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Thesis Spotlights – The Hipster Economy: An Ethnography of Creative Food and Beverage Microentrepreneurs in the Italian Context
Alessandro Gerosa, PhD, Italy
Email: alessandro.gerosa [at] unimi.it
Institution: Department of Social and Political Sciences, University of Milan
Time: 1 October 2016 – 30 September 2019
Supervisor: Prof. Luisa Leonini
Funding: University of Milan
Today, the creative economy is one of the paradigmatic economic imaginaries of Western Societies, shaping national policies and economic behaviours. Depending on the context, it is usually associated with the domain of the cultural industries or with innovative, disruptive startup firms that dominate the digital economy. Nevertheless, it is precisely at the very background of this majestic scenario that this dissertation gazes, exploring what could be considered a by-product of the systemic shift from a Fordist to a Post-Fordist mode of production: the resurgence of artisanal production and consumption, a phenomenon that is starting to be observable in many different fields. The theoretical framework that guided the development of the dissertation follows this new but steadily growing stream of research, combining it with recent studies underlying the centrality of petty producers in the contemporary transformations of the capitalist system.
The PhD thesis concentrates upon the analysis of a specific sector that is being heavily influenced by this second wind of craft, that is food and beverage retailing, with Milan (Italy) as fieldwork. The methodology consists of qualitative research through interviews with forty microentrepreneurs that are managing mobile street food vendors or hybrid bars, and through participant observation of street food festivals and the bars. The fundamental hypothesis that led the research is that an ongoing colonisation of labour-intensive sectors by the imaginary of creative economy is happening, resulting in the birth of a new hybrid ‘hipster economic imaginary’, that shapes microentrepreneurs under the imperative of authenticity, combining key features typical of canonical creative industries with the ones of traditional occupations.
The microentrepreneurs were analysed in three dimensions: their identities, working conditions, and practices. In line with the theoretical framework and leading hypothesis, each dimension was inspected with particular attention to the relationship between the microentrepreneurs’ agency and the structural influence of the imaginary.
In the first empirical chapter, the focus is on the professional subjectivity of micro-entrepreneurs: first, the paths through which the decision to open the business matured, then their professional identities. Three ideal types of micro-entrepreneurs are advanced, based on their interaction with the imaginary. In the second chapter, their working condition is analysed using the lens of passionate work, looking at their ambivalent self-judgement of their work, between empowering elements on one side and precariousness and physical fatigue on the other, and their peculiar pursuit of anti-economic choices made in the name of the passion for the product. In the third chapter, attention shifts onto the practices of microentrepreneurs during their everyday work, through which they bring an authentic experience to the customers. The chapter is composed of two sections, analysing two ways through which microentrepreneurs provide an ‘authentic experience’ to customers: the dealing of authentic taste and the provision of sociability in the business place. Lastly, in the conclusion, the results have been summarised, highlighting the pivotal role played by the three concepts of authenticity, creativity, and passion in the imaginary, and the consequent transformations affecting microentrepreneurs and retailing in the food sector and beyond.
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