by Kieran Healy on October 30, 2005

I just finished reading Doormen, by Peter Bearman. It’s a study of the residential doormen who work in the building’s of New York’s Upper West and East sides. A fairly restricted topic, to be sure, but the book is a small gem: the kind of sociology that takes a particular job and investigates it in a way that derives quite general lessons even as it delves into the specifics.

Appropriately, Doormen was featured in the New Yorker recently, though the article didn’t convey the flavor of the book all that well. To get a better sense of it, you can read an excerpt from the chapter about the twists and turns surrounding the all-important Christmas bonus. In Micromotives and Macrobehavior, Thomas Schelling remarks that “not all ellipses are circles,” meaning that not all systems of interdependent, decentralized interaction are markets. He uses the example of people trapped in a cycle of Christmas-card sending. Figuring out the bonus is one of life’s ellipses, too, though a more complex one:

The optimal position for each tenant in the bonus sweepstakes is right at the top of the pile, but within close range of the others’. Little is gained from being in the middle; aside from avoidance of the bottom. The bottom quartile of the distribution is obviously exactly where tenants do not want to find themselves. The dilemma is that it is impossible to know how to position oneself without learning about the expected behavior of the other tenants. And this is why, around Thanksgiving, tenants start to position themselves to learn what their fellow tenants are intending to do. Eventually, they will have to start talking.

The chapter on the bonus is actually somewhat different from the rest of the book. The central problem there is explicitly one of strategic choice and information, something that rational choice theory has a lot of good things to say about. Other chapters deal with things like how doormen become doormen in the first place; the management of interpersonal closeness and distance that comes with the job; the everyday management of the lobby; the way that doormen take care to manage the preferences of tenants; and the emergence of more or less discriminatory behavior when it comes to admitting people to the building.

A book about these kinds of topics has the potential to be trivial. Many an intensive case-study has perished on the presumption (as opposed to the demonstration) that everyone should be as interested as the author is in the lives of car salesmen or online gamers or fishermen or what have you. The trick is to show not just what’s interesting in particular about such cases, but what’s interesting in general. Bearman has a real knack for doing this. Two intuitions underly his approach. The first is that, while social life is messy and social settings are astonishingly varied, the number of really distinctive kinds of viable interaction is much smaller. The second is that by closely examining the right kind of setting, we can reveal some general features of both individual or local experience and broader social structures. We can also close the gap between the two:

Settings are the interfaces for multiple views conceived here … as the “underside,” where views of lived experience and cognition percolate up to discourse and are relative to self and others (as in interviews), and the “upper side,” wherein lie systematic processes, dynamics, and flows that give rise to structures not necessarily observed or theorized by those who live an work in the setting.

Settings that act as the interface between different structures, identities or environments are also the ones that require the most work. They are prone to bumpiness or friction. Things often don’t go right, in part because one or both parties may be trying to figure out how things are supposed to be going. It in these situations that we’re most likely to observe the techniques people use to “jointly construct a workable social world,” in Bearman’s phrase. The book’s subject matter is therefore its own metaphor: Bearman opens the door to everyday interfaces between inside and outside, friends and strangers, public and private higher status and lower status, frontstage and backstage, personal and professional.

So, for example, getting a job as a Doorman is hard. Next to impossible, in fact. Yet most Doormen say they got their jobs quite easily, often through some chance encounter. This is because it’s a pretty good job, and so referrals to vacancies happen through networks. It’s the flip-side of the market for lemons: “Only bad cars and bad apartments need to look for people to fill them. The same is true for jobs. If the job is good, employers can be choosy … the best applicants come to them already tied to someone they know (or someone whom they know knows).” Bearman offers a nice twist on this connection between within-network transactions and the market for lemons. Friendship networks are not just conduits of opportunities for exchange: their structure can itself be thought of as reflecting a lemonish (lemony?) process:

The market for new friends also tends to produce contact with “lemons,” and consequently the common experience is that the first friendships one makes in a new community tend to be short-lived. … Think about the people who have time to meet new people. The less interesting and nice they are, the less likely they are to have friends. Since they have few friends, they have more spare time. … just like cars and apartments, these “lemon” friends tend to circulate rapidly … One of the ironies of friend markets is that while the “lemon” friends could find each other and become friends, their characteristics … are especially unappealing to other boring and intolerant people. So while they meet, they avoid each other.

Back in the labor market, the result of within-network hiring is that, at the individual level, a rhetoric of chance explains how you came to be where you are:

[Chance] provides the main rhetorical device through which doormen describe how they got their job. … These just-so stories are necessarily idiosyncratic. Left out of these accounts are the larger social processes that make “chance” systematically possible.

This has consequences for both the “upper” and the “under” side:

One of these larger social processes is “the strength of weak ties” model, operating beyond the level of individuals and structuring individual experience in such a way as to induce narratives of chance … Critically important is the social structuring of social relationships along the fault lines of race and ethnicity. The fact of social structure act as a channel for information and trust, making opportunities available for some while blocking opportunities for others.

Thus, while the background of the staff in a building might vary, it is also circumscribed:

Sebastian, a doorman who has worked in Midtown on the East Side for seven years, describes his coworkers as “a little bit of everything. Jamaican, Trinidad, Peru.” This is a little bit of everything within the scope of the Monroe Doctrine.

The book is filled with examples of what you might call double-edged social processes: opposing tendencies that not only appear together, but in some sense depend upon or induce each other. Social settings are full of antinomies. Some of them are manifested in the experience of the job. For instance, being a doorman is experienced as being boring and stressful at the same time. Or again, most of the time tenants see doormen apparently sitting around doing nothing, but when they need something the doorman will often be busy with two or three other tenants. Bearman provides a nice analysis—in terms of server/client systems and the dynamics of queueing—that explains this. Other seeming paradoxes have to do with the link between individual action and the social structure: doormen generally don’t have racist beliefs, but because their tenants are disproportionately white, and white people tend to have many more white than black friends, black visitors to the building will be checked or questioned more often than white visitors. The result is that the same black individual visiting friends in different buildings will feel that they are stopped or questioned too often, while the doormen will not see themselves as doing anything wrong. And yet others represent the tension between instrumental and substantive rationality bubbling up in unexpected places. For example, to be a professional should mean treating clients in an even-handed and detached way; not playing favorites. But Doormen who are too even-handed with tenants will seem uninformed, or sticklers for the rules. To really do their job well, they must make discriminating judgments between tenants, learning what each likes and dislikes: and so particularism returns, even though professionalism is supposed to be characterized by its absence. The point generalizes to any number of occupations.

Arthur Stinchcombe blurbs Doormen by comparing it to the work of Erving Goffman. But I think that the real spirit behind the book is not Goffman but Georg Simmel. In his analyses of “social forms” like the stranger, or fashion, or metropolitan life in general, Simmel picks out just the kind of double-edged effects that Bearman repeatedly focuses on. Fashion is what we do to make ourselves different from the mass, Simmel argues, yet it induces fads and conformity. As societies differentiate, the people in them become more different from one another but the societies themselves start to look more alike. The stranger is an unknown quantity, but familiar to all the locals in just that capacity, and so on. Thinking about social structure in terms of these kinds of dualities is enormously appealing. There’s something of it in each of the grand traditions of social theory: Marx gives us the image of capitalism digging its own grave. Smith shows us how the apparent contradiction between disaggregated self-interest and co-ordinated growth is resolved by the invisible hand. Durkheim presents the modern individual emerging purely as a function of a specific kind of social structure, a by-product of the division of labor. But each of these writers are looking at very large-scale, macro-level processes. Of the classical theorists, only Simmel repeatedly brings this kind of insight to the middle-range and small-scale of social life, multiplying particular examples of social settings where opposite tendencies are held in tension with one another. Appropriately, even here there’s a double-edge, as Simmel’s very specific examples (of particular network dyads and triads, works of art, prostitutes, or the nobility) are also intended to be very abstract and general social forms found everywhere.

Bearman brings exactly this sensibility to his topic. He adds a careful approach to research design (the combination of a good sample survey and detailed observations and interviews is very effective), and the tools and concepts of modern social network theory. He also has a very good line in footnotes:

Dog walkers in the city can make relatively significant money … If they take six dogs out for one hour, they pull in roughly $120. … this translates, over the course of a forty-week year (many dogs go away for the summer), to over $50,000, or roughly $65,000 taxable income. Not bad, for an academic year, and certainly better than most doormen, not counting the absence of benefits and job security, and the fact that they have to pick up an amazing amount of shit.

All in all, well worth your time to read. Especially if you need to give your Doorman a bonus in the near future.



Dan Nexon 10.30.05 at 3:27 pm

“Settings that act as the interface between different structures, identities or environments are also the ones that require the most work. They are prone to bumpiness or friction.”

He may be channeling Simmel (aren’t most social-theoretically sophisticated network theorists?), but Peter sounds here very much like Harrison White (e.g., Identity and Control).


Kieran Healy 10.30.05 at 3:49 pm

Yeah, very much so. In fact, White was his PhD advisor. I had a paragraph in there about White’s approach and how Bearman reflects it, but the post was getting a bit long.


Fabio rojas 10.30.05 at 4:14 pm

Nice job on the review! I had heard about this project and it’s great to see the final product. It sounds like a great book to teach undergraduates, especially if your teaching approach focuses on interactionism.

Also, one of these days, someone ought to write a peice tracing White’s influence through his student. It’s my sense that his direct influence is mainly from those block modelling papers, but his indirect influence comes from his students who decoded books like identity and control into more easily digestible pieces.

Maybe the “school of White” would include White, Boorman, Brieger, Bearman, Gibson, Bothner, and Bearman’s students (Stovel, Moody, Bruekner, Adam). It was once said that your followers reflect the quality of your work, and it seems Harrison white stands up pretty well.


a 10.30.05 at 4:54 pm

“… this translates, over the course of a forty-week year (many dogs go away for the summer), to over $50,000, or roughly $65,000 taxable income…”

I guess that is supposed to mean “$50,000 unreported income on which taxes should be but are not paid, which is equivalent to $65,000 income once taxes are paid.” Money from walking dogs is supposed to be reported as income just like any other income.


Adam Kotsko 10.30.05 at 5:35 pm

I’m good with dogs! Do I need to be part of some kind of social network to get a dog-walking job? I wouldn’t mind avoiding taxes, because the government only ever does stupid stuff like murdering thousands of Iraqis with the money I send them.


Cranky Observer 10.30.05 at 5:48 pm

It always amazes me how many detailed sociological studies can be done of things which exist only in New York City. Other than a very very few ultra-wealthy condos, the NYC-style doorman disappeared from the rest of the country no later than 1929, and often much earlier. Do people in NYC even realize this?



djw 10.30.05 at 6:05 pm

Wonderful review, thanks. If you, or someone, could say something about Simmel’s status in sociology today, or direct me somewhere to find out about it. Do sociology grad students have to learn him well, as they do with Durkheim/Marx/Weber? Are there prominent sociologists who are considered Simmelian in their approach?


Daniel 10.30.05 at 6:26 pm

Hang on … 6x7x120x40 = 201600. This dog-walker is doing three of these one-hour/six-dog outings a day; I suspect it would be difficult to sustain that many clients.


Seth Edenbaum 10.30.05 at 6:35 pm

The best way to remain on good terms with a doorman would be to actually spend some of your off hours in the basement.

And this:
“Sebastian, a doorman who has worked in Midtown on the East Side for seven years, describes his coworkers as “a little bit of everything. Jamaican, Trinidad, Peru.” This is a little bit of everything within the scope of the Monroe Doctrine.”

Not so simple.

I’ve been riding in service elevators in Manhattan- I’m a carpenter/plasterer/construction mechanic- for the last 25 years. On Park and 5th until recently at least, preferably white in the front (often Irish) niggers in the back. 95th and Park last year?: Russian, Romanian and Trini. A lot of Poles as well.
And as you’d expect there’s a racial difference between west and east. McGeorge Bundy’s building, white. Al Franken’s building mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican.
Franken gets good marks from the help, but his wife gets raves. Same with Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson (same building)
The wives are loved.

A book I’d love to read:
Status Seeking and Philosophical Naturalism: a study of modern academic life


Kieran Healy 10.30.05 at 7:22 pm

If you, or someone, could say something about Simmel’s status in sociology today, or direct me somewhere to find out about it. Do sociology grad students have to learn him well, as they do with Durkheim/Marx/Weber?

They do in my class! And in many others, too. I’d say his stock has been on the rise since the late 1980s.

Are there prominent sociologists who are considered Simmelian in their approach?

Sure. At least three quite different styles of sociology trace themselves at least in part to him. One is a tradition of small-group research on the structure of dyads and triads, etc. A second is a (mostly British) line of cultural analysis that takes Simmel’s writings on the city and individual identity as foundational. And a third is a branch of modern social network theory, of which my colleague “Ron Breiger”: is a leading exponent. His classic paper on The Duality of Persons and Groups (JSTOR link; summary here) takes its inspiration from Simmel.


david 10.30.05 at 7:41 pm

Summary link broken.


Kieran Healy 10.30.05 at 7:51 pm

Fixed now.


Dan Nexon 10.30.05 at 8:13 pm

My sociological knowledge is scatter-shot at best, but I think Kieran forgot to mention conflict theory, which was once a major alternative to Parsonsian structural functionalism; conflict theorists were influenced by Simmel. Simmel was attractive to the anti-Parsons crowd not only because of his emphasis on conflict and contradiction in local interactions, but because Parsons left him out of the “canon” of theorists whose work supposedly culminated in the Parsonsian synthesis. Of course, DJW’s question was about “contemporary” sociology…

If one looks broadly at relational sociology, particularly in its comparative-historical variant (e.g., Tilly), I think it is fair to say that one finds basically an interesting combination of Weber and Simmel: Weberian in its approach to assessing causal processes, Simmelian in its emphasis upon recurrent forms and their related processes/dynamics.

A side note: Back when some of us in Columbia PhD program in Political Science were trying to work our way through White’s Identity and Control, one of us approached him (during a Contemporary Civilization meeting) and mentioned that he was reading the book, but was having trouble understanding it. White’s response was, IIRC, “that’s okay, I don’t think I understand it either” :-). I relied mostly on Chuck Tilly’s “skeleton key” to the book; I also tried to absorb whatever I could from the one class I took with Peter.

At one point the contentious politics seminar had a graduate student who was visiting form elsewhere and working on an analysis of White’s social theory. I wonder if that ever came to anything. Kieran, has anyone published anything like that in sociology? Anyway, Fascinating stuff.


djw 10.30.05 at 8:58 pm

Kieran, Dan: Thanks. I’d never thought about Tilly that way, but it makes a lot of sense.


Kieran Healy 10.30.05 at 9:17 pm

working on an analysis of White’s social theory. I wonder if that ever came to anything. Kieran, has anyone published anything like that in sociology?

I know of a dissertation or two that could be characterized that way. (Maybe one of them is the person you knew: I think they’re Scandinavian.) I have some (very underdeveloped notes) of my own for a seminar of this sort (which I’ve never given). Maybe one day I’ll offer it — assuming I have a good enough grip on the stuff. Though there are people in my department who have a lot more expertise than me in that area…


Tom Hurka 10.30.05 at 9:45 pm

Simmel? He also wrote philosophy, and though I haven’t read any, there’s a hilarious discussion of some of it in Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil (1907), vol. 2, around pp. 104-06. No one’s going to look this up, but it just is very funny. Simmel thinks the best human life has lots of ups and downs — lots of pain as well as lots of pleasure –, is full of Taetigkeit, etc., all very Teutonic. And Rashdall, after describing it all very patiently, skewers it in a delightful and very English way. As I say, no one’s going to look this, but it’s a treat (and has Rashdall, offhand, giving, contra Wittgenstein, the correct single definition of a sport or game). Ah those Edwardians!


Kieran Healy 10.30.05 at 10:26 pm

He also wrote philosophy

He studied philosophy at Berlin, I believe, and wrote a philosophical dissertation on Yodeling. But it was rejected, so he wrote another one on Kant’s philosophy of nature instead. (This is from memory, but I’m pretty sure it’s true.)


Matt 10.30.05 at 10:56 pm

_”…wrote a philosophical dissertation on Yodeling”_

GOD DAMNIT! All of my best ideas turn out to not be original. Back to the draw board…


ben wolfson 10.30.05 at 11:11 pm

tom hurka, can you share that definition?


Tom Hurka 10.31.05 at 10:26 am

Kieran: Rashdall is discussing Simmel’s Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft of 1892, which says it’s better to have lots of pleasure and lots of pain in your life than just to have lots of pleasure.

Ben: Rashdall says that “‘sport’ has been well defined as the overcoming of difficulties simply for the sake of overcoming them.” A more elaborate development of the same idea is in Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, (1978), about to be reprinted by Broadview Press and, though little known, one of the great philosophy books of the 20th century. (Philosophers: the reprint has glowing blurbs by Simon Blackburn and Shelly Kagan.) According to Suits, a game, or the activity of playing a game, has three main elements. (1) It’s aimed a goal that can be described independently of the game, such as that a ball go into a hole in the ground or that you stand on top of a mountain. (2) It has rules that forbid to you use the most efficient means to that goal, such as carrying the ball down the fairway by hand and dropping it in the hole or taking a helicopter to the top of the mountain. And (3) in playing the game you accept the restrictions the rules impose willingly, because they make the game possible. Or, in Suits’s summary statement, playing a game is “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” (If counterexamples spring to mind, Suits discusses them all.) And it’s a hilarious book, written as a parody of a Platonic dialogue with the Grasshopper from Aesop’s fable in the role of Socrates and all sorts of wild imaginary scenarios. As Shelly and Simon say, it’s a one-of-a-kind book. And it completely puts the boot to old Wittgenstein.


Chris Bertram 10.31.05 at 10:38 am

Isn’t chess a straightforward counterexample to (1)?

BTW Rashdall gets a skewering for his appalling racism from Jeremy Waldron in his _God, Locke and Equality_ .


Tom Hurka 10.31.05 at 11:58 am

Chess is one of the first counterexamples Suits discusses. It has two kinds of rules. One determines the powers of the pieces and is used to define checkmate. The other forbids you to use the most efficient means to achieve checkmate, such as taking two turns in a row, moving your queen through other pieces, etc. So though the goal of chess is not independent of the first kind of rules, it is independent of the second kind, which are the ones mentioned in the definition. With that complication, chess absolutely fits the definition.

Yes, Rashdall made racist comments, which I’ve quoted disapprovingly myself. But it hardly follows that nothing he wrote is worth reading. If we were to dismiss every past thinker with some racist or sexist views no one would read Aristotle. But as I recall one or two people do.


Chris Bertram 10.31.05 at 12:12 pm

I wasn’t meaning to suggest that no-one should read Rashdall. Rather I was taking the opportunity to point to Waldron’s discussion – which is pretty interesting.

On games counterexamples – your rule (3) seems to fall foul of the way many players in English Premier League Football approach their task!

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