Sociology Contingent Work
Zoltán Lippényi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0206


The past decades have seen a remarkable increase in new forms of employment in work organizations that differ from traditional full-time and life-long employment of workers. The aim of this article is to give an account of scholarly research about the antecedents and consequences of new forms of employment for organizations and employees. Although the literature has yet to reach consensus on a proper term, most studies refer to these employment forms as “contingent work” as their common feature is the lack of strong attachment of workers to the work organization. Contingent work reshapes traditional structures of work and organization and generates forms of inequality. These implications of contingent work pose a challenge to scholarly research to rethink traditional concepts and extend existing theoretical frameworks. The study of contingent work is a relatively new field in sociology, and social science in general, but it is becoming relevant in all disciplines that touch on work, employment, and organizations. This article brings together influential studies from the fields of sociology, management, labor economics, organizational psychology, and health research. It identifies key common topics of interest within these fields: the economic–institutional–organizational forces that drive demand for contingent work, the place of contingent work within organizational processes and structures, the impact of contingent work on outcomes at the level of organization and the level of the worker, and variation in these outcomes across labor market contexts. Although many studies are available on this subject, only those published in English are cited in this article. Zoltán Lippényi’s work was supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP2007-2013) [ERC Grant Agreement nr. 340045].

General Works

A number of excellent monographs have been written on contingent work, deepening our knowledge on the features of contingent work. These works are predominantly written by sociologists, using both qualitative and quantitative research methods to study the characteristics of employment arrangements, the aspirations and experiences of workers in these arrangements, and the professional-organizational structures and labor processes in which they work. Parker 1994 documents the disadvantageous work situation of low-skilled, industrial, temporary agency workers. Tilly 1996 compares the job characteristics of retention and contingent part-time workers. Rogers 2000 highlights the gendered and racialized nature of clerical temporary work, contrasting the work experiences of these workers with those of temporary lawyers. Barley and Kunda 2006 and Osnowitz 2010 study contractors in various occupational fields and describe the distinctive aspects of work outside the boundaries of organizations. Kalleberg 2011 is an exception among general works because it focuses, in general, on the polarization of work in developed economies; however, it is relevant for the discussions about the consequences of contingent work for inequality.

  • Barley, Stephen R., and Gideon Kunda. 2006. Gurus, hired guns, and warm bodies: Itinerant experts in a knowledge economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Barley and Kunda’s study is an ethnography of a contract technical professional’s job search, work, and private life experiences. The authors deliver a critique of institutionalist and free agency views of contingent work by highlighting the importance of occupational forms of organizing. They argue that the contract professional “itinerary” form of professional work, embedded in networks of hiring firms, agencies, and contracting peers, is distinct from traditional free, firm, and corporation-based professional work.

  • Kalleberg, Arne L. 2011. Good jobs, bad jobs: The rise of polarized and precarious employment systems in the United States, 1970s and 2000s. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    Kalleberg gives a comprehensive overview of employment trends from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Drawing on a wide range of survey data from the United States, the author documents the growing polarization in wages, working conditions, job security, autonomy, and job satisfaction. The book ties the polarization of good and bad jobs to economic structural changes that diminish returns to non-college degrees, the growth of employment flexibility, and declining levels of worker power and unionization.

  • Osnowitz, Debra. 2010. Freelancing expertise: Contract professionals in the new economy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    Osnowitz describes professional contractors’ experiences, focusing on the structure of work, entrepreneurial strategies, and the dilemmas these workers face. The author draws on qualitative data collected primarily through in-depth interviews and observation in publishing and software programming. This study provides insights into the way in which workers navigate opportunity and risk outside the structures of traditional organizations and the norms and protection of regular (permanent full-time) employment.

  • Parker, Robert E. 1994. Flesh peddlers and warm bodies: The temporary help industry and its workers. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    Parker’s book concerns the work experiences of temporary help industry workers employed in peripheral jobs in the United States. Using interviews and participatory observation, Parker documents the disadvantaged position of these workers in securing employment. The author provides insights into the uncertainties that low-level temporary workers experience in their work relations, which is markedly different from those of regular workers.

  • Rogers, Jackie Krasas. 2000. Temps: The many faces of the changing workplace. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    Rogers explores the work experiences and identities of low-level temporary clerical workers and temporary lawyers in the United States. Building on labor process theory, the author describes the deskilling and devaluation of temporary clerical work, workers’ strategies to (re)gain control, and the way in which these experiences form work identities. In describing the contrasting natures of temporary clerical and lawyer work, Rogers addresses the gendered and racialized nature of temporary work.

  • Smith, Vicki. 2002. Crossing the great divide: Worker risk and opportunity in the new economy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    In this seminal book, Smith analyzes workers’ experiences, strategies, aspirations, and relations within restructured workplaces through organizational ethnographic research. The author’s core argument is that workplace restructuring blurs dividing lines between good and bad, certain and uncertain, and core and periphery jobs. The changes present a diffuse set of opportunities, which also pose new types of risks, for workers navigating their employment careers in the new economy.

  • Tilly, Chris. 1996. Half a job: Bad and good part-time jobs in a changing labor market. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

    Tilly’s book is about two fundamentally different forms of part-time work. Based on dual labor market theory and analyses of labor force surveys, the author distinguishes “retention part-time” jobs (part-time work typical in high-skilled primary labor markets) and “contingent part-time” jobs (part-time entry-level, low-skilled work in secondary labor markets). The book gives a detailed description of divergent job characteristics of the two forms of part-time employment.

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