Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 bestselling Nickel and Dimed documents an interesting social experiment – in order to gain a glimpse into the lives of individuals who are paid minimum wage for their work, she decides to join their ranks, moving to three states and taking on various minimum wage jobs as a server, maid and Wal-Mart associate.
In truth, I didn’t think her findings were particularly surprising – people are just barely eeking by working multiple physically exhausting jobs. But, I am not too removed from my college days in which I worked multiple minimum wage jobs myself. For me, the true power of the book lies in the compassion of her storytelling and clarity of her reflection. Rather than simply garnering and analyzing information about “demographics,” she throws herself into the experience and relates the stories of those she encounters plus her own challenges in a compelling way.
This “standing apart” vs. “diving right in” dynamic comprises the crux of my internal debate over intellectualism. On one hand, Barbara was (apparently) so removed from the experience of a good chunk of Americans that it took her experiment to obtain enough raw observation to tell a compelling story to those who are furthermore so likewise removed that her story reads as shocking.
And yet on the other hand, despite being relatively removed, Barbara was willing to throw herself into the fray, get her hands dirty and get to work to gain the experience it would take to provide a firsthand account and hard earned reflection. I respect that for sure.
While I love Thoreau for his own social experiment (which, like Barbara’s effort) was indeed only a temporary foray into an alternative lifestyle, I love Wendell Berry more for actually living and working (for decades) the very life he ponders and critiques and speculates and hypothesizes about.
At this point, I am uneducated in regards to the type or quality of thought being promoted by intellectuals these days. Maybe the days of the “ivory tower” are over and this investigative/experiential variety of discourse has become more vogue. I really couldn’t tell you. But, I hope to be able to think from a more informed perspective soon as I begin to investigate influential female intellectuals.
I would recommend Barbara’s book, anyway, whether you are working for minimum wage yourself or have found your way to greener pastures. The book is an excellent example of how a brilliant woman undertakes to engage in a question she has about society, document her experiences in a compelling way, and reflect on the implications of her experience.
Have you read Nickel and Dimed? If so, what did you think about it? Have you read any other books from this documentary-style genre? Do you know of any other intellectual women who get their hands dirty as they hypothesize about societal problems?