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Good People and Dirty Work

John Grady, Wheaton College (MA)

Introduction

In 1962 the distinguished sociologist Everett Hughes published “Good People and Dirty Work” in the journal Social Problems. It was based on a public lecture he had delivered at McGill University in 1948 a few years after the end of World War II in Europe. Here, in part, is what he says:

When during my 1948 visit to Germany, I became more aware of the reaction of ordinary Germans to the horrors of the concentration camps, I found myself asking not the usual question, ‘How did racial hatred rise to such a high level?’, but this one, ‘How could such dirty work be done among and, in a sense, by the millions of ordinary, civilized German people?’ Along with this came related questions. How could these millions of ordinary people live in the midst of such cruelty and murder without a general uprising against it and against the people who did it? How, once freed from the regime that did it, could they be so little concerned about it, so toughly silent about it, not only in talking with outsiders—which is easy to understand—but among themselves? How and where could there be found in a modern civilized country the several hundred thousand men and women capable of such work? How were there people so released from the inhibitions of civilized life as to be able to imagine, let alone perform, the ferocious, obscene and perverse actions which they did imagine and perform? How could they be kept at such a height of fury through years of having to see daily at close range the human wrecks they made and being often literally spattered with the filth produced and accumulated by their own actions?

You will see that there are here two orders of questions. One set concerns the good people who did not themselves do this work. The other concerns those who did do it. But the two sets are not really separate; for the crucial question concerning the good people is their relation to who did the dirty work, with a related one which asks under what circumstances good people let the others get away with such actions (Hughes, 1971, 89).

One of the most disconcerting themes in Everett Hughes’ paper is that the possibility for “dirty work” is built into the constitution of society, which consists of innumerable overlapping groups that divide the world into a tapestry of insiders and outsiders, us versus them.

Almost every group which has a specialized social function to perform is in some measure a secret society, with a body of rules developed and enforced by the members and with some power to save its members from outside punishment. And here is one of the paradoxes of social order. A society without smaller, rule-making and disciplining powers would be no society at all . . . . The problem is, then, not of trying to get rid of all the self-disciplining, protecting groups within society, but one of keeping them integrated with one another and as sensitive as can be to a public opinion which transcends them all. It is a matter of checks and balances, of what we might call the social and moral constitution of society (Hughes, 1971, 97).

In Hughes’ view, even those organizations with the most laudable purposes—e.g. churches, college honors societies, social service agencies, social movements with inclusive agendas—have the possibility, under certain circumstances, of turning into forces for cruelty and punishment. Those organizations that celebrate an “us versus them” identity—like college fraternities—for no other reason than to create an in-group are often susceptible to the gratuitous manufacture of “dirty work” of one kind or another. On the other hand, those organizations created to carry out those tasks that everyone wants done, but not do themselves—like incarcerating criminals—require constant supervision by internal authorities and independent agencies to minimize the likelihood of inhumane treatment.

Work Cited:
Hughes, Everett. 1971. “Good People and Dirty Work” The Sociological Eye, Book One. Aldine-Atherton Press: Chicago, 87-97

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After you view the slideshow, answer the following questions:

1. How could “good people” permit these kinds of things to happen? In your view, who was most responsible for this kind of conduct—those in charge or those who carried out the orders?
2. Everett Hughes argues that behavior of this sort requires the complicity of “good people” who, while finding these acts abhorrent, might accept them being done by others. Clearly, the abuse at Abu Ghraib doesn’t compare to the Holocaust, but does it count as a case of “good people” farming out “dirty work” to others more willing to execute, if not enjoy, doing it?

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Create your own slideshow:

After you view the slideshow and reflect on it, create your own, related slideshow. To focus your approach, read the paragraph below. Your instructor may ask you to e-mail a link to your slideshow, or you can print it out and hand it in.

Can you think of institutions or agencies in your community that have had to struggle with their own “dirty work,” whether it is in the “family, church, professional groups, parties and other such nuclei of spontaneous control (Hughes)?” Using press accounts, and other relevant documents, prepare a slideshow that explores a case of institutional “dirty work” that came to light in your community.  As you select your images and write your captions, think about the following questions:  What happened? Who was victimized by it? Who carried out the work? How did it come to light? Who bore responsibility beyond the direct perpetrators? Have the abuses been redressed? Has the institution been effectively reformed?