The Norton Slideshow Maker with Visual Sociology Exercises

Occupational Prestige in Cartoons

John Grady, Wheaton College (MA)

Introduction

Some jobs carry more prestige than others. They are the ones your parents brag about. People who have these jobs may be more eager to attend high school reunions. Not surprisingly, these occupations often require higher educational credentials and provide more lucrative salaries and other rewards. Since the late 1940s, sociologists have constructed "occupational prestige indices" based on how populations rank particular types of jobs in relationship to others and some experts have found remarkable stability in the rankings not only between different countries but also over time. According to the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), the most prestigious jobs include physicians, lawyers, college professors, chemists, dentists, and hospital administrators, to name a few. At the lower end of the scale are jobs like bartender, farm worker, janitor, telephone solicitor, and gas station attendant. Shoe shiners are at the very bottom of the list.

Another way of looking at occupational prestige is to see how popular culture imagines what a particular occupation is like for those who occupy it. Cartoons, in particular, provide a particularly illuminating lens about our attitudes toward work because they focus on those common situations in which things go ridiculously, or even terribly, awry. Unlike advertisers who portray an idealized world, cartoonists lampoon our moral foibles and pratfalls. Whether with a touch of tender amusement or in scathing disdain, cartoons enable us to contemplate unflattering or unpleasant realities from a safe emotional distance. If they are successful, they get us to chuckle at familiar misfortunes and, sometimes, even inspire us to put them up for public display on our refrigerators or at our workplaces.

Cartoonstock.com is a commercial website that markets the rights to use cartoons and other visual images for a variety of purposes. It is a repository of visual one-liners that very often wickedly exploit real-life anxieties. If we look at Cartoonstock.com, and other websites like it, as a museum and its various categories of images as special exhibits, what is revealed in looking at various occupations up and down the hierarchy of prestige as measured by NORC?

The following slide show includes a number of cartoons gleaned from Cartoonstock.com. It features cartoons that depict one of five occupations—banker, secretary, electrician, refuse collector, office cleaner—listed in order of declining prestige. According to NORC measurement, bankers have the highest status of the five, while office cleaners are at the bottom.

View the slideshow

After you view the slideshow, answer the following questions:

1. Look at the other cartoons about bankers on Cartoonstock.com. Do they raise other themes about bankers and their relationship to clients?
2. Do you think the newer term “administrative assistant” emerged because it seems more prestigious than “secretary”? Does it seem to you to be more prestigious than the more dated title for this kind of office worker?
3. Some of the cartoons of garbage collectors suggest they are something like a pariah caste of workers who have to deal with popular disdain for the work they do. What do these cartoons suggest about how these workers cope with the stigma attached to their occupation?
4. Janitors are men and often have more responsibilities than the office cleaners who are sometimes referred to as “cleaning ladies.” Is that reflected in how they are depicted in the cartoon collection?

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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.

Choose an occupation that interests you and ask permission to interview and photograph workers who do that job.  Ask them how they feel about the prestige attached to their occupation and see if their responses differ. Be sure to ask follow-up questions that will help you determine why different workers might have different feelings about the level of prestige associated with the same job. As you select your slideshow images and write your captions, be sure to consider whether your own attitudes about the occupation changed over the course of your project.