Sociology of Working Worlds’ Digitalization

On 1 April 2018, Professor Dr. Stefan Kirchner arrived in Berlin from Hamburg to take up his post at the Einstein Center Digital Future (ECDF), where he holds the Technische Universität Berlin professorship for “Sociology of Working Worlds’ Digitalization” funded by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.

Born in Berlin, he initially studied sociology in Dresden and the UK, before earning his doctoral and post-doctoral degrees at Universität Hamburg. “In Hamburg I dealt, among other issues, with international comparisons of work quality and analyzed the changes that this work quality undergoes over time. In particular, I concerned myself with topics such as stress, workload or autonomy in the workplace,” says Professor Kirchner. In his view, the historical comparison plays a crucial role: “What exactly is subject to change and what are the factors driving these changes? In this regard, the topic of digitalization has arisen only more recently. From today’s perspective, it seems startlingly obvious that digitalization has a massive impact on the quality of work; at the beginning, however, this was not quite so clear.” Part of Professor Kirchner’s research is concerned with generating sociological models and foundations for this digitalization research.

The all-encompassing digitalization is leading to a paradigm shift in the working world. Among other issues, the 38-year-old is investigating how market platforms are changing the working world, and he places these developments in an international context. “In the first place, how many people are actually affected by this new way of organizing work and how do they experience it? What structures are these workers in and what sort of effects are there?” says Kirchner. Specifically, he is studying large platforms such as Airbnb, Deliveroo or Uber. Major companies operate behind the scenes of these so-called marketplaces, which they are also involved in regulating. They select and even exclude individual providers. They establish corresponding rules and regulations, and monitor compliance with them.

But unlike traditional companies, digital platforms do not appear as actual employers, but merely offer an infrastructure that enables third parties to compete with existing markets such as the labor market, the taxi market or delivery services. This results not only in new definitions of work – making one’s private car available or delivering food via Deliveroo is actually a form of work that takes place, however, beyond the boundaries of the formally organized work area with its minimum wages, working time regulations and the like – but also in questions such as: What are the rules according to which work is being distributed on digital marketplaces? “Digital platforms are booming, which is why they are quickly gaining great market power – with considerable effects on employment systems, market regulations or even options for governmental regulation,” says Professor Kirchner. The international comparison is also of particular interest to him with regard to such questions as: In which countries are certain platforms prohibited and why? What are the guidelines to which these marketplaces are required to adapt? In addition, he examines where the limits of this new form of work lie. “For example, one can probably deduce from theoretical considerations alone that all security-related economic sectors, or those with complex work processes, will not be suitable for this type of work organization in the foreseeable future,” says Professor Kirchner. (kj)