.
Taking forward the argument of class and its privileges, we cannot miss out on how the migrant workers and day-to-day earners suffered the most. Working from home is only an option for those people who can do so. What happens to the people who have no formal office space but work and earn on a day-to-day basis to survive. The factory workers, construction workers, rickshaw walas, house helps (maids), and many more such occupations, how can these people work from home when their entire employment is based on going out of the house to earn.
Through a Gendered Lens
India is a patriarchal society, with dominant notions where gender roles are fixed. Continuing the discussion, access to technology is determined by the class, and there are multiple disparities within the class structure itself. But not even the same class experiences the same reality. For example, a middle-class man and a middle-class woman will have very different encounters with the same set of conditions. Hence, working from home meant entirely different things to men and women.
Sylvia Walby in her work which discusses the themes of “Gender, Class, and Stratification” clearly states how the labor done by women is rarely compensated. According to her, women constitute no class, but rather women across all classes share certain similarities amongst themselves. Domestic work is never considered as work, which makes the hard work of women counted as ‘nothing’. While the government suddenly announced work from home, what was not taken into account was the increase in burden for women of the household. In today’s time, many women are now working professionals. This does alleviate their social situation, but it also adds more to their burden.
Moreover, it was not only the workload that increased. The National Commission for Women noted a significant rise in the number of complaints of domestic violence, rising from 2,960 in 2019 to 5.297 in 2020. With the circumstances where women were stuck in abusive households, there was no escape for them. Being stuck and having chaos all around worsened the situation. The situation was even more tragic for the queer individuals who were trapped in an environment where they were not accepted.
Occupation of Space
Another precondition to work smoothly from home is to have a space of your own. Space, class, and gender are all very closely interlinked. To concentrate on work, the environment needs to be right. There have to be minimal distractions and a space where you can comfortably sit for hours and work. But having a space in a household is a privilege in itself. If you belong to a lower level of class, it is possible to not have an equal number of rooms as there are individuals. If you do belong to the upper-class strata then you may have the space, but not always.
The average number of people per household in India is 4.4 people. If we estimate it as 4, then out of these, there is a probability that at least 2 people do need their own space to work, study, operate. The occupation of space in a household also depends on age-old patriarchal notions. It is the kitchen that is associated with the woman and that is her space. The truth is that the majority of the women do not have a personal space for themselves in their own household.
The classical work “A Room of One’s Own” authored by Virginia Woolf is a very important read to understand how freedom and space are correlated. One cannot put their minds at focus with constant distractions of the world. Thus, not possessing a personal space affects productivity. Virtual meetings and work from home set up thus rely on the assumption that everyone has space allocated to them where they will remain undisturbed. But the actuality cannot be more polarizing. Having a space for yourself also depends on the virtue of whose work is seen as more important.
Also, Read Stratification; Summary
To reiterate the dialogue which we are having around the sociological analysis of working from home, we can conclude by saying that it is a privilege to be able to shift from office to home. In 2020 when the new normal came with the sudden demand of working from home, no one stopped to think how it would play out. There are numerous limitations with working from home, some of which cannot even be tackled. To be able to work from home already means that you belong to the upper strata of society. Covid-19 increased and strengthened the differences between the population of have and have nots (terminology given by Karl Marx).
If you are sitting in your home, in your personal room, and reading this article through your personal electronic device which has access to high-speed internet, then working from home becomes easier for you compared to others.
Also Read: Covid in Sociological Perspective