After her bachelor’s degree in Istanbul, Nial Tekin completed a master’s degree in the field of sociology of work at the University of Évry in France. There she completed her doctorate with an interdisciplinary approach from sociology and social philosophy on specific forms of alienation in the neoliberal capitalist world of work.
Nial Tekin continued this interdisciplinary approach at the Humanities and Social Change Center in Berlin, Germany, by working out the social pathologies of the contemporary world of work and developing a social critique of neoliberalism.
„We are interested in what the workers are actually doing“
Interview with Nial Tekin
Nial, you are a sociologist yourself. Before you came to the Center you conducted field research in Turkish and French car manufacturing plants on experiences of alienation related to new forms of management. To put it in a nutshell: How is alienation experienced today?
Alienation had a long tradition in sociological research.The concept described the experience of meaningless work and the feeling of being powerless in the production process. Its heyday was the analysis of the Taylorian era when the new organization of factories according to the model of the assembly line destroyed the working collectives and social relations among the workers. Today we find the same experiences under neoliberal conditions—now produced by new methods of management: permanent competition, increased workloads, constant performance evaluation, and the exploitation of all efforts by the workers to appropriate the working processes. Paradoxically, it is the discourse of autonomy that results in a situation where prescriptions are endemic and which leads to anxiety and stress. To give you an example: Workers are constantly nudged to overstep rules for the sake of increased production; but at the same time, they are held responsible when their actions result in injuries or accidents. Such paradoxical interpellations entail the deterioration of health, destroy social relations and collectivity at work, and block the desire of the working people.
You have worked with Emmanuel Renault in Paris, so the Center was not your first encounter with discussions dominated by philosophical perspectives. From your experience, what do philosophers miss about alienation in real life?
Philosophers are more interested in epistemological debates: Does alienation presuppose essentialist concepts of man or work or are there pragmatist ways to define the concept? As sociologists, we are more interested in what the workers are actually doing and what strikes them as being harmful. Therefore, we need critical concepts like alienation, which has been absent from recent sociology. Without such critical concepts, we are left with abstract notions like “psychological suffering” to describe the subjective effects of social conditions on individual lives. And such notions tend to reproduce the neoliberal individualization of the harm social structures inflict on individuals. A concept like alienation, on the other hand, helps us to speak about power relations and thereby to re-politicize the experiences of suffering at work. It provides a language for public and sociological debates about the experiences of workers. Alienation in particular helps to express that workers want to have a say on their working conditions and directs our attention to what Isabelle Ferreras called their “critical intuition.”
In the Benjamin Lectures, and also in our preliminary discussions, Axel Honneth attacked the concept of alienation because it tends to romanticize the idea of fulfilment at work. In how far was he able to convince you?
It was interesting for me to see how much Axel Honneth clings to the idea that alienation presupposes a romantic conception of work. I would still say that a lot of sociological evidence—even the evidence he quotes in his impressively detailed description of working conditions—suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, the discussions with him at the Center inspired me to put more emphasis on the link between work, democracy, and alienation. It is important to show that critical concepts serve the cause of social emancipation. And Honneth’s Benjamin Lectures have been especially strong on this point.
It was great to have you at the Center. What will you explore next?
Unfortunately, the future of the empirical projects I would have liked to pursue remains unclear due to the COVID19 situation. I am publishing a few papers in the meantime and have reached out to several editors for the publication of my dissertation thesis. But overall, nothing is really clear at the moment. The good thing about being a sociologist however is that you know precariousness is nothing personal but the result of structural conditions.
Interview conducted by Christian Schmidt
Research stay: October 2020 – July 2021