Upholding impossible occupational mandates: mandate deflecting and diffracting among employment counselors in prisoner reentry
Holm, Audrey Lois
MetadataShow full item record
Scholars have examined how occupational mandates – shared understandings of an occupation’s purpose – are established and how these mandates, to be fulfilled, translate into occupational jurisdictions. To date, however, we lack a clear understanding of how occupational members uphold their mandates when they are impossible to fulfill. I define an impossible occupational mandate as a purpose pursued by a given occupation, but almost impossible to attain. I draw from observations, interviews and archives related to the work of reentry counselors, whose occupational mandate is to ensure former prisoners (i.e., their clients) secure stable employment. My findings suggest that counselors faced multiple challenges in fulfilling their mandate. Faced with an impossible mandate, counselors revised their mandate in different ways, emphasizing their roles as experts in shaping success (advisors), assisting clients with their specific needs (aides), or advancing clients’ cause through their work (advocates). In doing so, they deflected their attention away from their initial mandate and onto their revised mandates. Counselors also shared their mandate with others in their proximate environments. To different degrees, counselors from each group projected partnerships with outsiders to their occupation: they imagined clients, employers, other human and correctional service professionals as possible partners who could share the responsibility for fulfilling their mandate. In doing so, they diffracted the mandate towards people outside of their occupation. Findings suggest that how counselors revised their mandate shaped who they projected as key partners, and how they reported feeling about failed mandate partnerships. Additionally, while all counselors performed the mandate despite the strain it could induce, and used different strategies to cope, the advocates expressed the strongest feelings of emotional strain of all groups. I discuss the connections between deflection and diffraction — namely, the two main strategies people used to uphold impossible mandates — and the conditions under which these strategies can limit professionals’ strain and help them uphold their mandates. Findings add to our understanding of an understudied yet key part of today’s occupational landscape — professionals who hold impossible mandates – and extend the study of occupations and meaningful work. I also discuss implications for labor market inequality, social justice, prisoner reentry programs, and practice.