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Emotional baggage? Dirty occupation – Don’t taint our profession

April 11, 2014

London - Social scientists suggest that we view workers in distasteful professions who do our “dirty work” as tainted – physically, socially or morally. Now researchers have named emotion as a fourth form of dirt and explain why professions dealing with difficult or threatening emotions are stigmatised by society.

Robert McMurray, Senior Lecturer in Management at Durham University and Jenna Ward, Senior Lecturer in HRM and Organisational Behaviour at De Montford University say we are effectively outsourcing our emotional dirt, to distance ourselves and maintain order.  Their research with the Samaritans in “‘Why would you want to do that?:’ Defining emotional dirty work,” is published in the current edition of the journal Human Relations, published by SAGE.

McMurray and Ward set out to answer three key questions: is it reasonable to speak of emotional dirt? What are the sociological implications of working with the emotional dirt of others in terms of taint? And if doing emotional dirty work leaves you ‘tainted,’ then, “why would you want to do that?”

Other “dirty” occupations might include meat cutters, janitors, sex workers or abortion clinic nurses. A common reaction to these occupations is repulsion. Samaritans typically field calls about mental health issues, self-harm, sexual abuse, relationship concerns, loneliness, sadness, and suicide. In the case of callers whose emotional outbursts led to their being barred from calling public services such as police, hospitals or social services ­– Samaritans felt that their organization was a last resort: Difficult callers’ emotional needs are outsourced to the Samaritans.
Emotional dirt is a matter of perspective; this includes callers whose actions or thoughts were at odds with their perception of social order, challenging their own self-concept. Examples included calls from a man identifying as heterosexual who had had a sexual encounter with a male colleague, and a caller with fears about cross-dressing. The work also includes listening to the feelings of socially reviled people such as paedophiles, without condoning their actions. Samaritans must sound impartial, often hiding their personal emotions of disgust:
“Samaritans take on the burden of maintaining the boundary between clean and dirty, by willingly exposing themselves to the immoral acts, taboos and misplaced feelings of others that threaten the wider community’s sense of solidarity.”
Their  study involved observation of over 180 hours of Samaritan work in two branches in England, along with interviews, and the researchers’ own immersion in into this group. According to McMurray:

“We became overwhelmed by the vulnerability, despair, misery and unhappiness that were the everyday work of Samaritan calls…The effect was to heighten our own empathetic understanding of what it might mean to deal with emotional dirt.”

The authors conclude that there is no empirical measurement of emotional dirt, but offer this definition: expressed feelings that threaten the solidarity, self-conception or preferred orders of a given individual or community. Although Samaritans themselves often frame their work as a privilege, as being allowed into others’ emotional lives; and did not want it thought that they viewed callers as “dirty” – they agreed that friends and acquaintances frequently asked: “why would you want to do that?” or “oh no, I couldn’t do that!” when they discovered the emotional labour being a Samaritan involves. The occupation is necessary yet stigmatising, because it involves contact with people the rest of society does not want to know about.
“The spectre of emotional turmoil is never far away…to be close to the source, or those who handle it, may in some unspecified sense threaten pollution.”
McMurray and Ward hope that their new concept and definition of emotional dirt will open up research into how dirty emotions taint those who handle them, and the sociological consequences.


“‘Why would you want to do that?’: Defining emotional dirty work,” by Robert McMurray and Jenna Ward, published 11 April, 2014 in Human Relations. It can be accessed for free here.


Human Relations is a key forum for innovative ideas in the social sciences and one of the world's leading journals for the analysis of work, organizations and management.  It has stimulated advances in research and practice for over half a century, pioneering publication of multidisciplinary and action research focusing on progress in theory, methodology and applications.  The editorial policy firmly grounds the journal in the belief that social scientists in all domains should work toward integrating their disciplines to understand humankind's increasingly complex problems. 

The Samaritans is a charity that aims to support anyone in distress, around the clock, through 201 branches across the UK and Republic of Ireland:

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