New Book is Out!

I’m late in announcing this, but my latest book, Affective Labour: (Dis)Assembling Distance and Difference (with Jennifer G. Correa) is now available as a hardback, paperback, and e-book. If you buy directly from Rowman and Littlefield, you can use the following promotional code and save 30%: RLI093

Below are some of the reviews:

Thomas and Correa offer an important empirical study of affective labor’s central role in sustaining two pillars of inequality: racial difference and socio-spatial distance. Noteworthy for its comparative and relational approaches, Affective Labour reveals the entwinements between racism and affect in everyday practices and places.
Paula Ioanide, Associate Professor of Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies, Ithaca College

In this theoretically groundbreaking yet remarkably accessible book, Thomas and Correa establish a strong case for why affect should matter to scholars of race and racism, as well as to activists working for social justice. Affective Labour describes the painstaking work of identification, the crafting of difference, and the production of social distance, in effect asking how forms of violence and exclusion become imaginable or unimaginable. The book takes the reader on an intellectual journey from a college-town bar scene to the US-Mexico border, through the contemporary diversity regimes of predominantly white institutions. The authors then bring the lessons from these case studies to bear on the emergent affective politics of Black Lives Matter and similar radical democratic social movements. In spite of the grimly neoliberal landscapes of difference and inequality it explores, Affective Labour remains optimistic in its evocation of coming into being and the potential for an affect of liberation in progressive politics. ​
Rebecca R. Scott, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Missouri-Columbia

Bringing together critical social, cultural and political analysis, phenomenology and original ethnographic research, this book is a must read for anyone interested in the politics of affect. Thomas and Correa provide an imaginative and incisive account of how the manufacturing of gendered, racialised, sexualised, and classed relations of distance and difference is a matter of affective labour. Through a diverse range of in depth examples – from American nightlife cultures, to University diversity-initiatives, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement – the book offers a refreshing and distinctive examination of the affective work of everyday life and its wider critical implications. The analysis offered is at once productively troubling and optimistic: Contemporary forms of affective labour frequently work to reproduce relations of domination, but they also fuel solidarity, resistance and ‘a sense of hope for what can be, despite the reality of what is’.
Carolyn Pedwell, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies/Cultural Sociology, University of Kent

Thomas and Correa’s expansive research into distance and difference takes us on an immersive journey into configurations of affective subjectivity – from above and below. Carefully crafted case studies of urban nightlife in Columbia, Missouri, ‘War on Terror’ at the US-Mexico border, diversity regimes in higher education, and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, underline why affect should be of critical concern to social, cultural and political theorists. Affective Labour is an original and timely contribution that will have implications for how we approach the politics of difference in the classroom, the polity and on the street.
Christopher Kyriakides, Associate Professor of Sociology, York University, Canada


Working to Laugh, in a Bookstore Near You!

My book is out! It’s available on, or directly through the Rowman and Littlefield website. If you buy from Rowman and Littlefield, use the promo code “LEX30AUTH15” for a 30% discount.

If you’re unsure about ordering a personal copy, be a good colleague and ask your library to order one!

Working to Laugh (2015)

Thomas, James M. Working to Laugh: Assembling Difference in American Stand-Up Comedy Venues (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015)

On Affective Labor in Adult, Urban Playscapes

(Excerpt from work in progress entitled, “Affective Labor in Adult, Urban ‘Playscapes’: An Ethnographic Account”)


The study of nightlife has been of great interest in contemporary urban sociology (Bernstein 2001; Chatterton and Hollands 2003; Chauncey 1994; Grazian 2007; Grazian 2008; Grazian 2009; Oldenburg 1989). Within the existing literature, there appears an emergent debate among scholars, where nightlife spaces are either depicted as third-spaces critical for the sustainment of civic engagement and participatory democracy (e.g. Oldenburg 1989; Putnam 2000), or as spaces that have historically reconstituted micro-formations of more macro-social inequalities, including heteronormativity and racial rule (e.g. Grazian 2007; 2008; 2009; Bernstein 2001; Owens 2003).

Empirically speaking, I believe that both sides of this debate are correct in their own right. However, neither position moves us toward a more useful, or plausible, theory on the role these ‘pleasure spaces’ play in the reproduction of social order. Nightlife in both accounts is reduced to ‘good spaces’ or ‘bad spaces’ for what they contribute to participatory democracy (see Putnam 2000); or what they contribute to hegemonic masculinity (see Grazian 2007). What we currently lack in the sociological study of nightlife, however, is a descriptive theory of that which is fundamental to its very constitution: desire. From Marx and Freud, to derivatives and critiques of historical materialism and psychoanalysis (e.g. Althusser, Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, postcolonial studies, etc.), desire has been of central importance to the production of critical theory.

Among contemporary scholars, particularly within human and cultural geography, the concept of desire has garnered a great deal of empirical attention (e.g. Anderson 2006; Thrift 2008). How national heritage sites, for example, come to be embedded with particular social relations centered on the production of desire for certain bodies over others (Crang and Tolia-Kelly 2010); or how particular spaces inhabited by ethnic and racial minorities become territorialized by figures of authority as well as those of the oppressed through physical and symbolic bordering of those spaces (e.g. Nayak 2010). Still others, like Nigel Thrift, view the entire project of urbanization as one of manufacturing and distributing desire, through a network of affective pipes and cables no different in their intent than those that deliver water, gas, and electricity to shops, homes, and neighborhoods (see Thrift 2008).

That pleasure spaces, like nightclubs, cocktail lounges, and restaurants, rely on the physical attractiveness and display of sexuality among female service staff to recruit customers (Grazian 2009); that female service staff in these establishments are expected to perform a certain type of gender, entailing the wearing of tight and revealing clothing (Spradley and Mann 1975); and that these women are expected to handle subsequent sexual harassment from male customers graciously and with flirty come-ons (Grazian 2009; Steinem 1983) suggest that the degree to which desire (heterosexual, in these instances) is controlled and managed is worthy of ethnographic analysis.

Pleasure spaces within urban nightlife center on enabling elite, White, heterosexual men to experience the full production of entertainment while simultaneously restricting access the active movement of racial, sexual, and classed Others. This  demonstrates that desire is a constituting and active force in the ongoing production of the urban nightlife experience. This is an important point to consider: desire as I use it here, does not refer to the traditional psychoanalytic account of a lack, or yearning for something. Rather, desire as it is used in this context derives from Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) writings. Desire is an active, positive force in the context of urban nightlife and pleasure spaces (see Haggerty et al., 2000). The desire for control, the desire for profit, and the desire for entertainment produce difference/sameness, and distance/closeness among and between social actors within these ‘playscapes’ (e.g. Chatterton and Hollands, 2003; Deleuze and Guattari, 1987).

Drawing upon thirteen months of ethnographic fieldwork, including participant observation, at a stand-up comedy club and nightclub in a medium-sized, midwestern city, this article aims to describe the production of desire, as an active and constituting force, through the concept of affective labor – the immaterial and corporeal manipulation of affects that produces feelings of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, passion, and even a sense of connectedness or community (Hardt 1999: 96; see also Negri 1999; Hardt and Negri 2001). Such an account seeks to move beyond the theorizing of urban nightlife as ‘good space’ or ‘bad space’, and also seeks to provide a more robust analysis for how power, agency, and space become intertwined with one another in ways that are both enabling and constraining of existing social arrangements (see Crossley 1996). The production of desire is accomplished through forms of affective labor that are fundamentally grounded in the reproduction and reconstitution of racial rule, elite class status, and heteronormativity.


Urban nightlife, including what I refer to as ‘pleasure spaces’ in this article, constitute a site of contemporary capitalism that is unique because of its lack of material product relative to its immaterial product. In sites like bars, nightclubs, comedy clubs, and other nightlife hangout spots, no durable or material good is produced. The experiences received from visiting these establishments are accomplished not through simple transactions between the customer and service staff. Rather, what is being bought is the experience of sociability (see Chatterton and Hollands, 2003). Also bound up in the experience of sociability, however, is the qualitative production of intersubjective relations. This production is accomplished through both the manufacturing of the sensorium within nightlife spaces themselves, and the interactive patterns that follow from this governing of spatial-sensual properties. This manufacturing is a matter of affective labor, a form of immaterial labor that, through the manipulation of affects, produces the very things social actors most closely associate with the urban nightlife experience: pleasure, excitement, connectedness, and satisfaction, to name but a few (Bernstein, 2001; Malbon, 1999; Thorton, 1996).

Maurizio Lazzarato (1996: 133) defines immaterial labor as “the labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity.” Considering the informational content of the commodity, Lazzarato states that immaterial labor describes the large-scale changes in industry, “where skills involved in direct labor are increasingly skills involving cybernetics and computer control,” (1996: 133). Considering the cultural content of the commodity, however, immaterial labor refers to the types of activities involved in constructing and maintaining cultural and artistic norms, trends, tastes, and even public opinion. This cultural form of labor that aids in the formation of the commodity, including its value, is not typically recognized by work (Lazzarato, 1996: 134).

On their own or in conjunction, these forms of immaterial labor first and foremost produce a social relation. The raw material of immaterial labor is both subjectivity and the ideological environment in which this subjectivity resides and reproduces itself. No longer exclusive to the realm of disciplining societies, the production of subjectivity is productive itself, constructing the consumer as ‘active’ (Lazzarato, 1996: 141). Immaterial labor simultaneously satisfies the consumer’s demand as well as establishes that demand.

Michael Hardt (1999) elaborates on Lazzarato’s concept of immaterial labor, identifying its formation as bound up in the shifting global economy from industry to service jobs in the 1970s. This informatization of the global economy, particularly in the U.S. but also abroad, entailed a change in the quality of labor as well as the nature of the labor process (Hardt 1999: 93). The result was the production and reliance upon immaterial labor in order to serve the purposes of this new informational economy. Whereas in industry, labor aimed to produce tangible goods, and could be easily quantifiable through the mechanisms of capitalism, in the current informational economy, immaterial labor produces no material or durable goods. Rather, immaterial labor produces immaterial goods, like service, knowledge, or communication (Hardt 1999: 94).

Extending Lazzarato’s thesis, Hardt (1999) describes three forms of immaterial labor that drive the informational economy, as well as the informationalization of the global economy. The first form of immaterial labor entails the folding of communicative technologies into global industrial production. With this form of immaterial labor, the production of tangible items becomes wedded to the production of ‘service.’ For Hardt, the transition in the automotive industry from Fordism to Toyotism exemplifies this form of immaterial labor. Disrupting Habermas’s (1984) division between instrumental and communicative action by theorizing them to be interwoven in the informationalized industrial process, the folding of communicative technologies into the industrial production process also troubles the temporal divide of labor, work, and action described by Hannah Arendt (1958).

The second form of immaterial labor, entailing analytic and symbolic tasks, is closely related to the enfolding of communicative technologies into the global production process. For Hardt (1999: 94), the increasing reliance upon computers in the global economy has redefined laboring practices and relations. Communicative technologies, including computers, are now used for ‘symbolic-analytical services’, or tasks that entail “problem-solving, problem-identifying, and strategic brokering services,” (Reich 1991: 177; Hardt 1999: 95). For Hardt, “Interactive and cybernetic machines become a new prosthesis integrated into our bodies and minds and a lens through which to redefine our bodies and minds themselves,” (1999: 95).

Finally, the last form of immaterial labor, and the one I am concerned with in this manuscript, is affective labor. Affective labor, or the production and manipulation of affects, fundamentally requires human contact, making it distinct from the previous two forms of immaterial labor. This contact, however, can be either actual or virtual. Hardt uses the example of the entertainment industry: “the human contact, the presence of others, is principally virtual, but not for that reason any less real,” (1999: 96).

In the production and manipulation of affects, what is produced are collective subjectivities and sociality. That these collective subjectivities and sociality are exploited directly by capital does not make this production and manipulation of affects any less actual. Like Lazzarato (1996), Hardt (1999) argues that the production of collective subjectivities and sociality through affective labor is productive itself, producing the very demand for these things in the first place.

Since Hardt’s (1999) outline for a theory of affective labor, a number of issues have emerged concerning its practical and theoretical basis. Among cultural Marxists, one debate centers on whether or not the value of affective labor can be measured (Caffentzsis, 2005; Clough et al., 2007; Virtanen, 2004). Still, others have looked to distinguish how the production of people, including relationships between people, is qualitatively different from the production of things (Weeks 2007; Rose 2004). While these debates are important, I do not want the discussion of affective labor to get sidetracked into meta-theoretical conversations that would distract us from examining how affective labor relates to the production of spaces and forms of entertainment within the urban nightlife scene.

However, I do want to briefly distinguish affective labor with what is no doubt a more recognizable concept in the sociological enterprise: Arlie Hochschild’s (1983) emotional labor. For Hochschild (1983: 7), emotional labor “requires one to induce or suppress feelings in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Affective labor, however, differs in that feelings, or states of mind, do not belong to one or the other. Rather, these things are in constant circulation. Affective labor is not so much about producing a state of mind in another, or a manipulation of your own feelings, as it is about producing a relationship between social actors and contexts (Weeks, 2007: 238-39). This relationship is affective in that it resides in the bodies’ changing capacities to affect and be affected by others (Weeks, 2007; Clough 2007)…