DS0802 -

The workers' socio-cultural worlds in the retail's logistic: geographically and socially disseminated ? A visual and cross-national ethnography in the world cities' backstages – WORKLOG

Visual ethnography of the social and material worlds of logistics blue collars

Starting points of the WORKLOG project are the new forms of work organization and the «proletarianization« in the tertiary sector. We focus on retail's logistic workers that occupy an intermediate position between industry and services. Observing their residential areas, consumption practices and leisure activities, we aim to analyse how they create their own socio-cultural spaces and to what extend they are autonomous or open to other influences.

Representing the reverse side of flows

Logistics hide behind every shelf of the supermarket, it is involved with each click of the mouse validating the cart of an online shopping site, it materializes in the millions of packages delivered every day at the doors of companies. If we can hardly imagine the world unfolding behind the scenes of our daily life, it is partly because of the promoters of this activity, who used the image of «just-in-time flows« and the promises of its digitalisation to present it as a continuous, self-regulated flow of goods. In today’s France and Germany, packages are still raised by the force of the arms, by so called order pickers. Their activity takes place in warehouses located near major highways. All of these jobs account for 13% of blue collars jobs in France, 17% in Germany, i.e. 700 000 and 1.7 million people respectively. The Worklog project intends to represent these places, common and yet invisible, and the point of views of the people who work there every day, according to an approach combining sociology and photography.

Research on work in logistics shares with more classical studies on the working class in France the statement that, although blue collars, as a social group, are «still there« and are even becoming more present in other sectors than manufacturing, they are no longer represented through trade unionism or an adversarial industrial culture in the workplace, at schools or in the cities. We lead our investigation outside the context of a collective action or a strictly “private” one. We met a hundred people, directly at their workplace, in five logistics warehouses located in the suburbs of Paris, on the outskirts of Frankfurt am Main, Orleans and Kassel. In about twenty cases, the first interviews continued outside the warehouses, as part of photographic “walk alongs” founded on cooperation between the interviewee, the ethnographer and a photographer.

Through the collaborations between photographers and researchers, a writing regime was developed, which was attentive to the textual and photographic thickness of the materials collected and recognized at the same time blue collar workers as subjects of knowledge. This writing regime cohabits with a second one, more common in social sciences, in which images and narratives serve the critical analysis of the urban production of logistics zones and precarious employment regimes in France and Germany, as well as a critical re-examination of the notions of work, space and time from the workers' experience.

O. Schwartz has formulated two hypothesis on the recompositions of working classes since the 80s in France: on the one hand, social inequalities and power relations maintained and, on the other hand, the «popular« lifestyles evolved since the analysis of R. Hoggart and P. Bourdieu describing popular culture that are autonomous and relatively closed in on themselves. In France, the debate has largely been structured by these hypothesis. Our results support the first point (i.e., the maintenance of social inequalities and relations of domination), because of the focus on professional affiliations, which we choose to define social positions. On the second point raised by O. Schwartz (ie a cultural separation that has changed in nature, and which modifies the lifestyles), there are both convergences and questions: our results emphasize a relative dilution of the labor and popular culture, but the nature of the remaining «cultural separation« is unclear. While access to mass consumption, leisure and certain cultural forms has made it possible to entrench more strongly with the middle classes, many cleavages remain in the access to these goods. Social divisions are both quantified by statistical surveys and thematized by the individuals we interviewed. In order to develop this debate, our analysis will pay more attention to the effects of gender-related cleavages and those linked to migration trajectories and ethno-racial identifications.

Six articles have been published in international and French peer-reviewed scientific journals, and some twenty papers at conferences, symposia and conferences in France and Europe. A collective book, which presents the main results of the project, will be published by Créaphis in 2020. This book will accompany the circulation of a photographic exhibition and a series of conferences in France and Germany, scheduled for 2020 and 2021.

Split between contradictory narratives –disappearance vs. great return – social scientists display a complex relationship to the working class as a subject of study. De-industrialization did not occur, but the transformations within Western economies have changed this social group. This leads us to renew our analytical framework. The main objective of the WORKLOG project is to impulse such a renewal by developing an original approach, which combines sociology of work, employment and lifestyles with urban studies.
The starting point of the WORKLOG project are new forms of work organization and "proletarianization" of the tertiary sector. We focus on workers in logistics that occupy an intermediate position between industry and services and represent 1.5 million jobs in France and an equal amount in Germany (i.e. 13 % of total worker's employment in France). In the retail's sector, their work consists in getting the goods into cities, which is a core function for urban lifestyle. Having identified this group, we aim to understand what workers’ social practices outside warehouses are. Observing their residential areas, consumption practices and leisure activities, we aim to analyze how they create their own social spaces and to what extend they are autonomous or open to other influences. We see connections with other social groups, including dominant social groups, as a part of identity-building processes. First, we aim to show that logistic working class members create meaningful and consistent cultural universes despite that the latter are geographically and socially disseminated. Second, our ambition is to identify how similar social conditions and cultural circulations generate social forms that make sense together from the local to the international level.
Empirical investigation of both hypotheses will be based on an ethnographic survey. Four samples of 20 employees each (a total of 80 employees) will be selected. They concern logistic parks and their workers in four cities: Paris, Orleans, Frankfurt/Main and Kassel. The first originality of the study is the use workplaces as an entry for fieldwork. Using this approach, we observe a limited group whose members share similar working conditions and we can analyze how those conditions affect their consumption and residential practices and leisure activities. The second originality is to conduct our investigation in two "world cities" and in their satellites. We will identify and analyze connections between “centers” and "peripheries", from the local to the international level. The third originality is to combine classical ethnography (interviews and participant observation) with a visual ethnographic method consisting in the production and collection of images (especially photography). This approach aims to report material and cultural universes for each field and to define what sort of visual references and categories of thought and judgment circulate among them and sometimes beyond.
The WORKLOG project will include two phases. We will first map and compare residential and consumption practices and leisure activities. With the household as a unit of analysis we will compare forms of belonging within each single samples and across our different samples. Second, we will identify a set of practices common to our different samples, for example a sport, such as cycling or a hobby such as online video games. This will enable us to identify images and thought patterns that are interchanged by groups, both locally and globally, and that interrelate working class universes within and across social groups.

Project coordination

Cécile Cuny (Lab'Urba)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


Lab'Urba Lab'Urba
ACP Analyse Comparée des Pouvoirs
SPLOTT Systèmes productifs, logistique, organisation des transports et travail
LVMT Laboratoire Ville Mobilité Transport
Kultur der Metropole
IuE Institut für urbane Entwicklungen
FIST Forschungsstelle für Interkulturelle Studien
LISER Luxemburg Institute of Socio-Economic Research

Help of the ANR 189,005 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: December 2016 - 24 Months

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