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Precarity and Opportunity: Issues in Economic Anthropology


October 21-23


Prof. Peter Finke, UZH


Prof. Biao Xiang, MPI Halle, Germany

Prof. Bram Tucker, University of Georgia, US



Precarity has become a popular term in academia and beyond in recent times. It is most commonly used – going back to the seminal work by Bourdieu (1998) – to describe on-going developments on national and global labour markets, which are characterised by a retreat of the welfare state and a decline of bargaining power for employees due to threats of outsourcing as well a temporary contracts. Others use the term in a more ontological understanding of exposure and interdependence towards others, most pronouncedly advocated by Judith Butler (2004), where precarity refers to the differential distribution of vulnerability as a human constant. This broader usage clearly gives justice to a historically more grounded and less Eurocentric view at the world (Han 2018). While precarity entails at least the possibility of not gliding into misery, opportunity indicates an equally ambiguous category that promises high rewards without guaranteeing success or stability. As a pair, the terms allows a more nuanced understanding of the world. In real life, they represent more of a continuum rather than a dichotomy. The same individuals, households or companies may at time experience more or less of one of the other. Most important, however, is that both are mutually constitutive. The precarity of some is, partly at least, the reason for the opportunities of others. In some cases, this may be a rather straightforward distribution of chances; in others it may be more diverse and open to fluctuations. Is inequality and injustice then increasing in the world of today or are there tendencies for a partial levelling? There is a tendency hard to deny for social distinctions to become more pronounced and durable in the world of today, partly for the reasons that Piketty (2014) has elaborated so eloquently. But then, this is no new phenomenon in the world, as he also holds. It is not only that precarious circumstances and lack of predictability have been a human constant forever, and the differences and similarities in terms of peoples' livelihoods to post-Fordian experiences may well be illuminating (Xiao 2007; Tucker & Nelson 2017). What we will look at in this module is the conditions for precarity and opportunity in different settings and for different segments of society, as well as the relationship between the two. Clearly, elites of all kinds, or holders of the means of production, will have an incentive to secure structural advantages for the future by way of institutionalisation, which will usually imply growing insecurity for others. This, in turn, will also change the distribution of precarity and opportunity. It is these and related issues we would like to discuss in the course of this module.





Deadline for registration 17.09.2021
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