My doctorate analyses the social effects of post-socialist marketisation of labour, and is based on a qualitative case-study of employment institutions and working lives in Bulgaria's maritime industry.
Are the global and the local sailing away in opposite directions? Photo: M. Kremakova, 2008
What is it about?
Unlike most welfare and labour market research, this is a micro-level, empirical case-study which looks the different ways in which macro transformations play out in individual biographies. I compare the working lives of two generations of maritime workers, separated by the change of political and economic regime in 1989, in order to disentangle the intersection of labour market `mechanisms', policies, and individual biographies.
Such a small-scale, in-depth study allows a critical appraisal of labour and welfare policies in a period of socio-economical transformation in a way that reaches beyond mere procedural effectiveness, and looks at their role in enhancing or stifling individual and group capabilities. The post-socialist transition from a state-run to a liberal labour market is analysed in terms of a transforming field: changing key agents, shifting conventions (Boltanski, Thevenot, Chiapello), and how this all affects individual's capabilities (Sen*) to lead a fulfilling and meanignful life.
* The project is integrated into CAPRIGHT, a large-scale project funded under the 6th Framework Programme of the European Commission. The theoretical framework is partly based on the capabilities approach originating from Amartya Sen's theory of capabilities and human rights, and elaborated by the CAPRIGHT research team.
What are my research methods?
Due to the exploratory character of my research questions, and also because of the lack of any reliable secondary statistical data, my research methods have been mainly qualitative (but they are, as my examinor Prof Chris Hann noted, not quite ethnographic, due to the fact that I have not actually worked as a seafarer and have not done classic participant observation---even though I have done multiple non-participant observations as a cargo ship passenger prior to my study). The 52 semi-structured narrative interviews were complemented with contextual content analysis of maritime literature (history, biographies and fiction).
Typical and untypical working lives of maritime workers are reconstructed. The analysis of the data is inspired by several approaches, such as transitional labour markets (TLM) and life-event history analysis, among others. The broader picture is set by an outline of institutional arrangements and policy processes, accessed through semi-structured interviews with key agents from various levels of the maritime industry `field' (such as administrators, ship-owners and managers, crew manning agents, workers and unemployed); these were also complemented by contextual analysis of media reports, and local, national, and international legislation and policy documents pertaining to maritime issues.
People always ask me: `Why are you studying the maritime industry? Surely, it must be simply because you come from a seafaring family and a seaside town?'.
In fact, there is a far deeper reason to study the maritime industry: it can tell us an awful lot about post-socialist marketisation of work. Firstly, because it is an extreme case (liberalisation happened very quickly, within a couple of years after 1989). Secondly, it is a dominant local industry within which all possible types of companies, workplaces and professions can be found (private/former state-owned/state-owned; declining/prosperous; highly qualified and unqualified; precarious and stable...). Thirdly, it is reasonably easy to define as a `field', precisely because it is specific and geographically compact. So my origin is simply what has enabled me to do an ethnographic study of this fascinating industry: by equipping me with tacit background knowledge of the problems and specificities of work at sea (through inadvertent life-long observation of family-members and friends, and through 13 voyages and numerous short visits aboard ships throughout my life), by enabling me to speak the my respondents' language (Bulgarian and `seaspeak'), and by allowing me `access' into a closed field....not least, thanks to my very recognisable surname! (A section in my thesis discusses the effect of `being the captain's daughter' on fieldwork). When I chose the topic for my PhD, I felt that I could finally make use of my traning as a sociologist in order to make this neglected industry more public, and in the process perhaps come a bit closer to solving the connundrums of my country's recent post-socialist history. I believe that the advantages that my positionality gives me for researching this topic vastly outweigh any issues that invariably occur when an anthropologist begins to study formally their own `tribe'. And anyway, the only way to completely avoid subjectivity is to not do any social research at all.
If you are a scientist and have had the patience to reach this place, then you are probably wondering why on Earth someone might call a study of labour markets and seafarers `research'. I am not sure myself, other than the fact that I find out and systematise stuff I didn't know before, and try to explain why certain things happen the way they do. Think of it as a study of non-linear developments in a highly complex system - a kind of chaos theory. In fact it is so complex that I am not even trying to model my system (the maritime field in Bulgaria in the period 1989-2009): I am still only observing how it behaves; perhaps after other ones like it have been observed, some modelling might eventually take place. The trouble with social science is that it observes highly complex objects that develop quickly. It's not a neat job, but someone has to do it ;)
Here is a poster that I made in May 2011 for the Social Studies Poster Competition at Warwick. It summarises one of the conclusions of my study, namely that the conventions of the post-socialist labour market are fragmented (and explains what that means. You can click on the picture to download the poster in PDF):
This was my first attempt at making a poster using LaTeX and I greatly enjoyed it (even if the poster production did take three days longer than the one day I had had in mind!). In the Useful Links section (which is in progress and updated often) you can find out some links to resourses I found useful in the process.
And here's a gift for those of you who have read the whole page: a rap song about the main principle on board any ship: safety first.
Key words: postsocialist marketisation, maritime industry, labour market, job security, capabilities, conventions, Bulgaria, EU-accession.
Working title: Institutions and livelihoods in transformation: the case of the Bulgarian maritime industry after 1989
(other draft titles: Facing the market imperative: changing work and welfare conditions in the Bulgarian maritime shipping industry; Learning to Sell Your Labour: seafarers' livelihoods and post-socialist marketisation)
Department: Warwick Sociology
Period of study: October 2007–October 2011
Viva Voce examination: 19 January 2011, passed successfully with 'minor corrections'
Funding: Warwick Postgraduate Research Scholarship (October 2007–September 2010)