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Organising ‘after identity’ is hard: agency as a function of relationships

How intersections of experience, place and power can create new individuality and new types of relations.
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Political questions have often been put as, ‘What is to be done?’ (Lenin, 1901; and Jones, 2021 in Australia).

One variation is, ‘What is at stake?’ – for instance, the eight-hour workday, fair pay or a clean environment.

However, both questions make unstated assumptions about the identities (usually) cast in opposition to one another. Who gets to be a ‘worker’? Which part of ‘the environment’ is to be cleaned?

As such, we might replace these questions with, ‘Who is constructing, and being constructed by the question, “What is at stake”?’

Recent economic models like the gig economy bring such problems to light. A gig worker might also be a university student who might also be a foreign national who might also be a visible (or invisible) minority. Labour laws and labour movements have a hard time dealing with all these identities. And so do gig workers!

Research by Petriglieri et al (2018) shows how the absence of organisational or professional membership for gig workers creates experiences of stark emotional tension, encompassing both the anxiety and fulfillment of working in precarious and personal conditions. This generates new modes of organising, and identities to match. They acquire what Bulut and Yesilyurt (2023) have called the ‘weapons of the gig’.

In part, this means that gig workers gain agency through the new relationships they build. Consider the example of migrant workers in Brisbane who work for food delivery platforms like Uber Eats and Deliveroo, as described by Riordan et al (2022):

  • The migrants that arrive in Brisbane are extremely diverse.
  • Yet by virtue of migrating to Australia, they are thrown into a shared set of economic conditions. These diverse migrants often have their economic agency limited in similar ways – for example by being on student visas, lacking social or financial capital, being unable to return home during the pandemic but denied access to wage subsidies, etc.
  • As a result of this broad economic similarity, they are therefore often channelled into specific relationships with each other – for example, obliged to accept the same forms of precarious employment (that is, gig work).
  • These relationships foster shared struggles for justice experienced in Australia. These include against abuse by customers; prejudice by local authorities; precarious, stressful, or dangerous working conditions; limited legal protections; lack of support or compensation for injured workers and so on.
  • This shared positionality also fosters shared forms of agency, that manifest in informal ways (e.g. WhatsApp groups, new informal communities, and gaming the gig platform provider) and more formal ones (e.g. protests and moving towards collective bargaining).
  • These shared relationships and shared forms of agency are shaped by the intersectional considerations that have come together to put diverse people in a similar economic space and built new forms of identity action around evolving experiences.

The authors describe the structure of their argument as follows:

First, we develop a model that explains the agentic and structural underpinnings of the injustices migrant platform workers experience. Second, we reveal that the unique attributes that migrants bring to bear on their platform work enables them to navigate the injustices they experience. In so doing they mitigate some negative impacts of the work, and indeed find benefits that non-migrant platform workers might not. (Riordan et al, 2022: p. 2735)

Here we see how newly experienced individuality – or new intersections of experience, place, and power – can create new types of relations and outcomes. Of course, this still takes place in world where migrant and gig workers lack the protections of other workers; the authors later advocate for fairer platforms and better protections – accounting for migrant workers’ unique positions (p. 2748).

In essence, there is value in difference and diversity: in a shared struggle, intersections of identity can yield powerful results.


So far, we’ve introduced identity and ideology to understand how individuals are formed and come to connect with others. We’ve touched on how the relations that are formed through intersectional identities can open up forms of agency. We’ll soon bring our discussion to the systems that newly formed communities find themselves in.

Can you think of other communities, like migrant gig workers, that form under similar circumstances? Which communities bring together diverse individuals in similar conditions and with shared struggles? Try to think of an example and share it in the comments with an explanation.


Bulut, E., & Yeşilyurt, A. (2023). Delivery workers’ visibility struggles: Weapons of the gig, (extra)ordinary social media, and strikes. Convergence.

Jones, B. (2021). What Is to Be Done Political Engagement and Saving the Planet. Scribe Publications.

Lenin, V. (1901). What Is To Be Done?. Marxists Internet Archive.

Petriglieri, G., Ashford, S. J., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2019). Agony and ecstasy in the Gig economy: Cultivating holding environments for precarious and personalized work identities. Administrative Science Quarterly, 64(1), 124–170.

Riordan, T., Robinson, R. N. S., & Hoffstaedter, G. (2022). Seeking justice beyond the platform economy: migrant workers navigating precarious lives. Journal of Sustainable Tourism.

© Deakin University
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