Workplace Recognition and Algorithmic Management in the Scandinavian Gig Economy

Workplace Recognition and Algorithmic Management in the Scandinavian Gig Economy

Workplace Recognition and Algorithmic Management in the Scandinavian Gig Economy

Gemma Newlands

University of Amsterdam and BI Norwegian Business School

Organization and Management (or Humanities)

 

According to Axel Honneth’s critical social theory of recognition, as set out in The Struggle for Recognition (1996), practical relations-to-self can only be formed through positive illustrations of intersubjective recognition. Reaching the highest order of human individuation requires the simultaneous development of self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem. Drawing on object-relations theory, Honneth argues that self-confidence is generated by the external recognition of a subject’s fundamental need for love and care.  Self-respect, by contrast, is realised by the recognition of a subject’s rights as an autonomous agent, thus entitled to the same status and treatment as societal peers. The third species of recognition, and the most closely examined from a theoretical perspective, is self-esteem, which manifests through recognition of a subject’s individuality, unique strengths, and personal achievements. 

As a significant arena for discursive social relations, power struggles, and identity formation, the workplace has been identified as a key arena where recognition can be granted or denied. Although Honneth’s initial interest in the material conditions of work were subordinated to concerns about intersubjective relations of recognition, in his later ‘socio-theoretic turn’ Honneth (2014) extended the third sphere of recognition, namely self-esteem, to refer more directly to a subject’s contribution in labour relations. This ‘turn’ was motivated by and reflected a new direction in critical social theory, led by Jean-Philippe Deranty (2009) who adopted Christophe Dejours’ psychodynamics of work to explore how recognition is affected by what subjects do at work and under what conditions. 

In this paper, I consider how experiences of self-esteem and workplace recognition are affected by the material conditions of labour in the Scandinavian gig economy, with specific reference to the utilisation of platform mediation and algorithmic management. I draw on Brun and Dugas’ (2008) model of workplace recognition, in which they differentiate recognition dimensions according to the stakeholder group: horizontal, vertical, organizational, external, or social. However, in this paper I focus only on the important vertical dimension, which is concerned with how a worker, their unique skills, and achievements are recognised by their ‘manager’ or ‘supervisor’. 

This paper draws on qualitative interviews with food-couriers for Foodora and Wolt, conducted in 2019 across the cities of Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. In addition to providing rich additional qualitative data to the academic discussion of gig economy platforms, this paper offers a uniquely trans-Scandinavian view of ‘gig work’. The paper also makes two key extensions to recognition theory, based on an acknowledgement that the experience of working and intersubjective relations in the workplace are increasingly shaped by digital technologies – an aspect largely unheeded in current recognition-theoretical discourse. 

The first theoretical contribution is an exploration of the impact of a digital medium (i.e., the platform) between the recogniser and the recognisee. As a continuation of the relational theory of the self, Honneth’s recognition theory holds that particular or generalised others act as mirrors for the self; a subject can only achieve recognition and self-formation when we can ‘perspective-take’ with others through communicative activities. As such, Honneth’s pure theory holds that all recognition must be mutual and dialogical. Although more critical voices have extended recognition outwards, to encompass one-way or poly-directional forms of communication and thus recognition, scholarship has yet to explore the impact of a medium or mediator between parties in a vertical relationship. The labour process on food-delivery platforms revolves around the platform as a medium between the rider, rider captains, dispatchers, and operational management. Communication is thus largely channelled through platform-mechanisms, shaping how recognition is achieved. Moreover, since self-esteem is generated based on the recognition of individual achievement and uniqueness, the platform also mediates how the visibility of the work (itself necessary for recognition) manifests. 

The second theoretical contribution similarly queries the changing vertical recognition-relationship between a worker and their manager, though in this case exploring what occurs when the ‘manager’ is regarded as an algorithm. Operating on heuristics data captured from workers’ personal smartphones, algorithmic management can be conceived of as a set of computational processes which can be used to determine the allocation, remuneration, chastisement, and sometimes even the termination of human labour. Since recognition theory demands the presence of a morally autonomous agent who can ‘recognise’ the subject in turn, this exploration of the role of non-human non-morally autonomous agents as potential recognisers is a valuable development. 

 

Brun, J. P., & Dugas, N. (2008). An analysis of employee recognition: Perspectives on human resources practices. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 19(4), 716-730.

Deranty, J. P. D. (2009). Beyond communication. A critical study of Axel Honneth’s social philosophy. Brill.

Honneth, A. (1996). The struggle for recognition: The moral grammar of social conflicts. MIT Press.

Honneth, A. (2014). The I in we: Studies in the theory of recognition. John Wiley & Sons.