Work Life: Flexibility, Globalization, Life-Project and Identity

Andrew Dawson & Carla Dahl-Jørgensen

Andrew Dawson

Professor of Anthropology and Director of Development Studies
University of Melbourne

Carla Dahl-Jørgensen

Professor of Anthropology and Manager of the Community of Organizational Anthropology
National University of Science and Technology, Trondheim

In 2001 The Royal Ministry of Labour and Government Affairs in Norway appointed a national committee to evaluate and revise the Work Environment Act (WEA) of 1977. This was prompted by the reality of the massive changes taking place in the labour market. At the route of such changes were two processes. On one level, accelerating globalization and internationalization of the world economy meant that Norwegian companies were exposed increasingly to international competition, and companies were also increasingly off-shoring, outsourcing and relocating business functions to different parts of the world. On another level, there was a marked decline of employment in the manufacturing/industrial sector and in manual jobs generally in comparison with employment in the service sector. The demands that these processes bring to work life are reflected discursively in a buzz-word of the era – ‘adaption’. As the mandate for change to the WEA itself stated, “The key words for today’s companies and the individual worker is adaptation”. And, in this vein, the updated and subsequently implemented 2006 version of the WEA incorporated a number of policy changes related to work that were tied to a key concept – “flexibility.”

Prior to the release of the new act there were heated discussions among key actors concerned with issues of work life, such as civil servants, politicians, trade unions, employers’ representatives, etc. The biggest related to the liberalization of working hours, the increased use of overtime and also the increased use of temporary workers. Debate in Norway, echoed in countries worldwide, was polarized. Such changes were viewed either as a prerequisite for survival in the global market, or a means by which the rights of workers are eroded. Debate about greater flexibility in working hours is a case in point. In Norway women constitute a remarkably high proportion of the labour force. This fact was used by advocates of flexibility to champion its merits. It enabled, so the argument went, a more healthy balance between work and family/leisure lives. In contrast, labour unions feared that flexibility would simply allow employers to place more employees on short-term and part-time contracts. This would, in turn, transform radically the nature of workers’ affiliation to their workplaces, rendering them insecure, contingent and peripheral. Ironically, it was pointed out, it was women who would perhaps suffer the most, because of their proliferation in part-time occupations. And finally, it was pointed out, these arguments for the merits of flexibility rarely took into account whether people actually preferred it over permanent, secure and full time employment.

The concerns of labour unions about flexibility have been articulated further, enhanced and developed, particularly in relation to questions of social order  by several academics, especially in the disciplines of anthropology and sociology. Notably, in 1998 in his ground-breaking book The Corrosion of Character Richard Sennett claimed that flexibility was ruining our work lives. Unable to work in the same company for many years or unable to practice the same trade over an extended period, work life becomes characterised by loss of predictability, an erosion of the solidity of relations between co-workers and with bosses, and diminishing commitment and loyalty to the occupation and employer. Taking his observation further he argues that this new kind of working milieu renders stable narration of ones work life, and identity, more difficult to maintain. Previously, in the era of industrialism, people were able to focus on their ‘careers’, and these careers functioned as the backbone of their identity. In contrast, flexibility and the flux and uncertainty it brings, problematizes identity itself.

Similarly, reflecting on these processes, seminal thinkers Ulrich Beck (1992) Zigmunt Bauman (1998, 2001) and Emily Martin (2000) have directed their attentions to how modern individuals build “secure personal identities.” A characteristic feature in all of their work is an emphasis upon how social consumption constitutes increasingly a new basis for social order, replacing the “productive” order which was the basis in the earlier phase of capitalism, and an emphasis on how consumption rather than, as in the past, production becomes a primary resource for identity construction. Furthermore, adding to Sennett’s concern with flexibility each of these authors highlight the challenges posed by accelerating globalization and processes of impersonalization. Notably, in Flexible Survivors Martin (2000) observes that the first half of the 20th century was characterised by the positive virtues of discipline and control. These virtues were seen as necessary precisely because of the requirements of work in industrial settings, settings that required stability and solidity. The industrial setting, with mass production, mass marketing, hierarchical structures and so forth had a model of the ideal worker as “passive, stable, consistent and acquiescent”, a “disciplined worker” whose identity was securely “forged” in the workplace (ibid). She continues, the advent of the internationalization and globalization of labour and markets, the emergence of a more competitive arena both for companies and employees, and the advent of flat-organizational structures and, of course, flexibility, all characteristics of the current era, have profoundly affected our concepts of personhood. The individual may still be the owner of himself or herself, but the changes one confronts are ever more rapid such that the former requirement for the disciplined person is now replaced by a requirement for the  “adapting person” (ibid). And Martin’s view of this adapting person is, in many respects bleak – the adaptive attitude of modern times has resonances with pathological mental conditions wrought often by constant change - manic depression, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and the like. Taking such observations into account alongside the fact that adaption is increasingly a requirement, the modern worker and person is evocatively characterised by Martin a “flexible survivor” (ibid).

These issues of modern working life, of its subjection to processes of globalization and flexibility, and their impacts on personhood, on life project and identity, are the framing concerns of this special issue. Most of the articles it encloses focus on the Norwegian workplace, both as it is manifested in the global ecumene and as the global ecumene in reflected in it. However, comparative examples are drawn from a range of contexts, including the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Poland, Bosnia & Herzegovina and, in an ethnographic study of mariners, worldwide. Thematically, it is divided into four interconnected sections. Articles by Marietta L. Baba and Carla Dahl-Jørgensen, Turid Sætermo, and Jens Røyrvik & Olav Eggebø, deal with that most geographically extreme form of flexibility required of workers in a globalized world – migration. The articles by Marte F. Giskeødegård, Benedicte Brøgger, and Kirsti S. Anthum consider the realities of work life in the globalizing workplace. The articles by Emil A. Røyrvik, Anne Sigfrid Grønseth, and Andrew Dawson, under the heading of work life, insecurity and its discontents, explore the structural bases and cultural manifestations, particularly in the form resurgent fundamentalist and ultra-nationalist identities, of changing work lives. Finally, and in optimistic contrast to this, in a section entitled, work, leisure and cosmoplitanism, Nigel Rapport and Jonathan Skinner consider the potentiality for new and constructive forms of identity and morality to emerge, both in work and in leisure, in the flexible work place and globalized world. More specifically:

In an important article that sets the (institutional) stage for several other contributions in the special issue Marietta L. Baba and Carla Dahl-Jørgensen consider the institutional forces that have contributed to labour migration, focusing on a case study of labour migrants from Poland to Norway in the mid-2000s. Following an informative overview of contemporary institutional theory they use the case study to illuminate a range of particularly contemporary forms of institutional force that shape labour migrations amongst individuals and groups in the context of the receiving country. The research provides a fascinating juxtaposition of different institutional forces in sending and receiving nations, and how these interact and, in turn, contribute to the transnational flows of migration.

Turid Sætermo consider’s the state practice of adjusting immigration regulations to satisfy labour market demands and, in particular the increasing deployment of points systems for immigration qualification. In Canada - her case study - the system is both fluid through time and variable between states. Increasingly then, immigrants are faced with complex choices, both in terms of the multiple possible immigration entry paths that they might choose to follow, and the ways in which they must represent themselves in order to successfully follow them. She points out that, “knowing how to migrate” becomes increasingly important. Studies focusing on either of the formal or informal dimensions of a burgeoning ‘migration industry’ that provides such knowledge are commonplace. Contrastingly, in this novel account, and through a detailed case study of one Venezualan migrant woman and her family, Sætermo illustrates how some migrants use their own “special competence” in migration matters that they once shared informally with other would-be immigrants to become official migration agents themselves.

In a thought-provoking article Jens Røyrvik & Olav Eggebø explore the lives of staff on marine support vessels in the offshore oil industry. Here is a category of border crossers par excellence, a group who swap employment categories and transcend the borders of nation-states on a more or less continual basis. Moreover, the borders they cross are ambiguous – at sea and subject to changes wrought by fluctuating international agreements. In many senses these people are international migrants, as that category is defined conventionally both in the academy and by nation-states, as involving relocation from one nation-state to another. However, in most respects, the category of migrant as it is conventionally articulated fails woefully in reprsenting their experience. Here, in contrast to a sedentarist assumption of belonging implicit in such approaches, is a group of people who feel at home in multiple locations, in the very process of movement itself and, particularly, in the social relations developed through that movement. Here, in contrast to the vision of the movement involved in migration as being essentially problematic and atypical, is a group of people who thrive on movement. Here, in contrast to a view of the world in which populaces are controlled and ‘placed’ by nation-states are a group of people whose movement between such contexts is enabled by organizations – oil companies – that, in many respects, transcend and are more powerful than those very nation-states. It is this tension between movement and migration that lies, analytically, at the heart of Røyrvik and Eggebø’s article, and, though polemical in its approach, it offers exciting glimpses of new ways of conceptualizing the global movements through work that are an ubiquitous feature of present times.


Marte F. Giskeødegård considers the experiences of employees and the personnel practices of managers in a US branch of a Norwegian international company, with a view to understanding more broadly how the liberal market and coordinated market forms of capitalism typical of these respective contexts intersect. The paper bears testament to the values of reflexive ethnography. The author (a citizen of social democratic Norway) conveys personally and powerfully the inequities, insecurities and inhumanities of employment in the US. In one particularly evocative passage, for example, she illuminates the normalcy of labour dispensability as it is reflected in company “staffing updates” that alert employers not to people, but to “new hires” and to those who have been fired as merely “no longer with us.” However, the system she describes is also fraught with contradictions and complexities. For example, the fear of lawsuits provides, paradoxically, a degree of worker protection, and, more tellingly, the employment practices of the company’s mother country have their impacts too. These are not always universally welcomed, with employers and employees alike complaining of social democratic drawbacks – committee decision-making, protection of incompetence and the like. However, they also bring gains. For example, they have resulted in more generous systems of leave entitlement that, interestingly, hint at a hybridisation of liberal market and coordinated market capitalism in such contexts. As Giskeødegård concludes, “the company changes from the form it has in the mother country as it adapts to the labour realities of the context it is in, but, nonetheless, differs markedly from other American companies.”

While Giskeødegård investigates the Norwegian company in the globe, so to speak, Benedicte Brøgger’s interest is in the impacts of globalization in the Norwegian workplace. Echoing Robertson’s insistence that globalization must be understood in the multiple social settings of its manifestation, Brøgger describes in ethnographic detail its impacts on a wholesale retail warehouse. We learn how the variety of merchandise is multiplied, how labour is internationalized, how tasks are complexified and then, in turn, subjected to rationalized and computerized systems of planning. However, her principal interest is in how these changes, and globalization in general, is apprehended by the workforce. She argues in conclusion that it comes across as “another world”, one that does not necessarily “compete with national, local or company discourses”, but offers possibilities for people “to become aware of and transcend….taken-for-granted assumptions”, and opens new “venues for dialogue” between workers and management. Indeed, she speculates that while the global may be experienced as little more than a vague ‘out there’ presence, it may also provide the basis for new kinds of economic and political transformation.

In a timely reminder of the enduring value of more traditional anthropological perspectives and concerns Kirsti S. Anthum explores the roles of ritual, symbolism and metaphor in the structuring of work amongst elite software programmers in the ultra-modern context of an Internet company. Her foci are not accidental, for, as she points out, each is consciously deployed on a day-to-day basis in such organizations. For example, metaphor, particularly that drawn from the world of sport, provides a cognitive framework for conceptualizing the production process – people work in ‘teams’ and deploy a methodology known as ‘scrumming’ that is characterized by delineated timeframes that are referred to as ‘sprints’. However, the paper is concerned largely with the articulation of an etic metaphor to convey the company’s structure – the scorpion. Here is an organism whose nervous system consists of paired cords running through a fractured body to the brain, each of whose segments, nonetheless, contain a piece of the heart. But here also is an organism with a sting in its tale, much like the less humane liberal capitalistic qualities of the company that its self-descriptive, self generated and somewhat sporty and rosy metaphors – matrix, network and, of course, scrum - conceal. Following this, and with considerable descriptive flair, Anthum turns to her second theme, the ritual-like quality of the work process. It mirrors, she demonstrates, the three-stages typical of rites de passage. And, most importantly, like communitas, its various ‘times-out’ provide space for creativity. Reflecting back on one of the lesser celebrated qualities of rites de passage as described by Van Gennep - their utility in mediating life-crisis situations - she depicts their deployment in the workplace as enabling employees to handle the harsh realities of the liberal capitalist milieu they face. Completing the circle of her analysis then, rites de passage are an antidote to the poisonous sting in the scorpion’s tail.

While each of the articles thus far are concerned with exploring workplace relations in the context of accelerating globalization, Emil A. Røyrvik’s is a meditation on the very condition of that context as it has emerged since World War II through to the present. It is an often frightening and dystopic image that Røyrvik paints. At the heart of his analysis is a concern with how U.S. imperialism and global hegemony have been sustained. He identifies two key, and increasingly converging, processes that have enabled this. At one level, ‘economic-financial securitization’ has taken place. Developed initially as a strategy to overcome structural crisis in the 1970s, the expansion in leverage and volume of financial capital has led, above all, through its impacts of radically dispossessing and negatively redistributing wealth, to a securing of the preeminent position of the financial class. At another level, the era is characterized by a process of ‘political-military securitization’, in which extraordinary measures are increasingly deployed and justified in the name of security. The current War on Terror is a prime example. Thus far, as Røyrvik recognizes, his thesis resonates with (and perhaps constitutes a timely application of) Tilley’s thesis of war-making and state-making as protection rackets. However, its startling conclusions resonate more with Baumann’s ‘liquid modern’ thesis. As Røyrvik demonstrates convincingly, while the ostensible intensions of these processes may have been security, of U.S. imperialism particularly, the effect has been the generation of greater insecurity – wrought through, for example, growing inequality, the economic instability brought by the exponential growth of financial derivatives in contrast to declining GDPs and, in an era that promises freedom from them, the intensification of fear and distrust. Røyrvik labels what is happening as a “securitization of the social” that leads, in turn, to a “sociality of securitization”.

The modern condition in which the intended reduction of fear through processes of securitization produces new bases for and forms of fear is one implicit within Anne Sigfrid Grønseth’s article. Her concern is with the experiences of Tamil immigrants who have moved from their initial place of settlement in Norway on the northernmost arctic coast to the capital city of Oslo. She draws a picture of marginality, particularly in the labour market, as these immigrants are admitted almost exclusively into low status “dirty work”. As a consequence socially, Grønseth argues, they become stigmatized as part of a larger underclass that is seen to be characterized by “flawed” forms of consumption, and existentially they feel deprived of the opportunity of being confirmed as social persons. In response, the immigrants turn to ethnically particular forms of consumption and sociality where, as Grønseth puts it, “they can experience themselves”. These processes are much the same in the two contexts, with the exception that the possibilities for such forms of consumption and sociality are much more diverse and available in the city. Grønseth concludes with a stark warning that these processes are likely to engender hitherto unseen, at least in Norway, forms of fundamentalism.

The starting point for Andrew Dawson’s article, ‘Farewell Cosmopolitan Workplace’, is the very structural crises of the 1970s discussed by Røyrvik, and its end point is a consideration of a form of fundamentalism, the likes of which Grønseth is concerned. Dawson charts the unraveling of the former-Yugoslavia from its incorporation within the global political economy.  Like Anthum, who brings traditional modes of anthropological concern and theory to bear in the analysis of the global workplace, Dawson then goes on, through an intricate symbolic analysis of a key national myth and its use in the conceptualization of everyday experience, both by the state and by his principal research subject, a displaced and underemployed Serbian man, to offer an alternative approach to the conceptualization of radical nationalism in these times of economic collapse. At the widest levels, for example, Serbian nationalism is often articulated as an anti-globalization discourse. At the smallest levels, in the life of his principal research subject, for example, it is, like the form of fundamentalism discussed by Grønseth, a response to existential crises wrought by under-employment and downward mobility. As Dawson puts it, “in these times of….post-communist subjection to the insecurities and humiliations of late capitalist forms of working life….rather than furnishing an idiom of waiting for future national expansion” myth “furnishes an idiom simply of being”.
Nigel Rapport’s article, ‘Civil Work: Working to Overcome Difference’, is, apparently, a significant departure from others in this special issue, most of which offer empirical and/or theoretical investigations of work in conditions of globalization. Framed by a concern to face the challenges wrought by accelerating globalization, his is a philosophical treatise that presents both a powerful critique of moral and cultural relativism and a vision of their alternatives. It is in this latter respect where his principal concern with work lies – in the work entailed in developing a “global ethic of morality and justice”. The underpinnings for this are found in the writings of Ernest Gellner on science and knowledge, C.P. Snow on magnanimity, and J.S. Mill on individuality. Through his exposition and application of their ideas Rapport is himself, of course, participating in the very work that he identifies – of developing a “cosmopolitan anthropology”, as he describes it. And it is a project in which other participants in this special issue might also be seen to be contributing their intellectual labour towards. For, as Rapport reminds us directly and other authors in the special issue remind us through their rich empirical and theoretical accounts of real-life workplaces in a milieu of globalization, work can be a medium that, in Rapport’s words, translates “the particular into the universal” and, thereby, “difference and distance into the sameness of a shared life-world.”

And nowhere is such potentiality illuminated more brightly that in the final paper of this special issue on ‘Work Life: Flexibility, Globalization, Life-Project and Identity’ by Jonathan Skinner. It is built around five ethnographic case-studies of people for whom Salsa dancing has become an, in some cases all-consuming, passion. In a historically and theoretically situated account, Skinner explores the complex relationships of his subjects’ fascinating work and leisure lives. Salsa is, variously, a form of escape, a sport that is (in a mirror image of Anthum’s observations of the IT workplace) suffused with work-life metaphor, a leisure-time pursuit that sometimes becomes, as technique on the dance floor in perfected, a form of work, and a thing to be carefully managed (often through the use of IT) so that, in their quest for more, more, more and still more Salsa, these devotees can travel far and wide, between the UK, Ireland, France and the US in their cases. And these travels form merely one dimension of the Salsa-scene that, according to Skinner, affords the potential for self-transformation. At journey’s end they make new ‘homes’ of the dance floor and meet an array of people who are, by dint of ethnicity, class or sexual preference, for example, apparently very different to themselves. But, in fact, so they come to discover through dance, they are not! Skinner shows how, through the rhythmic entanglements of their bodies, his subjects experience a sense of ‘indistinction’. This provides the grounding for what he labels a ‘carnival cosmopolitanism’, a thing of “ludic, temporary, carnal and playful disorder” that enables people to feel less like themselves and “more like each other” and that encourages tolerance for the other regardless of “faiths, backgrounds and sexualities.”

We wish to acknowledge The Trondheim Biennial Colloquium in Social Anthropology for enabling this special issue.



Bauman, Z. (1998) Work, Consumerism and the New Poor (Buckingham: Open University Press

Bauman, Z. (2001) The Individualized Society (Cambridge: Polity Press)

Beck, U. 1992  Risk  Society (London: Sage)

Martin, E. (2000)  “Flexible Survivors” in Cultural Values, Vol. 4, no 4 (October), pp. 512-517.

Sennett, R. 1998  The Corrosion of Character (New York: W. W. Norton & Company)