Is Craving Freedom a Human Condition? The Gig Economy from an Anthropologist’s Perspective


Gig Economy is growing in scale and popularity. Establishing itself as a new kind of economy, the Gig Economy is far from being just another trend; it is forcing social scientists to rethink the structures of the global labour market. We at Hudson Nordic know that Gig Economy in the form of Contracting is inevitable in the future of recruitment solutions. To us, it is only natural to develop and implement a new Contracting programme that we will be launching in only a matter of days.

To be successful with our new Contracting solution, we follow our normal recipe for success; we dive into the core of what it means to be human. We are a People Business; we always strive to deepen our understanding of people and their needs. Therefore, the questions about why the Gig Economy is here, and why it is so popular, are questions, we explore with profound curiosity. we will answer these questions in this article as we look into reasons, why a new way of thinking about work such as Contracting is taking over from traditional thinking.

You may already have read our introduction to the concepts of contracting and Gig Economy. With this article, we aim to look beneath the surface and reflect on why we see this new kind of economy gaining so much popularity. The short and easy answer is: “Freedom and flexibility”; being your own boss and working on your own terms is appealing to many people and contracting offers exactly this. However, this still does not really explain why the Gig Economy is popular. For what is freedom? Freedom means to be free of something and what exactly are you freeing yourself from by being a Contractor or by hiring one?

Gig Economy is also huge in countries like China (Wu 2019), but is freedom really the same to a Chinese Uber driver as it is to a European Contractor in a specific industry? Is freedom, which is one of the core values of modern Western society, the same to the contemporary Global South?

The History of Freedom

To understand the concept of freedom, one must look into its history. Even though, the concept of freedom has no official beginning. Another more political or ideological term for freedom is “liberty” that originates from the French revolution which was largely provoked by the Enlightenment (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution 2020).

The Enlightenment came approximately 150 years after the Reformation of Northern Europe where Martin Luther created a focus on the individual relationship directly with God instead of a relationship with God through the Church (Conger 2008). During the Enlightenment, philosophy became the new norm and great thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Baron de Montesquieu advocated for logical reflections on ethics instead of blind faith in God. Along this line of thinking, philosophers were eager for the individual to break free from control by kings and the church (see Montesquieu 2002 [1748]).

During this time, the ideal was independent thinking and reflection to ensure goodness in the world (see Kant 1784). This meant that the individual solely was responsible for its way of thinking and acting. To reach this ideal, the individual had to free itself from the masses – in theory as well as in practice (see Kant 1784). Today, this dilemma has been brought into forefront by anthropologists investigating the concept of freedom by raising questions like: Who can be responsible of a good deed if it was performed by a slave that was acting on his master’s will? (Foucault 1997:286-7). The slave who performed it or the Master that wished it?


Individual Freedom Is Not the Reason!

That was then, this is now. Many of us know that it was the great philosophies from the Enlightenment period that brought about democracy and reshaped society in Europe and North America. This means that it is only logical for people from these regions to strive for personal freedom. It is a part of our ideology and our collective identity. Our very democracy depends on the principle of individual freedom ensured by fundamental rights. In short, in our part of the world, we believe in, what is free is good (or at least has the potential to be).

However, it would be ethnocentric to think that the world is truly global. Ethnocentric is a term used in anthropology to describe a tendency to see the world from our own perspective and describing others in accordance with your own cultural values (Eriksen 2010:18). And by “truly global” we refer to global as a universal tendency in all human beings that can be seen across the globe. In continents like Asia, Africa and South America, people are much more group-oriented, which can be seen in situations, where the interests between the group and the individual clash, because here the individual matters less than the group.

To explain this further, it can be helpful to include Jonathan Friedman’s theory on personhood. According to Friedman, personhood is perceived differently in different parts of the world: In capitalistic civilisation, a person’s “self” is always embodied in the physical body and does not transcend it (Friedman, 1988:152.) In exogamic kindship, however, a person is not one “unit” within a body (ibid). Instead, the body is seen as a place for socio cosmic activity where the self or the soul is a part of a bigger whole (ibid.). The line between body and soul is, therefore, more fluid which allows beliefs such as witches that can eat parts your soul (Friedman 1988:148). Beliefs like this can be found in Africa, Asia and South America (Evans-Pitchard 1937; Kohn 2016). This might seem a bit spacy, but it means that the idea of “individuals” as we know it is not a universal concept and it does not apply for large parts of the human world population. Thus, the idea of individual freedom would simply not make sense in certain cultures where the Gig Economy is growing. In short, a universal strive for being a free individual cannot be the sole reason why Gig Economy is so popular.


The Individual in the State

The main difference between the Northern and the Southern parts of the world is, however, how established the nation state is in different countries. In countries like Denmark, Germany, France, USA etc the state is a protector; the state protects people through institutions such as police, military and hospital (Jöhncke 2011). The state protects rights through a highly functional independent law system (ibid.:31). The state may even protect quality of life through social services (ibid.). While the state protests its citizens to ensure their loyalty, protecting individualistic rights also ensures that the individual is free to participate in the democracy which upholds the state. This means that when the state protects its citizens it also reenforces our perception of individual freedom as an ideal.

In countries where the democratic state is less established – like Africa for instance – the individual depends fully on their own personal networks to survive (Gausset 2005; Vigh 2006). Individuals detached from their group are endangered in their very survival. In regions such as Africa, this means that individuals are not likely to seek personal freedom, because personal freedom (from groups) can be considered more like a death sentence. Instead, they are likely to seek collective freedom from groups, with which they do not identify, such as postcolonial powers or other tribes (Fanon 2002 [1961]; Gausset 2005).

If we disentangle the concept of freedom from the idea of an individual, freedom could in fact be appealing to all. Though, what we seek freedom from and how we perceive the term freedom varies.

Free from What? Capitalistic Society

To most people, Karl Marx is mainly linked with Communism. In social sciences, however, Marx is recognised for his diagnosis of the contemporary capitalistic society. Marx describes how the world is structured around the labour market. To Marx a society’s superstructure (that means its culture, social relations, ideologies etc.) is formed by the modes of productions, which Marx calls the base (Marx 2009 [1859]).

According to Marx, power transcends in the very structure of modern society because there is a power relation between those with access to the means of production (the bourgeoisie) and the people who actually produces commodities (the proletariat) (Marx 1888 [1848]:1-4). Since it is the bourgeoisie that holds the means of production, they define the “base” and therefore those with power have the means to form our entire world civilisation.

To many, this may be a bit complicated, but it is a way of thinking that has found its way into theories of giants in social sciences like Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and many more. Social scientists influenced by Marx believe that there are structures that force individuals to think and act in certain ways. Some see these structures as a hegemony that transcends into thought processes so that it limits and controls the individual’s mind in a way that reproduces the hegemony (Lagos 1993).

Looking at freedom from this perspective, the induvial strives for freedom because the capitalistic system is based on a free labour market that regenerates principles of freedom to uphold itself. When the individual then wishes to be free, for instance to buy whatever they want, it is not a natural inner wish for personal freedom but the capitalistic world reproducing itself. This is the ultimate form of control and lack of freedom where the individual can never truly be free.

Agency as a Universal Form of Freedom

Scholars like Karl Marx and Michel Foucault see the world as doomed until society’s abusive control of the individual seizes. Marx’s Communist Manifesto attempts to offer a way out of the capitalistic system, but as history has shown, so far it has proven impossible to end capitalism.

Several social scientists do not fully buy into the “structure”-perspective. People, they argue, have a free will and cannot be brainwashed by the system. In anthropology, scholars write about “agency” as opposed to “structure”. Anthropologist Saba Mahmood defines agency as “the capacity to realize one’s own interests against the weight of custom, tradition, transcendental will or other obstacles” (Mahmood 2001:206).

Agency offers modes of action in a structuralised world (Pedersen 2018:194). Instead of perceiving freedom as a capitalistic ideal as described above, it is rather a kind of agency. Whilst the political implications can be several when concluding “everyone desires freedom”, it is true that “everyone seeks ways to act within a structure”. Then, in the context of agency, freedom means to be as free from control as possible. We see agency in all kinds of societies and in various contexts in social life. This is because there is a resistance to hegemony in every type of society as described by Anthropologist and Professor Maria L. Lagos (see Lagos 1993). This resistance is expressed through the agency.

The Answer to the Question

We started with a simple question about why the Gig Economy and Contracting are so popular. To this, we found a complicated answer that involved looking the meaning of freedom. To many in our pars of the world, the argument “because it gives me freedom”  is based on the premise “freedom is good” would have been sufficient because we see freedom as tightly linked with what it means to be an individual in a democratic society. However, as described above, this is not a valid argument when you want to understand why the Gig Economy is trending in every kind of society and in most cultures.

By changing the word “freedom” to “agency”, we have seen that it is a human condition of life to strive for the ability to realise our own interest in a capitalistic world. The Gig Economy offers this kind of agency. In Marxist terms, by becoming a Gigger you free yourself from the position of the “proletary” and find yourself free of the boss and employer setup. And as the hiring organisation, you find yourself less governed by your employees, because you are not obliged to bind your money to one employee for a long period of time with the risks and expenses that this could entail. When regarding contracting as a way to create agency in a capitalistic, structuralised world, then indeed, contracting can set you free.


If Freedom Is the Goal: Why Hudson Nordic?

Hopefully, with this article, we have demonstrated our understanding of your need for freedom. This understanding is not only influenced by anthropological knowledge but several years’ experience working with people.

Our basis for understanding you as a Contractor or a Hiring Organisation is built on our experience from Recruitment Executive Coaching, Assessment Tools and Centres and our deep insight in Team Dynamics. Also, more than anything else, our understanding of your needs for freedom and flexibility derives from our profound interest in people. Not two people are alike and we constantly learn about optimal matchmaking through training, education and life experience, as well as through the people we meet.

We want to support you in your “freeing” process that allows agency and freedom for you as a Contractor or you as a representative for a Hiring Organisation. Through collaborating with Hudson Nordic, you become a part of – and in a way an influence to – our continuous development of even better standards, new ways of doing matchmaking and innovative ways of connecting the dots and finding ever better solutions.

You also get to use and help develop a “new” solution, Contracting, which has been many years in the making; all the way from Enlightenment till now and which will only grow as a preferred solution for many in the future. Agency, whatever its form, is always leading the way into the future by challenging the status quo.


Published by;

Ida Hjort Buhl
Anthropological Resource
(October 2020)



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