2. Work, Capabilities and Biographies

Embodying an interdisciplinary vision which brings together history, sociology, anthropology and musicology, our research into the modalities of work likewise follows three main lines of interrogation.

This axe is coordinated by Laure SCHNAPPER and Bénédicte ZIMMERMANN


The Borders of Work

The first line of investigation brings together research projects which draw from a wide empirical spectrum which stretches from artistic work (L. Schnapper, D.Blanc, I. Mayaud) to agricultural labour (M. Samak), including service activity (D. Subramanian, F. Letourneux). They all explore the way in which work distinguishes itself from other activities, as much in terms of formal recognition (amateurism versus professionalism for example) as of the lived experience of those who carry out such activities. They are animated by a strong resistance to confining our understanding of work to any given concept, interrogating rather its borders and their fluidity in terms of content, form and status (A. Daneau, K. Le Bail). All a priori distinctions between artistic work and other forms of work are refused, and a range of empirical cases are studied in conjunction from the perspective of a common framework of understanding.

Experience and Professional Development

Associating work and capability, the second line of interrogation consider work jointly from an individual and collective viewpoint. It involves an examination of the capability concept, understood in terms of the power to act resulting from the interaction between individuals and their environment. The emphasis is placed on the analysis of the different factors, both personal and environmental, which shape the power to act in a given situation. This leads us to consider the different ways in which work makes sense for people and how its lived experience impacts the course of individual biographies (L. Thévenot, B. Zimmermann). Professional development is approached both from the perspective of professional experience, to the extent that it can be socially objectified through the evaluation of others, and from the perspective of individuals’ personal experience of work. Such an approach leads to explore the tensions between different levels of understanding : work as a source of revenue and economic value ; as a source of accomplishment and self-realization ; but also as a source of identity and social recognition. The collective project ANR/DFG DEVENT ‘Professional Development and the Power to Act of Employees : France and Germany through the Prism of the Multinational’ (J. Kaedtler et B. Zimmermann) pursues this line of questioning in collaboration with colleagues from SOFI Göttingen.

Participation, Forms of Engagement and Collective Action

The third line of inquiry explores the way in which work and capabilities interact simultaneously at the level of biographical pathways and of the  collective structuration of work (S. Marguin). We approach the question of work collectives from different angles : with regards to the resources they offer and the constraints they impose on the power to act; in relation to engagement and participation ; and with regards to their determining role in our evaluation and ‘valuation’ of work. Insofar as the question of collectives is inseparably tied to the question of the values associated with work, it also raises  the issue of the principles of justice at the workplace and thus opens the possibility of exchange and discussion with the third research pole of the Georg Simmel Centre concerning the Spaces of Normativity. The research workshop ‘Individuals and collective’ (F. Letourneux, B. Zimmermann) brings together the research projects which pursue this possibility.

Each of these modes of interrogation functions on at least three distinct levels of analysis : namely at the level of institutions, organizations and biographical pathways. This multi-level approach is fundamental to all research on work carried out by the Centre Georg Simmel. Another characteristic is the embedding of this research within a resolutely transnational perspective, which opens towards Germany and beyond.