How do collective academic projects come into being? Behind the polished acknowledgment sections that one usually finds on the first pages of published books and articles, the dynamics of co-authored intellectual enterprises are often more convoluted – and possibly more interesting. The story behind our article “Work and Identity in an Era of Precarious Employment: How Workers Respond to “Personal Branding” Discourse,” recently published in Work and Occupations, is no exception.
First, the story itself. Our project began with a regular session at the ASA meetings in Chicago. One of us (Angèle) was presenting a paper called “Living in the Market: How Freelance Journalists Manage Careers and Reputations in the United States and France.” The paper used ethnographic methods to compare web journalists in Paris and New York. A key part of the paper concerned the meanings these web writers gave to their work, which required them to engage in a conscious effort to accumulate clicks and followers, a vital symbolic currency in the digital landscape. The American journalists tended to view their audience-promotion efforts through the prism of “personal branding,” a discourse that the Parisian journalists rejected, even though the actual work situations of the two groups were virtually identical. Angèle’s study thus showed how meanings and attitudes could vary sharply even as the very tasks, tools, and work situations of web journalists increasingly converged across national borders.
To explain her findings, Angèle alluded to the explanatory power of Michel Foucault’s work on neoliberalism and subjectivity. It was this thread, coupled with Angèle’s discussion of personal branding, that piqued the interest of Steven, an audience member listening to her talk. (Interestingly, Angèle recognized him from the picture featured on his webpage, which she had looked up beforehand to find out more about his research; not unlike the situation in web journalism, online visibility plays a role in academia as well).
Steven had been interviewing long-term or precariously employed white collar workers in Boston, and had also come upon the importance of personal branding. The question and answer period in the session provoked mutual interest. We exchanged email addresses and promised to stay in touch – and, miraculously, we did! We followed up with multiple emails in which we mused about the transformation of work in the new economy and the growing importance of personal branding. We agreed to try to find a way to weave our projects together, allowing each strand in our research to complement the other, and, we hoped, providing a unique fabric as a result.
The appeal of this collaboration was not merely empirical, however; both of us are deeply committed to the pursuit of theoretically driven scholarship. Both of us see the value of Bourdieusian, institutionalist, and other traditions in economic sociology. And we were both perplexed that an equally important source of theoretical inspiration–Foucault’s theory of governmentality—has been somewhat underused in U.S. sociology, especially in the subfields of economic and organizational sociology. So we set about to juxtapose our findings to explore the value of Foucauldian insights, along with their limitations. As we set about drafting our conjoined results, we engaged in much back and forth about Foucault and his effort to theorize the importance of neoliberalism–a concern he addressed back in 1978 (well before the term “neoliberalism” had become the academic concept du jour). When we presented our paper the following year at the Economic Sociology preconference in Seattle, we were prepared for a skeptical reception, but the lively discussion that the presentation provoked turned out to be extremely helpful in refining our argument.
In our article, we argue that Foucault provides a particularly useful framework for making sense of personal branding–and, more generally, for analyzing the meanings attached to precarious and entrepreneurial employment in the current economic landscape. His emphasis on the rise of homo economicus as a type of orientation toward work and the self warrants greater attention that most sociologists have given it. The micro-political rituals that economic action increasingly requires –acts of self-promotion, of enhancing one’s presence on social media, and of positioning oneself within various status markets—are an increasingly crucial part of everyday work and social life. At the same time, we also note that Foucauldian theory itself stands in need of revision. In particular, we find that it needs a clearer conception of agency and resistance (both of which figure prominently in our study). In addition, we argue that Foucauldian scholars need to further engage in comparative and cross-national analysis in order better to understand the structural configurations that foster or inhibit the proliferation of neoliberal discourses in the contemporary era.
A last point that can perhaps be extracted from our piece stems from its adventitious origin. We kind of stumbled into this collaboration, but once it began, we came to wonder: why don’t sociologists engage in such blended research more often? Why do we not interweave our results in a more conscious and deliberate manner? To be sure, drawing on qualitative studies conducted independently of each other poses significant methodological challenges. Yet we felt that the intellectual and theoretical benefits of blending our two research projects largely overwhelmed the difficulties involved in bringing our findings together. At a time when academic careers are increasingly constrained by pressure towards specialization, this type of collaborative project may provide novel avenues for theory-building across empirical cases.
Steven Vallas and Angèle Christin, “Work and Identity in an Era of Precarious Employment: How Workers Respond to ‘Personal Branding’ Discourse,” Work and Occupations 2017.
Image: Ryan Rancatore via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)