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Globalisation and everyday working life

Research project We are comparing the everyday working lives and domestic lives of workers employed by a European transnational company at its production sites in Europe, South America, and Africa.

Head of project

Nora Räthzel

Project overview

Project period:

2005-01-01 2007-12-31


Finansår , 2005, 2006, 2007

huvudman: Nora Räthzel, finansiar: VR, y2005: 1000, y2006: 1000, y2007: 980,

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences

Research area

Gender studies, Human geography, Sociology

Project description

In order to bridge the gap between empirical research that does not consider its global context and theories lacking empirical grounding, we want to research the everyday lives of workers in one European transnational Corporation in Europe, South Africa and South America. It has been argued that the new forms of production change the ways of working and living in significant ways: Flexibility, life-long learning, flat hierarchies, an increase of social competence have been diagnosed as the results of new working processes and new work organisation, together with a change of experiencing, new forms of politics, and new relationships between work and leisure. People are said to have become much more mobile, moving not only between jobs but also between geographical places. The aim of our project is to investigate the changing ways of life of employees on all levels of the existing hierarchies. How do workers/employees/managers experience and understand the global changes influencing their everyday lives in the work place, in the private domain and in their social activities? How do they experience the different national and local conditions within which they work for the same global company? How do they construct their gender, ethnic, and class identities within specific places in a globalised context?

“In America rationalisation has determined the need to elaborate a new type of man suited to the new type of work and productive process”, wrote Antonio Gramsci 1927. The notion of the “new type of man” implied that working processes engage the entire personality. Thus, individuals have to transform their ways of living, that is the relationship between working time and leisure time, between body and mind, forms of communication, ways of experiencing society and of intervening into it. Gender relations and family forms have to change in order for individuals to not only cope with, but to thrive within the new forms of production. Fordism was the concept coined by Gramsci to describe the efforts undertaken by Ford to control and shape not only the way in which his workers worked but also the ways in which they led their private lives. Sexual relations, family life, and consumption had to be shaped in a way that made workers fit for a Taylorised work process. While Weber analysed Protestantism as the religious culture producing the characters able to develop the Capitalist mode of production, Gramsci saw “Puritanism” as a means to shape qualified craftsmen into Taylorist workers. “The employee who goes to work after a night of excess is no good for his work. The exaltation of passion cannot be reconciled with the timed movements of productive motions connected with the most perfected automatism”(Gramsci 1927/1971: 305).

Does the new type of production dominant today, does the globalised, informational economy require a new type of men and women? It has been argued that late modernism and/or postmodernism augments individualisation, that the “mode of experiencing” has changed, engendering a culture of “virtual reality”. Flexibility, life long learning, flat hierarchies, an increase of social competence have been diagnosed as the results of new working processes and new work organisation, seen to favour women’s inclusion into the labour process. The aim of this project is to investigate the changing ways of life applying a biographical perspective from below. We want to look at the ways in which workers experience and make sense of their lives in the context of a globalised working place. Do they experience any changes in their lives and how do they describe and define them? How do they experience the workplace, the relationship between working life and domestic life, gender and ethnic relations? How do they experience spatial relations, their local neighbourhoods in relation to other places, which they know through direct experience or through forms of representation? How do they intervene into their living conditions – through traditional political parties, trade unions, new social movements, neighbourhood organisations, or through individualised forms of adaptation or resistance?

1. Work processes

Between 1977 and 1984 the main applicant of this research proposal was a member of the research project: Automation and Qualification at the Freie Universität Berlin. We studied the impact of automation on the qualifications, work content, co-operation of workers and on the hierarchical structures of the work place. Our results, based on in-depth investigations in over 60 enterprises in different sectors of industry and services suggested that the process and its impact on workers was highly contradictory: while on the one hand qualifications increased, co-operation became more horizontal and workers’ control over the work process as a whole augmented, on the other hand the working force split into those who were happy to work with the new technologies and others who opposed it, either because it made workers superfluous or because they felt incapable of fulfilling the new demands (Projekt Automation und Qualifikation 1978ff). Since we published the results of our study, changes in technology have accelerated and different dimensions of the work process have become more integrated on a global level. There are many studies analysing the effect of these latest changes on workers and work organisation, yet most of them rely either on quantitative surveys or derive their results from the analysis of technologies and work organisation. There is a lack of research focusing on the ways in which workers experience these changes and therefore a lack of knowledge on strategies of resistance, adaptation or transformation.

2. Globalisation

Though contested, “globalisation” has become a trademark of theories trying to understand the era we live in. The most comprehensive investigation of what he calls “network society” has been provided by Castells (1996f.), covering technologies, enterprises, trade, social identities, social movements, and state policies. Without expressing it, he follows the idea of Gramsci to look at the interconnectedness of economic, political, and everyday relations (which he calls “relationships of experience”) to understand the specific characteristics of the new societies. He sees the transformation of the relationships of experience mainly occurring through the crisis of patriarchialism, the “root of a profound redefinition of family, gender relationships, sexuality, and thus, personality.” (Castells 1997: 379). The regulation theorists or Post-Fordists have developed a theoretical framework including labour processes, politics of enterprises, relationships between branches, industrial relations, markets, national politics, and cultures of consumption, to undertake diachronic and synchronic analyses of the new “production regimes” (Aglietta 1997, Amin 1994, Hirsch 1995, Jessop 2001, Lipietz 1992). However, they concentrate on questions of modes of production and the character and politics of the state, and the character of urban and regional developments without paying too much attention to workers’ lives either within or outside the working place. Missing in all these accounts is an empirical analysis of how the transformations described take place in the everyday lives of individuals experiencing them.

On the other side of the research spectrum we find empirical research on globalisation which remains paradoxically local, failing to look at and theorise the connections between localities and their global positionings (see Cohen/Kennedy 2000). There is a serious gap between the theorisation of global processes and its empirical investigation. Consequently, the impacts these processes have on workers and on reproducing or challenging hierarchical social relations such as class, gender, and ethnicity are not well understood. An exception are feminists studies focusing on globalised working lives of migrant women, mostly as domestic workers or sex worker(Ehrenreich/Hochschild 2002, Anderson 2000, Lamphere et. al., Petman/Jindy 1996). Another noteworthy exception is the work of Michael Burawoy and his colleagues (2000). Michael Burawoy leads a group of graduate students to analyse their specific cases as situated in the context of globalised economies and globalised cultures. The general question that informs each of them is also at the centre of our own research: how do individuals experience the changes imposed on them through the new forms of the global mode of production? Which forms of adaptation or resistance do they develop and what are the specific conditions for their respective practices?

Project Description

a. Theoretical points of departure

The gap between the theorisation of globalisation and its empirical investigation can be justified depending on the aim of the respective research. A structural analysis of economic and political developments may well forego a more concrete analysis of the ways in which these structures are lived, reproduced and transformed in the everyday. If we want to focus our own research on the latter it is because we are interested in the ways in which individuals are formed and form themselves in new ways and in their capacity for changing the conditions under which they live. We follow the programme that Henri Lefèbvre formulated in his “Critique of Everyday Life”: “… it is in everyday life and starting from everyday life that genuine creations are achieved, those creations which produce the human and which men produce as part of the process of becoming human: works of creativity. … The human world is not defined simply by the historical, by culture, by totality or society as a whole, or by ideological and political superstructures. It is defined by this intermediate and mediating level: everyday life.” (Lefèbvre 2002: 44f). According to Lefèbvre, if one is interested in the possibilities of change, it is necessary to study everyday life, since it is only there – despite its repetitiveness – that “genuine changes” take place (Lefèbvre 1992: 137). Using Lefèbvre’s insights into the character and importance of everyday life we want to connect the Post-Fordist approach (based on Gramsci’s analyses of Fordism), showing that a production regime includes (among others) a distinctive type of labour process and a distinctive type of societalisation with Cultural Studies’ insistence on the importance of the ways in which individuals make sense of their living conditions for understanding their accommodation to or resistance against these conditions. Further, we draw on feminist and postcolonial theories, promoting the necessity to include the gendered and ethnicised power relations of practices and structures, while pushing them beyond their concern with women and/or “ethnic minorities”. In order to do so, we follow the concept of the “extended case method” developed by Burawoy: “The extendend case method applies reflexive science to ethnography in order to extract the general from the unique, to move from the ‘micro’ to the ‘macro’ and to connect the present to the past in anticipation of the future, all by building on pre-existing theory.”(1998:5). Within the context of these theoretical frameworks our focus will be on the actions of individuals towards their globalised working and living conditions.

b. Specification of research areas and research questions departing from the everyday leads us to investigate three major axes, as they intersect in the lives of individuals:

1. The relationship between the local and the global. How do individuals experience and act towards interventions of global actors (industrial and cultural enterprises for instance) intervening into their local lives?

2. The relationship between working, domestic, and political life. How do individuals relate these different aspects of their lives and which kind of logic of action do they follow in the different domains?

3. The relationship between the social positionings of individuals in terms of gender, ethnicity, class and space (margins/centre). How do individuals transform their conflicting social positionings into new understandings of the self? Is there a trend towards the “flexible personality” or do we find new combinations of stability and flexibility in constructions of the self and the other?

There are basically four domains of practices we need to look at in order to investigate the intersections of the relationships mentioned above. Though we expect these domains to still constitute separate sets of practices, our hypothesis is that the boundaries between them are blurring and that they influence each other in ways that are to be examined.

1.Gendered, ethnic, and class specific working lives: hierarchies, work content, vertical and horizontal co-operation. These make up the localised work experience in a globalised context.

2.The diaspora lives of migrant workers within and outside work, including migrant managers. These account for the experience of transcending local boundaries and for forming multiple local attachments.

3. Domestic life in terms of gendered, ethnic, and class specific practices. These are the localised domestic experiences in a globalised context, in which individuals redefine their family lives, body practices and sexual relations.

4. Political activities including trade unions, social movements, parties, neighbourhood activities, and other new forms of social intervention. Here we want to look at forms of practising citizenship in the more complex and diversified societies in which we live today.

c. Methods

The following methods will be used:
1. Oral history accounts of workers including the history and presence of their working, domestic and political life.
2. Analyses of archives, publications and other documents to complement the oral testimonies concerning the histories and present functioning of the plants.
3. Observation of working processes, including discussions with workers about their tasks, scope of responsibilities, forms of co-operation, and skills.
4. Interviews with members of the management about decision processes, work organisation, global and internal policies.
5. Analysis of research on the history and present state of labour markets, economies, politics in the countries under investigation.
6. Analysis of the research on the history of the cities under investigation: changes in character of work force, dwelling patterns, development of public spaces.

Ethical considerations

In our case the ethical consideration that is necessary is to ensure the anonymity of our informants and to make sure they agree with the usage we make of the data acquired either through oral inquiry or through the written documents we are able to obtain. We will comply with all necessary ethical requirements.

Preliminary Results

As already mentioned above, the main applicant has been involved in a long-term project investigating the ways in which workers experience and deal with technological changes. Some of the results we obtained twenty years ago sound like anticipations of what is widely discussed today: apart from a broad knowledge of the production process and of the electronic control of the machines, we observed that the new demands included expectations concerning the character of the workers: they were supposed to be accurate and precise, but also quick and improvising in times of crises and breakdowns. They had to be “men without qualities” (Musil 1992), adjusting their behaviour to the needs of the production process. Due to the fact that changes were imposed on workers, instead of being influenced and shaped by their interests changes, which could have improved working conditions, often increased contradictions and conflicts between workers on different hierarchical levels and in different sections of the production process. While automation relieved workers from the need to employ physical strength and thus devalued the justifications given for gender divisions at work, such divisions quickly reappeared in different but no less hierarchical forms. While work hours became more flexible, this led to the intrusion of work into the private sphere, thus blurring the borders between working and domestic life.

The research project we propose here is also aimed at comparing the results of our earlier study with the present working situation: how have historical developments solved or sharpened the conflicts and contradictions we analysed 20 years ago?


Given the lack of research into the ways in which workers experience and make sense of their changing living conditions imposed by the globalised informational economy, our study will hopefully open up a field of study that needs to be investigated in order not only to understand, but also to make interventions into the development of global working and living conditions. The effects of the new global economic and political processes on workers’ lives inside and outside the working place can only be challenged if workers themselves act to transform their living conditions. If Henri Lefèbvre is right to claim that the everyday life is not only the space of reproduction but also the space where genuine change takes places, then it is essential to know more about the ways in which individuals live and make sense of their everyday lives in order to understand if and to which degree they will be prepared to resist and transform the effects of globalisation to improve their ways of life.

Latest update: 2024-04-02