Blog from ISA RC52 Interim Meeting by Alessandro Gerosa

One profession, multiple subjectivities: analysing professional subjectivities through the lens of economic imaginaries

by Alessandro Gerosa

‘How is it possible for individuals that share the same profession to experience vastly different, peculiar professional subjectivities?’. This research puzzle prompted me to present a reflection at ISA RC52 Interim meeting in Florence, based on the empirical material from my ongoing PhD Thesis.

My dissertation focuses on the transformations occurring in the sector of small, independent food and beverage retailing, with bars and street food as case studies. To analyse these transformations, I relied upon interviews to retailers and participant observation at their businesses, because in small-scale retailing the owner often is both the micro-entrepreneur running the business and the worker executing the everyday work into it.

The opening research puzzle emerged from the analysis of their accounts, collected through semi-structured in-depth interviews. When the empirical material regarding their identities was systematised into results, indeed, some peculiar elements became observable.

First, a general difficulty to professionally define themselves was observable. Someone still relied on the traditional notions of bartender, retailer, or entrepreneur, but the majority expressed dissatisfaction toward the capacity of these notions to represent them. Instead, they opted for peculiar and unusual identities, relying on very personal and unique definitions. To summarise it, they showed a multiplicity of professional subjectivity and suggested the lack of a shared identity.

However, at the same time results suggested a strong definition by opposition toward their ‘traditional’ counterparts, that were conceived opposite to themselves for the standardised nature of their work, of their appearance and of the products they offer. This opposition raised some questions, as it was not explainable through the analysis of economic features: under this aspect, the ‘new’ and the ‘traditional’ retailers appear as identical members of the same profession. They both serve food and beverage products to their customers to be consumed at the moment; they are micro-entrepreneurs running labour-intensive businesses, that after the initial investment of capital only need long and hard manual work to function; they do not look for monopolies but rather to grow together in localised economic districts in which each one benefits from network effects.

The origin of this difference had then to be searched elsewhere: in the economic imaginary under which they positioned themselves. With economic imaginary, we make use of the concept developed by Jessop (2009), that defines an economic imaginary as ‘a semiotic system that gives meaning and shape to the ‘economic’ field’ to be distinguished from the economies intended as an unintelligible ensemble of economic transactions. 

To add the layer of analysis of the economic imaginaries under which the micro-entrepreneurs position themselves to the interpretation of the empirical material, enables to overcome the research puzzle. The micro-entrepreneurs that compose our case study, indeed, appear to be pervasively influenced by the ‘creative economy’ imaginary, that has colonised the retailing sector resulting into peculiar outcomes. Their subjectivities take shape from the interaction with the imaginary, distancing from the identities of traditional retailers. For the construction of their professional subjectivities, the notions of authenticity, creativity, artisanship become fundamentals, accordingly to other recent researches of food and beverage economies (Land, Sutherland, & Taylor, 2018; Ocejo, 2017; Smith Maguire, 2018; Thurnell-Read, 2019).

Incorporating the economic imaginary in our analysis, also another definition by opposition became evident, expressed against the micro-entrepreneurs labelled as the ones ‘without a soul’. They are the ones that, at the eyes of our interviewees, benefit from the use of the same imaginary and the same concepts without sincerely believing in them. They use the imaginary to exploit its economic potential without an intimate attachment to it.

This second definition by opposition allows highlighting that between the micro-entrepreneur and the imaginary a bond is formed, that mixes economic motivations with cultural and ethical commitment. If this bond is analysed, different modalities of interactions between the micro-entrepreneur and the imaginary can be observed. Micro-entrepreneurs emerge as dealers of the imaginary to the customers, and middle figures between the macro-level where imaginaries take shape and the micro-level of consumption. These different modalities of interaction can be used as an analytical tool to further identify and distinguish different professional sub-groups sharing similar professional subjectivities.

This kind of analysis based on the interaction between imaginary and micro-entrepreneurs takes inspiration from Collinson (2003) analysis of ‘subjectivities at work’ under surveillance-based organisations, that analysed workers subjectivities based on their interaction with the organisation distinguishing between compliant and resistant individual. Nevertheless, in our case, the power relation between the actors is not just unidirectional (the organisation exerts power upon the employees) but partially bi-directional, albeit in a context of unequal power relations, because at the same time the micro-entrepreneurs use and manipulate the imaginary with limited freedom of expression and action.

Thus, the aim of our presentation at ISA RC52 Interim meeting and of this brief contribution for ISA RC52 blog is to sustain, based on our ethnographic study, the usefulness of integrating economic imaginaries as analytic lenses to look at professional subjectivities and professionalism, for their capacity to enrich the interpretation of these processes bringing to light some otherwise invisible differences. A contribution that could reveal particularly relevant in contemporaneous society, where professionalism is undergoing many significant changes and is affected by an increasing heterogeneity (Bellini & Maestripieri, 2018).

References

Bellini, A., & Maestripieri, L. (2018). Professions Within, Between and Beyond. Varieties of Professionalism in a Globalising World. Cambio8(16), 5–14. http://doi.org/10.13128/cambio-24947

Collinson, D. L. (2003). Identities and Insecurities: Selves at Work. Organization10(3), 527–547.

Jessop, B. (2009). Cultural Political Economy. Critical Policy Studies3(4), 336–356.

Land, C., Sutherland, N., & Taylor, S. (2018). Back to the Brewster: Craft Brewing, Gender and the Dialectical Interplay of Retraditionalisation and Innovation. In The Organization of Craft Work (pp. 150–168). Routledge.

Ocejo, R. E. (2017). Masters of Craft. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Smith Maguire, J. (2018). Taste as Market Practice: The Example of “Natural” Wine. Consumer Culture Theory19, 71–92.

Thurnell-Read, T. (2019). A thirst for the authentic: craft drinks producers and the narration of authenticity. The British Journal of Sociology.

Alessandro Gerose received the RC52 travel grant in connection to the interim meeting.

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