Flagging Standards — Globalisation and Environmental, Safety, and Labour Regulations at Sea – By Elisabeth R. DeSombre

Publication Date01 December 2008
AuthorHelen Sampson
Date01 December 2008
The Hard Sell. An Ethnographic Study of the Direct Selling Industry by John Bone.
Ashgate, Aldershot, 2006, 206 pp., ISBN 0 7546 4609 2, £55.
One immediately appealing quality of ethnographic studies like The Hard Sell is that
they can tell us interesting things that we would not otherwise have known about what
goes on in parts of our society. And the appeal is perhaps even greater if we learn some
of the ‘behind the scenes’ secrets about organizations or events that we meet as
everyday passers-by or as consumers. Most of us living in modern societies will have
seen advertisements produced by direct-selling organizations; many of us will have
been approached by direct sellers and some of us might well have bought fitted
kitchens, fitted bedrooms or double glazing from organizations like the two that John
Bone has studied. But whatever the level of our experience of such organizations, The
Hard Sell gives us fascinating — not to say shocking — insights into how they operate
and what people working for them have to do.
Bone, in breaks from his studies as a self-supporting mature student, worked as a
participant observer in what he calls ‘Mega Home Improvements’ and ‘Big Time
Products’. He characterises these as ‘Value Direct Selling Organisations’ (VDSOs).
They sell high value goods in which the seller instigates the transaction, applies a high
level of ‘direct persuasion’ and negotiates the price with the seller. The sellers are
self-employed and work on commission. Unlike with multiple retailers or ‘network’
DSOs there will be a single ‘one-off’ sale. Again unlike with network DSOs, the
VDSO sellers are largely male and they make a highly precarious living in which there
is normally no guaranteed income, little likelihood of either repeat business or a pool
of regular clients to relate to. Unless the seller can persuade buyers to make major
financial commitments, they find themselves without an income and with their own
expenses to cover. Bone sees this insecurity as a key factor in the explanation of the
tactics of ‘manipulative presentation, persuasion, evasion and concealment’ (p. 23)
used by his sellers and the way they viewed customers with an ‘unprecedented attitude
of derision and contempt...usually tinged with an element of humour’ (p. 20).
The study shows in colourful and convincing detail how these behaviours are
learned, shaped, developed, encouraged and organized by the managers, all the time
emphasizing how these organizations differ from other ones in which the researcher
has worked and has stressed, in particular, the gross divergence between what
Goffman would term their ‘virtual identity’ from their ‘actual identity’. The organi-
zations themselves were, in the researcher’s judgement, ‘characterised by short-
termism, irrational decision-making, shifting rules, and fluid organisational structures
where personalities often superseded formal positions’ (p. 17).
What we learn about these two VDSOs is invaluable — especially to anybody who
might be contemplating involvement with such enterprises, as workers or customers.
British Journal of Industrial Relations doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8543.2008.00702.x
46:4 December 2008 0007–1080 pp. 814–832
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2008. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
As with any good ethnography, we learn a great deal about activities and lives that we
would otherwise know little of. However, there is a further contribution, at the level of
theoretical generalization, which ethnographic studies can make. And the present study
is explicitly presented as a work of social science, setting out from the start to consider
‘the sociologically significant aspects of the selling practices, interaction order, internal
culture and organisational characteristics’ (p. 1) of the two home improvement com-
panies. Goffman is, again, an inspiration with his interest in ‘viewing the particular as
providing a window through which to see and understand the general’ (p. 196). Thus
the study makes effective use of social science concepts like impression management,
trust (and ontological insecurity) and emotional labour. It makes a particularly useful
contribution to the literature on emotional labour, noting that the bulk of studies in this
area tend to involve women workers. The workers here, however, are operating in a
‘predominantly masculine occupational culture’ (p. 36). In Bone’s view, these men are
involved in a ‘particularly manipulative form of emotional behaviour’ in which they
deliberately manipulate customers’ subjectivities and sentiments.
The theoretical element of the study that is much more open to challenge is that
where the author stretches his analysis, we might say, far ‘beyond his data’. He valuably
shows how the VDSOs differ quite significantly from Weber’s ideal types of rational
‘modern’ capitalism and bureaucracy. And it is equally helpful to be shown various
ways in which VDSOs style of operating reminds us of the ‘booty’ or ‘adventure’ type
of ‘irrational’ capitalism which Weber saw as historically preceding the modern form.
As Bone notes, adventure capitalism entailed profits being ‘squandered in profligate
and ostentatious living without heed to the future’ (p. 147). But while he does present
evidence of a ‘culture of excess’ in certain aspects of life in his two businesses, he does
not tell us enough about the ownership and longevity of these businesses to convince the
sceptical reader that we have anything approaching an earlier form of capitalism. We
do learn that one of the businesses had been in existence for 12 years. This seriously
diverges from any model of booty capitalism. Given the nature of the VDSO business,
one could argue that the apparent ‘irrational’ (what Weber might call ‘formally
irrational’) ways of everyday operating in the two companies do not necessarily
undermine the overall rationality (‘substantive rationality’ in Weberian terms) of these
enterprises — that is their making of long-term profits for their owners.
In spite of the reservations that need to be stated about the extent to which the
study’s evidence supports generalizations at the level of historical change, one should
perhaps not criticize the researcher too harshly. He is open that he is speculating when
he suggests that ‘the organisational ethos and practices of VDSOs may be indicative
of a wider contemporary trend within organisations and labour markets, moving
towards a de-modernised, rawer and more short-sighted and exploitative model of
capitalism and labour market relationships’ (p. 146). Nevertheless, any ethnographic
researcher risks their legitimacy with their readers as a trustworthy observer of ‘what
actually happens’ if they go too far beyond their empirically grounded account in
generalizing about societies and social change. Although Bone has taken that risk, he
has provided valuable information and insights about VDSOs. He also presents a
powerful challenge to those ethical purists who oppose any form of covert observa-
tion in social science research. Without the present covert research project, we would
know a lot less than we ought to about what is going on behind the scenes in certain
corners of modern business and working life.
Tony Watson
Nottingham University Business School
Book Reviews 815
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2008.

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