ARC Seminar: Alexandre Duchêne: The Multilingual Division of Contemporary Labour

APR 06, 2017 | 4:30 PM TO 6:30 PM



The Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue




April 06, 2017: 4:30 PM-6:30 PM




Advanced Research Collaborative


ARC Seminar:  Alexandre Duchêne: The Multilingual Division of Contemporary Labour: Selection, Inequalities and Exploitation

This lecture examines the various processes through which multilingualism becomes a terrain for the production and reproduction of social inequalities in the new globalized economy. It describes how, under certain circumstances, multilingualism becomes the object of commodification attempts that confer a certain profit of distinction to particular combinations of languages and to specific multilingual speakers while depriving others from any forms of added value or even acting as a gate-keeping instrument. The argument is presented that this complex valuation processes must be understood through a political economic lens that focuses on the material and historical conditions of language, thus locating linguistic processes in larger societal systems of inequality and difference. In doing so, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in new economy workplaces in Europe that are characterized by an increased importance of language and communication-related work activities in low-skill jobs, a precarity of labor, a strong attempt to increase flexibilization of the workers, a Taylorist organization of work, and increased global market competition. In this context, I demonstrate that multilingualism becomes a central instrument for the economic rationalization and management of work, thus leading enterprises to capitalize on and exploit the linguistic resources of their workers in the interest of enhancing productivity, flexibility, and adaptability to the markets. Multilingualism, as a consequence, is considered as resource and as a capital for enterprises. Nevertheless, the language competences of low-skill workers are primarily considered as a natural instrument of work, hence, purely utilitarian. The skills are banalized and easily exploitable, thus excluding the producers of language resources from any added value (e.g. salary increases) or forms of promotion at work. At the same time, language skills become a central requirement for such (often poorly paid) jobs, thus assuming the function of a clear instrument of selection and a gate-keeping instrument. Finally, I argue that contemporary studies on multilingualism should take more critically into account the emerging investment in language from certain economic sectors in order to better understand how monolingualism AND multilingualism now function as terrains on which social inequalities are produced and reproduced.

Alexandre Duchêne, is a Professor of the Sociology of Language, Head of the Department of Multilingualism Studies at the University of Fribourg. His research focuses on language and social inequalities, language and political economy and on the division of labor in late capitalism. He is the past-President of the Francophone Association for Sociolinguistics (RFS) and co-Chair of the Committee on World Anthropologies of the American Anthropological Association. He was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure (ENS) in Lyon (France) and at the University of Jyvaskyla (Finland). His recent publications include Language in Late Capitalism: Pride and Profit (with Monica Heller, 2012, Routledge); Language, Migration and Social Inequalities (with Melissa Moyer and Celia Roberts, 2013, Multilingual Matters), Mehrsprachigkeit verwalten? Spannungsfeld Personalrekrutierung beim Bund (with Renata Coray, Emilienne Kobelt et al.., 2015, Seismo Verlag) and Spéculations langagières (with Michelle Daveluy, 2015, a special Issue on the journal Anthropologie et Sociétés). He is currently the Principal Investigator of a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) research project entitled: A web of Care: Linguistic resources and the management of labour in the healthcare industry (2015-2018).