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The Future of Work


From 11 to 13 December a conference entitled “Work, Ethics and Freedom” will take place at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (MPI). Using case studies, social anthropologists, sociologists, and legal scholars will explore what is understood as “work” today. This is the first conference of the Max-Cam Centre (Max Planck – Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change). It will open on 11 December at 18:00 with a keynote by Wolfgang Streeck, Director Emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, on different configurations in the relationship between universalism and particularism, in theory and the real world.

The ethical foundations of work
Work is a central part of our lives. Around the world, most people spend a substantial portion of their lives working. It thus goes without saying that work has immense significance and far-reaching impacts: it alters people and their environment, it determines how valuable a person is considered to be, it creates power and opens up opportunities, but it can also lead to devastating dependencies.

From 11 to 13 December a conference entitled “Work, Ethics and Freedom” will take place at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

And work itself is constantly changing – the forms it takes, and what counts as work in the first place. “Work is always embedded in notions of morality that indicate whether a particular activity is seen as valuable, useful, and desirable, or as none of these things,” explains Chris Hann, one of the directors of Max-Cam.

Ethnographic analysis of labour relations
Most of the presentations at the conference will be based on empirical and ethnographic studies of the changing nature of work and its moral connotations. “As a result of globalization and the liberalization of economic policies, forms of work have become more diverse and extremely complex,” notes Hann. Contrasts such as “preindustrial” versus “industrial” or “modern” versus “postmodern” work are widely used to capture these transformations.

However, as Gerd Spittler argues in his influential book Anthropologie der Arbeit, such dichotomies can be more of a hindrance than a help when analysing actual social relations. The paper-givers will thus focus on the perspective of the actors, showing, for example, how they navigate employment in markets that are only minimally regulated or not regulated at all, such as the “gig economy” in which self-employed workers rely mostly on short-term jobs found via online platforms.

Hann explains: “Neoliberal ideology idealizes entrepreneurial identity and insinuates that this type of employment brings a substantial gain in autonomy. One thing we’ll be discussing at the conference is whether this is true.”

The future of work
The ways in which work is organized and the types of activity that are recognized as work and remunerated monetarily have a major influence on the shape of society. “Work can serve the common good and promote social cohesion. But it can also polarize and divide us,” says Hann. “It is the economic and political dimensions that make the study of global labour relations so important, for they will determine the shape of our future world.”

The Max Planck – Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change is a collaborative undertaking of the University of Cambridge, the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity (Göttingen), and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (Halle). The project investigates the interface between ethical and moral (including religious) convictions and economic behaviour, from the intimate and local up to the level of global capitalism. The Centre was formally established in March 2018.

Studying global social change
The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is one of the world’s leading centres for research in socio-cultural anthropology. It was established in 1999 by Chris Hann and Günther Schlee, and moved to its permanent buildings at Advokatenweg 36 in Halle/Saale in 2001. Marie-Claire Foblets joined the Institute as Director of the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’ in 2012.

Common to all research projects at the Max Planck Institute is the comparative analysis of social change; it is primarily in this domain that its researchers contribute to anthropological theory, though many programmes also have applied significance and political topicality. Fieldwork is an essential part of almost all projects. Some 175 researchers from over 30 countries currently work at the Institute. In addition, the Institute also hosts countless guest researchers who join in the scholarly discussions.

Conference programme:

More information on the Max Planck – Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change:

Contact for this press release
Prof. Dr. Chris Hann
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Department ‘Resilience and Transformation in Eurasia’
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-200

PR contact
Stefan Schwendtner
Press and public relations
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-425

Stefan Schwendtner | Max-Planck-Institut für ethnologische Forschung

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