While I respect the concept of this book to a point, it has definite flaws.
First and foremost is Barbara Ehrenreich's attitude towards the project. She puts herself on a very, very high horse - her attitude towards her 'coworkers' is condescending to say the least. She feels the need to constantly remind her audience that she doesn't NEED to be doing this, that she's doing it for our benefit (and for SCIENCE!) and thank heaven she's got a good job waiting for her back home. It's extremely irritating, and makes any empathy she seems to feel for her subjects ring hollow.
There's also the fact that she never tells the people she's studying that they're under a microscope. I don't mean to say she should've told them up front (the way Mitchell Duneier did in his excellent Sidewalk - the setup was totally different) but you'd think she'd have the integrity to inform these people what she was doing after she was done with it. She supposedly befriended these people and, I'm guessing, didn't want to hurt their feelings by letting them in on her little secret. It's a bit of a catch-22 - if she informed them they might be hurt, and if she didn't she'd be exploiting them. It seems to me that the first is more intellectually honest - how many psychologists conduct experiments on people and don't TELL them the nature of the experiment when it no longer matters?
I think the reason this book has been such a success (and it is a success - it's still selling steadily after having been in print for close to three years) is that the state of lower-class worker's lives comes as a bit of a shock to middle-class America. Ehrenreich knows this, knows her audience and panders to it. The history of the businesses she works for and their records of dealing with employee complaints is interesting (and hard) information in and of itself; her shock at it is not and is rather unnecessary.
I guess if I were being generous I could say that that's part of the point, that it's difficult to remain neutral when enmeshed in her particular (self-imposed, remember) situation, but that argument comes across as self-aggrandizing and trite. If she had broken down and helped some of the people she was studying instead of simply shaking her head at their situation, I might be able to pull something from the endeavor. As it is, her reaction sits badly with me, like the people who drove with their headlights on during the one year anniversary of September eleventh instead of actually doing something to help.
I believe Ehrenreich's concept was fundamentally flawed - she had to choose between using people the same way their employers do (but again, in the interests of SCIENCE!) to keep her data intact (an impossibility anyway in a situation as biased as hers) or being morally upright and compromising her integrity. She choose to stand up for the data and I find that to be...extremely sad.
I have to laugh - She proved her point in the opposite way than she intended.