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Contingent Work and Its Contradictions: Insecurity and the Vicious Cycle of Thinning Social Relations

Bolton, Sharon C. and Houlihan, Maeve (2008) Contingent Work and Its Contradictions: Insecurity and the Vicious Cycle of Thinning Social Relations. In: American Socialogical Conference, 2008-08-01. (Unpublished)

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Abstract

The phenomenon of contingent work ('non-standard' employment practices including temporary, agency or outsourced work, and 'independent contracting') has become pervasive. Reviews of contingent work research offer mixed messages about its outcomes and consequences for individuals, on the one hand transferring risks, yet on the other, creating opportunities. Notwithstanding its market based language of self actualisation and autonomy, we argue contingent work manifests a specifically 'thin' form of human relations. We re-examine contingent work through Sayer's lens of moral economy which re-enforces that the employment dynamic, contingent or otherwise, is an important relationship rooted in a web of social dependencies. The employment relationship is thus social, rather than solely economic. This perspective restores coherence to the contradictions present in many accounts of contingent work by recognising the underlying insecurity of disconnection from the moral economy. We draw on voices of contingent workers to illustrate the cumulative ways in which such disembeddedness might emerge and map a vicious cycle comprising: 1.Lesser conditions, 2. Tiered status, 3. Dislocated reciprocality, 4. Distrust and disenchantment, and 5. An instrumental sensibility. We suggest the moral economy framework offers a more holistic appraisal of contingent work, where its contradictions and its consequences can be more fully seen.