Gender identity (dis)order in dual precarious worker couples: The ‘Family Speaking Drawers’ installation

abstract

In this note, I narrate my attempt to write and disseminate some research results concerning the links between precarious work, social reproduction and gender inequalities under neoliberalism in a different way from the traditional academic ‘order’ in doing research. This journey of exploration led me to the creation of an artistic installation and video called ‘Family Speaking Drawers’, which is available in this issue of ephemera. The research note closes by reflecting on the research practice of dissemination as a form of ‘powerful writing’ which enables affective sociality, ‘empathetic sharing’, and identity work with its forwards-and-backwards motioncome to light.

Premise

This research note accompanies the video entitled ‘Family Speaking Drawers’, concerning an artistic installation of the same title presented at multiple events around Europe. The artwork ‘Family Speaking Drawers’ constitutes an attempt to disseminate the results of my PhD research in a different way to that of traditional academic writing. The research addressed the links between precarious work, social reproduction and gender inequalities, with a focus on the construction of life courses (working and caring) at the micro level. By applying narrative research techniques, I investigated the logics behind the actions of heterosexual Italian couples with children, in which both partners were precarious workers, and revealed the occurrence of specific gendered order in their life stories. I wanted to disseminate the results of this research in a way that would embody the socio-material vividness of real life stories and, at the same time, engage, touch and draw in a much wider audience than the usual tight circle of academic experts, thus opening up new possibilities for learning through an affective channel. This aspiration led me to develop the ‘Family Speaking Drawers’ in which the person visiting and interacting with the installation (hereon referred to as ‘participant/reader’) is invited to experience the socio-material dimension of the stories and to actually listen to some excerpts organized according to gender and the principal time widows of the life paths in question: the beginning of the story (the incipit), the stage of life devoted to training and entry into the labour market, the turning point (represented by the birth of a child), the initial experience of parenting, and future prospects (the epilogue). The artwork aims to generate within each individual participant/reader images of the various lived stories presented. The impressions made by these stories are thus different for each participant/reader, and they create an emotive tension, which brings us back to the overall aim of the artwork and its strong capacity to communicate.

In this note, I offer my first reflections about my attempt ‘to write differently’ (Gilmore et al., 2019; Grey and Sinclair, 2006; Just et al., 2018; Pullen, 2018; Pullen et al., 2020), which led me to the creation of the ‘Family Speaking Drawers’.

Despite acknowledging there to be no single correct way to approach this production, I recommend that the reader first watch the video available in this special issue of ephemera and then read the research note in order to fully and freely enjoy the work without applying any specific lens of interpretation.

Family Speaking Drawers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rj9giKtFlwc).

Introduction

This note is drawn from a wider piece of narrative research exploring the decision-making processes put into action by the new generations of fathers and mothers experiencing work precariousness in Italy (Carreri, 2016, 2021). Extensive research has demonstrated that the previous standard employment relationships, characterized by stable full-time employment with a living wage and a good level of protection, have given way to new, increasingly precarious, non-standard forms of employment (Armano et al., 2017; Kalleberg, 2009, 2018; Kalleberg and Vallas, 2018; Prosser, 2015; Standing, 2009; Vosko, 2010). Yet, our understanding of how precarious work affects lived experiences in a processual way by intertwining longstanding social inequalities, especially at the micro level of the construction of life courses (working and caring), continues to be limited.

From a theoretical point of view, my work is inspired by the innovative understanding of ‘precarious work’ as a social process that goes beyond the field of production to include tractions with the realms of social reproduction and post-wage politics (Alberti et al., 2018). From this perspective, precariousness, unlike the concept of precarity, is regarded as a social process linked to contractual employment insecurity as well as to a social form of life in which production and social reproduction are strongly connected, and in which old class inequalities are reproduced under neoliberal capitalism in novel ways. 

My work also draws from critical organization studies, which highlight the importance of discourse and narratives in the making and remaking of subjectivities (Alvesson and Willmott, 2002; Alvesson et al., 2008; Knights, 1990), in the management of ourselves (Miller and Rose, 2008), and in the performance of ‘gendered selves’ (Butler, 2004; Pullen and Knights, 2007), with specific reference to those of precarious workers (Cozza et al., 2008; Murgia and Poggio, 2011, 2019). In this note, and in accordance with Pullen and Knights (2007), gender is thought of as both a lived experience and a textual practice.

My research entailed a detailed narrative analysis (Andrews et al., 2008; Riessman, 2008) of 45 life stories of fathers and mothers from couples living under precarious work conditions. The analysis explored in depth the identity work of actors involved in dual precariousness (i.e. both halves of the couple in precarious work) and the effects it had on the quality of their working life (Kuhn et al., 2017; Miller and Rose, 2008; Mumby and Plotnikof, 2019). It also shed light on the performativity of gendered selves (Ashcraft and Mumby, 2004; Butler, 2004; Pullen and Knights, 2007; Trethewey and Ashcraft, 2004), with a focus on the reproduction or deconstruction of gendered careers and on the subjects’ self-positioning (Gherardi and Poggio, 2007; Poggio, 2018). Specifically, in the analysis I tried to understand whether – and if so how – the narrator presented him- or herself as an active agent in their decision making, or if they gave other people or external factors the power to make the decisions, with a specific reference to certain time windows, or life phases, that were found relevant in the narratives collected; namely, the beginning of the story (the incipit), the stage of life devoted to training and entry into the labour market, the turning point (represented by the birth of a child), the initial experience of parenting, and future prospects (the epilogue of the story).

The analysis allowed me to shed some light on the intricate links between precarious work, social reproduction and gender inequalities under neoliberalism, which until now had scarcely been explored (Bhattacharya, 2017; Pugh, 2015; Williams, 2019; Williams and Neely, 2015). The results show a gendered order in precarious workers’ life stories which seems to be a kind of precondition for the current neoliberal model of capital accumulation, and which also underlies much contemporary organizing beyond organization (Mumby, 2016). I found that job flexibility and insecurity offer men the opportunity to embrace a model of ‘progressive’ fatherhood, whereas their partners appear to be sacrificial victims of neoliberalism (Brown, 2016), which burdens them not only with contradictory expectations but also with the social cost of double precariousness, especially after childbirth (Carreri, 2016). Furthermore, women, whilst recognizing gender inequalities in the construction of their working careers, feel responsible for their well-being and rarely demand improvements in the quality of their working lives that would attack the gendered contradictions in the assumptions underlying the public-private dichotomy (Rottenberg, 2014, 2018). 

What do we write (for)?

The research results from my PhD studies were and continue to be the subject of academic presentations at international conferences as well as the subject of scientific research articles. I believe the process of peer review within the academic community to be a fundamental aspect of research, not only with the scope of promoting the research, but above all so that it may be improved. However, this performative activity underlies and reproduces a certain way of working that influences what is (chosen to be) said and how (one chooses) to say it – consequences that bring forth the following ethical question: for what (and for whom) do we write? 

Above all, when we write papers or prepare scientific presentations, the norms of such writing distance us from the actual subjects’ experiences, and we all play the inclusion/exclusion game by theorizing, analyzing and through our choice of excerpts (Amrouche et al., 2018), thus leading to the extreme ‘parcelling’ and theorization of results, and which eliminates much of what we qualitative researchers have known and experienced in the empirical field. What has to be accounted for as ‘data’ after the critique of conventional humanist qualitative research (St Pierre, 2011; Somerville, 2016) is indeed an open-ended question. In my research, the respondents shared with me the gender asymmetries embedded in the process of precarization in a fluid and multivocal way. In their own domestic spaces they shared their lived experiences with me, who was, at the time, also a precarious worker (and evidently pregnant!). The interviews were situated, provisional and affective encounters, which gave me access to different forms of knowledge. But how could I convey the tone and the rhythm of voices, the rhetoric and the symmetrical narrative structures when gathered into the narrow and aseptic space of a scientific article? How could I convey the affective and socio-material dimension of the experiences shared in a few short excerpts? Hence, through the use of artistic language, I tried to create a communicative and sensorial channel that would allow me to convey my findings.

Furthermore, critical theory that uses highly abstract and complicated language – comprehensible to a restricted circle of academics only – runs the risk of reproducing the power relations that it purports to want to overturn, as highlighted by Grey and Sinclair (2006). However, what worries me the most and what drove me to search for a different way to disseminate my research results is that the divulgation and the political impact of our writing may, in itself, be ineffective. Not only in terms of social utility and the applicability of the results in the community and in organizations, but also, considering my specific field of research, in terms of giving the results back to those who participated in the research and in the reaching of a wider audience. The actions of returning the results to those it concerned and their dissemination to the wider public represent important moments in the work of a researcher, despite not featuring in the performative activities we execute at conferences and in the form of publications. It presents an occasion to stimulate greater awareness about the issues investigated, to provoke reflection or even the adoption of more informed and resilient practices in order to favour the empowerment of the subjects involved. This aspect becomes even more important in the case of qualitative research where the result is a joint construction of meaning between the interviewer and interviewees, between whom an affective sociality and an ethical relationship is created.

Motivated by these concerns, I embarked on a journey of exploration and experimentation in search of concomitant and complimentary ways of writing and disseminating my research results which were, on the one hand, able to embody the socio-material vividness of real life stories in a concise and immediate manner and, on the other hand, able to engage, touch and absorb the participants/readers (myself included) in new possibilities of learning through an affective channel by dismantling our ‘order’ in doing research (Gherardi et al., 2019). It has been a journey I have lived with a sense of privilege as it provided me with the space for free creativity, one that I did not know (and still do not know) where it would lead me. Yet this journey also filled me with a sense of trepidation due to the possible consequences of the reactions it might provoke from the academic community, as well as others, and the consequences it might have on my career within a neoliberal university as a precarious researcher early on in their career and with children, who does not perfectly fit with the norms. 

Until this point, my journey has unravelled in a number of moments and taken on more than one form: the installation ‘Family Speaking Drawers’, which was selected for the 2018 European Congress of Qualitative Inquiry (ECQI) creative research session in Leuven, Belgium, was then presented a second time in 2019 at the University of Verona in Italy as part of a festival that was open to the public and held in a public place; and finally a video from the installation was created for ephemera in response to the call ‘Dis/organization and mis/management: Exploring relations of order and disorder in critical organization studies’. The present note represents a first attempt to narrate and reflect upon my journey of ‘writing differently’ (Gilmore et al., 2019; Grey and Sinclair, 2006; Just et al., 2018; Pullen 2018; Pullen et al., 2020), one which led me to create the ‘Family Speaking Drawers’.

After describing the data and methods of the underlying research, and after giving a brief summary of the results, I will discuss the work in its form as an artistic installation as well as the video version. I will conclude by offering my thoughts on ‘powerful writing’ about the issues of gender, precariousness and social reproduction, and more generally about the relations of (dis)order in contemporary capitalism and neoliberal academia.

Data and methods

The sample was identified by its theoretical significance, and respondents were recruited by snowball sampling, with respect to the following criterion: respondents were heterosexual dual precarious couples with young children (under the age of 11 years), who risked not being able to sustain themselves and their family through the labour market or social protection in the medium-term (Berton et al., 2012). This ‘extreme’ case, in which both partners rather than just one (usually the woman) were precarious workers – a condition that has become more frequent over the course of the last decades (Grotti and Scherer, 2014) – is theoretically significant because it has meant that such couples are unable, in any way, to access the social security provided for standard workers, thus increasing the risk of vulnerability in both partners and opening up new margins for intra-couple negotiation.

The respondents were mostly employed in the field of scientific research and socio-educational services as temporary workers, occasional collaborators, research fellows, or dependent self-employed workers. Some of them were multiple job-holders. All the contract types share the key features of precarious workers: temporary employment, little or no level of protection and contractual social security, high flexibility in work performance, and limited organisational autonomy. The research also covered respondents transitioning between jobs and those looking for jobs. 

Importantly, the respondents represent the ‘unfinished gender revolution generation’s children’ (Gerson, 2009), being university-educated and with an average age of 35 years. It is a generation that, by assimilating the cultural achievements of social movements, aspires to build equal gender relations in which both partners can pursue their own professional aspirations and be equally in charge of care work (Gerson, 2009). The research was conducted in and around a city in northern Italy. In some cases, it was not possible to interview both partners of a couple due to their unavailability or because the subject had in the meantime found permanent work. In total, 24 mothers and 21 fathers shared their stories with me.

The home-based qualitative interviews lasted 1 to 2.5 hours. During the interviews, respondents were asked about their work and family choices in the reconstruction of their pasts, present situations and their future projections. After having transcribed the interviews verbatim and anonymized them, a narrative analysis (Andrews et al., 2008; Riessman, 2008) was carried out in several steps with the support of the qualitative analysis software Atlas.ti. First, I identified the key events in the individual stories in order to construct the career trajectory for each participant. I also tried to understand which events were the most significant for the interviewees (e.g. childbirth, individual career development, etc.). I then focused on assessing how the stories were told; that is, how the stories embraced or contested the wider societal discourses about precarious work, parenting and life stages. In this more holistic phase, I tried to shed light on the roles each participant saw themselves playing, on their subjective positioning in the story and on the genre they adopted in telling their story (comedy, adventure, etc.). I used an iterative process of comparison both within and across cases.

Before presenting the results, a brief explanation about the context is necessary. Italy constitutes a particularly significant empirical context for the study of precariousness and gender since it presents a rather hostile context for people (especially for women) wanting to combine childcare responsibilities with precarious work. The precarization of labour has been influenced by two major laws introduced in the years 1997 and 2003, which resulted in short-term recruitment becoming almost the rule for people entering the labour market, independent of their level of education (INPS, 2017). Therefore, a whole new generation has been forced to embrace precarious labour conditions upon their entry into the labour market (Ba’, 2019). Sociologically, the phenomenon is of crucial importance due to the adverse consequences and the connected risk of social and economic exclusion that precarious work is having on people performing childcare responsibilities (Ba’, 2019; INPS, 2017). 

Moreover, the labour market’s deregulation has not been accompanied by any real adjustment to the welfare system to reflect the new social risks associated with flexibility, such as unemployment benefit and access to credit. For the workers involved, especially the younger generation and women, contractual flexibility tends to be tied to precariousness on several levels (Berton et al., 2012; della Porta et al., 2015). 

At the time of the interviews, which took place between 2012 and 2015, the effects of the economic crisis were being strongly felt in Italy, and the unemployment rate was high, especially among young people and women (ISTAT, 2013). Moreover, the Italian welfare system is structured on the traditional ‘male breadwinner/women caregiver’ model and takes a specific family-oriented approach to work-family balance by entrusting the (intergenerational) family with more responsibilities than in other countries (Naldini and Jurado, 2013). Importantly, in Italy, family- and child-related policies are best characterized as ‘unsupported familialism’, where family (and the family network) is the main care and welfare provider, and the few traditional forms of conciliation, such as paid leave, family benefits, child- and elderly-care services or corporate welfare policies, are not always accessible to people in precarious working conditions (Saraceno and Naldini, 2011).

From the research results to the construction of a creative form of dissemination: The ‘Family Speaking Drawers’ experience

From the analysis, a certain structuring of life stories of precarious workers on the basis of gender was evident. Men start their story in the form of a ‘fortuitous self’ and tend to present themselves as marginal actors in the construction of their training and work paths. Before parenting, men’s stories are discursively constructed on coincidences and opportunities seized upon, thus their narratives tend to assume the plot of a comedy. Conversely, women start in the form of a ‘volitional self’ and perform subjective positions of command. Their working career, before childbirth, is mostly consistent with the type of training in which the women, while working, continued to invest in with conviction, even after their degrees. In this time window, I found images and atmospheres typical of adventure novels, in which the plot proceeds through challenges to the traditional gender norms and tests of endurance.

However, after childbirth, men tend to ‘engage top gear’ with the objective of making order and giving greater coherence to their trajectories with respect to their ambitions and cultural models. Moreover, they look to their future with confidence. Women, on the other hand, tend to lose their bearings and feel a sense of loss that leads them – to varying degrees – to hypothesize ‘backing off’ with respect to their initial aspirations, channelling themselves into more traditional trajectories of life (Carreri, 2020). Their epilogues are generally constructed on the basis of hopes for the future, upon which the women try to project themselves. In some cases, women close their stories with evident frustration, with what I call the ‘discouraged open end’, containing neither plans nor hopes (Carreri, 2021).

The photograph below (photo 1) shows the different labels for the men (left) and for the women (right) used in the ‘Family Speaking Drawers’ installation (as well as in the video), which correspond to the following temporal windows: the beginning of the story (the incipit), the stage of life devoted to training and entry into the labour market, the turning point (represented by the birth of a child), the initial experience of parenting, and future prospects (the epilogue).

The results of the research clearly demonstrate a symmetrical relationship between the stories of the men and those of the women, reproducing a gendered order. However, due to the complex theoretical analyses involved in such research and the general ‘parcelling’ of their results, academic articles are directed at a highly specific readership; therefore, they are not able to communicate in an affective and summarizing manner the socio-material vividness of real-life stories that I, as a qualitative researcher, have collected and that constitute another form of knowledge. Thus, I started to think about a creative method for the dissemination of my results, with the intent of sharing my experience in an affective manner and with a wider audience. This process brought my whole being into play – my body, my hands, objects from my own home, as well as those of my daughter. It even involved my husband, who assisted in the assembly of an everyday object – some drawers – which took on the name ‘Family Speaking Drawers’.

Photograph 1. Labels of the installation/video

The installation – modular and which could be presented in different colours according to the exhibition space – was made of a fragile material (cardboard), recalling the precariousness of the stories (Photographs 2 and 3). Each drawer referred to a specific temporal window in the narrative. It contained objects that evoked imaginary, affective and socio-material dimensions as experienced by the interviewer. Eight of the ten drawers also contained an earphone for ‘confessional’ listening, featuring an audio clip with actors’ voices reciting significant excerpts (in English) from both men’s and women’s stories and the recurring rhetorics. The remaining two drawers, corresponding to the two turning points (of men and women, respectively), could not be opened. They contained objects that could only be observed by getting up close to the drawer and peeking through a hole. My intention here was not to offer a specific rhetoric, but to create a ‘break’ in the linearity of the story by putting him or her into the situation of trying to see what was hiding inside the unopenable drawer and that he or she might ask themselves questions about what was happening in this phase (i.e. that of the birth of a child) and try to reflect about the possible implications. A series of photographs of apartment rooms,[1] accompanied by music and some voiceovers, were intended to depict the scenario characterized by traditional gender norms repeated within the domestic space of everyday life. Finally, the layout of the drawers recalled the symmetrical structure of men’s and women’s stories.

A video was made based on the installation and is available online for viewing via the link provided in this issue of ephemera. The video-recording reproduces the experience of the installation, with its pictures, objects, music, voices and voiceovers. The different temporal windows of the life stories are also portrayed in the video-recording, indicated by a musical interlude and by the labels shown above (Photograph 1). As occurred in the installation, at the moment of the turning point in the life stories (represented by the birth of a child), the video-recording provides no interview excerpts to listen to, and the ‘breaking’ moment is indicated by a longer musical interlude and by an off-screen voice that repeats the traditional gender norms. My intention here, as in the installation, was to create a situation that would provoke reflection and introspection in the participant, forcing them to ask themselves about the possible ways in which the stories might proceed.

Photograph 2. 2018 European Congress of Qualitative Inquiry (ECQI), creative research session, Leuven, Belgium

Photograph 3. 2019 GoTo Science Festival, Verona, Italy

Compared with the installation, the video version of ‘Family Speaking Drawers’ requires a different type of engagement that encourages the participant/reader more strongly to enter into a state of introspection and to create an affective channel between him- or herself and the voice recordings. Furthermore, the socio-material dimension and the involvement of real people is transmitted using photographs of real-life domestic scenes, so that whilst the voices are being listened to, the viewer finds him- or herself in the actual homes of Italian precarious couples with children, where they can observe their everyday objects, children’s toys, clothes hanging, family photographs, pets, etc. The video-recording is a form of research results dissemination that requires the participants/readers of ephemera to listen and dedicate time, to imagine and empathize, to generate introspection and silence, all to a much greater extent than what generally occurs when reading a scientific article. 

Instead, the installation created a dissemination modality that turned into a kind of collective practice (see Photograph 3). The participants approached the drawers in groups of 3 to 5 people, and they became an active part of the installation as the voices and related imaginings could only be activated by the participants actually opening the drawers. In this case, the socio-material dimension was transmitted by means of a number of objects present in the drawers which evoked a certain rhetoric (for example, a compass, a baby’s bottle, a small world map, etc.), and of which the participants could have a sensorial experience, even sharing the experience with the people around. The photographs of domestic settings were projected onto a wall and were required to set the scene. In this case, the participant/reader was required to listen, exercise empathy, be curious, and to share their experience with those around him or her.

Photograph 4. By Giulia Rizzini

Photograph 5. 2019 GoTo Science Festival, Verona, Italy

In both versions of the work – the video and the installation – the dissemination of the results moved beyond the discursive and analytical dimension to an affective form of data transmission (Massumi, 2002) in which the audience itself is an active (and reactive) subject. The life stories listened to might resonate, for example, with the reader’s (or participant’s) own stories and perhaps create a sense of injustice for gender inequalities. Thus, we are talking about a whole new modality, or rather, a new genre of dissemination of research results, one that engages the ‘reader’ to a greater extent compared with traditional academic texts and gives them a sensorial and affective experience which has the potential to become source of change and power (Amrouche et al., 2018; Christensen et al., 2018; Just et al., 2018).

Writing differently about gender, precariousness and social reproduction 

So, where am I – conceptually speaking – now that I have reached the end of my PhD studies and in the light of this installation? It is a strange coincidence that, as I write this, the opening words of a book I have just started reading are still bouncing around my mind: ‘In choosing to study the social world in which we are involved, we are obliged to confront, in dramatized form as it were, a certain number of fundamental epistemological problems, all related to the question of the difference between practical knowledge and scholarly knowledge, and particularly to the special difficulties involved first in breaking with inside experience and then in reconstituting the knowledge which has been obtained by means of this break’ (Bourdieu, 1988:1). In the light of the scientific, experiential and creative journey I have travelled, where am I now, conceptually speaking? This is a difficult question to ask myself, and one that seems ‘enormous’, still being in the early stages of my research career as well as a precarious worker in a neoliberal university; and especially because this experimental journey has occupied much less of my time compared with my writing, research and main teaching activities, as well as it being potentially ‘risky’ with regard to my career. However, as suggested by Reviewer 1, during the peer review process for this article, I must first try to ‘allow myself’ to ‘go back’ to when I was still setting up the research, and with that in mind consider our present situation, at the end of the work, in order to provide some kind of provisional answer. To me, this going back means returning to the moment in which practical knowledge broke away from scholarly knowledge, as talked about by Bourdieu in his book Homo Academicus. Rather than trying to sew their bonds back together, I attempt to recover that other form of practical knowledge – the one which I was unable to transmit in the form of a scientific article – and to transmit it to a wider public. However, to do this I needed to challenge the ways in which we and our writing are ‘disciplined’ in academia and to dismantle our traditional ‘order’ in doing research (Amrouche et al., 2018; Gherardi et al., 2019). As highlighted by Putnam, Fairhurst and Banghart (2016), a dialectic exists between order and disorder in organizations, and thus also in academia: the power and performativity of tensions, contradictions and dilemmas are constitutive of our everyday organizational life. In the betweenness of these tensions I created the ‘Family Speaking Drawers’, in collaboration with Luca Leone and Giulia Rizzini, without any prior ideas regarding the significance of the work, or about the impact it would have upon the community at large, the academic community or me; or even about its conceptual reach and even less so its future developments. What I was always aware of though is that it was not about generating an ‘output’ – something that I could list under the title of productivity – but rather a so-called transformative journey and new possibilities for learning, which continue today.

It gave me great pleasure to read that the video ‘Family Speaking Drawers’ had been defined as ‘powerful’ by both peer reviewers of this article, but I now ask myself what does that actually mean? What is it actually doing? I believe that the work can be considered ‘powerful’ because it teaches us a number of things, as I will now sketch out below.

The work represents a form of writing and dissemination that cannot be reduced to a text: it engages the ‘participant/reader’ by means of a sensorial and affective experience of life stories which speak of marginalization, vulnerability and uncertainty, but also the sense of responsibility, autonomy and flexibility in contemporary capitalism. The voices in the video create meaning for us all by evoking intersubjective resonance and bringing to mind our own experiences of being precarious workers, parents, partners, makers and remakers of our subjectivitiesand gendered selves; bringing together the past, present and future versions of our own life stories. I think that the strength of the ‘Family Speaking Drawers’ rests in its collective dimension, in the fact that it does not deal with an atomized experience that the reader has, but rather an ‘empathetic sharing’ that can disrupt conventional texts; and become a site of affective sociality and provoke awareness, questioning, criticism and potential change. I got a clear feeling of this during the two presentations of the installation as different people from both within and outside academia expressed to me their sense of ‘connecting’ to the voices; and some of them told me that they were particularly ‘touched’ by the research and found themselves continuing to think about it.

Secondly, by focussing on the subjects’ identity struggles in the construction of their life stories (working and caring) under conditions of uncertainty, the work demonstrates how gender (dis)organizes these life stories and resounds with Butler’s understanding of gender as a heterosexual matrix, the normative framework according to which behaviour, driven by the desire for recognition, is rendered intelligible and accountable (Butler, 2004). The performance of gender in the heterosexual matrix reproduces the binary of masculinity and femininity. On a more abstract level, the gendered order in precarious workers’ life stories seems to be a kind of precondition for the current neoliberal model of capital accumulation (Carreri, 2021), and women appear to be sacrificial victims of neoliberalism (Brown, 2016). However, from Butler we know that a transformative performance can only be temporarily ‘done’ along the life course if and when the binary is read differently. As the installation/video ‘Family Speaking Drawers’ hints, this is what seems to happen in the stories when they are told and take on the form of shared experiences. The work transmits the tensions, the forwards-and-backwards motion, the sense of disorder, uncertainly and difficulty present in the identity constructions of working and caring that men and women make. In doing so, the work underscores the necessity to look at precarious work under neoliberalism by going beyond the rhetoric of the (gender neutral) ‘free subject’, individual responsibility and rationality, and to shine light on the quality of working life and the identity work required of subjects involved in such reality constructions (Kuhn et al., 2017; Miller and Rose, 2008; Mumby, 2016; Mumby and Plotnikof, 2019).

Finally, ‘Family Speaking Drawers’ is a more-than-representational (Lorimer, 2005) form of dissemination, which seeks to ‘inject a note of wonder back into a social science which, too often, assumes that it must explain everything’ (Thrift, 2007: 12). The work, beyond or before the analytic level, gives space to the (absent) voices, the rhetorical figures, the broken language, the rhythm, the bodies and socio-materiality. In this way, the dissemination of results can also become another research practice intended to bring the people and events encountered in fieldwork to life (Gherardi et al., 2019; Gibbs, 2015; Rivera and Tracy, 2014; Sergi and Hallin, 2011). Our own practices of doing research can be dis-organized and re-organized in different ways (Christensen et al., 2018). To this regard, the ‘Family Speaking Drawers’ is powerful because it teaches us, and potentially our students too, something that appears to be new compared with the prevailing patterns (of being, doing and writing) of neoliberal universities (Gilmore et al., 2019; Pullen et al., 2020), that is, that learning happens by putting oneself in the condition of knowing how to listen and how to be empathetic and generous, to such an extent that one’s own stories are also shared. Works like these will perhaps forge a path towards the development of different ways of working and caring for others in the university.


[1] I am grateful to photographer Giulia Rizzini for the generation of these photographs. 

references 

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the author(s)  

Anna Carreri is Assistant Professor of Sociology of Work and Organization at the University of Verona, Italy, and affiliated with the Research Centre SEIN - Identity, Diversity & Inequality Research, University of Hasselt, Belgium. Her research is conducted mainly through qualitative methods from an intersectional and critical perspective. Her main research interests are work-life issues and quality of working life in relation to changes in the labour market and organizational models. Currently, she is involved in research concerning gender inequalities in academic careers. 

Email: anna.carreri AT univr.it