The School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

Staff Profile

Professor Al James

Professor of Economic Geography, Director of Research Geography

Background

Al James. BA Geography (Cambridge), PhD Economic Geography (Cambridge), FRSA, FRGS

My research and teaching in economic geography engages with international debates around: labour, gendered work-lives, social reproduction, digital work futures, inclusive economies, and cultural economy.  

My work is concerned to: see the making of capitalism through the eyes of workers rather than simply firms and capital (labour geography); expose the masculinist limits of ‘universal’ economic theory through new engagements with women and gendered social reproduction (feminist economic geography); develop new understandings of work futures through innovative research in the global South that challenges an anaemic Western parochialism in economic theory (cosmopolitan economic geography); and engage with organisations seeking to improve the work-lives of workers and their families (economic geography outreach). 

So far, my research has involved fieldwork in the UK, USA, Ireland and India, and collaborations with like-minded colleagues in Labour Studies, Gender Studies, Sociology and Business / Management.  This work has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Arts and Humanities Research Council, British Academy, Nuffield Foundation, Centre for the Study of Migration, RGS-IBG, Cambridge Humanities Research Scheme, and Newcastle University Research Excellence Academy. 

I am a fellow of the RSA, and have previously held positions as Economic Geography Editor for Geography Compass, a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow, and convenor of the Economic Geographies Research Group at Newcastle Geography. Before moving to Newcastle I worked at two other international hotspots in economic geography: Queen Mary University of London and Cambridge University.  

My writing is free to download from the geoworklives research website, also ResearchGate, GoogleScholar, andSlideshare pages, please do take a look.  And if you a looking to pursue a PhD or a Postdoc and can see a good fit with my research interests then please get in touch.  You can see a list of my current and former PhD students here and some potential PhD topics here. 

Recent publications:

Research

Research Focus in a Nutshell

labour | women and work | social reproduction | gig work | platform economy | work-life balance | India's Service Economy | learning and innovation | cultural economy


Research Programme

WOMEN IN THE GIG ECONOMY: this work examines new online work possibilities in the ‘platform economy’, in which production is unbundled from formal employment, with online algorithms used to manage and motivate work carried out by ‘digital labour’ beyond typical workplaces.  With a global nexus of rapidly growing platforms providing gig work to millions of users, commentators have hailed a ‘fourth industrial revolution’.  My work challenges celebratory claims surrounding online work platforms as a means for overcoming longstanding patterns of female economic disadvantage. My work makes visible the gendered constraints that women face to make a living through online gig work; major issues of female health and safety in the gig economy; and the shape of alternative, more humane platform models.  Through engagement with women in the UK across multiple platforms (including Peopleperhour, Freelancer, Upwork, TaskRabbit, Fiverr), this work has developed new collaborations with female freelancers, artists and activists, to produce a portfolio of over 100 powerful photographic and line drawn images, visualising major themes identified in 52 research interviews (e.g. breastfeeding at work, abusive male clients, income precarity, wage theft, pregnancy abuse). The next phase of this work revisits this female cohort to identify change over time (coping strategies, shifts in household situation, online career trajectories) and extend the analysis to other welfare regimes.  

WORK IN INDIA'S NEW SERVICES ECONOMY: at the forefront of high profile debates around ‘jobless growth’, youth unemployment, and jobs-led development in the global South, the rapid growth of India’s new services economy has been celebrated as: providing new opportunities for ‘decent work’ and urban livelihoods; a vital means to absorb India’s growing cohort of educated unemployed; and spearheading India’s transition to a global economic power.  However, there remains major debate around the degree to which India’s ‘modern services’ offer socially inclusive employment opportunities for skilled workers from lower castes, ethnic and religious minorities.  Over the last decade, my collaborative research (with Vira (Cambridge), Williams (QMUL), McConnell (Oxford) and Kumar (IIMC)) has engaged with over 2500 service workers across multiple service sectors (including IT/BPM, hospitality, retail, media, aviation, insurance, finance), also exploring the developmental role of a nexus of ‘labour market intermediaries’ (recruiters, voice accent trainers, placement agencies) in upgrading workers’ skills and brokering upward mobility amongst graduates from historically marginalised religious minorities and lower castes.  The second phase of this research explores new employment and livelihood opportunities for Indian youth through digital work platforms. 


WORK-LIFE ADVANTAGE:  The societal and moral significance of successfully integrating paid work with other meaningful parts of life is profound. Yet many employers remain sceptical, perpetuating hardship for many workers.  In response, this work demonstrates how employer-provision of family-friendly working arrangements, can simultaneously enhance firms’ capacities for learning and innovation, in pursuit of long-term competitive advantage. This work was been developed over a decade through engagement with female technology professional organisations (Girl Geeks, womenintechnology, WISE, WITS), policy-makers, labour organisations, and employers (Ireland’s Equality Authority, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, SIPTU, National Centre for Partnership & Performance, Irish WLB Network), who facilitated access to over 300 women, and 150 IT employers (employing 8000 workers) in the UK and Ireland. This work exposes and disrupts a series of widely-held yet highly problematic assumptions within the regional learning and innovation literature rooted in the masculinist myth of the disembodied ‘ideal worker’, for whom work is primary, time available to work unlimited, and the demands of family and personal life insignificant.  It also contributes to an holistic regional development agenda, concerned to expand the narrow analytical focus of regional analysis beyond economistic indicators of competitiveness, growth and productivity, also to include gender equity, quality of life, and family well-being.  

REIMAGINING ECONOMIES: In the wake of the Great Recession and subsequent geographies of austerity, The Re-imagining Economies Project brings together socioeconomic geographers at Newcastle in new conversations (Jane Pollard, Andy Pike, Alex Hughes, Danny Mackinnon, Kean Fan Lim, Helen Jarvis, Rachel Franklin, Harry Pettit).  We are exploring new theoretical, methodological, policy and practical possibilities for doing economy differently, and for challenging the socioeconomic hardship of marginalised groups. Building on inclusive conversations with like minded academics, third sector organisations, policy makers and community groups, we explore these geographical possibilities in four key domains: inclusive money and finance, inclusive governance, inclusive work and employment, inclusive resource networks.  Our project responds to growing international calls for economic geographers to develop more critical analyses of how and where economies function, for whom, and to what ends.  We aim to integrate diverse insights from a range of actors to advance an innovative, collaborative research agenda towards re-imagining more socially inclusive economic futures.


Recent presentations

Funded Projects

  • Digital Work-Lives and Gender Inclusive Growth in the 'Sharing Economy' (2017-18). British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship. 
  • Re-Imagining Economies: Towards More Socially Inclusive Economic Geographies (2017-20). With Stuart Dawley, Alex Hughes, Helen Jarvis, Danny MacKinnon, Andy Pike, Jane Pollard, Gareth Powells. Newcastle University Research Excellence Academy. 
  • In the Business of Economic Geography: Tracking the Movement of Economic Geographers into Business and Management (2015-16).  With Mike Bradshaw (Warwick), Catherine Souch (RGS-IBG), Neil Coe (NUS), James Faulconbridge (Lancaster). See: www.egrg.rgs.org/business-of-econ-geog
  • Investigating Socially Inclusive Growth in India’s New Service Economy (2013).  With Bhaskar Vira (Cambridge), Philippa Williams (QMUL), and Fiona McConnell (Oxford). Cambridge Humanities Research Grants Scheme. 
  • Islamic Charitable Giving in London’s East End (2010-2013).  Kavita Datta (QMUL), Al James (QMUL), and Jane Pollard (Newcastle). Centre for Migration Studies (QMUL) and Newcastle University. 
  • Promoting Equality and Diversity in Economic Crisis (PEDEC) (2010-12).  With Kate Malleson (QMUL Law), Lizzie Barmes (QMUL Law), Geraldine Healy and Hazel Conley (QMUL Business Management).   
  • Impacts of Work-Life (Im)Balance on Innovation & Learning in Regional Economies (2006-9).  ESRC, RES-000-22-1574-A.  Project evaluated as ‘Outstanding’.  Project affiliated to ESRC Gender Equality Network (GeNet). 
  • Worker Mobility and Labour Market Intermediaries in the Call Centre Industry: An International Comparison (India and the UK) (2006-9).  With Bhaskar Vira (Cambridge), Nuffield Foundation (SGS 32348).  
  • Regional Culture, Corporate Strategy, and High Tech Innovation: Salt Lake City (1999-2002).  ESRC, doctoral research funding, Cambridge University (R-00-429-934-224).

Research Recognition

Teaching

Undergraduate:

Geographies of Working Lives (GEO3416)

  • This module explores the economic-development geographies of people's everyday struggles to make a living in the contemporary global economy.  Drawing on research within and across the global North and global South, this module engages with an exciting 'labour geographies' research agenda, concerned with how workers are capable of fashioning the geography of capitalism to suit their own needs and self-production; and to identify geographical possibilities and labour market strategies through which ‘workers may challenge, outmaneuver and perhaps even beat capital’ in different locations.  The module seeks to expose the spatial limits of mainstream 'universal' theories in geography which presume that 'the economy' and 'labour' can be theorised solely from the perspective of the formal spaces of advanced capitalist economies in the global North.

Also: Economic Geography (GEO2099), Local and Regional Development (GEO3114)

PostDoctoral 'Supervision'

  • Dr Harry Pettit (2019-20) - 1 yr postdoc, Reimagining Economies Project, Newcastle Research Excellence Academy (inclusive gig economy focus)
  • Dr Erica Pani (2017-18) - 1 yr postdoc, Reimagining Economies Project (inclusive finance focus), Newcastle Research Excellence Academy - moved to Assistant Professorship in Geography at the LSE.


Doctoral Supervision:

  • Marisol Keller (with Karin Schwiter and Christian Berndt, Zurich). 'How digital labour platforms reshape spatio-temporal patterns of work' (2019-2022). HSS studentship, University of Zurich.
  • Aditya Ray (with Philippa Williams, QMUL). ‘Work in India's New Service Economy: Employee experiences in the domestic voicebased consumerinteraction industry in Pune’ (2014–17). QMUL Doctoral Studentship Award.
  • Vincent Guermond (with Kavita Datta, QMUL). 'The financialisation of remittances: an example from the London to Ghana remittance corridor' (2014–2020, part-time). QMUL Doctoral Studentship Award.
  • Robert Stephenson (with Alastair Owens, QMUL; Laura Bedford and Eleanor John, Geffrye Museum). ‘Men juggling work, home and family in (post)recession London’ (2012-17, part-time). AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award.  Part of larger programme of research ‘Home-Work’ (4 CDAs 2012-15), co-ordinated by Alison Blunt. 
  • Josh Phillips (with Kavita Datta, QMUL). ‘Exploring the geographies of credit amongst entrepreneurial new migrant groups in London’ (2010-14). QMUL Doctoral Studentship Award. Completed.
  • Camille Aznar (with Kavita Datta QMUL). ‘Risk, financial exclusion and migrant workers in London’ (2009-2012). ESRC CASE studentship with the Runnymede Trust. Completed.
  • Supriti Bezbaruah (with Cathy McIlwaine, QMUL). ‘The evolving relationship of work, women and the State in India: the experience of the banking sector’ (2007-2011). Self-funded. Completed. Thesis subsequently written up as research monograph: Bezbaruah S. (2015) Banking on Equality: Women, Work and Employment in the Banking Sector in India. London: Routledge. 
  • Laurent Frideres (with Ron Martin, Cambridge University). ‘The spatial and temporal dynamics of industrial specialization & clustering in the regional economy’ (2004-2010).  Funded by The Luxembourg Ministry for Education. Completed. Awarded prize 2011 RGS-IBG PhD Prize (Economic Geography Research Group).  

 

Publications