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Presence of the Departed? Meaning of Work and the Reflexive Life Journey of Postcolonial Sri Lankan Agents through the World

Titled as above, my doctoral study is inspired by three observations – the complex nature of the existing understandings of the meaning of work (MoW) and the absence of a well-articulated theory in relation to this concept; the complex nature of social configurations found in postcolonial societies, and the under-representation of critical realist studies relating to such societies. This study, therefore, aims to explore what work means for individuals within a postcolonial society from a critical sociological perspective. To achieve this purpose, an integrated framework is developed to study MoW, drawing on several theoretical and methodological positions and on-going debates within the critical realist tradition and MoW literature.


Firmly rooted in the critical realist philosophical strand, this new approach to MoW acknowledges the relationship between individual and society, and incorporates the ongoing debates concerning agency, structure, reflexivity and ingrained social and cultural practices which reflect an individual’s social practices or habitus.


The fieldwork was conducted in Sri Lanka, and gathered life and work histories of 75 participants. The main findings of the research can be summarised as follows; the research context is consisted of a dual social system – a more traditional (morphostatic) social system characterised by caste, agriculture and religion and a colonisation based modern (morphogenetic) social system typified by social class, participants are identified as representing the already established four dominant reflexive modes – communicative, autonomous, meta- and fractured, and the MoW corresponds to the modes of reflexivity practised by each individual and is also shaped by their habitus.


The main conclusion of the study is that MoW is predominantly an agential process and ‘work’ becomes the central lifelong endeavour for all individuals but for achieving different ends based on their particular reflexive mode. Four wider implications of the research can be recognised. Firstly, the present work contributes to the development of Archer's model of agential reflexivity and establishes that the realist theory of reflexivity as a viable approach to study of complex social phenomena. Secondly, this study empirically contributes to the on-going critical realist debate ‘can reflexivity and habitus work in tandem’. Thirdly, by addressing the absence of an established approach, this work contributes to broaden the understanding of MoW and offers an integrated framework which is adaptable to suit different situations. Finally, the present study provides useful insights into under-researched postcolonial contexts widening our understanding on such societies.

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