Theses Doctoral

Positional Uncertainty: Contingent Workers Seeking a Place in Unstable Times

Griesbach, Kathleen

The rise of on-demand platform work typified by Uber has intensified a decades-long trend away from standard work relationships and toward contingent work structures, characterized by the unbounding of work in space and time. Yet many workers have always toiled outside of a traditional workplace and “standard” schedule. My dissertation examines how contingent workers in four different industries navigate unstable work schedules across unsettled work geographies, drawing on 120 interviews with agricultural and oil and gas workers in Texas and on-demand delivery workers and university adjuncts in New York City. Across these “old” and “new” cases of contingent work performed across rural and urban landscapes, work processes restructure space and time in such a way that workers do not know when, for how long, or where they will have work. I call this temporal and spatial instability positional uncertainty – repurposing an oilfield term for the inability to pinpoint precisely where one is at any given moment in the drilling process.

The experience of positional uncertainty forces workers to subordinate the rhythms and geographies of their own lives to the temporal and spatial imperatives of their respective labor processes, leading to time struggle (unpaid periods of waiting or “zombie time” and overwork) and challenges in space (related to the bifurcation or unbounding, respectively, of the spaces of work and home). Workers respond, first, by doing boundary work, and second, by telling both critical and anchoring stories in attempts to bring coherence and meaning to the day-to-day and the long-term. The dissertation highlights the integral role of time and space in structuring social life, the active maneuvers by which workers struggle to re-configure time and space to produce coherence and make a life for themselves, and the short- and long-term costs of the transfer of risk onto workers through positional uncertainty. The strategic comparison reveals parallel strategies across disparate cases in response to the warping of time and space and illuminates how positional uncertainty exacerbates deep-set structural inequalities.


  • thumnail for Griesbach_columbia_0054D_16240.pdf Griesbach_columbia_0054D_16240.pdf application/pdf 1.42 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Eyal, Gil
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 20, 2020