AI at Wharton
Authors: Lindsey Cameron, Curtis Chan, Michel Anteby
How do individuals react to the sudden public moralization of their work and with what consequences? Extant research has documented how public narratives can gradually moralize societal perceptions of select occupations. Yet, the implications of how workers individually respond and form self-narratives in light of—or in spite of—a sudden moralizing event remain less understood. Such an understanding is even more critical when workers are weakly socialized by their organization, a situation increasingly common today. During the COVID-19 pandemic, radically shifting public narratives suddenly transformed grocery delivery work, previously uncelebrated, into highly moralized “heroic” pursuits. Drawing on interviews (n = 75), participant artifacts (n = 85), and archival data (e.g., newspaper articles), we find that these workers (here, shoppers on the platform organization Instacart), left mainly to themselves, exhibited varying responses to this moralizing and that their perceived relations to the organization, customers, and tasks shaped these responses. Surprisingly, those who facilely adopted the hero label felt morally credentialled, and they were thus likely to minimize their extra-role helping of customers and show low commitment to the organization; in contrast, those who wrestled with the hero narrative sought to earn those moral credentials, and they were more likely to embrace extra-role helping and remain committed to moralized aspects of the work. Our study contributes to literatures on the moralization of work and narratives by explaining why some workers accept a moralized narrative and others reject or wrestle with it, documenting consequences of workers’ reactions to such narratives, and suggesting how a moralized public narrative can backfire.