Precariousness in relation: Collective sense-making as cruel optimism

Briken, K. (Speaker), Eleanor Kirk (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


This paper contributes to the debates around precariousness and its connected collaborative and affective relations (Neilson/Rossiter 2003). Distinguishing precariousness as relational, shared and ‘being-with’ with others, and precarity, the social positioning in regards to material resources (Butler 2004), we were interested in how workers themselves perceive what is seen as precarious work and life. How (if so) are processes of ‘othering’ constructed in workers’ narratives? What is their understanding of precarity?
Our aim was to overcome the reproduction of the individualizing moment engrained into neoliberal politics. We were interested in the collective sense-making of precarity, the shared understanding, and the relational lines of precariousness. Choosing group discussions within homogenous sectoral groupings (e.g. retail, logistics), reflects the partisan nature of our research, designed to create space for reflection on struggles and strategies, to develop ideas on what shared grievances and aspirations were. Local examples of action focussed the discussion on if and how the participants could similarly organise and act.
Our preliminary findings show that the lack of control over time in terms of when and how long to work, when and if being paid, in essence experiences of arbitrary dismissal and deactivation was the defining characteristic of precarity. Narratives included how workers constructed ‘others’ seen as more or less vulnerable. We experienced a strong sense of affective relations built in, around, and beyond work, in everyday life. Whether this is due to the social desirability in the group setting, justifying the meaning of work against the devaluating notion of precariousness, or if this is a sign of cruel optimism (Berlant 2011), is what the paper will also discuss. One observation is that for some members in the group this became the narrative of a ‘back to the future’ style, looking back to decisions, and how they made sense, being aware of the precariousness, taking into account all negatives but how they then today do no longer believe in their future past. In regards to methods, we focus on group led narratives inverting storytelling. Instead of sense-making and ‘identity’ work’, we were more interested in the future, in perspectives, and affective structures.
Period20 Aug 201923 Aug 2019
Event title14th European Sociological Association 2019: Boundaries, Barriers, and Belonging
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational