Date of Award

Summer 6-28-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Leslie Irvine

Second Advisor

Patricia A. Adler

Third Advisor

Stefanie Mollborn


This dissertation is both a study of restaurants and of how the restaurant setting influences the identities and behavioral processes of the employees. I draw on five years of participant observation in restaurants, fieldnotes, informal interactions and conversations, and 52 semi-structured, in-depth interviews with restaurant workers. In general, I investigate the reasons people enter restaurant work for the first time, why they remain, and the relationships between the employment and the workers' statuses, feelings, decisions, goals, and conventional as well as unconventional behaviors. I address how and why the organizational, structural, and interpersonal features of restaurant work shape the lives of the employees. I discuss which identities and behaviors the workers consider appropriate to maintain positive self-concepts and the self-reported ramifications of those deemed inappropriate. My research reveals that restaurants complicate traditional constructions and chronology of work and occupations, the life course, onsets and persistence of deviance and crime, and meaningfulness. Despite the predominantly pejorative depictions of restaurant employment in media, popular opinion, news outlets, and scholarly literature, the data show the "good," the "meaningful," and the extrinsic benefits from restaurant work. This research contributes to the understanding of "nonstandard work" in the life course and to how contradictory cultural messages relate to identity work, stigma management, views on aging, techniques of neutralization, and meaningful lives. Overall, this study elucidates how the restaurant constitutes a professional back place.

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