Accepted Paper:

Internet and the change of what? Complexities and flexibilities among teleworkers in a Danish village  


Jens Kjaerulff

Paper short abstract:

Internet is a popular entry to reflect on 'change'. But attention to ontological premises and epistemological issues entailed in such reflection has been relatively modest. The paper suggests lived complexity presents a challenge in its own right in this regard which must be empirically confronted.

Paper long abstract:

Internet and 'information technologies' more widely (IT for short) have come to inspire a wealth of imagining and research in terms change. Recent approaches have down-scaled from the revolutionary mindset of the 1990's, raised issues of context, and questioned notions of virtuality and related epithetic neologisms (e.g. in terms of e- and cyber-). But basic ontological premises and epistemological issues entailed in approaching matters of change still only receive superficial attention. The aim of this paper is to afford these dimensions of studying change in contexts of IT engagement more explicit and sustained analytical and empirical attention.

The paper presents material from 16 months of anthropological fieldwork among people who variously work from their homes in a Danish country-side village by aid of an internet connection, a practice commonly known as 'telework'. It suggests that the kinds of complexities and concomitant incongruences and uncertainties experienced among people here, which foster practices of telework, are features of social practice more widely. The paper argues that such lived complexities in their own right remain a challenge to thinking about cultural reproduction and change that must be confronted in order to move empirical research and analytical thought about IT and change forward.

The paper suggests that flexibilities as practiced among teleworkers may be seen as variants of 'flexibilities' practiced more widely in the course of living complex lives. While the notion of flexibility is a recent fashion (e.g. expounded by the sociologist Richard Sennett), earlier anthropologies focused on (e.g.) conflict and change find ressonance with the suggested wider analytical application of the concept. The paper argues that what has changed for teleworkers in the first instance is the means available for practicing flexibility in this expanded sense. In the course of such practices, culture may change incrementally, as an integral feature to unfolding cultural process. ITs are novel and symbolically potent means, but neither cultural complexity nor change, nor practices of flexibility per se, are exceptional or new. In the context of telework this perspective may explain why this practice of work should be so readily embraced (and also rejected again) in the shape of INFORMAL practices - an empirical fact which has largely escaped analysts of telework, and 'flexible work' more widely.

Panel W017
Problems of continuity and change