Precarity and its discontents

Reflections April 23, 2016 11:11 am

This morning, as I was going through my RSS feeds, I encountered this sentence on Vox in their summary of recent news about Uber:

To liberals and labor lawyers — including the woman who represented Uber’s drivers in these suits, profiled in January by Mother Jones — Uber was one of many companies that have prospered in the “gig economy” by keeping their employees in precarity. [Mother Jones / Hannah Levintova]

What jumped out (let’s leave Uber out for the time being) was the use of the word “precarity,” which is used by the Vox authors, but isn’t really in the Mother Jones article.  Just when did the fashionable “precarity” (rather than just good old-fashioned “precariousness”)  leave the halls of the academy and percolate into the world outside?

Some preliminary investigations turned up the following:

There is no “precarity” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, or on, but there is a “precarity” entry on Wikipedia (with a history of who first used the term, although Wikipedia also has its “original research warning” on the post [1]).

Google N-gram for “precarity” and “precariousness” between 1980 and 2000 below.  Precariousness is still used more.

It turns out that academic books (in the 1980s and 1990s) still used “precariousness” so this isn’t an academics versus the general public thing.

This is all, of course, apropos of nothing. But it might be interesting to know how some of these fashionable terms travel out of scholarly communities and what that says about the relationship between American higher education institutions with the broader world of publishing.


[1]  Wikipedia’s original research warning is as follows:

This article possibly contains original researchPlease improve it by verifying the claims made and adding inline citations. Statements consisting only of original research should be removed. (October 2014)



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