The Anthropology of Work

From the blog

Berlin Inc.

Scholars who work within the critical management studies (CMS) tradition, most of whom live and teach in the UK and in Scandinavia, are consistently critical of the high levels of individualism and associated entrepreneurism in the US.  Grounded in an intellectual tradition that favors social democracy over our culture of unbridled salesmanship and consumerism, CMS scholars are suspicious of just about all things entrepreneurial.  The idea is that entrepreneurs are little scheming capitalists out to screw people over as they advance the larger values of American imperialism.

While there is much to recommend CMS, and indeed some of my own academic research is grounded in the CMS framework, the global coworking movement presents CMS with a thorny challenge.  For those who are new to the coworking phenomenon, coworking is an emergent social/economic movement where freelancers (designers, software developers, writers, social media experts, consultants, and corporate telecommuters) pay a membership fee to share an open, community-oriented workspace.  Coworking spaces, even when they are run as for-profit entities, run and feel like work cooperatives.  The difference, though, is that each person is working on her/his own project in the shared space.

Started in 2006 in San Francisco, the coworking movement has ballooned to over 3,000 spaces worldwide today.  By just about any calculation, this represents explosive growth.  Now, a CMS scholar might be quick to point out that, of course coworking began in the US, and in particular, San Francisco.  This might seem to confirm the assumption that all scheming micro entrepreneurs are hyper-individualistic North Americans.

Until you break down the numbers.  To date, there are over 800 coworking spaces in Europe, roughly the same number of spaces in the US and Canada.  In particular, Berlin is, arguably, the global coworking capital, housing not just one of the most influential and dynamic coworking spaces in the world (BetaHaus), but is also home to Deskmag, the global information and research hub/portal for the coworking movement.  I am not sure the exact numbers, but I think Berlin has the most coworking spaces per capita of any city in the world.  Indeed, there are coworking spaces thriving in other parts of Europe, both southern and northern.  This year’s European Coworking Conference will be in Barcelona, which, given Spain’s massive unemployment rate, of course has its own relationship with entrepreneurism and coworking.

What to make of this? One proposal, and I am currently working on this in a journal article, is that, collectively, those who have (globally) embraced the values and lifeways of coworking are in fact defining an emergent cultural frame, part of but independent from the home-cultures (US or European) from which each is derived.  That is, through global networks of communication and travel, new cultural forms are taking shape. Reliance on old stereotypes- all Americans are hopelessly individualistic and capitalistic and all Europeans are socialists- is both misleading and dangerous.  It is possible, and I think the coworking movement is bearing this out, that a new, transcendent cultural form is being created before our very eyes.

It will probably be quite some time before CMS scholars come around to looking at coworking for what it is: Autonomy and dignity expressed in the supportive context of community.  For critical management scholars it probably still looks too entrepreneurial to be taken seriously as an act of resistance (to mainstream business practices) or a subject worth studying.  It is not too late, though. I think there are still tickets to the Barcelona conference this November.

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