American Journal of Sociology

Date: 1952

Show Summary


Social Organization


Status and Role


Janitors Versus Tenants: A Status-Income Dilemma1

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There is some kind of status relationship between the worker and the person served in almost any occupation where the two meet and interact. For example, when the salesperson and the customer meet, each brings to bear on the other valuations by which the other’s status category can be tentatively ascertained. This tentative status designation enables each to make a rough judgment as to how to act toward the other person and as to how he thinks the other person will act toward him. If their association is resumed, their initial judgments strongly influence the character of their subsequent interactions. If they are separated by wide barriers of social distance, they may carry on an almost formal salesperson-customer relationship for years. Or their respective status judgments may be such that the status barriers are gradually penetrated. In any case, the status relationship between them is always present, unless it is resolved into an absolute equalitarian relationship. Likewise, in the case of the physician and his patients, the plumber and his customers, the minister and his parishioners, and in others, there is a status relationship of which both parties are more or less aware and which influences the pattern of their interactions. Such being the case, the nature and form of these status relationships can and should be studied wherever they occur.

The present example, which concerns the apartment-building janitor and his tenants, is a case study in such status relationships. The form these relationships have taken is that of a marked dilemma of status and income.


The status-income dilemma may be expected to occur in two situations. One is that in which an individual earns too little to pay for the goods and services generally associated with his other social characteristics. The other is that in which he earns enough to pay for goods and services generally associated not with his other social characteristics but with those of members of higher social classes. When an individual in the first dilemma meets and interacts almost daily on a rather personal level with one in the second as, respectively, in the case of the tenant2 and the apartment-building janitor, they develop an association whose form and content are of sociological interest.

The data in this article are based entirely upon interviews with janitors. What results is a penetrating view of the janitor’s conceptions of tenants and of his interpretations of their conceptions of him. Thus, we obtain an intimate understanding of the janitor’s view of how he and tenants spar to resolve their respective dilemmas. Although many of the tenants may not be so sensitive as the janitor to this contest, it is safe to assume that, through his untiring efforts to play the game with his rules, the tenants are aware that he is agitating to change their traditional patterns of interaction.

In the early part of this century, before janitors in Chicago were unionized, they catered to virtually every whim of their employers and tenants in order to establish job security. Since they have become unionized, their duties have been greatly delimited, their wages increased, and their privileges extended to include a rent-free basement apartment in one of the larger buildings which they service. At present, they are required to fire the furnace to provide heat and hot water for the tenants, to remove the tenants’ garbage regularly, to make minor emergency repairs, and to keep the building and grounds clean.

Having a history, the janitor also has a reputation. The tenant-public seems to look upon him as an ignorant, lazy, and dirty occupational misfit. There has developed a general belief that, if a man cannot do anything else successfully, he can always become a janitor. This stereotype has been perpetuated by the public because of a number of beliefs, principally the following: (1) many janitors are foreign-born and therefore strange and suspicious; (2) the janitor is always seen wearing dirty clothes, so the tenants seem to feel that he habitually disregards cleanliness; (3) the janitor lives in the basement, which symbolizes his low status; and (4) the janitor removes the tenants’ garbage, a duty which subserves him to them. It is because the public has singled out these features in their view of the janitor that his ascribed status has been lowly. In the public’s view it seems that the janitor merely is a very low-class person doing menial work for the tenants.

It is true that the performance of janitorial duties requires neither lengthy training nor a high order of mechanical or technical skills. However, the nature of the janitor’s situation has led him to play roles and incorporate self-conceptions which frequently overshadow those which others expect of a combination caretaker and handy man. Because he does not work under direct supervision and can plan his work to suit himself, he feels that he is his own boss: he, alone, is in charge of the building and responsible for the safety of the tenants. After becoming proficient at making repairs for tenants, he magnifies his handy-man role into that of a master mechanic. Combining these two roles, he then sees himself as an entrepreneur who runs a cash business of attending to the tenants’ service needs.

These roles, together with others which stem from the work situation, contradict the public’s stereotyped view of the janitor. Being sensitive to these social conceptions, the janitor strives to gain the tenants’ acceptance as a person who has risen above the disreputable fellow these conceptions describe. Toward this end he not only plays the role of a respectable, dignified human being but of one who has a very substantial income.… In this setting it is evident that the janitor’s social relationships with the tenants are of crucial importance to him. These relationships are pervaded by his persistent disowning of his unhappy occupational heritage and the justification of his claim to middle-class status.

So important are social relationships with the tenants that the janitor defines success in terms of them. As many janitors have pointed out:

The most important thing about a janitor’s work is that you have to know how to deal with people. Then, when you show the tenants that you have a clean character and are respectable, you can train them to be good tenants, that’s what’s really important in being a success.

Because the janitor attempts to realize his self when interacting with his tenants, his efforts to train them are actually channeled toward the establishment of relationships which support, rather than oppose, his self-conceptions. The "good" tenants support his self-conceptions; the "bad" tenants oppose them.

It will be well now to examine the nature of these social relationships to determine how they give rise to the personal and social dilemmas which comprise the central theme of this discussion.

The janitor believes that, in general, tenants hold him in low esteem. Even the most friendly tenants maintain some social distance between the janitor and themselves. Tenants, generally, overlook his qualifications as an individual and see him only as a member of a low-status group. In their view he is merely an occupational type. The most militant proponents of this view are the "bad" tenants.

There are two characteristics of a special group of "bad" tenants which are apposite to this presentation. These characteristics, jealousy and resentment, are descriptive of only those tenants who are embittered by the janitor’s economic prowess. They are people whose incomes are usually below, but sometimes slightly above, the janitor’s income. The janitor often refers to these tenants as "four-flushers." They live on the brink of bankruptcy, and he knows it.3 Status symbols are very important to them. Unlike the janitor, they apparently strain their budgets to improve the appearance of their persons and their apartments. When they see the janitor’s new car or television aerial, their idea of high-status symbols, it is almost more than they can bear. It violates their sense of social justice. In consequence of his high income, the janitor can acquire things which these tenants may interpret as a threat to the established social order.

The janitor’s new car, parked conspicuously in front of the building, serves constantly to remind tenants of his pecuniary power. It draws the most Criticism from the jealous tenants. Commenting on the tensions thereby engendered, Janitor No. 35 remarked:

There is a certain amount of jealousy when janitors try to better themselves. A whole lot are jealous because the janitor makes more than they do. But they don’t consider the time a janitor puts in. When I got my Dodge two years ago somebody said, "Huh, look at that fellow. He must be making the money or he wouldn’t be buying a new car." I know one party, they think a janitor should be in working clothes all the time. Just because a janitor likes to go out in an auto and they don’t have any, there is that feeling between janitor and the tenant, that’s for sure.

Some of these fourflushers do own an automobile. But if the janitor’s car is bigger and newer than theirs, they are extremely mortified. Janitor No. 33 experienced the wrath of such people:

About a third of the tenants are very pleasant about it when they see my car, but the rest say, "Holy cripe, the janitor got a new car!" The same majority is the ones you are in trouble with all the time. They say, "How is the ’nigger’ with the big car?" meaning I am a "nigger" because I got a Buick and my car is bigger than theirs.

The janitor finds that the jealous tenants are impossible to accommodate. They do not want to be accommodated by him. "No matter what you do," protested Janitor No. 14, "they squawk." Their animosity seems to know no bounds. They deliberately attempt to create trouble for the janitor by complaining about him to his employer.

Besides complaining about him, these tenants reveal their resentment of the janitor’s mobility efforts by making nasty remarks to him. This was shown very clearly in a conversation with Janitor No. 12 and his wife:

JANITOR: When we got our 10 per cent raise a short time ago, the tenants didn’t like it. You see how nice this [first-floor] apartment looks. Well, there ain’t another apartment in the building that’s decorated as nice as this. I had all those cabinets in the kitchen tore out and got new ones put in. That brick glass and ventilator in the transom opening—I had it done. Tenants didn’t like to see me do all that. They resent it.

INTERVIEWER: How do they show their resentment?

WIFE: Mostly by making snotty remarks. One woman told us that we shouldn’t live in such a nice apartment on the first floor, that we should live in a hole [basement apartment] like other janitors. Then they are sarcastic in a lot of other ways. They just don’t like to see us have a nice apartment and a new car. I guess they’d rather see us live like rats.

The basement apartment is symbolic of the janitor’s subservient status. If he can arrange with his employer to obtain a first-floor apartment, there is nothing that the jealous tenants can do to stop him. They can only try to make life miserable for him.

Jealous tenants disdainfully address him as "Janitor," rather than using his given name. It is bad enough, from his standpoint, that all other tenants address him by his given name, thereby indicating his historically servile status. But these resentful tenants go further. They call him by his occupational name. Symbolically, their use of this "dirty" name means that they want their relationships with him to be as impersonal as possible. They want the janitor to be aware of the great social distance which he would dare to bridge. Janitor No. 14 commented on this form of address:

JANITOR: The bad ones squawk as long as they live. No matter what you do they squawk. They’re the ones that don’t call you by your name. They’re a lower class of people, but they try to make you feel even lower than them.

INTERVIEWER: Why do they call you "Janitor"?

JANITOR: It’s either out of stupidity or to make you think you are a slave to them—an underdog. Janitors get the same crap all over the city, I know.

These fourflushers who address him as "Janitor" are unalterably opposed to his efforts to better himself. The longer they live in the building, the worse their relationships with him become. This point was brought out by Janitor No. 4:

Boy, I’ll tell you about one thing that happened to me last Christmas morning. This woman rings my bell when I’m out and gives an envelope to my wife to give to me. I passed by the back windows here a little while later and looked in like I always do to wave at the kid, and my wife called me in because she thought there must be a present in the envelope. So I went in and opened it up and there was a note inside that said, "I’ll be home today so please keep the heat up." I was so mad I coulda booted her ass right over the fence if she was there. That’s how the tenants get when they been living here too long. Most of them think they own the building, and you should do just what they want.

As Janitor No. 4 insisted, the fourflushers’ unthinking demands for personal service, their utter disregard for the janitor’s integrity and authority, and their possessiveness toward the building increase with their length of residence. The building becomes more and more like "home" to them, the longer they live there. "They can’t afford to have a home and servants of their own," observed Janitor No. 18, "so they try to treat the janitor as their servant." They like to think of him as a mobile part of the building, always at their beck and call. Still, the deep-seated animosities between these tenants and the janitor preclude any mutually satisfactory adjustment of their respective roles. Through the years they continue to be jealous and resentful of him. Meanwhile, he continues to resent their unco-operativeness and disrespect. The building becomes as much "home" to him as it does to them. But there is something about "home" that can never be remedied. From the standpoint of these fourflushers, that something is the janitor. From the janitor’s point of view, that something is the fourflushers.

Turning now from janitors whose tenants have incomes that are marginal to theirs to janitors whose tenants are plainly well-to-do, it is evident that there is a remarkable contrast in janitor-tenant relationships. The following conversation with Janitor No. 26 will serve as an introduction to this contrast:

INTERVIEWER: Some fellows have told me that many of their tenants resent their getting a new car or a television set. Have you ever come up against that?

JANITOR: That class of people don’t live here, of course. The class of people you’re talking about are making two hundred a month, don’t have a car, and are lucky they’re living. Yeah, I’ve met up with them.… People here aren’t jealous if you got a new car. People here feel you have to have a car, like bread and butter.

Tenants whose incomes are clearly higher than the janitor’s have no cause to be jealous of him. They do not compete with him for symbols of pecuniary power. There is more prestige attached to having an engineer in the building than to having a janitor, so they call him "the engineer." These people obviously do not have the status-income problems of the fourflushers who contemptuously address him as "Janitor." Clearly, then, tenants who are well-to-do have no need to make demands. As Janitor No. 17, many of whose tenants have incomes marginal to his, so penetratingly observed:

The people that don’t have anything put up the biggest front and squawk a lot. The people who got it don’t need any attention. I’d rather work for rich tenants. The ones we got here are middle ones. Those tenants that sing don’t have a right to.… Some few tenants just got here from the Negro district. They were stuck there until they could find a place to move to. Man, they’re real glad to be here. They don’t give me no trouble at all.

Demonstrating remarkable insight, Janitor No. 17 pointed out that the "rich" tenants do not feel that they need attention from the janitor; that the "refugee" (like the poor) tenants feel that they are in no position to make demands; and that the fourflushers or "middle" (probably lower-middle) tenants are the most troublesome.

When a janitor works for many years in a building occupied by well-to-do tenants, it is not unusual that a genuinely warm relationship develops between him and these tenants. They probably come to see him as an old family employee, while he believes that he has been accepted for himself. As Janitor No. 26 asserted, "They feel they’re no better than me—I’m no better than them, and they always invite me in for coffee or something like that." There is no problem in sharing identification of "home." The building is undisputedly "home" to both the janitor and the "rich" tenants, because they most probably view their relationship with him as a status accommodation, which he interprets as an equalitarian relationship.

In the next section the status-income dilemma is illustrated in terms of the janitor’s professional behavior and outlook, which are in marked contrast with the tenants’ lack of respect for him.


It is likely that in every low-status occupation, where the worker associates with the customer, the workers meet with certain customer-oriented situations in which they typically behave in accordance with standards that people have traditionally called "professional." These low-status workers certainly do not label themselves "professionals," nor do others so label them. Yet, there is ample evidence that some of their behavior is ethically comparable to the behavior exhibited by members of the so-called "professions."

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While it is true that the janitor’s self-conceptions are instrumental in forming the superstructure of his professional behavior, the foundation of such conduct is formed primarily out of situational requisites. This being the case, his status-income dilemma is intensified, because he is frequently called upon to act in a professional manner toward the disrespectful tenants. Thus, whether mainly out of choice (expression of self-conceptions) or out of necessity (fulfilment of situational requisites), the relationship between janitor and tenant sometimes assumes the character of that between professional and client.

The nature of the janitor’s work leads him to find out a great deal about the personal lives of his tenants. He meets with many situations which force him to decide how much and to whom he should tell what he knows about them. Generally, he exercises scrupulous care in the handling of this intimate knowledge, as he considers himself to be intrusted with it in confidence.

The janitor gets some of his information from sources other than the tenants themselves. When he acts as an informant (e.g., for insurance checkers), he finds out a great deal about their personal affairs. One tenant tells him about another. The garbage reveals much about them. From these sources he acquires information of a very confidential nature.

The janitor also gets information directly from the tenants. They confide in him not only about illnesses but also about personal problems. As Janitor No. 20 remarked, "Some of them stop you and think they have to tell you if they got a toothache."

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Like the bartender and the barber, whose ascribed occupational status beclouds the fact that they frequently share their customers’ personal secrets, the janitor is placed in problematical situations requiring some kind of ethical rules. When it is understood that occupational problems which accrue from the same kinds of situations are basically the same without respect to status, then the similar receipt of confidences by the janitor, the lawyer, or the bartender becomes clear. These workers are, in this instance, in the kind of situation which requires them to protect the customer’s personal secrets. Whether the disposition of these secrets involves as little as remaining silent or as much as stretching the truth, the workers protect their relationship with the customer by protecting his confidences. Likewise, in other given kinds of work situations which require the solution of ethical problems, the worker-customer relationship becomes overly complicated unless the worker makes and observes appropriate rules. Such ethical rules are not simply a matter of honorable self-conceptions or formalized professional codes. They are fundamentally a matter of situational requirements, irrespective of personal and occupational status.

Another area in which professional behavior is found concerns the janitor’s relationships with overamorous tenants. Janitor No. 12 described what he considers to be the proper procedure for easing gracefully out of such a delicate predicament:

Another thing about janitors—lots of women try to get you up in apartment just "to talk" or for some phony excuse. When you walk in they are on couch, ask you to sit down, and that means only one thing. When that happens to me and I begin to sweat, I know I better leave. Thing is not to refuse them so they get embarrassed, so I act dumb. I excuse myself and say I forgot about water running some place which I must shut off right away. It’s hard to do, but it’s best.

One can easily imagine hearing the bishop advise the young minister or the elderly doctor instruct the young doctor in a similar vein. The minister and the doctor must be prepared to meet such situations in a like fashion. The janitor instructs tenants to call him for repairs only during daylight hours, except for what he considers to be genuine emergencies.

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Yet another cluster of work situations wherein the janitor exhibits professional behavior concerns those occasions when he is called upon to do mechanical work for the tenants. The most clear-cut evidence of professional behavior in this area was submitted by Janitor No. 11.

Some of the repair work the tenant is responsible for and I’m supposed to charge for it. Well, if I replace some glass that costs me three and a half dollars, I may charge the tenant a half dollar or two dollars more for my labor, depending on how much she can afford. If it’s a little thing and the tenant isn’t well off, I won’t charge her anything for it if she’s supposed to pay.

The janitor’s practice of charging for repairs on the basis of the customer’s ability to pay is a high standard of service—quite in the tradition of the medical profession—and he knows it.


The janitor’s professional behavior, together with his substantial income, contradicts what he believes are his tenants’ conceptions of him. His struggle to gain their respect is a struggle for status. His high standards of conduct constitute a way of favorably influencing their estimation of his worth. Still, he finds that tenants regard him as hardly more than a janitor. He strongly resents their failure properly to recognize him, particularly in the case of the fourflushers. As Janitor No. 18 bitterly remarked:

They’re the kind that are very important. They think you’re a fireman—should drop everything and run to them. They adopt a superior attitude: "I’m the tenant and you’re the janitor." Like the East and the West in that saying. Confidentially, a lot of us janitors could buy out most tenants. They put on airs and try to be bossy.

The janitor has a higher income than many of the tenants; yet, the latter "adopt a superior attitude." So he does considerable soul-searching to seek a satisfactory explanation of his relatively low status. The conversation which we had with Janitor No. 28 is in point.

INTERVIEWER: What things are janitors touchy about?

JANITOR: A lot of tenants figure he’s just a goddamn janitor, a servant. Here [with "rich tenants] it’s not so bad. You say something to them and they [the "bad" tenants] say, "Hell, you’re nothing but a janitor." Or when you’re talking to even a working man and you tell him you’re a janitor, he smiles—you know, people think there’s nothing lower than a janitor. You get that feeling that they’re looking down on you, because you’re working for them. I know I feel that way sometimes. During the depression I was making better than most, so what the hell. It’s good earned money.

INTERVIEWER: Well, why do you say you get that feeling that they are looking down on you? Why do you feel so sensitive?

JANITOR: In different places you hear people talk janitor this and janitor that, and they say they’d never be a goddamn janitor. So you think people here must say and think the same, but not to you. It makes you feel funny sometimes.

It is noteworthy that Janitor No. 28 does not reject his idea of the tenants’ definition of a janitor. For that matter, virtually no other janitor does so either. To explain this, it is necessary to understand how the janitor relates himself to other janitors in terms of the occupational title.

The individual janitor strongly identifies himself with the name "janitor," despite his belief that tenants look down on janitors. Their view does not annoy him very much because he, too, looks down on other janitors. He feels that he is different from and better than other janitors. So, when tenants (nonjanitors) speak disparagingly of janitors, he does not resent it because of the group solidarity in the occupation, for, in reality, there is little such solidarity. Rather he resents it because his self-conceptions are so involved in the name "janitor" and because the tenants fail to recognize his individual worth. Thus, when a janitor (No. 8) proudly states, "Tenants never treated me like a janitor," there is no doubt that he agrees with their definition of janitor but that he, by virtue of being singularly superior to other janitors, has been treated in accordance with his conception of himself.

This attitude of "different and better" may be characteristic of the members of any occupation (or other group) whose public reputation is one of censorious stereotypes. This attitude implies that the individual member agrees that most of his colleagues do have the characteristics attributed to them by the public. The interesting question is: Why does the member agree with the public? The study of janitors suggests that the answer is likely to be in terms of (1) the nature of the member’s association with his colleagues (he probably knows only a few of the "better" ones) and (2) the status relationship between the member and the portion of the public he associates with in his work.

Although the individual janitor capably defends himself from the public’s conceptions of janitors, he still must perform tasks which preclude advance to a higher occupational, hence social, status. The janitorial reputation refers to the members’ personal characteristics and work habits. Closely related to, but distinguishable from, these alleged personal traits, are readily verified features of janitoring which involve dirty work (e.g., shoveling coal and removing garbage). Work is dirty when society defines it as such, that is, when society defines it as being necessary but undesirable or even repugnant. Middle-class people seem consciously to avoid such tasks. They apparently realize that the kind of work one does is often more important than one’s income when it comes to getting established as a member of the middle class. Yet, in a materialistic society certain costly things, like a new automobile and a television set, become symbolic of high status, even to them. This accounts for the dilemma of the fourflushers.

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Janitor No. 35, in summarizing the status-income dilemma, is painfully aware that tenants took down on the janitor. Their trash, the garbage, is undoubtedly the biggest single element in the janitor’s continued low status. The removal of garbage is dirty work, incompatible with middle-class status. It causes the janitor to subserve the tenants, all of his individual attributes notwithstanding. The garbage symbolizes the dilemmas of the janitor-tenant relationship.


This account of the status-income dilemma suggests that, since high-prestige and high-income occupations are frequently distinguishable from one another, the kind of work a person does is a crucially qualifying factor in so far as his status possibilities are concerned. Viewed another way, the trend toward professionalization of occupations becomes an effort either to bring status recognition into line with high income or to bring income into line with high-status recognition. The janitor-tenant relationship has been graphically presented to call attention to a dilemma which is so prevalent that it is apt to be overlooked.

1 From , 1952, 57:486–493. By permission of The University of Chicago Press.

2 The term "tenant" herein refers to the housewife, as the janitor seldom comes in contact with the man of the house.

3 In the boiler-room the janitor sorts out the noncombustible garbage from the combustible garbage, the former to be removed by a scavenger and the latter to be burned by him in the furnace. In the course of these sorting and burning operations he wittingly or unwittingly comes across letters and other things which serve to identify the different bundles or other forms of garbage accumulation. Thus, each of the tenants is readily identified by her garbage. What the garbage reveals about the tenant over a period of time enables the janitor to make intimate judgments about her.


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Chicago: "Janitors Versus Tenants: A Status-Income Dilemma1," American Journal of Sociology in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W. (New York: American Book Company, 1962), Original Sources, accessed July 20, 2019,

MLA: . "Janitors Versus Tenants: A Status-Income Dilemma1." American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 57, in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, edited by Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W., New York, American Book Company, 1962, Original Sources. 20 Jul. 2019.

Harvard: , 'Janitors Versus Tenants: A Status-Income Dilemma1' in American Journal of Sociology. cited in 1962, Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. , American Book Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 July 2019, from