Precarity / Opportunity

The world of today is changing rapidly and in often fundamental ways. Usually labelled as a process of globalisation, the pathways and impacts of such tranformations are difficult to predict, creating winners and losers along the way.

In much of recent scholarship, these changes are referred to as processes of precarisation. They describe the ever-less predictable patterns in which labour in a capitalist world is re-organised, namely by reducing secure employment and other social benefits. Precarity as a concept is, however, also used in a more essential way. In a historically broader, and less Eurocentric way, it describes the fundamental condition of human life as always bearing the threat of decay or loss as an effect of uncertainty – be it economic, social or political in nature.

As such, precarity contrasts with opportunities or the concurrent potential for achievements that can equally never be taken for granted. Complementing each other, these concepts enable us to analyse the world in a more nuanced and realistic way than other approaches. They also acknowledge the fact that individual fates are usually located along a continuum of probabilites for gain or loss. At the same time, precarities and opportunities are not only unequally distributed, they are also mutually constitutive: The opportunities of some are grounded in the precarities of others. What we see in the world of today – and this has been equally true for other periods of history – is the attempt to cement such inequalities by institutionalising the distributional foundations for precarity and opportunity.

At the ISEK, we look at aspects of precarity and opportunity in a wide range of empirical cases, such as international migration, processes of rural development and urbanisation, economic and social transformations in the global South and the former socialist world, or ongoing changes in European societies, from labour unions and refugee livelihoods to bankers in Zurich. By way of fine-grained ethnographic descriptions, we follow processes of economic reconfiguration, institutional change and social stratification as well as the meaning people give to these and the prospects they imagine for their future. We thus try to observe both the uneven distribution, by origin or gender, by class or social background, and the mechanisms how such inequalities are (re-)produced, as well as the spectrum of adaptive strategies people employ to avert precarity or take advantage of opportunities.