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At the intersection of labor and social classes: domination, exploitation, resistance

Labor and social classes are recurrent social science themes which the CRESPPA intends to address, while focusing more specifically on their recent mutations. The cross-investigation of these themes contributes to renewing the way we conduct research by establishing a heuristic bond between these two themes. Indeed, exploring labor through the lens of social class means underlining the primacy of social and professional statuses in work environments, while other sociologies tend to focus solely on structures or activities. This approach implies to study labor through other paradigms (educational achievement and family trajectories, occupational mobility, family and residential relationships, etc.). It also implies to analyze other professional relations as class relations, especially relations between workers of different hierarchical positions or relations between workers and users / customers. This includes relations between low-status workers and upper-class customers (in luxury and personal service industries), relations between regulated professions and a variety of users (in the areas of justice or health), and relations between intermediate-level professionals with diverse trajectories (especially in the art field). In return, our research will highlight the role of social classes on the basis of a sociology of labor rather than a sociology of consumption. It will enable our researchers to stress how professional positions contribute to defining class positions (through income and employment level), but also better understand the mobility of workers within the social space. More generally, the entwinement of these two perspectives will allow us to question the specificity of social relations at work, and more specifically relations of domination and exploitation. While this approach favors an understanding based on socio-professional structures, part of the research will also entwine different approaches to social relations, such as class or gender relations, in order to investigate the processes of gender diversification or gender inversion among certain professions.

The research projects developed in this unit are based on qualitative and/or quantitative field inquiries. Most are monographic and question categories and options which can be constitutive of their own development. They also reveal how certain processes are making a number of social phenomena invisible (such as the attack on working women’s health) and question their historicities (for example the professional categories within the public service since 1945, or resorting to temporary labor since the 1960’s). Further work will also be conducted to synthesize our findings, especially on the notion of “popular classes” and its boundaries. Researchers among this unit will also facilitate research networks on social classes, labor, and professions (particularly in the Association Française de Sociologie [French Association of Sociology] RT 1, RT5, or RT 25, or in the journal Nouvelle Revue du Travail, in the DIM-Gestes on labor and work-related suffering, but also during the Journées Internationales de Sociologie du Travail [JIST Conference] etc.), to engage in international collaborations (notably through the Capes-Cofecub agreement between Cresppa-GTM and Unicamp [Sao Paulo, Brazil]), to take part in international research projects (such as the project on “Social consequences of the economic crisis: comparisons between France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Belgium (funded by the Spanish Department of Education) and to engage with the research teams from the University of Southern California and UC Santa Barbara on the analysis of labor in the cultural field. They will also contribute to establishing a network to monitor existing literature on labor (Les Échos du travail) with several institutions. While our research deals with various topics – big industries, personal services, public services – and a wide variety of actors from lower class professions – such as administration agents or factory workers – to upper class professions – such as State officials and corporate executives – our attention, more specifically, will focus on four cross-disciplinary themes. These themes will lead to collective investigations, seminars, and workshops.

Health and labor

The aim of this research will be to analyze the centrality of health issues at work and long-term occupational health risks. We will also analyze the way different social groups engage in defining health risks in their professional practices but also in their political and collective mobilization. The research led within this focus is based on several individual or collective investigations: on experts of occupational health issues (particularly consultants in health and safety comities); on collective negotiations for the improvement of work conditions and the preservation of health; on the sexual division of labor, occupational health risks, and work-related cancers; on ethical questions faced by health researchers and practitioners; and eventually on the practices of health professionals with official statuses (doctors, pharmacists, nurses, social workers) and their relations or interactions with lower class individuals in France and in Belgium. The research led within this unit contributes to studying the social determinants of health inequalities, which are often underestimated in territorial approaches to health (medical desertification, regionalization of public health policies…). The seminars “The gender of malaise in the workplace” and “Industrial diseases and collective mobilization” will also foster this reflection, which is part of the initiatives developed by the DIM-Gestes.

Private sector, public sector

The different research projects conducted as part of this theme question the shifting relevance of the divide between public and private sectors in France and Europe – both diachronically and synchronically. Furthering a reflection on native categorizations of the social world, part of the research seeks to approach with more subtlety the representations associated with different types of employees (in the public or private sectors) and independent workers in France.

To question the divide between public and private sectors also implies engaging in comparative work at an international level in order to identify the mutations of sociological efforts to describe social stratification in countries where international socio-economic nomenclatures were first adopted. It then implies to produce an objective representation of this divide, resorting to several quantitative studies which were led in the context of a debate on the creation of a unified European socio-economic nomenclature (ESeC).

In a cross-fertilizing perspective, we will try to assess the specificities of workers and work practices in different sectors: public and private wage systems, independent work, but also different types of workers whose statuses blur the boundaries between independent and waged labor (such as temporary and freelance workers in the cultural field) or between public and private sectors (such as for doctors, who are at the same time hospital employees and independent professionals). We will specifically examine the state of the administrative loans of the public sector to the private sector (focusing on structures which are currently being reorganized, such as hospitals, and analyzing the evolution of the public service in the long term) and the creation of a new class of public workers. Further research will help specify the resources of public and independent workers, taking into account their social trajectories as well as the transformation of their social positions. In this perspective, we will, for example, aim at providing precise knowledge of the evolutions of the legal status of civil servants since 1946. We will also pay detailed attention to subaltern or intermediary administrative workers, since they are often a blind spot in the different historical accounts of public administration.

Trade unionism, collective resistance, and political commitment

A number of studies have already explored the evolution of collective actions under different angles, including the unionization of women, union initiatives in small and medium-sized companies and, more broadly, the renewal of trade-union strategies and practices over the last three decades. Part of the new research will focus on the development of collective actions in professional universes where trade-unions struggle to take root (for example in shopping centers) while other research will concentrate on how equality, health, gender diversity, and social diversity have become key issues for trade unions.

We will also describe the emergence of new ranges of actions, as well as the interactions between various social groups within social movements (union activists, workers, experts, academics, etc.) Issues of occupational health may encourage the creation of new institutions (observatories, non-governmental organizations), whose effect on the range of trade-union actions still remains to be clarified. Moreover, the development of private and public expertise on work conditions – in order to acquire a supposedly deeper legal knowledge and a better appreciation of the issues, for example on the conditions of a restructuring plan – competes with the expertise traditionally favored by unions. These new relations between experts and trade unionists lead to questioning the import of rules and norms from other fields in the trade-union universe. In a monographic perspective, it leads us to question the effects of these processes on relations between trade unions and political forces. Further research will focus on the values and social representations developed by the various trade union organizations and will question in a broader perspective the evolution of the trade union landscape. In particular, we will aim at describing the current importance of the original schools of thoughts, as well as their evolution.

Crises, permanence, and temporalities

The question of time is at the heart of most studies in this area, and has been approached in different ways. It is particularly true of projects which examine social phenomena in the medium or long term. Such is the case with quantitative studies – which draw, among other sources, on the Labor Force Survey – which will evaluate the mutations or the permanence of social reproduction and social mobility. Other research will evaluate and analyze moments of political, legal, technical, or economic ruptures (sometimes conceived by the actors in terms of changes in the “markets”), in the reorganization of professions and social classes. In this sense, the international research will apprehend the effects of the economic crisis on precariousness in several countries of Southern Europe. This research, moreover, focuses on different industries (automobile, metallurgy, aeronautics, etc.) subject to sudden ruptures or to slower disintegration processes, but also on services industries which experience a fall in demand or public funding. The same interrogation is at the heart of monographic studies on the different categories of civil servants (labor inspector, administrator of civil services in Algeria) which are confronted to the implementation of new legal rules in the organization of their career or to the modification of the perimeters of the State after the decolonization.

We will then try to gain a better understanding of the concrete mechanisms behind the mutations of employment and work conditions, to question the way possible futures are apprehended by different socio-professional categories, and to define the strategies of professional and social reconversion. One of the issues at stake within this unit will be to consider the overlap of temporalities within professional universes (related to careers, trajectories of institutions, techniques, etc.) and between professional and non-professional spheres.

17 October 2015