The notion that hard work pays off continuously spews from the mouths of authority figures to trusting ears, eager for guidance toward success. This advice is valuable in that it offers a crucial attribute that is admirable in almost any setting, but it fails to recognize an essential factor related to the success of each individual, the preexisting circumstances that may make “success” for one much more challenging than “success” for another. A person’s social class in which they are born to can powerfully influence an abundance of their opportunities, choices, and resources.
This photograph, taken on a quiet street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, seems to dissect this common notion of “hard work”, questioning what the phrase means relative to our society. It is clear that with this man’s physical labor in the heat of the afternoon he is working hard, but has his “hard work” placed him in an advantageous position in his career, class, and society as a whole? As Bottero (2013) suggests, educational opportunities, which are often reliant on one’s social background, highly influence a person’s career or occupation. These influences are present in forms of both structural forces and agential powers. Is this man sweeping the street because he feels it is a practical and purposeful job? Or, did his accumulated resources provide little choice beyond manual labor in pursuit of financial stability? Domecka (2013) presents this analysis as a battle between structural influence and individual agency, which weighs heavily and often ignorantly on the journey to and success of one’s career. In my analysis of this photograph, however, it is important to not deem this man’s work to be of low importance as is often done by “successful” business workers, company CEOs, or any profession that our society considers more impressive, reflected comparatively by variation in income. As suggested by Mackinnon (1994), our constructed occupational hierarchy can provide individuals with greater occupation prestige, and possibly a greater self-worth in society, often rooted in structural forces that happened to be in their favor. As we have socially constructed this occupational hierarchy, a person’s success is often dependent on whether their working contribution fits the outlined expectations that we have designed to define “success”.
When observing the 2000 Census data from Puerto Rico in an analysis by Denton (2007), income trumps race in the segregation of the Puerto Rican population residing on the island. The sheer distance of this man to what appears to be upper-class society members in the background visually support the suggested segregation of the Census data. The individual in the distance, possibly returning to his home in a building on this street, seems almost purposefully unaware of this man’s labor as he works with scattered broken tools that do not seem entirely fit for his attempted task. The people living in the surrounding beautifully constructed homes and apartments are reliant on this man for the cleanliness and upkeep of their street, allowing them safe transportation and movement. Ironically, as his physical labor presents this upper-class population with physical mobility, the process of their disdainful income-based segregation will strictly limit this man’s social mobility and social equality.
Bottero, Wendy. “Social Class Structures and Social Mobility: the Background Context.” Social Class in Later Life: Power, Identity and Lifestyle, edited by Marvin Formosa and Paul Higgs, Policy Press at the University of Bristol, Bristol, UK; Chicago, IL, USA, 2013, pp. 15–32. November 27, 2017.
Denton, Nancy A., and Jacqueline Villarrubia. “Residential Segregation on the Island: The Role of Race and Class in Puerto Rican Neighborhoods.” Sociological Forum, vol. 22, no. 1, 2007, pp. 51–76. November 27, 2017.
Domecka, Markieta. “Linking Structural and Agential Powers: A Realist Approach to Biographies, Careers and
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