Across the Country and Around the World

Comparative Ethnographies and Qualitative Studies of Workers Organising

Convenors: Annalisa Murgia & Paolo Borghi (University of Milan)

In a context of global capitalism, the transformations of work and its forms of representation urgently require a critical and comparative analysis, able to combine interpretative ‘thickness’ with comparability among different national contexts. More specifically, several scholars underlined the importance of cross-national research on precarious workers and their struggles (Atzeni and Ness, 2016; Kalleberg and Vallas, 2018).
The fragmentation of labour markets has come about with the breakdown of Fordist systems of production and with the structural shifts in the economy from manufacturing to services resulting in more individualised employment relationships. Everywhere, unions have to deal with the emergence of a variety of precarious jobs – fixed-term, temporary agency, wage limited part-time contracts, as well as (solo)self-employed positions – with low employment security and pay levels, which weaken the collective agreements and the minimum-wage bargained for dependent and permanent employees (Heery and Abbott 2000). However, in many countries, unions – whose members traditionally formed a homogeneous group of workers – struggle to deal with such fragmentation and different interests (Dörre et al., 2009; Gumbrell‐McCormick, 2011). Therefore, labour collective organising – as well as the ways in which we study it – can no longer focus only on unionised workers with a standard employment contract, mainly in industrial and public sectors, and covered by collective bargaining.
By discussing recent and ongoing studies based on comparative ethnographic and qualitative research, the aim of this session is to critically engage with the role of trade unionism, work struggles, emerging forms of collective protests, and different modes of resistance to the growing precariousness (Mattoni and Vogiatzoglou, 2014; Hyman and Gumbrell-McCormick, 2017). Multi-sited and cross-national ethnographic and qualitative studies (Marcus 1995; Mangen 1999; Brannan et al. 2007), in fact, allow to collect rich and deep data on precarious workers organising in different countries, and at the same time to understand the specificities and similarities in their capacity to mobilise.
Contributions can be empirical or empirically informed theoretical work. We are particularly interested in submissions that advance our understanding of how precarious workers mobilise and organise both in the Global North and in the Global South.

Open Questions

- What can comparative ethnographies and qualitative studies tell us about the different origins and experiences of precariousness at the global level?
- Which is the role of traditional trade unions in representing precarious workers? How do they face the rise of precarious work across different industrial relations systems?
- How are alternative organisations – such as quasi-unions, grassroots movements or cooperatives – organising precarious workers? Are they able to create new forms of solidarity or do they exacerbate fragmentation?
- What are the emerging ‘variable geometries of resistance’ (Hyman and Gumbrell-McCormick, 2017)? How can we frame tensions and synergies between different national contexts, between local and global dynamics, and between traditional trade unions and alternative movements and organisations?
- Is there a transnational activism against precariousness developing? How is it working? What are its main characteristics and challenges?


Precarious workers, mobilising, organising, unions, social movements, alternative organisations, comparative ethnography and qualitative studies.

Fields of Study

In this session, we invite an interdisciplinary conversation, and we welcome participation by academics, activists and unionists. We encourage submissions from different disciplines and fields of study, such as sociology, organisation studies, geography, cultural studies, political science, anthropology, social movements and industrial and employment relations.


Atzeni, M., & Ness, I. (2016). Precarious work and workers resistance: reframing labour for the 21st century, Working USA. The Journal of Labor & Society, 19: 5-7.
Brannan, M., Pearson, G., & Worthington, F. (2007). Ethnographies of work and the work of ethnography. Ethnography, 8(4), 395-402.
Dörre, K., Holst, H., & Nachtwey, O. (2009). Organising-A strategic option for trade union renewal?. International Journal of Action Research, 5(1), 33-67.
Keune, M. (2013). Trade union responses to precarious work in seven European countries. International Journal of Labour Research, 5(1), 59.
Gumbrell‐McCormick, R. (2011). European trade unions and ‘atypical’ workers. Industrial Relations Journal, 42(3), 293-310.
Heery, E., & Abbott, B. (2000). Trade unions and the insecure workforce. In E. Heery and J. Salmon (eds.) The insecure workforce. London: Routledge, pp. 155-180.
Hyman, R., & Gumbrell-McCormick, R. (2017). Resisting labour market insecurity: Old and new actors, rivals or allies?. Journal of Industrial Relations, 59(4), 538-561.
Kalleberg, A. L., & Vallas, S. P. (2017). Probing precarious work: Theory, research, and politics. Research in the Sociology of Work, 31, 1-30.
Mangen, S. (1999). Qualitative research methods in cross-national settings. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 2(2), 109-124.
Marcus, G. E. (1995). Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography. Annual review of anthropology, 24(1), 95-117.
Mattoni, A., & Vogiatzoglou, M. (2014). Today, We are Precarious. Tomorrow, We Will be Unbeatable”: Early Struggles of Precarious Workers in Italy and Greece. From Silence to Protest: International Perspectives on Weakly Resourced Groups. Burlington: Ashgate, pp. 67-82.

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