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"Saving Lives; Living the Dream": Gender and Emotional Labor Among Ambulance-Based 911 Paramedics


This project examines intersections of work, gender, and emotional labor among paramedics in Emergency Medical Services (EMS). Ethnographic research on gender and work analyzes labor through pre-gendered lenses: occupations are either masculinized or feminized, and the people who work those jobs are either in gender-matched occupations, or they are crossing over into occupations that have not traditionally been associated with their gender. EMS is a unique case in which workers are required to perform both masculinized and feminized labor in the context of the same job. Furthermore, EMS is relatively gender-integrated, which allows us to see how women and men engage emergency work/masculinity and care work/femininity in a single occupational setting.

I investigate paramedics’ emotional labor and gender performance on the job using interviews, participant observation, and auto-ethnography conducted over eighteen months that I spent working as a paramedic on a 911 ambulance. Where labor process workplace ethnographies focus on workers’ experiences on the shop floor, I argue that we must move into paramedics’ break room time and off-duty time when analyzing their social reproduction and commitment to EMS. I identify key challenges relating to their dignity and posit specific forms of emotional labor that neutralize those challenges while shoring up paramedics’ identities as “heroic.”

I begin “on the shop floor” – on 911 calls – and expand my focus outward to encompass increasingly wider units of analysis. First, I set the context with a comprehensive survey of EMS and ambulance-based paramedics’ working conditions within the industry. Next, I explore the emotion work that paramedics deploy to protect their patients from stressful information. I then interpret the ways in which break room conversations allow medics to process emotionally challenging calls, vent anger over being “abused” by the public, and engage in intimacy-building practices that prepare them to work cooperatively in high-stress emergency situations. In the final section, I explore the retroactive emotion work that paramedics perform on themselves to return to work each day with their dignity intact. The conclusion includes a refashioned understanding of heroism incorporating both physical and emotional risk-taking.

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