Toubiana & Ruebottom (2022). Stigma Hierarchies: The Internal Dynamics of Stigmatization in the Sex Work Occupation

Madeline Toubiana – University of Ottawa, Telfer School of Management

Trish Ruebottom – McMaster University, DeGroote School of Business

Bandita Deka Kalita – University of Alberta, Alberta School of Business

Chris Lam – University of California Irvine, UCI Paul Merage School of Business

Article link:

1-1. We want to start this interview with a first set of questions on your empirical context; you have a novel and “staggering” research setting that really stood out for us. We imagine that it was particularly intense in terms of emotional investment. How did you build trust with your informants? How did you remain objective?

Trish: Trust was a huge issue for us, and not one that we really planned for ahead of time; we went in fairly naively, I think, to the context. There was a social movement happening, and so we were just going to study it, and we didn’t really think about it. But there were a couple things that caused a problem for trust. The first is it being so stigmatized, which you would expect, but the second one is actually that they’re very distrustful of researchers because of the research that has been done in the sex industry, specifically. And that definitely we did not expect ahead of time, but the research that’s been done is so polarized, most of it’s coming from sociology or psychology, and taking a view of whether sex work is empowering or victimizing, and there’s no other option, and it comes in with an agenda and it finds what it’s looking for. So, we faced a lot of problems having people respond to us, and cold emails did not get any response. So, our first way of dealing with that was to show up, to just show up where they were going to be. And because of the social movement, we had an in. So, we could show up at protests, they’re widely advertised, mostly on twitter, and publicly available. So, we would show up and we would start marching and talking to the people we were marching with. And I don’t think anyone ever turned down an interview once we met them in person. So that was our first way in. It was definitely a slow way in though, based on waiting for protests to happen. We then would ask for connections to other people, one of the expected methodologies. But that was also slow. So then we started looking for other ways that we could engage. We created twitter accounts for ourselves, first just to follow them, but we realized that that actually gave us a bit of legitimacy, we could refer people to our twitter accounts. We created two different twitter accounts for each of the two sides of the social movement so that we could have legitimacy with each side and really start building a public presence in that way. And that seemed to help. After we did some interviews, we had people tweeting out that they did interviews and linking to us on twitter. So that definitely seemed to help give us a bit of legitimacy in the movement.

Madeline: And then I’ll just jump in to get at your second question about the remaining objective bit, because it was for this reason we had two different twitter accounts. We went into an extremely polarizing context, where the very meaning of social change is contested, and everyone has their own political point of view, so you were either on one side or the other. And that was something really clear. Even though we obviously came in with our own personal opinions about the sex industry, we really did work to try and set them aside a little bit. Or, I don’t know if we set them aside so much as we held on to them, and then separated ourselves. So that’s why we did this separate twitter thing where Trish had the pro group, I was following the abolitionist so that we could be authentic with them, in understanding their voice. We did not want to come in and impose our views on these groups on either end. First of all they wouldn’t speak to us, that would erode trust, second it would defeat the purpose of us trying to understand the industry and what the contestation was about. So it’s hard to maintain that stance when you’re doing data collection, but I think we worked hard with it, and we had to come in the end when we got to the theorizing part, we had to come together, and you know Trish had been embedded in one side of the debate, and I had been embedded in the other side of the debate and we were kind of like, “ooh, there’s some tension there.” But that balance brought us together to find a neutral voice. We really didn’t want to take a normative stance on this. We wanted to represent the voices and the true characteristics of the industry. So, I know that sometimes objectivity is not the goal, but it was important for us to gain access, to gain trust, and to truly, truly deeply understand the complexity of the contestation and stigmatization. So, it was something we constantly worked on, I would say.

Trish: Yeah, absolutely. And I don’t think we would’ve come to the same theoretical understanding if we had taken a normative stance. I think it would’ve wound up being a very different type of research.

Madeline: And who we spoke to would’ve been determined by that, because they could see that right on your face. As soon as you were showing that you were from the other side, you were shutting out the whole other side (they felt). I think you need to be able to climb the empathy wall, as Arlene Hochshild says, and truly engage with people from their perspective, and that means kind of internalizing it and working with it, but then balancing that out in the end.

1-2. Thanks. Just a real quick follow up: Trish, you said whenever you met with someone they didn’t really say no. In just that initial impression, I think a lot of students when they’re talking about reaching out to subjects they talk a lot about that first critical moment. Did you right away be upfront and say “I’m a researcher,” or did you first like get to know them as a person and as they became comfortable, you’d say “by the way I’m a researcher, I’m doing this, would you be interested in talking?”

Trish: So, in the middle of a protest, I would just walk and talk with the person I was with, but as soon as they asked any question about me—so if it was about the protest and we were just talking generally, I didn’t jump in and let them know before they spoke. But as soon as they asked anything about me or my participation, I would let them know I was a researcher. Because there were so many strong opinions about researchers specifically, it was important to not seem like I was hiding that fact. So, I definitely put it up front as soon as it could fit naturally into the conversation.

2. Staying on the topic of empirics, our next question is, how did you come up with the term stealth organizing? How did it emerge from your data, and did you face any resistance from reviewers on this construct? Would you like to highlight some particular challenges/opportunities that emerged from the review process of this paper?

Madeline: So, the term stealth organizing came up for us very inductively from the data—which included the experiences that our informants shared as well as our own observations of the way in which they interacted with others. Trish just mentioned about how us getting involved in the field was through various different observations, attending things, being present. We went on Twitter, we were watching people interact with each other, and by doing so we picked up our hunch about stealth organizing through our observations first. Then this was kind of confirmed when we were on this journey in the second project, trying to make sense of the intensity of internal stigmatization that was happening within the occupation. This was something we didn’t expect. We expected what the literature said—that the stigmatized were going to rely on each other for social support. What we found was that often they did not because of fear of stigmatization, and yet they were still seeking community, so they had to be careful and figure out who could be their community supports.

This idea of stealth organizing was one of the things that kept coming up naturally in the interviews, but was not what we had set out to study. As you probably heard us all the way up to now we thought we were doing a social change-social movement kind of story. That’s how we had set it up, that’s why we did the Twitter account etc. That wasn’t what this paper turned out to be, because this paper came really out of our data and our observations. So, in that sense stealth organizing was conceptualized based on the fact that our informants were talking about how hard it was to find community, and to do so safely. The reviewers liked the idea of stealth organizing right out of the gate, but we were pushed and challenged on some other dimensions.

Trish: The first challenge was around the framing and really figuring out what this was a case of, where the contribution was, and narrowing it all down to that contribution. When we first started, we were broader. We were trying to explain the biggest phenomenon in the world (laughs), and the review process helped us continuously narrow it down until it was something a little more solid—that is, until we could show a really strong match between our data and an actual contribution in the literature. From the very beginning of the review process all the way through the many rounds, this was something that we had to keep pushing on to really get to.

The second challenging piece was the social change bit at the end, and its place in the paper. It had a very prominent place in our minds in how we were telling this story, because we started out studying a social movement. This aspect went back and forth through the review process as well.

Madeline: Yeah. We started wanting to explain disconnected workers. Because a lot of these sex workers were not connected. And we were thinking about the broader gig economy, and you know, we perhaps tried to reach out too far. We got a little bit away from our data, so the review process pushed us back to what we can uniquely say. And then, of course, we had some of the classic things which are–push your theorizing further, explain the mechanisms. The reviewers liked the stigma hierarchies right off the bat! But they wanted more nuance, more depth, and that made us keep going back to revisiting the interviews. How exactly were they constructing hierarchies? What were the dimensions of stigma? Those were like the smaller things that we were working on to make sense of things.

3. This paper is so well written. It is rare to see such rich qualitative data being told so crisply with little use of aids such as tables and figures. Do you have any words of wisdom for PhD students in this regard? How to balance tables and figures with the rest of the data.

Madeline: I think the templates that have gone around for qualitative work for some time such as standardized tables, typical figures, classic ways of coding diagrams, all can have really valuable functions, I know both of us have used them multiple times in other papers. But what ASQ specifically also allows you to do is to really have your own voice. I will say we made tables and figures, we did, we were trying to make sense of this story in a figure for a long time, especially because Trish loves models, she thinks in models, and I don’t, and I always feel like I get forced into a model. But this one we couldn’t fit, we couldn’t get the complexity in there in the right way. And the reviewers and our editors, especially Mike Pratt, in the end allowed us to do it without it. And I think that made the paper better, because we could allow tell our story and characterize the complexity the way it truly was. This isn’t just like a typical arrows and box way of things, there’s so much complexity going on, that we couldn’t capture effectively in a simple model. And not having a model I think makes the paper in this case better, it doesn’t always. And I think when you have really rich data in the text, and you have the space to do that, because ASQ really gives you space, right, they give you longer length than many other journals, then you can include that data richness right in the text, and you don’t need those supportive tables as much as you do when you have really short page limitation. So I credit our ability to write the paper as we did in the end to our editor and ASQ.

Trish: I always do figures, I start anything I’m working on with figures, but I do think sometimes in the end, they don’t add value. So I need them to be able to structure the paper myself, in my own way, but sometimes when you get to the end, the story works without it. I think we need to be able to have that flexibility.

I would say particularly for PhD students just starting out that trying out the templates is important, and showing lots of data, whether that’s in data tables or in the text, is really, really important in the early rounds. So, starting with lots of data and starting with a very clear way of presenting it, whether that’s a figure or whatever it needs to be, is really important in the first round. And then you have the guidance of the review team, and they’ve bought into the amount of data you have, the clarity around everything, and then you can decide what’s needed and what’s not as you go. But I do think it is risky to start without it, because it’s such an expectation.

Madeline: I totally agree. I do think though that if your model is adding value, you should add it in early, but you can weaken an early draft by having a bad model; it sets your reviewers off. So I think you can submit without a model. The data tables, however, I think that is more risky to do without right away. I think you need to show how rigorous your data collection was, you need to show trustworthiness, so I think doing everything to communicate clearly your methods and data is important. I think there might be a little more flexibility in regards to where the model comes in or out in a version.

4. We will move on to our next set of questions, which are more general in nature and the first question is based on the observation that both of you have worked together on some really fascinating projects. So, we would first like to ask how you became collaborators on this particular project. Would you like to give some advice to Phd students on the topics of co-authorship and collaborations?

Madeline: Trish and I call each other academic soul mates. We work really, really well together. It brings us a lot of joy, and it pushes all of our projects further. In this project, our collaboration started when Trish reached out to me. We were both doing our PhD in the same institution, and had taken one class together. We were in different fields. When I joined Trish’s project at that time, we kind of knew right away that we enjoyed working with each other. We had similar interest in social change. We both had started out interested in social entrepreneurship, but had broadened beyond that. Since then it’s just been really fabulous, and I think that’s the piece of advice I’d give about co-authorships: it shouldn’t be painful, but should be pleasurable. If it is painful, it’s probably not the right partnership. I would also say we tend to reach out to senior mentors, and that’s important as it helps us build our skills as we learn from senior scholars. But we also can bring each other up when we work with our peers. Trish and I were pretty much the same stage and we’ve learned a lot from each other, doing it together because we’re both equally invested. And so, there is something that I think gets overseen a little bit about peer-to-peer collaborations with people at the same career stage in the beginning. Since you both have the same career stakes, you’re both equally invested and can put in the effort to just work through. It is also important to realize that people have different work styles. You can love somebody, they can be your best friend, yet you do not just have the same work pattern. And so, finding that out is, I think, a recipe for successful co-authorship.

Trish: Yeah, I’ll just to add to that. I think it’s easy when you have a first conversation with someone to get carried away, because you both like an idea. But there’s such another important side to it. And that’s how you’re going to work together. You don’t really have a way of testing that side without just jumping in. But it’s one of the trickiest things to navigate, and there’s so many different ways of working that people have, that I don’t think we really always talk about or put into words, we just work the way we work. Although it’s not really a spoken thing, it really impacts the collaborations. Many people can work in the same area, but in quite different ways, or just don’t communicate effectively with each other. In this project Madeline and I debated things pretty aggressively at times, because we needed to sort through them, and at certain points we had very different opinions, particularly when you have reviewer feedback, and you both have a different idea on what you really think is going to make or break the review. To be able to have those debates but have them be constructive, is a really particular type of collaboration, and a really, really important one to try to find.

5. You both have shared interests in social change. What do you think draws you to topics like these?

Madeline: We’re both interested in social change. We’re both interested in processes of social change, so that means I’m drawn to things that matter, I’m drawn to problems that I feel like aren’t being solved. What I was observing when I was engaging with the literature and our theories is that, in the past, a lot of our theories are built off of similar contexts. We look at certain types of organizations, we look at certain types of people. I am became interested in those people that have been left out of the conversation, the organizations that have been left out… To me they often are where (or why) social change is needed, but also what can better our theories. Many of our theories have been so narrow– they are rich, absolutely, but missing depth by not having included many of the more “extreme” cases. If we really want to understand social change, if we really want to move the needle and tackle the grand challenges we’re facing, because they’re grand, we need to broaden the scope. So, I think we’re interested in the unusual because we have a belief that that’s what can actually make a difference to the way we think about things.

Trish: I would agree with all of that. Madeline mentioned that we had both been interested in social entrepreneurship before this, and we still are. I had been working on a project on social entrepreneurship and thinking of it in terms of legitimacy, and it had me thinking about all those things that are illegitimate. Because social entrepreneurship, as much as it doesn’t have the standard legitimacy and has a whole bunch of legitimacy challenges, it still has legitimacy. Whereas there’s so many different things that don’t have legitimacy, but continue to exist. And then obviously, reading the stigma literature around the same time and it was really emerging, and so putting all those pieces together, the sex industry was the perfect context to address those things. When I was talking about the project with Madeline, she just jumped on it and said, “I want in!” Because of everything she said: we’re interested in social change, and it’s such a neglected area of social change.

Madeline: I think in both of our cases, where you start isn’t where you end. And what’s really interesting is our research/career trajectories. We don’t have time to tell the full narratives of our journeys, but you start with a research question, and we both started out in a similar place around the tensions in social entrepreneurship. For me it was the weird combining of the logics, for Trish it was the legitimacy thing, but if you follow your nose around particular problems you reveal other ones, and the other problems get interesting and so what seems like a disjointed journey is this path you’re following that’s connected to the deep puzzles and concerns we have.

6. Finding out that groups really struggle with this problem such that they have to resort to this stealth organizing because there’s these stigma hierarchies—this was obviously not something that you expect. But at the same time, it’s so fascinating and meaningful that you’ve found this kind of problem. Please share your reflections on this aspect of qualitative research.

Madeline: That’s a tough question to answer. I think you know you’ve done something important when you figure that out. I think that’s you’re a-ha moment, a lot of time in your review process, you get, “what is your big a-ha? I think when you start to get this feeling in your gut, like “Oh!” I think we can get better at doing something about that and trying to make changes themselves, I think that’s something we’re thinking about now more as we’re writing a book out of this topic and we’re doing tedX talks and doing more engagement now as we’re trying to make sense out of all of this. Those issues, they can be a heavy thing to carry. I had similar sentiments when I was studying the prison industry and I found all of the work that people were doing were having counterintuitive effects, and you’re like “Oh,” this is theoretically interesting but practically really upsetting. And it leads you in this weird tension and I think what we’ve been trying to do, and I hope I get better at it, is do something with that beyond our one piece, which I didn’t quite get to do with my prison paper, but in this one I think we’re trying to do that.

Trish: I think you have to be able to segment things, and say “This is what this paper can get to,” It’s not necessarily a comfortable place, it’s a little depressing about the state of things, but there’s other avenues for thinking about what else we can do and trying to push down those paths and make time for those paths, because time is the thing that we never seem to have. There’s always this pressure to push on to the next project so that you have more academic papers coming out, but really making the time to do that practical engagement after is really important. And thinking, especially when you work with marginalized communities, thinking about how you’re giving back to them. The sex workers were very vocal about that, they told us that in our interviews that we’re going to get tenure out of these papers, and what are they going to get? Stigmatized. And they were quite angry about it. I think that brought attention to it, because they were so aware of it and so vocal about it, and willing to be mad about it in an interview with us. That also was awkward and uncomfortable as a researcher to be very aware of your privilege and what you’re getting out of this research with marginalized people. But I think then it gives you that impetus to really think about what you’re doing to give back and how. And there’s a lot of different ways that that can happen. For sex workers who are taking time out of their day, we were paying them, and paying them more than some interviews would because we’re asking them to take an hour out of their work day. There were other types of engagement, donations to the non-profit groups, and then now we’re starting to turn to the book, and that hopefully will be for a more mainstream audience and be able to build awareness of these different issues.

7. We are curious to know from you if there are any other methods that you’d want to see applied to such processes or to issues pertaining to social change and stigmatized contexts in particular.

Trish: That’s something we’ve been thinking a lot about, partly as we’re wrapping up this, partly as we’re thinking about new projects that we want to engage in, and then doing some of the reading that we’ve been doing. One of the things that we’ve started to see in our fields is in-depth ethnographies where people are really engaged in the context. And so I’m thinking of work by Mark De Rond on enactive ethnographies, rowing the Amazon in particular, where he talks about carnal sociology and enactive ethnographies described by Loic Wacquant. He really is bringing up sort of this embodied way of gathering data. And thinking about the project that we just finished, there were so many limitations, so many ways we couldn’t engage in this context, obviously, but there was so much they were telling us about the embodied nature of this work. So, going forward, it’s something that we’re really thinking about when we’re looking at methodologies. And I think it’s something that could really add a whole other side to our field that we haven’t really explored yet.

Madeline: Yeah, and the and the last thing I’d add to that is, I think it even loops back to the last question you asked. In moving away from exploitive methodologies where you’re only “taking,” my student, Teddy Carter, sent me this Indigenous methodology that’s called “standing with.” and I think that kind of methodology can take place when you’re engaging in more than enactive ethnography, when you’re embodying it. When you’re taking part, and so I see that as an important shift that I hope to make in my work when I can.

8. Our final couple of questions pertain to theoretical insight generation–which for us stood out as one of the highlights of your fascinating work. You mention in the paper that the theoretical insight of stigma hierarchies within occupations was birthed from the idea of “whorearchy”—a term used by your informants. We would love to get your thoughts on a core element undergirding the qualitative process – the balancing of empirical findings with theoretical contributions.

Madeline: You’ve touched on the crux of the challenge with qualitative work, we talk about these cycles of framing—what is always, always about the data and the contribution. I think staying close to your data is critical. That whorearchy comment, we pivoted around it, we never expected that, and it brought our attention to this phenomenon. But at the same time, one of the things we were doing was researching a very unconventional context. If we’re going to do that, we need to have a mainstream theoretical contribution at the same time. There’s this constant dance between your data and where you can really uniquely make a contribution. It happened to be that both of us had an awareness of the stigmatization literature, and as we started to hear this term whorearchy it went counter to our assumptions from what we expected in that literature. So that turned us toward that story. It’s about being open to those twists and turns to really know where it is and be willing to go deep into a new theoretical direction. But at the same time, and this is the tricky part, you have to have a sense of some literatures in order to even pick up on what’s the unusual hunch in the process. Because if neither of us had happened to be engaged with stigma literature at all, we might have not even thought that was unusual. We’re not proposing the tabula rasa in this sense. It’s much more knowing some literatures, knowing some problems, and then using these contexts to help us make sense of them in some way. But at the same time, really staying true to your data. Because the more you try to stretch it, you always get called out.

Trish: It’s a balancing act. I think the reviewers in our case really helped us find that balance. We were really lucky, our editor and reviewers were really developmental in that sense. They gave us the chance, over and over again, to refine it and get closer and closer, to rebalance it over and over again, because it kept getting out of balance. Having that support of the reviewer team to help you figure out how and where to be balancing, and to point out when it’s unbalanced but give you a chance to fix it, was really critical for us.

Madeline: Our editor was really fabulous. We had a really good experience.

9. Our final question is, could you reflect on the theoretical insights that you gleaned from the sex work study? Particularly, what are your thoughts about stigmatization within the sex work occupation versus stigmatization in other fields? Additionally, if there were no page limitations, what else would you have added to your findings or contributions?

Madeline: In terms of making sense of this occupation versus other stigmatized contexts, this is where I was really surprised and happy about the implications for our paper. For example, throughout the stigma literature, there’s really this idea about two distinctly separate groups: the stigmatizer and the stigmatized, and that once you’re the stigmatized, you’re all and one for each other. The reality is, that was not the case in the industry and the occupation we were talking about. But that’s also not the case in a lot of places. There is already a call around the broader stigma literature to stop ignoring audiences. However, audiences can also be the stigmatized themselves, and it may not just be about how they are perceiving stigma, but also how they’re manifesting it in their interactions. I really think a lot of this applies to most stigmatized occupations and industries. As we presented this work in different contexts, or we’re playing with ideas, we kept hearing that as well. “This happens in this field; This happens in in the police force; This happens here.” So, I think that a lot of what we talk about in the paper really has transferability to other stigmatized fields. Now how they respond to stigmatization, I think, is where we might be able to see differences across contexts, and that’s something that we need to explore as people face different degrees and types of stigma. We were just presenting in the Spring Institute for Disabilities and Marginalization, and people were talking about disability communities and how they have different types and hierarchies within that context as well. This is an example of how there is insider information that we need to “see” things. This kind of goes to our point about the other types of methodologies, about really being enactive, being standing with, being inside the communities that you’re studying.

Trish: One of the things that we didn’t go into it as much as we maybe could have or would have wanted to is that end piece about social change and the social movement. That was one of the places that went back and forth through the review process. We’d add more, and they’d say “No, it’s veering off the research question!” So, we’d take it out, and they’d say, “Wait! But now you have no implications.” So, we put it back in, and we went back and forth in a much more explicit way than normal. I think where we ended up was good, given our research question, and the fact that we did have to write it within the size of a paper. But, there was so much more in that process that we could have gone into depth on, if we hadn’t already spent the whole beginning of the findings going into the stigma hierarchy. So, that was a piece that we really had to keep tight and very tied to the research question, and we didn’t get to delve into the whole dynamics. It could be a whole process in and of itself that we really couldn’t get into. We could just touch on it as the key implication coming out of this whole process.

Interviewer bio:

Bandita Deka Kalita‘s research is driven by a broad interest in organizations and the institutional contexts that influence them. She is currently studying about the oil and gas sector of Alberta, a setting that allows her to investigate, against the backdrop of a plethora of stakeholder organizations of varying forms and constitutions, the emergence and transformation of institutional logics – a puzzle that intrigues her.

Chris Lam became a PhD student in Organization and Management at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business in 2020. He received a Bachelor of Business Administration from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in 2017, concentrating in Organization and Management. After graduation, he worked as a Workday consultant at Alight Solutions for three years, leaving as a senior consultant in 2020. His current research stems from his workforce experience in Atlanta in the wake of the 2016 election, centering around the study of political minorities in the workplace at the intersection of company culture, diversity & inclusion and stigmatization.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: