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Rethinking Global Workplaces: Polychrony and Uncertainty

Conflicts in Time: rethinking contemporary globalization





Workshop No. 3 in ESRC Research Seminar Series



3-4 May 2010

The first wave of theories of neo-liberalism wrote of global workplaces as the epitome of the compressed and accelerated space-time that accompanied new forms of production and technology (Castells 1996, Harvey 1989). Other authors took these arguments to extremes suggesting that all social experience was now suspended in a shallow present characterized by an evacuation of the near and far future (Guyer 2007). But ethnographic analyses of outsourced, globally linked and financed workplaces such as factories, data processing units, consultancies, stock markets, and call centres revealed a quite different reality. Although compressed and accelerated space-time appeared in new technologies and managerial strategies to be a force external to society its implementation in workplaces brought it into relationship with complex social practices of timespace (Mills 1999, Freeman 2000, Xiang Biao 2006, Zaloom 2006, Miyazaki 2003, Aneesh 2006, Upadhya 2009). As Thrift and May wrote in 2001 "the picture that emerges is less that of a singular or uniform social time stretching over a uniform space, than of various (and uneven) networks of time stretching in different and divergent directions across an uneven social field." Yet in spite of this opening up to analysis of a diversity of timescapes there is still a lacuna in our theoretical and empirical understanding of how these intersect in social practice. In particular we have yet to trace how the polychronies of various forms of finance capital, technological instruments, predictive devices, representations of time, social disciplines and rhythms of social reproduction are mediated within workplaces, companies and communities. This gap is increasingly problematic because without an analysis of the contradictions and negotiations of these polychronies we cannot explore two key elements of contemporary economic life. These are the increasing uncertainty of the process of capital accumulation and the centrality of the rhythms of credit, debt and deficit to productivity (Castree 200x, Graeber 2009, Roitman 2003). In addition attention to these issues should finally undermine our idea that speed or time economy is at the heart of capitalism. Instead we will be able to explore the forms of pacing, duration, waiting, pause, obsolescence and delay that also characterize its rhythms. Given our intention to produce an extensive rethinking of these issues of polychrony and uncertainty this workshop will draw on a wide variety of regional settings and will use a broad definition of 'globally-linked' workplaces. These could include globally financed, staffed or technologically linked, outsourced or international market centred companies that vary from mines, factories and family-owned companies to consultancies and ships.

Themes for exploration:

(papers can address one or more of these issues)


How does it alter our understanding of global workplaces and companies if we analyse them as sites where various networks of time intersect? How does the treatment of time as a reified object independent of human construction in management strategies introduce an inherent instability within institutions and worker's experiences? How do individuals, communities and institutions attempt to mediate between disparate representations and rhythms of time?

Predictive and Technological Devices

Predictive devices are a means of quantifying the future and opening it up to human agency. But what happens when they bring into relation and representational form conflicting temporal rhythms? When they are implemented in the work process of global workplaces or company strategies how does this reveal their inherent elisions and produce contradictions? How do these predictive devices combine with other technological instruments to produce disparate temporal rhythms for work that have to be sutured together by workers? How as a result of these disparities and contradictions do these devices and technologies provoke and/or take on an affective, ethical and political life within workplaces?


Initial theories of global workplaces suggested that they would be tightly linked to the temporal rhythms of capital, management and consumption in far distant places. But given the polychronies of global workplaces how can we now reverse this assumption to explore the increasing uncertainty of the process of capital accumulation and production as it is dispersed around the globe? In addition given the temporariness of international networks bound by short-term contracts how do managers and workers develop new rituals of calculation and avoidance of uncertainty? How does the short-termism and instability of workplaces affect social relations and the understandings of labour and the product of labour?

The Temporal Rhythms of Debt, Deficit and Credit

How would it alter our understanding of global workplaces if we were to reinterpret the growth of the, "network society", "neo-liberalism" and/or "globalization" as the large-scale development and transference of personal debt, business credit and institutional deficit around the globe? How might we reinterpret their institutional forms as driven not by the demands of production, but by the temporalities of repayment? Similarly how might we reinterpret the distinctions between private and public workplaces as a product of the differences between the rhythms of credit and deficit? How are personal relationships of debt among workers, labour brokers and employers related to these global developments?

Speed and Pacing

Post-industrial landscapes show dramatically the disappearance and slowing down that are part of capital generation, but can we also trace a pacing of production in global workplaces that goes beyond old arguments about over-accumulation? How might pause, waiting and deceleration prove to be part of productivity? How might this lead us to rethink the arguments about speed and time-economy that usually predominate in discussions? Similarly how (as Mollona has shown) might the slow pace of old technologies and skills be integral to global workplaces?

Starting a Conversation: examples from the Hooghly river

To begin the conversation on these themes I would like to give two concrete examples from my recent fieldwork in Kolkata on post-liberalisation changes to the pleasures and utility of the river Hooghly. River pilots employed by the state port trust navigate container ships along the narrow tracks that cross the 15 sand bars between the Kolkata docks and the sea 125 miles away at Sandheads. The incommensurable temporalities of tidal rhythms of the river and those of capital generation by international shippers in Sri Lanka, Singapore and China are mediated by the draft predictions for various weeks of the year made by the marine department. These determine the size, loading and quantity of vessels that are sent by shippers each day in and out of the port and the revenue accrued by all concerned. Pilots with their labour have to negotiate the gaps between the predicted and actual rhythms of the river by adjusting the speed, pacing and direction of the ships as they run on the flood tide to and from the sea. This has become particularly problematic in recent years for two reasons. First silt precipitated by policies driven by deficits in the Port has made the sand bars along the river deeper and depths shallower. Since the 1990s the post-liberalisation central government has refused to invest in dredging and has tied the port's budgets to the annual repayment of loans incurred in the 1960s and 1970s that were previously under a moratorium. Secondly marine department officers frustrated with declining depths and the subsequent failure to generate trade have confidentially reduced the required underkeel clearance of vessels, thereby making their predictive technology more disconnected from actual labour on the river. This predictive technology that is supposed to mediate between the temporalities of trade and the river is increasingly a source of uncertainty. Pilots more frequently refuse to take ships on the river because their loading and shape make them dangerous to navigate on a particular tide and accidents have become commonplace. An increase in accidents on the river has led to two further responses. First river pilots have themselves developed new predictive and virtual technologies designed to mediate the timescape of the river in a limitless quest for more certainty. Secondly accidents are normalized as the exciting cost of productivity and as productive in themselves. Ultimately this example suggests that in other work contexts it would be rewarding to trace the inherent contradictions in predictive technologies and the consequences of these for the experience of labour. In addition it implies that when the multiple temporal rhythms of institutions come into contact with the annual inexorable repayment of defecit or debt this heightens contradictions. It also reveals that the dream of speed that may motivate the pursuit of profit is brought into complex relation with pacing, hesitation, pause and delay within companies and workplaces. Also, of course, what is interesting about the work and sensibility of river pilots and marine officers is that they do not exist within one single temporality. In fact as I show in my work their everyday ethics is an attempt to balance various rhythms, devices and representations of time. 

My second example also comes from the Hooghly, but from a site of casualised, outsourced labour—Corporated Shipyard. This too has been produced from the deficit economics of the port. Both the casual labourers and managers of the shipyard used to work for the port trust before their ship repairing department was shut down to reduce expenditure in the 1990s. Ship repairing and building was initially outsourced here from the Port Trust. Now the shipyard is constructing 6 huge ice class timber transport vessels for a Norwegian firm brokered by an intermediary company in Cyprus that are destined to ply between the Baltic and the North Sea. There is a further important link to the deficit economics of the port, like all the land along the river, the plot for the six yards along the Hooghly in Howrah are leased on 15 year intervals from the port. In spite of well-publicised plans for long-term redevelopment of the waterfront the port has instead taken this strategy in order to generate revenue quickly to pay off its deficit. This arrangement is the basis for a low capital investment business in which ships are built with minimal equipment and temporary labour. Temporariness and short term planning pervades all the social relations, work processes and bureaucratic arrangements of the yards. The absence of even minimal predictive technologies such as written plans and procedures as well as the use of obsolete technologies, skills and exposure to the elements introduces chronic uncertainty into the production process. The lack of investment in offices, rest rooms, paperwork, machinery, a dispersed work hierarchy, the unpredictability of work processes and contractual work at all levels meant that an experience of the company as an overall entity or process entirely disappears from the shipyard. Middle managers and supervisors based their authority on informal emotional connections of teasing, admiration of skill, friendship and arguments. Workers paid by individual contractors, working on distinct blocks and using machinery owned by their contractors only talked of a unity of the company in the personage of the owner , his audacity, skill and consumption practices. Overall the continuity of a company providing sustenance over the long term was replaced by an acute uncertainty of: authority, work process, employment and the fickle emotional bonds of ties between men. In the absence of a predictable future workers and managers sought other representations of permanence. A sense of permanence was projected by workers onto the universal power of technical expertise, its manifestation in the growing bulk of the ship and the ebb and flow of the tides of the Hooghly. Two events, Viswakarma puja and the launch of the ice class vessel anchored the continuities of the ship, expertise and the Hooghly into a cyclical temporality of certain return associated with the emotion of annondo (joy). In the absence of a short or long term intelligible future everyday ethical concepts of the relationship between form and material substance, technical knowledge and religion and the river as Ganga filled the shipyard with meaning. Here is a complimentary counterpoint to the example of the river pilots and the port's predictive technologies. The same temporalities of international capital and state deficit produced a quite distinct timescape for labour. Here temporariness and short-term coordination is scrupulously maintained as a potential source of revenue for everyone: the port, international companies, labour brokers and the owner of Corporated. In fact profits are produced by moving capital across the boundaries of temporary and permanent institutions. Overall this example suggests that we should look for other contexts where the manipulation of different timescapes converges to disenfranchise groups of workers. But once again the actual representations of time of workers is shown to be complex. They do not inhabit a single temporality, but draw on a variety of sources to construct representations of time and their relationship to their workplace and products of their labour.

These examples should not limit your responses to the themes--they are just to spark some diverse ideas related to your own work.

Laura Bear, L.S.E.


A. Aneesh 2006  Virtual Migration: the Programming of Globalisation,   

Xiang Biao 2006 Global Bodyshopping: an Indian labour system in the Information Technology Industry

M. Castells 1996  The Rise of Network Society

N,Castree 200x  "The Spatio-Temporality of Capitalism" Time and Society

C.Freeman 2000  High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy: women, work and pink-collar identities in the Carribean,

J. Guyer 2007 Prophecy and the near future: thoughts on macroeconomic,evangelical,and punctuated time. American Ethnologist 34, 3, 409-421,

D.Harvey 1989 The Condition of Post-Modernity

M.Mills 1999 Thai Women in the Global Labour Force: consuming desires, contested selves

H. Miyazaki 2003 "The Temporalities of the Market" in American Anthropologist, Vol 105, Issue 2, 255-265.

G. Reith 2004 "Uncertain Times: the notion of 'risk' and the development of modernity," Time and Society Vol 13, No 2/3, pp383-402

J.Roitman 2003 "Unsanctioned Wealth; or the productivity of debt in Northern Cameroon," Public Culture 15(2), 211, 237.

D. Graeber 2009 "Debt, Violence and impersonal markets: Polyanian meditations," Ch 7 in Market and Society: the great transformation today, eds C. Hann and K. Hart

C. Upadhya 2009 "Rewriting the Code: software professionals and the reconstitution of Indian middle class identity," in C. Jaffrelot and P. Van der Veer (eds) Patterns of  Middle Class Consumption in India and China

C. Zaloom 2006  Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London

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