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Classification Struggles in Semi-Formal and Precarious Work: Lessons from Inmate Labor and Cultural Production

Precarious Work

ISBN: 978-1-78743-288-8, eISBN: 978-1-78743-287-1

Publication date: 19 December 2017


To be denied the status of formal worker is to be denied the rights and protections of the formal sector. Such classification is a source of insecurity and uncertainty for many. When employers privilege disembedded employment arrangements, workers in precarious semi-formal settings face many financial and relational challenges, yet receive limited support. In hostile economic, social, and legal contexts, what practices and discourses do these workers draw on to respond to their work situations? When, and against whom, do they struggle for labor embeddedness? Analyses of ethnographic and interview data from two fieldwork projects studying semi-formal work – one study of inmate labor in a US prison and one of a local independent culture industry – reveal that workers engage in collective and independent classification struggles in search of formal and symbolic reclassification. A typology of such struggles is presented. By viewing these practices through this lens, this chapter aims to reveal parallels in the experiences of workers in seemingly disconnected fields and advance our understanding of worker action and embeddedness in contemporary capitalism.




I foremost thank the prisoners, prison staff, and artists who allowed me to enter and observe their lives. Many thanks to the editors and anonymous reviewers for help improving this work and to Jeff Sallaz, Anna Jacobs, Kyle Puetz, Simone Rambotti, Andrew Davis, Karyn Light-Gibson, Hannah Clarke, Luis Vila-Henninger, and A. Joseph West for thoughts and comments.


Gibson-Light, M. (2017), "Classification Struggles in Semi-Formal and Precarious Work: Lessons from Inmate Labor and Cultural Production", Kalleberg, A.L. and Vallas, S.P. (Ed.) Precarious Work (Research in the Sociology of Work, Vol. 31), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 61-89.



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