Profiling: An ethnography of labour market decision-making policies

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review

2 Downloads (Pure)


This paper reports on ethnographic fieldwork of government policy-making around the development of profiling tools to administer services to unemployed people. Around one third of European countries, including Ireland, use statistical profiling tools to ration care to the unemployed - streaming them based on their proximity to the labour market. The development of these tools follows Public Employment Service (PES) organisational logics to develop an objective system for sorting people, to ensure process efficiencies and cost efficiencies on behalf of the taxpayer. This research explores the process of datafication, where an individual begins as an unemployed person and becomes a jobseeker, someone who is now a category or type of person for the purposes of being cared for by the state.
In this paper I report on an ongoing ethnographic project that studies the development of a European-wide profiling tool for a PES. The work consists of significant long-form fieldwork that incorporates observations of and interviews with the people and things who give life to profiling. It follows the technology of population administration out of the databases and into the lives of people. The work traces the microsocial cascade of flattening people into numbers (Verran, 2001), cleaving these numbers from the people who render them up into statisticised agglomerations of populations, to be divided into categories by profiling algorithms. This is not a traditional area of ethnography and as such the work is of interest to other fields such as anthropology, along with management, organisation, social science and others, while also having social, economic and technical relevance beyond academia.
Early as analysis is, as the fieldwork is in process, the work hints at two contributions. First it renders up the microphysics of biopower (Foucault, 1976), detailing what were speculations around how individuals are turned into populations as a practice of government and governmentality. This microphysics flays Foucault’s formulation of biopower aspiring to show the practices that rework, mutate and technologise a population, drawing on what Haraway (1997) reworded as technobiopower.
Second, the study offers an understanding of befuddled instincts of contemporary welfare, the instinct for care, security, inclusion, and to bestow gifts; and the almost opposite instinct not to deprive people of their personal agency, to allow them to fall and live with the consequences. These two instincts are resolved as a matter of practice in the public administration of welfare, but are never resolved in theory. In this, the study shows how individuals and systems of care are ended by blunt force technology and profiling algorithms.

Original languageEnglish (Ireland)
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jan 2021
EventWIT Virtual Postgraduate Conference 2021 - Online, Waterford, Ireland
Duration: 22 Jan 202122 Jan 2021


ConferenceWIT Virtual Postgraduate Conference 2021


Dive into the research topics of 'Profiling: An ethnography of labour market decision-making policies'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this