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Working Paper 51: Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man

by James Ferguson, Tania Murray Li in 2018

This programmatic article proposes an approach to global political-economic inquiry in the wake of the failure of long-established transition narratives, notably the narrative centred on a universal trajectory from farm-based and “traditional” livelihoods into the “proper jobs” of a modern industrial society. The prevalence and persistence of “informal”, “precarious”, and “non-standard” employment in so many sites around the world, it suggests, requires a profound analytical decentering of waged and salaried employment as a presumed norm or telos, and a consequent reorientation of our empirical research protocols. The authors seek to further such a reorientation by identifying a set of specific political-economic questions that are in some sense portable, and can profitably be applied to a diverse range of empirical contexts around the world. But it is the questions that are shared, not the answers. By generating a matrix of difference and similarity across cases, the paper points toward a research agenda capable both of finding answers to concrete questions that arise in specific settings, and of generating comparative insights and the identification of large-scale patterns.