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Precarious Passion or Passionate Precariousness? Narratives from co-research in Journalism and Editing

Cristina Morini, Kristin Carls et Emiliana Armano
p. 61-83


In journalism and editing, as one particular field of cognitive and knowledge la­bour, workers' experiences of passion and precarisation lay closely together, as the work organisation is more and more dominated by market imperatives and labour control restructured as a mix of blackmailing and subjectification. Based on a co-research process and informed bythe theoretical concept of biopolitics, this article analyses workers' daily coping practices in face of precarisation. In doing so, it particularly insists in the role played by strong intrinsic work motivations typical for this type of knowledge work. Narratives are a central element of this investigation as they are used to assess workers’ sense constructions, and namely the inherent contradictions and implications for workers' agency potential. Outcomes are ambiguous, highlighting practices of self-ex­ploitation sustained by a peculiar mix of passion and fear, practices of frustra­ted and individualised emotional withdrawal from work, as well as new lines of conflict and collective mobilisation.

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Notes de l’auteur

The research project and the article are the result of joint work of the three authors. All the paragraphs include many ideas and research tracks from both authors. The authors thank so felt the interviewees and Focus group participants, their collaboration was crucial and without it this research would not have been possible. Translation from the italian language by Kristin Carls. The co-authors of this article thank Valeria Graziano for attentive supervision of this translation.

Texte intégral

I. Introduction

1Journalism and editorial work are usually considered to be a creative freelance type of activity with relevant margins of autonomy concerning the work process as well as that work’s contents. They are, moreover, associated with a relatively high social status. How then are processes of precarisation lived in such an exemplary context, in terms of knowledge and cognitive work ? How does precarisation affect creative workers’ autonomy and creative capacities, their professional identities and their passion for the job as writers and editors ? The aim of our paper is to inquire into the relationship between cognitive labour, passion and precariousness. We want to understand how work attitudes change in a context of daily li­ved precarisation. Our analysis is thus focussed on representations of precariousness and workers’ coping practices : the way they think and act in dealing with the everyday requirements of cognitive work, the direct and indirect forms of labour control they face and the conflicts and contradictions emerging from a changing labour process.

2This paper is based on an empirical qualitative enquiry, undertaken as a process of co-research (conricerca) together with a group of eleven journalists and editorial workers in Milan in 2011 and 2012. Narratives are a central element of this research, both as an object of analysis and an instrument for producing collective knowledge. We used in-depth group dis­cussions focussed on daily work experiences and employment biographies to examine workers’ common sense, that is, the constructions of meaning used to cope with daily work requirements and conditions. Such common sense is of interest to us as an expression of the relation between the individual and society. It is the basis on which workers construct their agency potential. That agency potential is the focal point of our analysis : especially workers’ capacities in coping with experiences of precarisation, changing forms of labour control and the resulting conflicts they experience daily, as well as their capacities to change their working conditions, defend their rights and realise own interests.

II. Theoretical Framework and Hypotheses

3In current sociological debate, various concepts are used to describe knowledge and cognitive labour in its different forms, such as “intellectual work”, “immaterial work”, or “cognitive-relational work” (Gorz, 2003 ; Vercellone, 2006 ; Fumagalli, 2008 ; Chicchi/Roggero, 2009 ; Fumagalli/Morini, 2009 ; Armano, 2010 ; Armano/Murgia, 2012). Often, however, definitions and differences between these various concepts are not sufficiently specified. Therefore, our research refers to the concept of biopolitics as a theoretical framework (Codeluppi, 2008 ; Amendola/Bazzicalu­po/Chicchi/Tucci, 2008) to underline the specificity of today’s cognitive work and to collocate it in the context of a changing mode of production (Castel, 1999, 2009). According to this concept, language and related relational, communicative and affective capacities (such as being able to com­municate and express one’s opinions and feelings in facing social realities) gain crucial relevance in the current biocapitalist mode of production. As these capacities are put to work and commodified within the labour process, new forms of exploitation and control are produced, as well as new sense constructions (Rullani, 2004 ; Bologna, 2011). We use the concept of cognitive labour as an analytical category for taking these changes in the labour process into account and, more precisely, regarding management strategies aimed at resolving the transformation problem ; that is in management’s strategies to transform workers’ multiple subjective labour capacities into the kind of labour power required in the processes of production and accumulation in question.

4We begin with the idea that current biocapitalist forms of exploitation aimed at workers’ cognitive capacities are based on a mix of direct and in­direct forms of control. On the one hand, authoritarian and hierarchical forms of control are strengthened. On the other, new strategies of subjectification (Baethge, 1991 ; Moldaschl/Voß, 2002) and normative control are developed, aimed at the internalisation of labour requirements and control by workers themselves. Crucially, such a control mix supports the blackmailing mechanism that is at the heart of precarisation. In fact, precarisation and the new forms of labour control sustain each other mutually. The growing insecurity of work, employment and living conditions and the loss of labour rights and protections entailed in precarisation make workers vulnerable to blackmailing. On this basis, intensified control and work rhythms, together with requirements of subjectification and self-control, translate into a mechanism of unlimited forced availability. Precarisation, thus, stems not only from changes in employment relations but also from within the labour process. Our interest lies precisely in such interrelations between precarisation and the labour process, work organisation and labour control.

5Today’s cognitive labour solicits talents, creativity, passion and the capacity to produce oneself as decisive elements of the production process. Cognitive workers tend to invest themselves freely in work provided that such work leaves room for passion and creative capacities :

Journalists who write books, commercial artists who create pieces of art, computer scientists who demonstrate their virtuosity as hackers and as inventors of open source software (Gorz, 2003 :24).

6If Fordism may be described as the era in which administrating worker’s whole lifestyles by means of repression, submission to the machine and a strict governance of the subjects’ time was considered indispensable, then creativity and flexibility as despotic norms constitute the centre of gravity of cognitive labour within current biocapitalism, as argued by Paolo Virno (2002).

7Following this shift from factory discipline to biocapitalism, precarious subjectivity is constantly called upon to live up to the self-normative, self-realising and self-organising capacities which characterise biocapitalism and can only be captured and controlled by descending to the level of affects and relations closely belonging to the subject ; or, in other words, by incorporating affects and relations into the production process itself. The self-normativity at the centre here is reached precisely by mobilising passion within a context of precarity. Seen negatively, such precarity corres­ponds to a self-normative iron cage, self-imposed by the precarious subjects upon themselves.

8The entire, passionate lives of cognitive workers in the cultural industry analysed in this article, tend to be subsumed and that subsumption results in a type of social submission which cannot be separated from their mode of subjectification and self-government within a completely open and transparent environment. Immerging passion into productive processes like those analysed here, editorial and journalistic production processes re­quiring capacities such as writing and knowledge acquired through education and training, translates into a shift from past forms of disciplining by means of hierarchical supervision to current forms of self-control and voluntary self-exploitation (Raunig, 2012). Cognitive labour unfolds itself within an “economy of libido” for which the principle of pleasure plays a crucial role as a mechanism through which the subject internalises the “liberal”, post-fordist type of governmental power (Foucault, 1985). Referring to the concept of biopolitics, we intend to evoke above all this “performance – pleasure” arrangement pervading today’s labour market.

9However, the focus of our research is placed on the hypothesis that the relational element inherent in cognitive work (Morini/Fumagalli, 2009 ; Morini, 2010) also always brings about a surplus (Virno, 2001) of labour capacities which exceed those that are functional within the capitalist labour process. Starting out from Marx’ notion of surplus value (the surplus as the sum of work incorporated in the produced commodity, in relation to the amount of paid work), the term surplus intends to underline the pre­sence of such a social productivity of creative capacities, diffused across society, which do not correspond with and may enter into conflict with the requirements of capital accumulation. Following Rossi-Landi, such a surplus also implies a capacity to take a critical stance towards and escape from the social and ideological devices subjects are confronted with in everyday life (Rossi/Landi, 1985).

10In the last few years, there has been much discussion about the role of emotions and relational capacities in organizations. In an initial phase, this debate concentrated on defining “emotional labour” (Hochschild, 1979, 1983 ; Bolton/Grugulia/Vincent/Leidner, 2010). Arguments have shown how organisations try to control and subjugate these subjective capacities according to their interests and how such attempts at control impact on workers’ identities, attitudes and behaviour (Hochschild, 1983 ; Ezzy, 2001 ; Salecl, 2010). Finally, discussion has focused on the practices by which workers appropriate margins of autonomy and independently manage the emotional aspects of their work, also independently from the interests of management (Korczynski, 2003 ; Bolton/Boyd, 2003).

  • 1 As a matter of course, such “female” capacities can be understood only as social constructions and (...)

11In order to advance this debate, we need a better understanding of the scope of an emotional work that reaches well beyond the field of care and other personal service occupations (Holyfield, 1999) and concerns paid and unpaid forms of work in a variety of other occupations and sectors. In fact, in a process of “feminisation of work” (Morini, 2010) relational and communicative capacities historically associated with female1 ways of being in the private sphere, are required in the labour process of today’s biocapitalism, but neither recognised nor compensated by companies (Folbre/Nelson, 2000 ; Folbre, 2006 ; Durand, 2004). Regarding the social world outside the workplace, in all work contexts today, one is obviously required to know more, communicate more, and interact more. And these requirements are all the more evident for some specific types of work.

12Our procedure will be to apply these hypotheses to cognitive work in journalism and editing (Morini, 2012). Over and above other specific professional qualifications, the work of journalists and editors also requires additional relational capacities such as empathy, emotional intelligence, affective and communicative resources. Thus we are offered a good occasion for inquiring into how these relational and emotional elements – ha­ving a feeling for one’s work – are affected by precarisation (Hesmon­dhalgh/Baker, 2008, 2011 ; Corsani, 2012). In this, we are particularly interested in analysing the subjective dimension of precarisation : those relational, emotional and existential aspects having to do with how workers lend meaning to their working and social lives and position themselves in society. Such meaning constructions will be analysed as an expression of workers’ coping practices in dealing with precarisation ; we will seek to ascertain the degree of agency potential that is developed on their basis (Holzkamp, 1985 ; Krauss, 1996).

13We would like to stress that our analysis is focussed on workers’ subjective representations of precarisation experiences (Bourdieu, 1998), and not on the objective conditions of precarity. Meaning that our aim is not to produce a comparative analysis of precarity as a contractual and economic condition. Instead, we are more interested in understanding precarity as a manifold and intersubjective construction of meaning. Therefore, we have chosen to examine workers’ multiple representations of insecurity using a subject-oriented approach (Murgia/Armano, 2013), that is from the subject’s viewpoint (Butler, 2004), and assuming this partiality as heuristically important. This is the backdrop of our interest in comparing representations linked to different work contexts, such as those of journalists and editorial workers (Morini/Carls/Armano, 2014 [forthcoming]).

14Referring to a polysemic notion of precarity (Bresson, 2007), we understand it as

  • 2 Translation K. C.

an expression of a new mode of domination, based on the institution of a generalised and permanent state of insecurity aimed at forcing workers to submit to and accept exploitation (Bourdieu, 1998 :972).

15As stressed in sociological debates, such insecurity involves not only future prospects within a given employment relationship, but, crucially, also touches upon social relations (Barbier, 2002). Thus, it produces economic as well as social vulnerability (Cingolani, 1986, 2005, 2014 ; Bou­maza/Pierru, 2007 ; Contarini, 2014). As such a generalised social process, precarisation stems from transformation of the mode of production and regulation (Boyer, 2004), with a consequent reduction of labour related and social protections.

16While making reference to a polysemic understanding of precarity, we also want to stress that as regards social constructions, precarity should be understood as a perception of increasing risks, personal destabilisation and a fragilising of social relations (Castel, 1995 ; Bourdieu, 1998). As the “factory of the neoliberal subject”, precarity means that responsibilities are transferred to social actors and that systemic insecurity is attributed to individual choices (Dardot/Laval, 2013 :414-465). According to Corsani (2014 :n.p.), this notion of precarity can be further specified :

  • 3 Translation K. C.

What is at stake is making everybody become a ‘self-entrepreneur’ who assumes on his own all the economic and social risks of his acti­vity, an individual struggling against all others in order to obtain an employment position, investing all his daily livetime in frenetic rhythms, day and night, in the ‘production of himself’ in order to win the war for a ‘merited’ (direct or indirect) income3.

III. Methodological Choices

17Our empirical research aims to analyse the coping practices and resulting agency potential of journalists and editorial workers in facing precarisation. Its ambition is doing in-depth analysis of daily work practices, meaning constructions and cultures in a relevant segment of cognitive work rather than producing representative outcomes. As regards methodo­logy, a narrative approach (Riessman, 1993) has been chosen as a way of illustrating the various coping practices workers adopt in facing daily, lived conflicts and contradictions. In analyzing these narratives, we wish to grasp the meaning constructions that workers develop to make sense of their work experiences. These meaning constructions can be analysed in relying on direct explanations and opinions given within the narratives, as well as by considering the positioning of single events in the overall story line. From an analytical perspective, we are not so much interested in analysing narratives as such, but in understanding how the worldviews guiding everyday practices are constructed. In this attempt, we refer to a mix of various methodological instruments, ranging form problem-centred interviewing (Witzel, 2000) to critical discourse analysis (Jäger/Jäger, 1999) and co-research (Alquati, 1993).

18Within a co-research approach, narratives are considered an instrument for creating collective knowledge about personal social, working and living conditions. More precisely, the aim of such a co-research process is to create a collective space in which the narration of individual experiences can facilitate a critical reflection on collective positions and coping practi­ces in facing conflicts encountered in daily work realities. Crucially, this entails reflecting upon the contradictions in one’s own common sense narration as well as the potentials and limits of individual agency potential. What is at stake is the production of a practical collective knowledge, useful in daily conflicts in increasing workers’ capacities for influencing and changing their working conditions. Given this co-research approach, the empirical investigation has been organised in the form of group discussions rather than one of top-down interviewing processes. These group discussions are centred on daily lived conflicts within the labour process.

IV. Access to the Research Field and Construction of the Sample

19The research, done in Milan, began in June 2011 and went on throughout 2012.

20Given the fact that our empirical inquiry took the form a co-research, it was based on group discussions instead of traditional interviewing. For that reason, active participation of the involved workers as well as sound trusting relationships were crucial right from the beginning. With a view to establishing those necessery pre-conditions, Cristina Morini, in the dou­ble role of researcher and journalist, undertook long-term and meticulous preparatotry work from within the workplace. Only subsequently, were three research encounters organised outside the workplace, in a favorable environment, two for a first focus group and one for a second. Each of the group discussions lasted about five hours. Cristina Morini and Kristin Carls conducted these discussions, assuming a limited role, moderating and guiding them towards the chosen topics, with their achievement nonetheless remaining a collective process.

Table 1 – Composition of the first focus group with six journalists – May 2011.




Professional Role

Publishing house





chief editor, journalist

weekly magazine





head of editorial department, journalist

weekly magazine





head of editorial department, journalist

monthly magazine





head of editorial department, journalist

monthly magazine





editorial staff, journalist

monthly magazine

project contract




press office staff




21Two different groups of editorial workers are included in this co-re­search. The first focus group is composed of six professional journalists who work or have until recently worked for various monthly and weekly journals of one of the biggest Italian publishing houses in Milan. The one journalist in this group, who, at the time of the co-research, no longer wor­ked for that publishing house, has moved to the press office of a TV channel. Four of these journalists are on open-ended employment contracts. These three women and one man are over 40 years of age. The other two journalists are younger women (both 28 years old) who work on tempora­ry project contracts or on temporary internships. The second group comprises five editorial workers, four women and one man, who work for three different book publishing houses in Milan (non-fiction and school textbooks). They range between 30 and 40 years old. As project and pseudo self-employed workers with only one contractor, they may all be consi­dered to be in a precarious employment position.

  • 4 We don't consider this co-research as a finished work, we would like to complete it with some steps (...)

22Specifically, these two groups bring together a number of participants motivated to share and narrate their experiences in a collective process, re­lying on a longstanding relationship of mutual trust and confidence. For privacy reasons, all names used in the following have been changed4.

Table 2 – Composition of the second focus group, comprising 5 editorial workers - June 2011.




Professional Role

Publishing house





editorial staff

school book editor

project contract + pseudo self-employment




editorial staff

book editor, non-fiction

project contract + pseudo self-employment




editorial staff

book editor, non-fiction

pseudo self-employment




editorial staff

book editor, non-fiction

pseudo self-employment




editorial staff

book editor, non-fiction

project contract

V. Findings of the Co-Research Carried out among Journalists

23The central conflict in everyday work experienced by the journalists in our group with open-ended employment contracts is their loss of margins of autonomy and creativity. Issues of autonomy, creativity and passion for one’s work are central to this group’s discussion, although they are above all associated with past experiences, former patterns of work organisation and the relationships established therein :

…Once, there was a strict editorial line. But sometimes I was alone at work at night, with only a few friends, and on such evenings it was only me to decide how to arrange the radio news. That means I chose the headline and the following stories, step by step, following the editorial line. […] That’s something I’ve never had the opportunity to do again. Just as if I were the chief editor who decides about the cover page of a magazine ! If I compare that situation with the confiden­ce placed in me today : it’s as if I were a fool. Though I don’t really think I am, but in the end that’s what the structures here make you feel like. It’s tragic (Marta, department head, open-ended contract).

24The journalists talk about a change in work organisation that has produ­ced more hierarchies and direct control in their everyday work. As they analyze it, this transformation is aimed at increasing management’s black­mailing and disciplinary power in dealing with a professional category that, until recently, used to be rather independent and autonomous. A central narrative in this respect revolves around the experience of professional devaluation resulting from management’s growing disinterest in the contents and quality of journalistic work. Instead, work processes are more and more unilaterally formatted and standardised according to market aims and marketing imperatives :

The difference between today and some years ago is that, if I have to cover a story, let’s say ‘children in jail’, once I myself could choose which stories to collect, which people to talk to and which experts to perhaps interview. Today […] I am in a situation where I can actually choose very little by myself. That is, I’m told who I have to talk to. […] There is too little delegation of responsibilities and also a lack of confidence in our work now. For sure, under these conditions, you feel even more restricted in your creativity. […] You are not re­cognised as a specialist anymore. I’m just treated as an instrument. They put me in front of some topics that are saleable, and I simply have to write about them, even if I don’t know anything about the issues involved (Marta, department head, open-ended contract).

There’s one thing I refuse : the very fact, that today magazines are called ‘products’. I don’t like that, but it’s very common and accepted nowadays. When I think of pure production, I think about something schematic, following pre-established rhythms, something lin­ked to efficiency, precise measurable performances and outcomes ; all aspects which have now become relevant, in my profession too… (Giulia, department head, open-ended contract).

25These stories show how precarisation touches this rather well establi­shed category of professional journalists with open-ended contracts, medium-high positions in the firm hierarchy and in terms of consolidated professional experience. Precarisation here passes through the deterioration of working quality and a consequent “fragilization” (Sennett, 1999) of professional identities – be it with respect to the contents and sense of work, or with respect to the margins of autonomy and self-determination in the labour process. Castel has described a similar “precarisation of stable workers” as a process in which the progressive degradation of rights and social relations and an increasing insecurity of working conditions causes a constant sense of threat and a weakening of one’s future working position (Castel, 2004, 2009). Discussions within our group of journalists shows how such a precarisation involves not only the degree of employment protection and labour rights, but also the qualitative aspects of the la­bour process (Morini, 2012). In other words, the extent to which precarisation directly involves knowledge workers’ subjectivity, as it touches upon their emotional relationship to their work, as well as its contents and meaning, is becoming evident. Journalists’ work is described as the work of “proletarian knowledge workers” (Bologna, 2011) rather than that of professionals. In this, shrinking margins of autonomy, increased direct control and marketisation go hand in hand with a reduction in the creativity that is required, or capable of being expressed, in the labour process. Creativity thus gets redefined and repositioned as a capacity for efficiently recomposing given resources according to given objectives and time frames :

The creative element ? In everyday work, maybe, if it’s not really creativity, maybe it’s something similar […], or maybe it’s all just a fairytale. […] But making a personal autonomous contribution may also simply mean that you have had the time to pick up the telephone to and get first-hand information on some news, because, you do ho­wever have a vantage point of observation ; the reporters outside send you their various signals, but its you who puts them all together. You are like a power station for up-to-date information and you have to organise that information in some way. […] You could do many more things, you could be much more creative, but you don’t have time. And that’s why in the end you just give the writing jobs to external collaborators, all those things that would be nicer to do, just because you are obliged to stay in the office to do other stuff (Marta, department head, open-ended contract).

26The most frequent reaction to these transformations in the labour process, exhibited by all the participants with a longer work experience, is a strong sense of disillusionment, resulting in emotional distancing and disengagement from work. There are no real attempts to reappropriate the lost margins of autonomy, because the described changes are perceived as an irreversible changes, not only in the work organisation, but also in po­wer relations. Participants share the impression that more autonomous contributions and a greater investment in creativity would be rejected and resented by management. This is an example of how a chief editor descri­bes his role in managing colleagues’ proposals and negotiating them with the headquarters :

All that is of interest here is a top-down type of management. In this context, one’s own ideas are seen as a challenge that are greeted by a threat, an implicit negative judgement, something like ‘don’t bother us !’ This ranges from their [managements’] annoyance because you opened your mouth and said something, to a quite clearly expressed ‘We don’t give a damn shit for your opinion’. […] As a consequen­ce, you get used to censoring yourself, even though you still get challenges like this : ‘You don’t have anything to propose ? Where are your ideas ?’ In my position, I have to say that the mechanism that sets in is one of filtering and rejecting ideas. It’s risky to try and bring in ideas from outside, from the bottom and formulate them as proposals to the top, to the core of the magazine […], because then they can easily accuse you of not doing your job, of not filtering enough (Luca, chief editor, open-ended contract).

27To cope with constant frustration, older journalists try to limit their involvement and efforts they put into daily work. Instead, they try to find an outlet for their professional passions beyond their salaried work, for exam­ple by publishing their own books or other texts on their own. Emotions, desires and passion associated with the act of writing, producing texts and transmitting ideas thus remain a central element in these journalists’ self-representations and sense of self-realisation. But, they are no longer collocated and achieved in the workplace. The following citation describes these escape strategies :

But in my view many now try to escape from some of these mechanisms. The ongoing diaspora is also a consequence of this internali­sed conflict : the desire to turn this into a sort of infidelity. So you decide to get out of that place, and find yourself somewhere else [...]. This has become a way of saying : ‘No, I don’t want to be part of this mechanism ; I don’t want to stay in this dimension’. But I need money too, some income ; so I try to find a different position (Laura, department head, open ended contract).

28These strategies of escape, however, do not completely manage to remove the sense of alienation stemming from the loss of professional identity, autonomy and creativity (Corsani, 2012). Taking a real distance from one’s work remains difficult given the need for personal involvement in the production of texts and a continuous sense of frustration of one’s desires for self-realisation in everyday work. This strongly lived passion – despite all – for the task of writing is thus described as highly problematic and ambiguous. On the one hand, it is a crucial resource for conquering the experience of alienation, and, on the other, this same passion is the basis of a powerful mechanism of self-control and disciplining :

Well, as regards this blackmailing that comes out of passion, I do put all of myself into it. In the sense that I am absolutely a kamikaze of passion, I’m completely into it ; I just can’t manage not to get invol­ved. […] Even if I’m told to write something about blue celery, I will still have fun with it, maybe even if the story is pushed by marketing aims, because I’ll always find something interesting even in such a story (Marta, department head, open ended contract).

29An additional downside is that attempts at withdrawal from work and the refuge sought in personal self-realisation outside work contribute to the individualization of daily work and labour relations. These coping practices cause a loss of collective capacities at the workplace, since under such conditions of emotional distancing and individualised withdrawal it becomes increasingly difficult to recognise any collective positions and struggle together for shared interests and labour rights :

Just the same, years ago, there was more participation. The dramatic thing is, it’s no coincidence that today we find ourselves discussing the individual, subjective issue of passion and emotions more : you are lonelier in this situation today. […] Before, we were more or less a group, even though we had few resources. There were also confli­cts waged with the trade union, which somehow we still recognised. For the mere fact of getting so angry with the union meant that we still attributed some role to it (Laura, department head, open-ended contract).

Frankly speaking, today I do feel more alienated, more distanced from the trade union than from my journalistic type of work. For sure, this whole situation worries me (Giulia, department head, open-ended contract).

30Let us now turn our attention towards the younger journalists in our group who are on precarious employment contracts : among them, disillusion regarding the qualitative aspects of work appears less pronounced. In contrast, the central problem for these colleagues is the experience of continuous employment precariousness. Such precariousness translates into a strong vulnerability vis-à-vis management blackmailing strategies and ends up subjecting workers to forced availability (Marazzi, 1994). Precariousness is above all experienced here as existential insecurity, due to an unstable employment position and the lack of effective labour and social rights. It affects their entire lives (Salecl, 2010), affecting social relations as well as individual capacities to project themselves into the future. Confronted with this situation of existential precariousness, lacking margins of autonomy and creativity in the work process appears a secondary issue :

No, the fact that there is not much space here for autonomy and creativity is no big deal. In the sense that I try to create myself some spa­ce to express my creativity elsewhere. And yet this magazine offers me other possibilities to me : pleasure in doing the type of research work that is required here, as I feel disposed to do it and I also get the impression I’m learning something. […] However, the kind of reasoning we’ve engaged in now in our discussion, for me, at this moment, it only represents a subsequent level, it’s really quite far away for me now… in the sense that I’m much too worried about how to manage to pay my apartment rent to ask myself whether this work gratifies me or not and to what extent (Roberta, journalist, project contract).

31The discussion shows how even only limited possibilities of self-reali­sation within the work process are used to smooth over the highly negative experience of precariousness. Despite their strongly negative experience of employment precariousness, these young journalists manage to get so­me motivational reward from their work. Together with their hope in a better future, such identitarian counterbalancing makes it easier to accept the given precarious conditions. In other words, even in this case, the emotional aspects of passion and meaning attributed to one’s work are central elements of the workers’ daily coping practices. At the same time, however, workers have to face these practices’ ambiguous character, ma­king them resist precariousness (in the sense of enduring it), while not overcomming it, and wherein their expectations and desires for self-reali­sation and recognition are at best partially met. In fact, the distance between imagined and real work also clearly emerges form their stories. Consequently, these reconfigured forms of work organisation and labour control do not succeed in fully exploiting the potentials of cognitive labour in terms of meaning constructions, motivation and emotional invol­vement, as they only manage to seize those aspects most immediately lin­ked to a disciplining of labour and the reduction of labour costs (as this latter is made possible by the regime of precarious employment) :

The positive aspect of this work making you go on and accept these conditions is that it contributes to creating your sense of identity. You feel as a thinking being, you do a job that requires and engages your competencies. […] For sure, we are not in a comfortable position. We are not only precarious but also young. This means that we always have to keep our heads down ; we should never talk back, because we still have to learn. Under these conditions, expressing any passion for your work gets hard. […] In the sense that I’m really still young, I don’t have a family yet, so I can give a lot, because I still have enthusiasm, time, desire ; I still have the desire to do things (Roberta, journalist, project contract).

32As regards hope in a better future, it is not so much based on any concrete career prospects, or on any strong and positive professional identity linked to the collective imaginary of creative work or to the social status of journalist. Rather, this hope seems to be based on the above mentioned learning possibilities offered by their current work positions as these may, at least potentially, allow for personal and professional growth in the futu­re. Moreover, the young journalists link this hope to their own capacities for seizing such opportunities for professional growth : the capacity to learn and produce, but also to respond positively to management’s conti­nuous requirements of flexibility and availability, submitting themselves and putting up with blackmail in order to finally obtain the recognition sought for :

The only thing that makes you go on is this sentence, that you repeat to yourself constantly : ‘Maybe, if I don’t give up now, maybe one day I will succeed and really be a part of this editorial department or this workplace’. […] And then you live with this hope that once you have a stable contract you will be less vulnerable to blackmailing and you will be able to say ‘no’ more easily, you will have to endure less and be less available (Simona, press office staff, internship/fixed term).

33Such hope in the future, based on belief in their personal professional capacities and readiness for emotional involvement in their job can be read as a coping practice that, again, helps in resisting highly negative contractual conditions. It is a way of revindicating the value and meaning of one’s work performance as well as expressing the experienced injustice stemming from a lack of recognition. But, these meaning constructions may also occasion a countermeasure, an increase in exploitation given workers’ emotional and identitarian attachment to work and their readiness to accept forced availability in order to assure the possibility of future rewards. In fact, these young precarious journalists are conscious of the “passion trap” (Murgia/Poggio, 2012), a mechanisms of forced availability and forced acceptance of given conditions within an ever less participatory and more hierarchical work organisation. But this situation is experienced as a “normal” uneasiness that fails to give rise to demands for wider margins of autonomy and creativity, whereas they are central for their older colleagues. That is, precariousness here clearly functions as a disciplinary device for imposing acceptance of less qualifying tasks, worse working and employment conditions and increased, forced availability.

34This disciplinary mechanism functions all the better as the younger journalists do not feel attached to – or even distance themselves from – the old professional identity as journalists and a possible collective identity accompanying it. Such dissociation is stimulated not only by the described changes in labour processes and control, but also by precarious workers’ negative experiences with institutions of collective interest representation, as the following citation shows :

Often, I feel I’m an anomaly and a problem for everyone, because I’m neither an independent professional worker nor positioned in an internship that can still be justified as such. I’m somebody who everyone tries not to see. And that’s not all, I also feel completely igno­red by the shop stewards, as if I didn’t exist ; sometimes I even feel a certain hostility (Roberta, journalist, project contract).

VI. Co-Research Findings among Precarious Editorial Workers in Book Publishing

35For the second group too, composed of precarious editorial workers in various book publishing houses, the biggest everyday problem is an employment precariousness linked to their employment positions as project and self-employed workers. Like the older journalists on open-ended contracts, however, they complain just as strongly about lacking autonomy and the quality of work. They experience this lack as in stark contrast with the high level of responsibility demanded in the work process, which they feel is inadequately recognized :

You’re paid little ; you have enormous responsibilities, but with a ridiculous employment contract. You publish the books practically alone, ok, managing all the suppliers and everything. […] But, at the end, the only thing that matters is getting the book out. What’s in it does not matter to anyone. […] You publish bullshit, you publish school books in which you really can’t recognize yourself, because personally you would never publish such low-quality. […] But, anyway, you put something of yourself in your books. When I flip through them I see that I’m the one who did them (Barbara, editorial staff, self-employed project worker).

36As this citation demonstrates, the experience of lacking recognition comprises two aspects. On the one hand, there is the contrast between precarious employment conditions and responsibilities called for, translating into a lack of economic, material recognition and consequently a missing existential security. On the other hand, an ambient deterioration and limi­ted attention paid to the quality of one’s work is lived as a lack of recognition for professional performances. The precarious editorial workers in this group seem to experience particularly intensively this second aspect.

37As the following citation demonstrates, this feeling of lacking recognition also stems from precarious workers’ daily exclusion from the company context as they are treated as (supposedly) external staff. Such exclusion functions as yet another device for control and subjection :

For example, we don’t have a company mail address ; we have to use our personal mail for work related communication. In this way, you never feel part of the group. […] For example, the issue of editorial office meetings : maybe in reality they are just annoying, but maybe it would make you feel a bit more participative, involved… But, instead, you never know anything about the books that are put into the program, because you are not allowed to participate in the meetings, you are not part of it. […] And then, there’s also this fact that we don’t have our own desks. […] There are quite a lot of issues that are kind of humiliating in terms of gratification. The absurd thing is that they expect you to be there in the office, and I can’t guaranty my pre­sence because I don’t know where to sit and work. […] This is also precariousness, the fact of not having a desk or a company mail etc. (Daniela, editorial staff, self-employed).

38This strong experience of missing recognition makes individual coping by means of identitarian compensations difficult. It’s not that the precarious editorial workers in this group do not identify with their work. But once they have fully acknowledged the extent to which their expectations, desires and needs are in fact constantly disregarded, their passion for editorial work is no longer enough to assure motivation and daily endurance of precarious work and employment conditions. Like the older journalists on open-ended contracts, they develop practices of emotional distancing and try to limit their availability and investment in work. But, due to precarious employment positions that make them highly vulnerable to blackmailing, such withdrawal from work is that much more difficult and limi­ted as compared to the journalists on open-ended contracts. In fact, it often only exists on the cognitive level.

39Yet instead of trying to escape to alternative, individualised forms of self-realisation outside of work, these precarious editorial workers have started to organise collectively. They have formed a network of precarious editorial workers ( that comprises colleagues from various publishing houses. In one of the workplaces under observation in this co-research, a precarious workers’ assembly has been created. Workers’ narratives, however, clearly show how difficult such attempts at collective organising are, first of all due to the high workforce fragmentation into va­rious employment categories, producing relevant interest differences and augmenting the invisibility of each category :

There is a hugh generational gap between the way I react to a situation that however is, for all that, an injustice, and their way of reacting, in a more passive way… I feel that there is as a really strong difference : at our place, there are some people who have already wor­ked there as project workers for at least 10-15 years and they could very well sue the publishing house [for illegal pseudo self-employ­ment] But they don’t do it. […] I don’t know why they don’t do it. Maybe out of mental laziness ? Maybe because they are accustomed to the situation ? […] However, there are also some younger collea­gues, people our age, in their 30s, who never get involved in our acti­vities, because they are too lazy, or because they are afraid of losing what they have (Daniela, editorial staff, self-employed).

40In particular the position as project and self-employed workers makes it rather difficult to develop collective conflict strategies, given the highly individualised working conditions, the equally individualised practices of negotiating contracts and pay, as well as the various individual coping practices minimizing and arbitrating experienced conflicts. Moreover, old conflict strategies, like strike actions or forms of daily performance reduction and slowdown of work processes are not very practical for these (pseudo) self-employed workers. Any practices such as abstention, avoi­dance and refusal to work don’t harm the firm but end up boomeranging on the workers themselves as they are considered responsible for accomplishing their work tasks within a given deadline, with no (officially) fixed working hours.

41Beyond this challenge of developing new, adequate forms of conflict management, another problem regards the lack of collective and conflictive imaginaries. The precarious editorial workers in our group tell us how far even the very idea of conflict is from many of their colleagues. Again, this fact appears as linked to the particular condition of self-employed workers, wich only involves individual contract negotiations with no refe­rence to collective bargaining. Such individual negotiation are considered as a dialogue and a matter of individual capacities rather than as an interest conflict by many colleagues ; a perception that is further fostered by management strategies of corporate identity building. Difficulties in deve­loping any collective and conflictual imaginaries may be seen as an important aspect of what Chiapello and Boltanski have defined as the “new spirit of capitalism” (1999) : given the conditions of supposedly self-res­ponsible, entrepreneurial project work, a change also takes place in the way workers attribute meaning to their work. It appears ever more focus­sed on the measurement of performances and outcomes, personal capacities for self-management, relation building and self-marketing. Consequently, the way workers position themselves within society is transfor­med too : under these conditions, the dominant perception of self-reliance is no longer that of a dependent worker sharing his/her conditions with other workers, but, in a much more individualised way, that of a competitive entrepreneur of his/her own labour capacities.

VII. Conclusions

42Based on a narrative co-research process, our analysis of knowledge and cognitive labour in journalism and book publishing has revolved around the link between changing forms of work, precariousness and the commodification of emotional experiences and creative capacities. In this, we have in particular insisted on how editorial workers establish a relation between themselves and their work.

43Within our co-research group, precariousness is experienced in various forms which, well beyond the employment contracts, are linked to the labour process and control. Within the work process, precarisation results from conditions of forced availability and blackmailing, the intensification of workloads and rhythms and the existential insecurities these entail. It is moreover linked to the strengthening of hierarchies and direct control, and the weakening of professional identities. Indeed, in order to establish effective labour control, to gain access to and put workers’ cognitive labour capacities to work, management cannot simply rely on the power of black­mailing based on precarious work and employment conditions. It rather needs to condition workers’ motivations and subjectivities. That is, effective labour control needs to involve workers’ professional identities, their passion for their job and their emotional investment in work – and even moreso under precarious conditions.

44Comparing the differences in workers’ experiences of precarisation and control, their coping practices and self-positionings, the following summa­ry can be given : the journalists on open-ended contracts within our sample describe precarisation as an experience of once established working conditions under constant threat. This involves the organization of work in particular, as the reduction of allotted margins of autonomy and creativity calls professional identities into question. Among these older professionals, the threat of precarisation and the frustration of their passion for journalistic work provoke an emotional distancing and a reduction of investment in work as well as in any kind of collective action and work-related conflicts. In contrast, under conditions of employment precariousness, as it is lived by their younger colleagues, we have seen how the perception of still having a rather stimulating kind of work can serve as a tool to smooth over the experience of degrading working conditions and to give a sense to one’s work despite the onerous experience of continuous precarisation. For the same reason, in their narrations, these precarious workers stress their own capacities for learning and suppliyng the required work performances and thus to achieving professional growth. Such an appropriation of meaning appears as a fundamental precondition in being able to endure the mechanism of blackmailing and forced availability, with a view to making their own practices of adaptation liveable, and thus gain agency potential and possibilities for staying in the game under the given conditions. Yet, at the same time, these desires and particularly the emotional attachment to the object of one’s work, its contents and quality, may be exploited by management in order to capture, control and commodify workers’ cognitive capacities within the labour process. A control and exploitation that nonetheless remains incomplete and (at least potentially) unstable as it has to be constantly reinvigorated against the daily frustration of workers’ professional expectations and their continuous experiences of precarisation. Such frustration in fact might well reveal itself as a catalyser of conflict, as seen in the appearance of attempts at collective or­ganising among our group of precarious editorial workers in book publishing, despite all the difficulties described.

45Alongside relevant differences in their current employment positions as well as their work biographies, the differences in coping practices between these editorial workers and the two subgroups of permanently and temporarily employed journalists above all seem to depend on how workers relate and position themselves with respect to their work. In regard to the subjectivity of cognitive labour, our co-research among editorial workers and journalists has brought to the fore how the relation between workers and their object of work is modulated by emotions and passions, and how the resulting imaginaries play a central role in the social construction of reality and practices through which the meaning of precariousness and creativity is redefined. This regards the way in which workers identify with their work, what kind of individual and/or collective imaginaries they derive from these identities, and especially how they make sense of the conflicts and contradictions experienced daily. The crucial aspect appears to be the degree to which workers render these conflicts invisible or visible within their common sense, whether (at least at the level of meaning constructions) they try to ignore or bend under them or, rather, name and address conflicts, and, last but not least, whether they manage to develop the necessary collective agency potential to face them. Thus, the analysis of meaning constructions inherent in workers’ narratives about everyday work experiences has been useful to us for at least two reasons : first, in order to make the coping practices used to face daily lived conflicts and contradictions within the labour process emerge, and, second, to critically question the resulting agency potential with its limits and prospects for enlargement within a collective discussion process.

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Structured summary

Journalism and the editing industry are usually associated with creative freelance work, high qualifications and autonomy as well as an important social role and status. This article aims at investigating the relation between passion and precarisation in this particular field of cognitive labour. The focus lies on workers’ experiences of precari­sation and growing insecurity (Castel, 2004) as they result not only from instable em­ployment relations, but also from changes in work processes and professional identi­ties. We want to understand the role played by strong intrinsic job motivations for wor­kers’ daily practices of coping with such precarisation.

The theoretical framework used for this purpose is the concept of biopolitics (Codelup­pi, 2008 ; Amendola/Bazzicalupo/Chicchi/Tucci, 2008 ; Morini, 2010) as it highlights the importance of workers’ subjective capacities in managing social relations, communication and emotions for todays’ production processes (Hochschild, 1979, 1983 ; Folbre, 2000, 2006 ; Carls, 2007 ; Zelizer, 2009 ; Morini, 2010 ; Bolton/Grugulia/Vin­cent/Leidner, 2010). The empirical investigation takes the form of a co-research (Al­quati, 1993). In methodological terms, it relies on a qualitative interviewing approach with two focus groups including 11 journalists and editorial workers from various big journals and publishing houses in Milan (Italy) who, in part, are organised in the network of precarious editorial workers ( ; Zambelli, 2012).

Narratives are a fundamental element of this analysis (Riesmann, 1993) which insists on everyday working experiences as well as employment biographies. Narratives are used as an instrument to assess workers’ sense constructions in face of changing labour requirements, in particular growing insecurity and reducing autonomy in the work process. Results highlight current changes in labour control, particularly the interaction between various forms of indirect control and subjectivation, and a simultaneous re-strengthening of hierarchies and direct supervision.

Together, these strategies produce current forms of (self-)exploitation of workers’ cog­nitive capacities as well as the mechanism of blackmailing which is at the heart of precarisation. On the one hand, the new forms of control directly involve workers’ subjectivities, their acting and thinking (Armano, 2010 ; Carls, 2011 ; Salecl, 2011), and thus make them co-perpetrators of their own exploitation. But, on the other hand, they also provoke new lines of conflict which particularly result from the continuous frustration of workers’ aspirations in employment stabilisation, work satisfaction and professional growth.

Regarding actual coping practices, relevant differences emerge between different gene­rations of editorial workers, reflecting divers degrees of experienced precarisation as well as diverging professional identities and employment biographies. Among the older journalists with open-ended contracts an individualised, frustrated withdrawing from work is dominant. Most of their younger colleagues, instead, (still) try to compensate experiences of continuous precarisation with a strong belief in own profession­nal capacities and the hope for a better future. However, also some attempts of collective organising are undertaken, particularly by some younger, precarious editorial wor­kers. For all these different coping practices, workers’ passion for their work plays a central role in stabilising work place consent, but also as a potential field of collective mobilisation.

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1 As a matter of course, such “female” capacities can be understood only as social constructions and not as any supposedly natural characteristics.

2 Translation K. C.

3 Translation K. C.

4 We don't consider this co-research as a finished work, we would like to complete it with some steps in­volving further comparison and a final discussion with the participants in the investigation. However, co-research as a work in progress with relational construction, epistemologically open-ended, don’t need to promote a top-down approach to the final comparison between the results of the focus group, but it will be effected through the sharing of participants.

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Cristina Morini, Kristin Carls et Emiliana Armano, « Precarious Passion or Passionate Precariousness? Narratives from co-research in Journalism and Editing », Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 45-2 | 2014, 61-83.

Référence électronique

Cristina Morini, Kristin Carls et Emiliana Armano, « Precarious Passion or Passionate Precariousness? Narratives from co-research in Journalism and Editing », Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [En ligne], 45-2 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2014, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/rsa.1264

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Cristina Morini

Cristina Morini works as journalist, author and independent researcher. She collaborates with various journals such as Quaderni di San Precario.

Kristin Carls

Kristin Carls is Post-Doc researcher in labour sociology and lecturer at the Department of Socio-economics, University of Hamburg

Emiliana Armano

Emiliana Armano pursued a PhD in economic sociology at the Department of Labour and Welfare Studies, University of Milan.

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