Labouring at the Interface: Exploring the rhythms and resistances of working in London’s food delivery gig economy

Adam Badger

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This interdisciplinary PhD investigates the ways in which digital technologies are changing – and generating – new forms of work and lived experiences of our urban environments by bringing theoretical concepts from both Geography and Organisation Studies to bear on ethnographically generated empirical data. This comprises a nine-month covert autoethnography working for two gig economy platforms as a food delivery courier in London; an eighteen-month overt ethnography of the trade-union responsible for organising their workers; and interviews deployed both inside and outside of the workplace. Methodologically, it engages with debates surrounding ethical and legal interaction with vulnerable workers in the gig economy, in addition to addressing ‘covertness’ and ‘situated knowledges’ made in the field. The empirics focus on both the every-day experience of being a gig worker in the urban environment, and the diverse worlds riders navigate as part of their daily existence. It explores the lived experience of gig work through the lenses of sociomateriality, the interface envelope, and rhythmanalysis. Results highlight the contested realities of digitally enabled work, as couriers jostle with the smooth interfaces offered by platforms and the messy realities of the labour they undertake; of cycling through London’s crowded streets, of soups sloshing around delivery bags, and the mysterious, shapeshifting spectre of an algorithmic manager. Accordingly, it promotes a holistic understanding of technologies as part of broader assemblages that emerge in practice, extending currents in critical geography that deconstruct reified understandings of the digital as somehow abstracted from the complex realities of place. This develops through an in-depth analysis of the labour process and the way this is interpreted and engaged by workers in chapter 5. This is followed by a discussion of the skilled nature of gig economy delivery work in chapter 6, with attention paid to the interactions between digital platform and city. In chapter 7, these worker knowledges are applied to conceptualising resistance in the gig economy in four discrete (but interlinked) sites: the app, the street, the court and the polity. The thesis concludes by reflecting on the role of venture capital financing in the gig economy to provide a ‘meta-rhythm’ that underscores organisational change and shifts in the workers’ experience.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Crang, Philip, Supervisor
  • Symon, Gillian, Supervisor
  • Dodds, Klaus, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Jun 2022
Publication statusUnpublished - 2022

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