ERC Starting Grant for Jess Bier for research on how the digitalisation of container shipping is reshaping inequalities

haven Rotterdam met schip

Social theorist Dr. Jess Bier of the Erasmus University Rotterdam has been awarded the prestigious starting grant of 1.5 million by the European Research Council (ERC) for her DIGIPORTS project. Dr. Bier will study how digitalisation is reconfiguring the racialisation of shipping labour. DIGIPORTS is the first ethnographic study of the digitalisation of shipping. 

Container shipping has implications for everyone who has ever shopped in a store or online. Shipping is the backbone of the global economy. 90% of the world's goods travel by ship. The industry has a global reach and a highly diverse workforce. It is also structured by workers' nationalities, resulting in inequalities. Inequalities occur within ships, where some European workers systematically receive higher wages, and between regions, where labour conditions vary. 

The consequences of the digitalisation of workflows

Shipping is currently undergoing rapid changes as it digitalizes its workflows. It is unknown if digitalisation will help or hinder worker equality, or for which groups. Technology can increase workers' skills and make travel safer. Yet the benefits may only extend to some, while others face difficulties becoming skilled or could lose their jobs altogether. In maritime shipping, pay and working conditions are structured by nationality. So, digitalisation will likely also affect the racialisation of workers, or how practices and ideas about race are constructed and employed, and related inequalities. 

The first ethnographic study of the digitalization of shipping

DIGIPORTS is the first ethnographic study of the digitalisation of shipping. It will provide an integrated analysis of how digitalisation reshapes labour and racial inequalities. The project will run from 2022 until 2026 and will involve two PhD candidates and one postdoctoral researcher.

Dr. Bier: "This project innovatively combines critical logistics and algorithm studies. We will study the on-the-ground implementation of digital infrastructures to better understand how it is reconfiguring four processes of racialisation: the displacement, classification, criminalisation, and related precarity of work."  Dr. Bier will develop a four-part framework for analysing how racialisation operates systematically through institutionalised practices and infrastructures that extend across space and time. It will also lay the groundwork for the new interdisciplinary field of digital logistics studies. 

About the ERC Starting Grants

With the ERC Starting Grants, the European Union aims to support talented research leaders in establishing their independent research team. The Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences has successfully obtained ERC grants. In recent years, Dr. Tom Emery, professor Renske Keizer, Dr. Rianne Kok and professor Willem Schinkel preceded her with a Starting grant. In 2012 sociology professor Pearl Dykstra received an Advanced Grant, and in 2020 professor Claartje ter Hoeven received the Consolidator Grant.

About Jess Bier

Dr. Jess Bier is an assistant professor of urban sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her work focuses on the social and political impacts of scientific and technical knowledge. In 2014, Dr. Bier received her PhD in science and technology studies from Maastricht University, and her dissertation was awarded the 2016 Maastricht University dissertation prize. She is the author of the book Mapping Israel, Mapping Palestine: How Occupied Landscapes Shape Scientific Knowledge, published in 2017 by MIT Press. From 2013 until 2016, Dr. Bier was a postdoctoral researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam in an ERC-Funded research project headed by professor Willem Schinkel. In 2018, she was the recipient of an EUR Fellowship. 

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