The "Superfluous"

(last modified July 2002)

With the appearance of terms such as "new poverty" or the "class of the surplus people", debates in the social sciences have been the site of a renaissance of descriptions reminiscent of old capitalistic crisis scenarios. But these terms also take up the question of society's integrative capacities in new and sometimes dramatic ways. Within the networks woven by politics and political attempts to (de-)regulate, by economics and flexibilization concepts, by local governments and urban development, new patterns of social discrimination are emerging. These patterns are the result of changing perceptions of the problems posed by social change and social inequality and by changing strategies – in the spheres of politics, economics and planning – for solving them.

Current discussion of these issues offers a multitude of diverse descriptions. Terms like social discrimination, separation or exclusion all revolve around the problem of describing social processes in which people are left behind, forgotten, cut off from developments around them or held at a distance. At the moment, there appears to be agreement regarding the assessment that job loss generally triggers a process of downward mobility which may end in exclusion.

The welfare state has always had to deal with the unemployed and the poor, but today, these often include groups of people who are highly qualified and well-trained: the victims of new management strategies and the pro forma free lancers and outsourced employees they produce, who suddenly find themselves outside of society, one of the "superfluous". In German society, the category of the "superfluous" is emerging parallel to the problem of unstable life constructions. Empirical evidence for phenomena such as "precarious wealth" and the rapid increase in insecure employment are indicative of this process.

This research project focuses on the biographical watershed marked by the transformation of an individual's understanding of work and the way in which it is organized. For those who become »superfluous«, work loses its former function as a means of defining collective identity and specialization based on qualification, as well as its power to convey meaning and status. Career advancement, for many the organizing principle of their life plan, loses this role when promotions become impossible. How does daily life change for individuals who have been excluded from post-Fordian society? How do the superfluous change society?

This study aims to contribute to a systematic understanding of the problem of social exclusion and to explore the empirical base for a term which has already become established in the social sciences. In doing so, this research can also clarify the specific characteristics of the German model for integration and at the same time relate this model to the American debate about the underclass and the French discussion on exclusion.

The project will be continued outside of the Institute.