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The Social Codes of Tech Workers: On the Quest to be Middle-Class Wealthy and Morally Worthy



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Dorschel, Robert Constantin 


The digital labour debate has produced manifold insights into new forms of work and class relations emerging within digital capitalism. So far, however, most research has either focused on tech entrepreneurs or the highly precarious crowd and gig workers, neglecting the growing ranks of professionals who render digital technologies. My study fills this gap by uncovering the subjectivity of so-called ‘tech workers’ — the middle-class fraction responsible for encoding, designing, and managing the algorithms and platforms that permeate social life. Drawing on theoretical concepts from Bourdieu, Foucault, and Lamont, my thesis pursues two interconnected questions: Firstly, what kind of social codes structure the subjectivity of tech workers? And secondly, what forms of boundary-making go hand-in-hand with the subjectivation of tech workers? I position my study in the research field concerned with the nexus of work, capitalism, and subjectivity. Through a systematisation of relevant literature, I reconstruct two ideal types of middle-class white-collar workers: the ‘organisational self’ typical in industrial capitalism, and the ‘entrepreneurial self’, which became the dominant middle-class subjectivity in post-industrial capitalism. My study shows how tech workers are different from both types. To do so, it draws on 52 original interviews with tech workers in the US and Germany as well as extensive discourse analysis of study programs and job ads (188 documents in total). The combination of methods allows me to map out the self-classifications as well as the institutional interpellations of tech workers.
The empirical analysis reveals that despite notable differences across national sites and within the professional segment, tech workers typically cultivate a post-entrepreneurial subjectivity. Through a number of social codes – including a return of social critique, hybrid professionalism, as well as lifestyles of ordinariness and mindfulness – tech workers transform the figure of a market-oriented self whose normative capacities exhaust themselves in a longing for creative self-actualisation. My analysis unearths that tech workers are on a quest to be middle-class wealthy and morally worthy. Furthermore, I argue that tech workers are forming a contradictory middle-class fraction. While their social codes demonstrate clear contours of a distinctive social formation, I discuss critically how the class formation is partly undermined through the hacking of their moral codex into yet another spirit of capitalism. My study thus reveals how tech workers hold an economically contradictory position in between capital and labour as well as a morally contradictory position in between emancipation and the (re)production of structures of domination. This finding allows us to better understand how subjectivity and class relate within a rapidly growing and highly influential professional segment of contemporary capitalism. Thereby, my study not only contributes to the digital labour debate but also to the sociology of class and culture more generally.





Gabrys, Jennifer
Reckwitz, Andreas


class, culture, digital labour, tech workers


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge; Foundation of the German Economy