Research Projects

Geographies of labour, gender and migration

Impact Investing
Impact Investing and the shift towards measurement and behaviorism in the United Kingdom’s social policymaking”, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation ( Project duration: September 2016 – August 2020. Ph.D. project of Manuel Wirth

This project investigates the rising importance of alternative funding schemes for the social sector in the UK in the light of austerity politics and advancing neoliberalization of welfare. Social policy innovations such as impact investing or financial instruments like social impact bonds increasingly draw on financial market actors as new funding sources and delivery partners for social organisations. By introducing market logics, entrepreneurial mindsets and an evidence-based account, the government aims to make social service delivery more efficient and cost-effective. In this context, measurement devices, outcome metrics and experimental trials play a crucial role in order to evaluate the quality of social interventions. The aim of this project is to critically assess the effects of this increase in (financialized) evaluation and measurement in the course of the social sector marketization for social organizations in the UK. Particularly, it will focus on how the drive towards measurement affects the relationships between social workers and recipients of social services and asks in which ways social organizations/recipients navigate this changing environment.
Theoretically, the thesis draws on STS/ANT and related literature which emphasize on calculative devices and the performativity of economic knowledge in order to conceptualize the realization and materialization of market arrangements “on the ground” (Berndt & Boeckler, 2012), as well as governmentality literature and writings on the variegated and ambivalent character of neoliberalism.


Care Markets
Project title: "Care Markets. The role of care agencies in the commodification of elderly care.", funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, project duration: April 2013 - February 2017, project team: Christian Berndt, Karin Schwiter, Huey Shy Chau and Katharina Pelzelmayer.
The commercialization of home care has been accompanied by the emergence of private care agencies as key drivers of marketization. As intermediaries, these agencies hire care workers and sell packaged care services to the elderly and their families. They play a key role in shaping commercialized care markets, the working conditions of home care workers, and the definition of care itself as a marketable good. This study analyzes the strategies and practices of these care agencies in order to understand the consequences of the current reconfiguration of elderly care for states, households, families, care workers and care recipients. It compares the Swiss home care market to the commercialized care markets in Germany, Austria, Canada and the UK, where agencies have operated for a longer period of time. Project Outline (PDF, 38 KB).


Creative Work
Project title: "Facetten der kreativen Arbeit: Eine empirische Untersuchung von kreativen Arbeitspraktiken im Spannungsfeld von sozialen Feldern und Wertewelten". Ph.D. project of Catherine Robin
The notion of creativity has become a mantra of these days: As a term it pops up in many discursive fields where it is often portrayed as the solution for everything and strongly connected to an entrepreneurial rationality. Prominent concepts such as creative cities, creative class and creative economies are the most visible representatives of that dazzling creativity discourse. This Ph.D. project goes beyond these hegemonic representations. It is targeted towards the more everyday of creative working practices. Theoretically inspired by sociology of organisation and labour as well as cultural theories the project engages in many different working contexts and explores the multiple constructions of creative work and their discursive relationship to contemporary prominent rationalities such as entrepreneurialism, projectification, autonomy, simplify your life and so forth.
see: Robin Catherine (2016) Facetten der kreativen Arbeit: Eine empirische Untersuchung von kreativen Arbeitspraktiken im Spannungsfeld von sozialen Feldern und Wertewelten. Dissertation an der Universität Zürich.


Clean Cities, Dirty Work? Geographies of Commercial Cleaning in Frankfurt and Nuernberg
Funding WISAG AG; Christian Berndt and Peter Latzke
How are clean places being produced? This is the main question of this research project. “Cleaning” would be the gut reaction, but this is far too shortsighted. Clean rooms are an integral part of our immaterial knowledge economy, whether materialized in consumer spaces such as urban entertainment centers, hotels or the inner city, or the shiny offices of highly specialized service firms. The work that is invested into these spaces is normally made invisible and literally put out of sight, given that in the perfect world of the knowledge economy, dirt and waste are a threat to smoothly operating value chains and urban spectacles. It is in this context that this research project seeks to lift the veil, focusing on the workers, and putting emphasis on daily cleaning practices, the disciplinary regime of formal and informal rules and norms, and the way in which daily work has changed as a brave new world of immaterial production and symbolic consumption turns its back on those who literally perform contemporary urban geographies with their hands.
see: Latzke Peter (2015) Wert(e) der Drecksarbeit: Eine netzwerktheoretische Betrachtung der Qualifizierung und Marketization von Arbeit in arbeitsintensiven Dienstleistungen am Beispiel der Gebäudereinigung. Dissertation an der Göthe-Universität Frankfurt.

Analysis of the homecare market in the city of Zurich
German title: "Arbeitsmarkt Privathaushalt. Charakteristika der Unternehmen, deren Beschäftigungsstruktur und Arbeitsbedingungen", project duration: Nov. 2011 to March 2012, funded by the office for gender equality of the city of Zurich, project chairs: Christian Berndt & Karin Schwiter, project execution: Jasmine Truong.
The study provides an overview of recent developments and the current state of the homecare market in the city of Zurich. It identifies and characterizes private companies which offer care services to elderly people in private homes. Furthermore the study highlights the labour conditions of care workers mainly originating from Eastern Europe, but also from East Germany and Austria.
see: Truong, Jasmine; Schwiter, Karin; Berndt, Christian (2012): Arbeitsmarkt Privathaushalt. Charakteristika der Unternehmen, deren Beschäftigungsstruktur und Arbeitsbedingungen, eine Studie im Auftrag der Fachstelle für Gleichstellung der Stadt Zürich. Download study (in German) (PDF, 564 KB)

Truong, Jasmine (2011) Arbeit, Arbeitsidentität, Arbeitsplatz. Die neuen Wanderarbeiterinnen der Sorgewirtschaft. Masterthesis (PDF, 984 KB) at the Department of Geography of the University of Zurich.


Geographies of global commodity chains and transnational markets


Upgrading, competitive strategies, and uneven development
Embedding upgrading of Argentinian soft commodity chains in its political-economic environment. (working title)

Ph.D. project of Christin Bernhold, funded by the CanDoc Forschungskredit University of Zurich
PhD Committee: Prof. Dr. Christian Berndt, Prof. Dr. Christof Parnreiter, Prof. Dr. Víctor Ramiro Fernandez, Prof. Dr. Benedikt Korf

Within economic geography, much of today’s research on the interweaving of local developments and global political economy draws from conceptual frameworks such as global commodity or value chains (GCCs/GVCs), and global production networks (GPNs). However, while GCC research was initially intended to critically analyze uneven development and center-periphery relations in the global political economy, many academics have sidelined issues of inequality and social antagonisms. Instead, scholars and policy makers increasingly focus on upgrading. The latter is regarded as being critical for achieving socio-economic progress.
The PhD-project is designed as an empirically informed ideology critique of upgrading as a new paradigm for development. Critical political economy comprises the theoretical framework which seeks to strengthen approaches that analyze how social relations of production shape both upgrading strategies and its social outcomes with respect to inequality and variation over uneven geographies of capitalism. Yet, the research is strongly based on empirical work, designed as a multi-sited endeavor that relies on semi-structured interviews, text corpora, and quantitative data. First, it investigates competitive and upgrading strategies of companies and business associations (as well as their limits) in the soy agro-industrial chain in Argentina, especially in the Pampa region. Second, it looks at contradictory and unequal socio-economic outcomes of soy chain upgrading and examines, how historically modifying social relations, and economic as well as politico-ideological struggles shape them.


Performing regional (dis-)integration: Transnational markets, mobile commodities and bordered north-south differences
(Christian Berndt and Marc Boeckler) Being implicated in an ambivalent play of both border crossing and drawing, global commodity chains are an ideal organizational field to analyze the fundamental paradox of global connectivity. Approaching the “contingentization” of borders from a perspective informed by the performativity approach to markets, our research starts from the assumption that this paradox is particularly salient in the context of commodity chains which connect the global south with the global north. Taking the example of selected agro-commodities and two border regions (Morocco/EU and Mexico/USA), we follow the links and heterogeneous associations that stretch from the border to the fields, supermarket shelves and standardization agencies to migrant labor, quality control apparatuses and so forth. By reading commodity chains from their literal limits, that is, from the border and from the margins, we focus on an element of this global assemblage that is normally taken for granted and excluded from academic and public discourse.

Globalizing agro-markets, making fragile articulations. Reworking the global market frontier for the poor in Tanzania's horticulture sector.
Ph.D. project of Johanna Herrigel, funded by the CanDoc Forschungskredit University of Zurich

The research community on global production can look back to nearly two decades of intense research under the banner of “Global Commodity Chain” (GCC), “Global Value Chain” (GVC) and “Global Production Networks”. Since the turn of the millennium, and in strong cooperation with scholars of this community, the GVC-concept has been operationalized for development cooperation under the banner of “Value Chain Analysis” and more recently “Value Chain Development”. This reflects a broader trend within the development community, away from the typical macro market-led development under the Washington Consensus towards a market development approach where markets and their individuals need to be (re-)made so as to render markets and economic growth pro-poor. Amongst most of the bilateral donor organizations, this has resulted in handbooks and development programs on VCD and “Making Markets (work better) for the Poor” (M4P). Meanwhile, the developmental effect particularly of global market integration on a region and its inhabitants is lately increasingly questioned from within the GCC/GVC/GPN research community itself. What is needed is a more thorough understanding of how new global market connections are (re-)articulated in a specific place and how that interacts with divers dimensions of uneven development. Using a performativity and political economy perspective, this research project investigates on the one hand the translation of the Value Chain concept from academia to Development (and back again) and on the other hand the practical enactment and stabilization of new global market connections. Through multi-sited ethnography, the project traces the various sites of enacting global market linkages and market development approaches through the example of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables (FFV) export sector in Northern Tanzania.

Theorizing Economic Geographies

Material Economic Geographies
(Christian Berndt) The starting point of this ongoing theoretical endeavor is the observation that explanations in the social sciences often do not explain anything at all. What happens instead is the mobilization of conceptual black boxes as final objects, that is, entities that are taken for granted and are rarely reflected upon. Within the subdiscipline of Economic Geography there are many examples, as a rule shared with other disciplines, such as the market, the firm, the value chain, labor and so on. For some time now a transdisciplinary movement has emerged whose representatives take issue with this approach. Rather than starting with an imagination of our world as a mosaic of clearly limited and demarcated pre-given entities (economy, society, state, market, firm, individual subject etc.), the key question is to understand the processes and operations that qualify persons, organizations or things as being “economic”. Regardless of their intellectual background, contributions look at the rationalities, frames of action and technologies which render things, behaviors and processes “economic”. Conceptualized as being the result of multifaceted processes of economization, shared understandings of what it is to be “economic” are always precarious and therefore open to contestation. Discussion Paper (PDF, 71 KB)