Crisis and transformation of occupational identities in three sectors (retail, mining, state): contributions to understanding workplace subjectivities in neoliberal Chile

Abstract

In the context of the restructuring of production and the emergence of more flexible work patterns, this article contributes to our understanding of changing workplace subjectivities under neoliberalism in contemporary Chile. Using research carried out by the authors, it describes the break-up of traditional ‘occupational identities’ that historically played a key role in shaping labour subjectivities in three key sectors of the Chilean economy—mining, retail and public service. These occupational identities, which combine forms of know-how, moral values, and a sense of belonging, still have an important symbolic weight in work experiences although they are under severe pressure from flexible reorganisation processes. The emergence of new, more individualised workplace subjectivities based on generic skills and geared to strategic mobility, is also described. The coexistence of both workplace subject profiles accounts for the complexities and heterogeneity of the processes of cultural and subjective change in the current world of work.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We understand occupation as a general category that includes the activities and forms of work associated with the professions, as well as those work activities linked to lower-skilled and less institutionally formalised jobs in modern societies. We thus identify with the most interactionist tradition of the sociology of professional groups, which unlike functionalist perspectives does not restrict its analysis to those professions that involve levels of standardisation, formal education and legal monopoly and express dynamics of functional differentiation of modern societies (Urteaga 2008).

  2. 2.

    On this point, similarities can be found between the changes described and the recent expansion of platform capitalism (the on-demand economy, the gig economy). For one thing, the new technologies and material working conditions bind workers and internal and external clients more closely together, introducing just-in-time logic into the provision of labour services as well as a worker assessment infrastructure that exerts highly individualised control using quantitative ratings to build workers’ reputations (Gandini 2019; Kaine and Josserand 2019; Vallas 2019).

  3. 3.

    We recognise that a limitation of this article is that it has not explicitly included a gender perspective in analysing the crisis and transformation of occupational identities, due in part to the heterogeneity of the three sectors studied. As is evident from the discussion in the literature (Beth Mills 2016; Blackman et al. 2008; Strangleman and Rhodes 2014; Walkerdine and Bansel 2010), labour subjectivities and occupational identities cannot be fully understood without analysing how they intersect with traditional gender-based occupational roles, as well as the emerging gendered divisions of labour that are a feature of contemporary global capitalism (Beth Mills 2016). To correct this gap, for example, future studies and analyses should consider how occupational identities in strongly male-oriented sectors such as mining in Chile have functioned historically, not only as anchors for occupational identities but also as supports for certain representations of masculinity and male social identities (Silva Segovia et al. 2016). In other words, the crisis and transformation of occupational identities can impact gender identities and gendered social relations among workers, their families and communities, as studies in other countries have suggested (Walkerdine and Bansel 2010). Moreover, and at the opposite pole, the restructuring and modernisation of the retail industry in Chile cannot be understood without taking account of the feminisation of the services sector as a whole. This has involved a large increase in the number of female workers in certain productive sectors (commerce, social services, health, tourism, etc.); in unskilled positions and under precarious employment conditions, with reduced possibilities of intra-company promotion and mobility compared to men; and in work processes that reinforce traditional gender stereotypes (Beth Mills 2016; Pettinger 2005). In this regard, it can be said that the tensions affecting occupational identities that are recognized and valued in the retail sector have strengthened a representation of retail sales work as an eminently female occupation that requires no special qualifications, as it is based on “natural” female attributes such as empathy, availability, care, and sympathy, and as such does not merit the symbolic and material recognition of traditional occupational identities.

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Correspondence to Antonio Stecher.

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This paper is the result of a work of integration of the results of previous investigations, carried out within the framework of three current research projects: (a) “Trabajo y construcción de identidades en trabajadores de la industria del Retail en Chile. Estudio en 3 ciudades sobre contextos regionales productivos, narrativas identitarias, formas de reconocimiento, control managerial y organización sindical (Fondecyt n°1181041, Fondo Nacional de Desarrollo Científico y Tecnológico, Chile); (b) “Subjetividades en el trabajo en red: las identidades laborales de trabajadores de redes surgidas de alianzas público-privadas (REDES APP) en Chile (Fondecyt n° 1171088, Fondo Nacional de Desarrollo Científico y Tecnológico, Chile); (c) Millennium Nucleus: The exercise of authority in Chilean society. Rearticulations of the management of the power asymmetries in social relations, Millenium Scientific Initiative of the Ministry of Economy, Development and Tourism, Chile.

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Stecher, A., Soto Roy, Á. Crisis and transformation of occupational identities in three sectors (retail, mining, state): contributions to understanding workplace subjectivities in neoliberal Chile. Subjectivity 12, 309–332 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41286-019-00080-x

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Keywords

  • Work
  • Subjectivities
  • Neoliberalism
  • Chile
  • Occupational identities