“That’ll Teach You”

Nancy Marie Brown
May 01, 2001

How do you change behavior? How do you get people involved? "Just shout at them more, talk at them more, you think, and they'll see the point," says Paul Durrenberger. "But they don't."

In a study of a labor union in Chicago, anthropologist Durrenberger found that believing in the union, even identifying with it, didn't make a union steward more effective. "I measured union consciousness and union activism and found no relationship. What that tells you is that propaganda—or education, to put it more politely—is not the answer."

Union organizer gives a speech with flag

Ethnography, the science Durrenberger applies, studies people to find out not only what they do and what they think, but how it makes sense to them. Even when their practices are self-defeating, Durrenberger says, "Our assumption is that people are not crazy or stupid. You just have to figure out how to talk to them and be with them—be in their shoes—and you'll understand why they do what they do. It's the idea of just respecting people. Don't have contempt for people. Don't be arrogant and think you know anything. If you can listen—and you can do that—you will find out how it makes sense."

From Southeast Asia to Iceland, from shrimp fisheries to swine production, Durrenberger has been listening. In his latest study, he collaborated with a former student, Suzan Erem, then a union representative for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Chicago, whose members are the "invisible workers," "the people who do the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and grounds work" in hospitals, the public sector, various industries, and the building trades. Erem, as the local communications director, needed to make the International's grand plan—to recruit more members, to gain political influence—work at the local level. Members, she knew, wanted their dues money to go toward getting better contracts, with higher wages, more benefits, and better job protection. "They want the services they pay for," she wrote. How could she convince them and their stewards (who are volunteers) to work on recruiting as well?

She and Durrenberger devised a study. They measured "union consciousness" with a triads test: Given three roles in the workplace, which one is not like the other two? "If it's something people think about a lot, we can pick up a pattern," Durrenberger says. "And once you pick up a pattern, you can see how many other people share it. You can get at the map in people's minds of the conceptual distance between these things." Take the triad "supervisor, co-sorker, union rep." The three possible answers represent different ways of thinking. The "union" model picks the supervisor as most different: He or she isn't in the union. According to "hierarchy," the co-worker is lowest and so most different. The "workplace" model excludes the union rep, who works in a different location.

"The most union conscious would say, 'There's us and there's them.' They would never put 'union rep' together with 'supervisor,'" Durrenberger notes.

The stewards' activism (measured by rallies attended, grievances addressed, phone banks staffed, leaflets handed out) was not related to their "union consciousness," but to their years of experience, with the more experienced being more active. As Durrenberger wrote in another journal article, "Stewards agree that organizing everyone in their industry would help them get better contracts. They know that. But they also have to live with the reality of 'keeping the peace' at their worksites, of enforcing contracts against an often hostile management, and keeping their members from losing their jobs. That is where their energy goes." Training stewards to be better negotiators, Durrenberger suggested, might be one way of making them more active. "Teaching somebody how to do something, instead of teaching to persuade them of something, can be effective."

The union consciousness of individual members depended on their stewards' ability to stand up for workers' rights. One steward, responding to management's suggestion that her dietary workers do dishes, said, "My girls don't do pots!"—a reply like a battle cry. When the situation changed—when that steward retired and was replaced by one considered weak—the member's union consciousness also changed: "When people saw union stewards as powerful and effective, they stressed union membership," Durrenberger wrote. "A little over a year later, following the loss of all the seasoned stewards, the same triads test shows that workers see themselves closer to a more powerful management."

So how do you change someone's behavior? "By changing the realities. Changing the structures. Try to make it possible for them to be active. What are the structural constraints preventing them?" Are they holding down two jobs? Do they have a car, or does it take an hour on the bus to get to a rally? Are they exhausted at the end of the day? Who's watching the kids? "You need to examine these dimensions of people's lives and see how to make room for activism.

"What made the difference here wasn't anybody changing their minds, but a change in the everyday reality of their lives." When the power shifted on the local level, so did people's opinions of the union's entire international organization. "People's ideas changed relative to the practical reality of the workplace," Durrenberger concludes. "There was no enduring idea of the 'union.' No 'union culture.'"

It's a riddle that anthropologists have long pondered: What is the cause and what is the effect? Do people proceed "from thought to action," as one camp says, or "from structures of power and other relationships to thought"? Modern societies, with our advertising schemes and educational systems, have acted on the assumption that thought leads to action, that our culture and its values will determine how we act.

Based on his work with the union, Durrenberger isn't so sure. "I'm more and more persuaded that 'culture' is those ideas we make up along the way to explain the reality we have to deal with. If you change the realities, the minds will come—the minds will change."

E. Paul Durrenberger, Ph.D., is professor of anthropology in the College of the Liberal Arts, 318 Carpenter Bldg.; 814-863-2694; epd2@psu.edu. His studies of the Service Employees International Union in Chicago were conducted with Suzan Erem, then a union representative for SEIU Local 73 and now a freelance writer in Indiana. Their work was funded by the union.

Last Updated May 01, 2001