Strategic Observers Underground: How They See Trouble and What They Do Next

Harvey Molotch, Sociology, New York University

Research Grant, 2005

Following Jane Jacobs’s observations of the role of “public characters” as a mechanism for heading off city crime and street violence, we asked just how such individuals actually do their work of keeping the peace. We interviewed seventy New York City subway workers and directly observed at worksites. While not an official part of the security apparatus, such individuals—”strategic observers” in our parlance—link local scenes with more distant authority structures. Through the lens of exigencies in the work setting and anticipated organizational reaction, we asked how noticing occurs and the range of actions workers take.

Workers develop acute familiarities with their work environments—even through areas they just pass by in work tasks. In managing danger in their workplace (on trains and in stations), they respond to emergent conditions with a high degree of inventiveness, while also dealing with official organizational rules. Conductors, for example, must hold their eyes on certain prescribed spots on platforms, as per subway regulations. They do so unfailingly, our observations suggest. But they also, in the context of that constraint, inspect platforms and trains for troubles. This more informal search follows past experience (and stories from other workers) that inform them of a particular repertoire of problems likely to evolve—e.g. drunks bothering other passengers, potential suicides, rowdy teenagers crowding turnstiles in a dangerous way. Workers evaluate what they see and what they should see through these twin lenses—those of formal requirements and those of routine troubles.

Through the lens of exigencies in the work setting and anticipated organizational reaction, we asked how noticing occurs and the range of actions workers take.

Subway workers tend to operate in isolation, both from one another and also from supervisors. Although they do sometimes call for help (from police via supervisors), they do so sparingly. If they consistently called for outside help, they would overwhelm the helping system and also risk holding up the trains. There are also specific perverse incentives. Workers do not want to risk sanction for unrelated misdeeds, like wearing an unauthorized clothing item that responding authorities discover on their person. Nor do they want to risk being late getting home by having to fill in a special report. They strive to call in authorities in ways that do not interfere with the running of the trains or accomplishing other needs, some related to their personal safety and some to their job enhancement.

Linked into accomplishing all such goals is creative manipulation of workplace equipment and infrastructure, including such items as train doors, horns, and braking tools. Whatever the designated official function, workers repurpose physical equipment to protect their own bodies and to discipline unruly passengers or prod people toward appropriate behaviors.

Our findings suggest that “public characters” are linked into complex organizational contexts which structure how they see, how they evaluate, and what they do next. These contexts vary, in ways we indicate, in how they enable informal vigilance in the production of public peace and the functioning of urban infrastructure.

  1. Molotch, Harvey and Mcclain, Noah. "Things at Work: Informal social-material mechanisms for getting the job done." Journal of Consumer Culture 8.1 (2008): 35-67.

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