Working Futures

Permanent Fellow Bénédicte Zimmermann gives the starting signal for a new research network based at the Wissenschaftskolleg

One of the aims of the Wissenschaftskolleg is to act as an incubator for new research questions and approaches. It is in that very spirit that the Kolleg – in close cooperation with the International Research Center Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History (“re:work”) – has engaged in the creation of an international and interdisciplinary network of leading experts. Its aim is to stimulate and internationally coordinate innovative research on one of the central questions of our time: work and its futures.

While it is obvious that the sphere of work worldwide is going through fundamental transformations, one might wonder how the futures of work can still be a field for innovative inquiry – given the numerous academic as well as political programs, projects, and conferences in the last years. The fruitful debates that the scholars of the network had in the course of a first exploratory workshop in November 2018 have shown how many pressing questions remain without an answer.

The meeting made it clear that the potential of a broad collaborative effort lies in an equally comprehensive and empirically grounded approach to four core processes: “siliconization”, financialization, democratization, and ecologization. Whereas siliconization and financialization are expanding global trends, democratization and ecologization prove to be tentative and fragile, but not less important. Siliconization not only characterizes a technological process, i.e., the ongoing digitalization of the work sphere, but also a fundamental transformation of how people relate to work, in which existing regimes of autonomy and responsibility are being redefined. Financialization points to the multiple facets of the growing domination of financial activities over economic and social activities. It involves a widening gap between the remuneration of work and the returns on capital, but also post-Fordist modes of management that involve workers in the risk of their enterprise and make them privately responsible for their social security.

The concept of democratization helps to describe and analyze changing forms of workers’ participation, in relation to corporate governance and society at large. Finally, ecologization raises the issue of the impact of work on our natural environment and questions the sustainability of the model of economic growth. It invites us to think about the work of today with concern about the ecological debt it entails for further generations. Scholarly debates have so far treated these four processes separately or two by two, but they can only be fully understood when taking into account that their evolution and effects are entangled and interdependent.

To grasp the full scope of recent transformations and their implications for the future of work and societies at large, the network is multidisciplinary – involving historians, economists, sociologists, philosophers, management scholars, political scientists, and lawyers. Although its specificity is to be centered on a French-German nucleus, it aims to involve scholars from the entire world. At the meeting in November, Isaie Dougnon (Bamako) and Prabhu Mohapatra (Delhi), for example, contributed non-Western perspectives.

This widening of the horizon is particularly important at a moment in history that is characterized on the one hand by globalization on an unprecedented scale and on the other by nationalist rollbacks – be it in the economic, the political, or the intellectual realm. The stakes are thus high to contribute to a greater mutual understanding beyond cultural boundaries, to develop a shared language, and to thus nourish the national and international political debates on desirable futures. To this purpose, the kickoff meeting identified four blocks of concrete questions that the network will deal with in a first step: 1) the nature, purpose, and governance of the firm, 2) the role of work in identity-building, self-projections, and expectations, 3) work power relations and solidarity, and 4) skills and learning.

From what has been said, it is clear that the project also poses important epistemological challenges and involves the work of the social sciences on themselves, that is: on their analytical categories and tools of inquiry. The network aims to question the categories we use, such as “work”, “employment”, or “activity”, to show how these categories have emerged in historically situated contexts and have shaped the way we think about work today and for the future. What “work” means varies from one society to another and from one historical context to another. This implies a reflection on the shifting boundaries of our categories. Moreover, these questions require rethinking our methodological tools and the way the historical and social sciences capture “work” as well as “the future”. Only on such solid epistemological foundations will it be possible to undertake comparative research on a global scale.


Next events of the network:

23/24 May 2019: Workshop on Workers’ Voice and Corporate Governance

14/15 November 2019: Workshop on Work as a Key for Solidarity and Power Relations