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Ambivalent Solidarity?

Solo freelancers and fast-track assistance during the coronavirus pandemic - an interview with Isabell Stamm and Lena Schürmann

Jan 27, 2021

The number of solo freelancers has increased considerably in recent years.

The number of solo freelancers has increased considerably in recent years.
Image Credit: Pixabayphotosforyou

Solo freelancers have been given special attention within the federal government’s economic fast-track assistance measures throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The impacts of these measures on how solo freelancers view themselves and how they are viewed by others is being examined by sociologists Dr. Isabell Stamm of Technische Universität Berlin and Dr. Lena Schürmann of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in their research project entitled “Solidarität mit Solo-Selbstständigen – die Ambivalenzen der Soforthilfe”. The project was funded by the Berlin University Alliance within its special call: Pandemic Research of the Grand Challenge Initiatives.

Your research focuses on solo freelancers, a group which has received particular support as part of the federal government's economic assistance measures during the coronavirus pandemic. What are the specific characteristics of solo freelancers and what makes them suitable as a focus of research?

Isabell Stamm: Solo freelancers are a group whose income does not derive from employment in a company or organization but which is rather generated within the market. They generally work alone without employees and occupy an area between wage labor and entrepreneurship. The number of solo freelancers has increased considerably in recent years, totaling about 2.2 million in 2018. That is more than half of the total number of freelancers.

The work of solo freelancers highlights typical social problems: These include the risk of casualization, in particular when solo freelancers cannot earn enough through their work to provide for risks that may arise throughout their lives, such as unemployment, illness and old age. One reason for this is that the regulations for including solo freelancers in the social insurance system vary greatly from branch to branch, such as for those working in skilled trades or cultural areas.

Dr. Lena Schürmann, Department of Social Sciences, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Dr. Lena Schürmann, Department of Social Sciences, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Image Credit: privat

Solo freelancers also point to structural changes in the job market, which in recent years have necessitated an ever higher level of flexibility. This means that only a part of this group work freelance in order to be able to determine how they work. Many work under freelance conditions in order to be able to respond to the challenges of the job market and in some cases as a way to avoid unemployment.

Lena Schürmann: The coronavirus pandemic and the associated lockdowns and restrictions affect the ability of many workers, freelancers and businesses to pursue their work, at times with serious economic consequences. The federal government has responded to this with a set of measures to counter the effects. Solo freelancers are explicitly identified within these measures as a social group requiring assistance. This is remarkable given that they otherwise occupy an ambiguous status within the social welfare solidarity system.

Fast-track assistance is not only available for employees and businesses, it is also offered to solo freelancers, a highly heterogeneous group previously confronted with ambiguous regulations and structures. Fast-track assistance identifies solo freelancers per se as a group requiring particular protection.

At the same time, the launch of the fast-track assistance program and in particular its take-up involve a number of ambivalences. A number of questions need to be answered: Are solo freelancers entitled to assistance as sole wage earners? Or should solo freelancers, as entrepreneurial persons, make provisions for such risks themselves? Does taking up social welfare in the form of fast-track assistance involve social exclusion?

It is precisely these questions which we address in our research project. We are examining the ambivalences of fast-track assistance from the perspective of solo freelancers as well as that of society.

Your aim was to research the level of social acceptance for fast-track assistance measures and what this reveals about solidarity. What approach did you adopt in your study?

Lena Schürmann: We focus in our study on the ambivalences of fast-track assistance measures. What we are looking to do is examine the complex and in part contradictory nature of how these measures are perceived. To do so, we need to take account of different nuances and undertones. This is why we opted for a qualitative approach allowing us to be as open as possible in how we record the experiences and opinions of solo freelancers and representatives from media and politics as well as how we reflect the complexity of their responses in our analysis.

We were conducting problem-centered interviews with solo freelancers as well as representatives from media and politics. We provide interviewees plenty of scope to talk about their experiences and give their opinions. The interviews are then transcribed and serve, in anonymized form, as the basis for our analysis. We conducted several analyses of the material and identify the different themes relating to fast-track assistance, assigned these to different categories and determined how these categories relate to one another. In keeping with grounded theory, we proceeded on a case-by-case basis, while recognizing the importance of continuously comparing cases. During the course of our analysis, we were able to identify ambivalences concerning fast-track assistance and to formulate empirically based hypotheses regarding which aspects tend to promote or hinder social acceptance for these measures. Our findings are therefore not only of scientific value, they will also make it possible to conduct faster, more effective and socially acceptable assessments regarding the selection and consequences of measures during future crises.

Dr. Isabell Stamm, research group leader of the Entrepreneurial Group Dynamics project at TU Berlin

Dr. Isabell Stamm, research group leader of the Entrepreneurial Group Dynamics project at TU Berlin
Image Credit: Martin Buehler für Volkswagenstiftung

By now, you’ve collected all your data. What can you tell us about the acceptance of measures and solidarity within society?

Isabell Stamm: Initial impressions from collecting the data hint at some aspects that we intend to further flesh out and substantially add to in the planned analysis: early indications suggest a great deal of tension between internal and external perspectives in terms of understanding what exactly solo freelancing entails. Whereas solo freelancers prefer to point to their particular working conditions and entrepreneurial risks, and place special emphasis on their many and varied range of activities, representatives from politics and media tend to problematize solo freelancers on the periphery of a supportive society. Moreover, several normative ideas about how this position can be justified in a supportive society or how it should be changed are indicated at the same time. Both the image of solo freelancers and the norms of solidarity seem to shift over the course of the period under consideration.

What are the next steps in your project?

Isabell Stamm: The plan now is to evaluate the data we've collected step by step. In the meantime, in addition to our interviews with representatives from politics and media, we’ve built up an extensive body of texts comprising newspaper and magazine articles on solo freelancers and fast-track assistance. As we continue to evaluate the data, the aim is to further reinforce the link between the two perspectives in question.

Lena Schürmann: Knowing how content is added to negotiations on solidarity with solo freelancers as the pandemic unfolds, and the impact this has on recognizing solo freelancers not as lone wolves, but as part of a wider collective – and whether, and under what conditions, they themselves understand this categorization – is important for effective advocacy on behalf of this group. The planned study seeks to offer insight into the specific mechanisms of exclusion that apply to solo freelancers or the circumstances under which their claims to participation in collective security are considered justified, reasonable, and valid. In this respect, the expected results are not only relevant for the scientific discourse on solo freelancers, but also point the way ahead in terms of improving and accepting collective risk protection.