'Why would you want to do that?': Defining emotional dirty work

Robert McMurray*, Jenna Ward

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article considers how and why people work with difficult emotions. Extending Hughes' typology of the physical, social and moral taints that constitute 'dirty work', the article explores the nature of a previously neglected and undefined concept, emotional dirt. Drawing on data from a situated ethnographic study of Samaritans, we consider how the handling of difficult and burdensome emotions, which are often written out of rational accounts of work, is outsourced to others who act as society's agents in the containment of emotional dirt. We provide the first explicit definition of emotional dirt, and contribute an extension to the existing tripartite classification of occupational taint. Moreover, in naming emotional dirt we seek to open up a sphere of research dedicated to understanding its emergence, nature and relational effects. To this end, we demonstrate how taint emerges as a sociological consequence of the performance of emotional labour as emotional dirty work, while considering how management of the difficult, negative or out-of-place emotions of others can be framed as a positive experience such that it can be good to feel bad when handling emotional dirt.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1123-1143
Number of pages21
JournalHuman Relations
Issue number9
Early online date10 Apr 2014
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2014


  • dirt
  • dirty work
  • emotional labour
  • ethnography
  • management
  • Samaritans
  • stigma
  • suicide

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