Expertise in the unemployment industry

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Sheehan, Patrick Ignacio Thomas

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Over the last forty years, US employment has become increasingly precarious and unemployment has become an increasingly common experience for many workers. This thesis examines how white-collar unemployment is organized during this era of precarious employment. It conceptualizes and takes as its object of inquiry what I call the “unemployment industry:” the network of actors, organizations, discourses and technologies that provide services and guidance to unemployed professional workers as they search for a job. I use three local “job clubs” for unemployed workers in Austin, Texas as windows into examining this industry. This thesis asks how expertise is constructed within the unemployment industry. It begins with a puzzling observation: Many of the unemployment experts that give presentations at the job clubs are themselves out of work. How is it that someone who themselves cannot find a employment can become an expert in coaching others to find employment? From this initial puzzle, I explore broader questions about knowledge and political economy: What is unemployment expertise? What can the dynamics of expertise in the unemployment industry tell us about the political economy of work today? To answer these questions, I draw on eight months of participant observation in the three job clubs and seventeen interviews with unemployment experts. I use two theories of the social construction of expertise in the analysis, Andrew Abbott’s (1988) theory of professions and Gil Eyal’s (2013) theory of expertise-as-assemblage. I identify and analyze three ideal-type unemployment experts - Job Coaches, Self-help Gurus, and Skill-certifiers - based on their distinct diagnoses and solutions for the problem of unemployment. I ultimately find, however, that unemployment expertise is not something that an expert has but something that they access by tapping into a particular network of organizations, discourses, and technologies. The result is a sort of expertise without experts. In the conclusion, I discuss the implications of these findings for social science understandings of expertise and work and unemployment in the new economy.



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