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Young men and the digital economy

Globalized urban precarity in Berlin and Abidjan examines urban youth’s practices of making do in digital economies, to understand how precarious working conditions reverberate in the coming of age in contemporary cities. Through a comparative analysis of the perspectives of young men working as airtime sellers in Abidjan and food delivery riders in Berlin, the book provides innovative analytical lenses to understand urban inequalities against the backdrop of current digital urban developments. Essentially, this ethnography challenges the easy conflation of instability with insecurity, and overcomes the centrality of wage labour in research on urban livelihood, by looking at a broader set of economic practices and relational mechanisms. The analysis shows how accruing symbolic capital, a feel for the game in contexts of ambiguity, and access to care are fundamental for explaining the unequal distribution of risks for socio-material insecurities in unstable work settings.

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The making of urban livelihood
Hannah Schilling

The introduction lays out the core questions of the book and sketches out the main themes discussed. What does it mean to make a living with ‘gigs’? In what way are inequalities reproduced in new forms of temporary, low-paid jobs in the digital economy? On the basis of in-depth interviews and participant observations with young men in their twenties and thirties, the book explores their making do in precarious jobs of the digital economy. It probes a comparative methodology to develop analytical lenses that allow discussion of the making of livelihood beyond modern standards of formal employment, welfare and status as self-accruing individuals. Young men’s practices of making do in the digital economy are at the focus to explore the role of symbolic economies in the reproduction of inequalities in globalized urban precarity.

in Globalized urban precarity in Berlin and Abidjan
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Airtime selling in Abidjan and food delivery in Berlin
Hannah Schilling

This chapter provides background information to help with understanding what the two cases of airtime sellers in Abidjan and food delivery riders in Berlin are about. To this end, the chapter first presents the research methodology. At the focus of the comparative case study are economic practices. In-depth interviews and participant observations with airtime sellers and food delivery riders were methods used to carve out practices of organizing livelihood. The coding process started with the material in Abidjan, which was used to further develop concepts relevant in this context to see how these mattered in Berlin too. The knowledge produced in this way is embedded in the researcher's own positionalities and relations to the interlocutors and the research context, as discussed in the second section of the chapter. After contextualizing the cases in methodological perspective, the chapter then embeds airtime selling and food delivery in the broader urban settings of Abidjan and Berlin respectively, while at the same time being sensitive to the cities’ (colonial) history.

in Globalized urban precarity in Berlin and Abidjan
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Inequality at work in comparative perspective
Hannah Schilling

This chapter elucidates the book's conceptual devices to study the reproduction of inequalities in contexts of globalized precarity. It begins with the rationale for the comparison: Abidjan and Berlin are not compared as urban sites as such; rather, the research compares economic practices. This enables reconsideration of how work matters for reproducing socio-material (in)securities in relational mechanisms. Subsequently, the chapter conceptualizes work as economic practice and situates economic practices in social inequalities. More precisely, it focuses on three social mechanisms as entry points to studying how inequalities are reproduced: social closure or opportunity hoarding, domination and exploitation. These three conceptual lenses structure the presentation of the findings, presented in the three subsequent chapters, which delve into the young men’s everyday lives and making do as airtime sellers and food delivery riders.

in Globalized urban precarity in Berlin and Abidjan
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The symbolic value of in-between work
Hannah Schilling

The third chapter focuses on the symbolic value of the activities for the young men to construct status. It shows how, in a context of apparent convenience and freedom, risks of enduring precarity result from processes of closure among workers. In both Berlin and Abidjan, young male workers were marginalized among co-workers if they valued the activity as their main occupation rather than simply as a bridge or parallel activity. Situating the temporal work in the long term, the chapter concludes that official certificates and institutionalized cultural skills were differently meaningful in both cases. In Berlin, they were functional elements in objectified mechanisms of social reproduction: for the urban youth in Berlin, presenting themselves to others as detached from work and celebrating flexibility concealed the importance of official qualifications for making a living. In Abidjan, official cultural resources and the pursuit of an economic activity served the investment in relationality – being and spending time with others – to gain ‘wealth in people’ (Guyer 1995; Vuarin 1994).

in Globalized urban precarity in Berlin and Abidjan
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Tying workers to work
Hannah Schilling

The fourth chapter analyses the airtime sellers’ and delivery riders’ relations to managers and dispatchers. In this way, the chapter decentres from the state as ‘rule-maker’ and monopoly of symbolic and physical violence, to overcome dichotomous views on (in)formal spheres of work. Rather, the chapter looks at regulatory practices. Law-like arrangements combine with personalized trust relations to organize relations of domination at work, which can put workers at risk of precarity. The comparative analysis points to the relevance of ‘ideas of the state’, i.e. how actors perceive and think of the state as a set of political practices (Abrams 1988). In Berlin, standardized rules represent official – or state – enunciations of authority. As such, actors share the belief in them as a legitimate reference against which work cooperation is organized. In Abidjan, the legitimacy of authority on the basis of personalized bonds reflects wider institutional normalcies in which actors see state institutions as institutions that utilize personal relations of domination as sources of authority.

in Globalized urban precarity in Berlin and Abidjan
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Distributive labour across private and public realms
Hannah Schilling

The fifth chapter contextualizes the work in the wider social relations of care. In a work context in which companies exploit workers’ labour but withdraw from any responsibility for risk, repair or recuperation, access to care is pivotal for understanding urban precarities. The analysis decentres social security from the welfare state, and instead analyses care practices more broadly, either as kin or in professionalized support relations (e.g. with state agents). The chapter compares the ways young dwellers use the sale of airtime or food delivery as ‘distributive labour’ (Ferguson 2015), to be able to make claims on resources in support relations. It shows variations in the ways kin and friendship ties are used to confront socio-material insecurities, and explains this by contextualizing how, historically, a particular separation of the public and domestic spheres has been institutionalized and used in mechanisms of secondary exploitation (Dörre and Haubner 2018).

in Globalized urban precarity in Berlin and Abidjan
Work to make oneself living
Hannah Schilling

The conclusion embeds the relevance of economies of symbolic goods in the debate on value making in the platform metropolis: capitalist accumulation extracts value from everyday life in cities. More specifically, how can we understand the intermingling of symbolic resources, the ‘non-economic’ with the market-like accruing of value, especially in contexts of commodification of labour and the workforce? The making of urban livelihoods fundamentally relies on favours, symbolic gestures and gifts, as illustrated by the practices of urban youths interviewed for this project. Technological change and the emergence of digitally mediated work does not make such ‘smoothing’ irrelevant. On the contrary, symbolic resources and relational mechanisms of honour and reputation also organize access to resources in the gig economy. The book argues that looking at the entanglement of economic practices makes it possible to see the implicit use of labour power, veiled in metaphors of a game, or of gifts, in urban digital economies. Moreover, the digital transformation in cities challenges urban dwellers’ opportunities for social reproduction. In a context of ‘permanent temporariness’, the importance of work as a means to construct status, reputation, honour – of building person value – remains fundamental, even if not bound into long-term careers as self-accruing individuals. The urban youth at the centre of this research, and their longing to bring themselves into play (with others), working, searching and collaborating, show that work is more than making a living: in the end it is about making oneself living (Ferguson and Li 2018).

in Globalized urban precarity in Berlin and Abidjan