American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
January-March 2019

2020 Annual Meeting Theme: Power, Inequality, and Resistance at Work

115th ASA Annual Meeting • August 8-11, 2020 • San Francisco, CA

The founders of sociology identified work as a source of fulfilment and dignity, but also a site of domination, inequality, and alienation. With the theme, “Power, Inequality, and Resistance at Work,” we encourage sociologists to explore how these processes are playing out in the 21st century. How are globalization, computerization, and financialization transforming the experience of work for people around the world? How are our traditional categories of race, class, and gender being reconfigured in our new economic arrangements? What new forms of domination, inequality, and resistance are made possible by these “great transformations”?

The new economy is transforming the scope and nature of employer power over workers. In the past, hegemonic control over workers was maintained through the standard employment contract, with its promise of stable wages, benefits, and job security in return for workers’ loyalty and conformity. How do employers exercise power over workers when jobs become “gigs,” characterized by temporary assignments with variable pay and hours? What happens when the employment relationship is conducted entirely through an app? As employers externalize risks (e.g., by eliminating guaranteed pensions and benefits and outsourcing job training), workers become responsible for investing in their future employability. Corporations engage in mass layoffs in response to economic downturns and to signal their support for investors; automation continues apace, with artificial intelligence and robotics threatening to displace even more workers. How do employers persuade workers to accept these conditions? How do employed and unemployed workers cope with constant unpredictability?

Divisions of labor based on gender and race/ethnicity characterize work today. Occupational segregation persists even as major employers claim to be dedicated to “equal opportunities.” How are these durable inequalities maintained in an era of avowed attention to diversity? In addition to gender and race/ethnicity, what new forms of inequality are emerging today that shape experiences at work? How is a person’s livelihood limited or enhanced depending on their age, physical ability, and health? How do citizenship and immigration status impact workers’ employability and vulnerability to exploitation? And how do social institutions, including schools, prisons, and neighborhoods, distribute access to employment in ways that contribute to social inequality?

Wages and status remain the conventional measures of workplace inequality, but the tide of financialization pushes us to develop new measures. For many workers, wages are not sufficient to support life; they must take on debt to make ends meet.  We invite sociologists to deepen our understanding of how access to credit determines who can accumulate wealth, and who is subjected to forced labor and imprisonment.  Similarly, job markets increasingly characterized by short-term and gig work blur the lines separating employment and unemployment. How should we understand these traditional categories under new regimes of employment?

Finally, workers protest the terms of their employment through unionization, worker-ownership, and various kinds of labor militancy such as the recent wave of teacher strikes. New forms of worker resistance are emerging on social media; MeToo and Occupy are two well-known examples.  What new forms of resistance are emerging to meet changing workplace dynamics? How are social justice organizations promoting worker rights today? We invite sociologists to explore how workers resist their exploitation, assert claims for dignity, and form political and social alliances in the 21st century.

Christine Williams
University of Texas