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Past and Present ‘Futures of Work’: Between Science Fiction and Management Theory

Faculty of Business and Law

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Prof Chris Land , Prof Sarah Brown , Dr Jeanette Baxter No more applications being accepted Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)
Cambridge United Kingdom English Literature Human Resource Management Management Business & Management Sociology Political Economics

About the Project

The ‘future of work’ has long been a matter of speculation for policy makers, novelists, social scientists, and consultants. Some researchers speculate about a fully automated, jobless future, with robots and AI replacing human workers entirely. Some see this as a liberation from work, while others suggest that it will create a redundant, surplus humanity, no longer needed or valued. Still others point to the revival of meaningful, skilled, artisanal work, or how new technology is transforming, rather than replacing, work. Although developments like AI, machine learning, and self-driving cars have perhaps brought these debates to the fore, writers have been speculating about ‘the future of work’ since at least the dawn of the industrial revolution.

This project will explore how ‘the future of work’ has been conceptualised and represented in literary and non-fictional works over the last 130 years. It will analyse the changing ‘social imaginary’ of work from 1890 to 2020, comparing and contrasting depictions of the changing nature of work in science fiction with those in management theory texts. This timeframe starts with William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890), published at the height of the first wave of ‘modern’ management theory, and will focus on core texts from each of the following waves, up to the present era of precarity and digitalisation. Indicative novels might include:

  •  Morris’ News from Nowhere, Wells’ The Time Machine, and von Harbou’s Metropolis as transition novels spanning the late Industrial Betterment movement and the early days of Scientific Management and Taylorism.
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano alongside the post-war management writing on Systems Rationalization.
  • J.G. Ballard’s Super Cannes and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy along with late 20th century management writing on the future of knowledge work.
  •   David Eggers’ The Circle and Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last as parallels to the turn towards agile management systems and the dissolution of work/life boundaries in early 21st century management thought.

The project will combine social science and humanities methodologies. Close readings of core literary, managerial, and social science texts will be combined with socio-economic analysis of the historical contexts within which those texts were written and received. The project will contribute to our understanding of work and science fiction in three ways:

  1. It will contribute to the growing body of research into the cultural production of socio-economic relations, and the critical role of speculation and fiction in shaping political-economic futures.
  2. It will provide critical insight into the current, dominant social imaginary of ‘the future of work,’ with implications for policy and practice in relation to employment, HRM, union organizing, automation, digitalisation, and Universal Basic Income.
  3. It will contribute to our understanding of sustainable futures by analysing how the dominant social imaginary limits the kinds of future that we are able to imagine for work. The coding of possible futures as ‘realistic’ or ‘fantastic’ can foreclose alternative ways of thinking about work and organization. By excavating the futures of work imagined in science fiction and social science from the recent past, we will be better able to understand how some of those ‘futures past’ still haunt the present, opening up a space in which alternative visions of the future of work can be articulated.

Candidates will ideally have an academic background in sociology, modern literature, cultural studies, or business/management, and an interest in, and knowledge of, science fiction.

Funding Notes

This successful applicant for this project will receive a Vice Chancellor’s studentship awards which covers UK tuition fees and provides an annual stipend of £15,609 for three years (UKRI equivalent minimum annual stipend). The award is subject to the successful candidate meeting the studentship Terms and conditions available here:

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