Looking over Your Shoulder: Embodied Responses to Contamination in the Emotional Dirty Work of Prison Officers

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Fear of contamination is central to our thinking about ‘dirty work’, that is, tasks and occupations that carry a stigma due to being perceived as having degrading, disgusting, or immoral qualities. However, most existing literature focuses on the symbolic dimension of taint, particularly, dirty workers’ cognitive, ideological tactics to counter taint. While contamination has more material consequences, the processes through which it is experienced and contained in dirty work have not yet been well-explicated. Drawing on an ethnographic study of work in two Danish prisons, this article offers an opportunity to see behind the walls and gain insight into the extreme emotional dirty work of prison officers as they face burdensome emotional encounters with manipulative and intimidating inmates. As society’s agent in the containment of inmates’ emotional dirt, officers, as emotional labourers, risk contamination if they give into inmates’ pressure and manipulation and do them illicit favours. I use embodied phenomenology as an original and fertile approach to deepen the understanding of how contamination occurs in emotional dirty work and the bodily responses that workers engage in to resist it. Drawing on these findings, I extend our understanding of emotional dirty work.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHuman Relations
Issue number9
Pages (from-to)1770-1797
Number of pages28
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2022

Bibliographical note

Published online: 21. May 2021.


  • Dirty work
  • Contamination
  • Embodied phenomenology
  • Prison officers
  • Ethnography
  • Emotions

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