Entangled worlds of labour

historical anthropology of labour, labour relations in Eastern Europe

Working models

My project explores how and why specific claims about the future of work acquire performative power in the present through their incorporation into economic models. Drawing on how economists in the field of labour economics write, teach, and advise, I aim to answer two core questions. First, how does the power to open or close certain futures hang upon the capacity of particular economic models to function as effective promissory utterances? Second, how does this performative power – in its most basic meaning of effecting things with words – depend on the possibility that certain social phenomena cannot be “modelled” at all?

I suggest we should look at the relationship between events-to-come and the models underpinning them as a material outcome of specific histories, practices, and representations. Revealing their articulating principles helps us understand why and how certain historical possibilities are foreclosed, and others find a fertile ground to thrive and give birth to new épistémès and technocratic concerns.

I further break down the analysis into four research objectives. First, the project maps the epistemological stances regarding the status of models in economics today. Second, it sheds light on how diverging visions of what a model does open radically different conditions of possibility for rethinking the foundations of our working futures. Third, the project analyses how, in return, different future of work imaginaries challenge the formalist-axiomatic understanding of the world that has dominated economic thinking since the 1970s. And fourth, it investigates how models are used to legitimate arguments about the future of work as “true”, “valid”, or “scientific”, building in the process a new “rule of experts”.

The project draws on archival research, interviews, as well as on a thorough analysis of methodological debates in labour economics in the last twenty years. The period chosen starts right before the 2007-2008 crisis, a crucial moment for the pluralist turn. I focus on labour economics for obvious reasons, this being the field where the future of work has been discussed most. Sampling the texts, the actors, and the knowledge centres to be examined will take into account three criteria: geographical and political decentring; diversity of intellectual orientations; and intensity of exchanges with decision makers.