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Hannah Schilling


Center for Metropolitan Studies
TU Berlin
Hardenbergstraße 16-18
10623 Berlin




Débrouillards” of the digital era. Comparing practices of securing livelihood of young urbanites in Abidjan and Berlin

A life without mobile phone is almost unimaginable in contemporary cities: In Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, young unemployed students start selling air-time with their mobile phones, sitting at every street corner, in Berlin, a similar group of urbanites relies upon their smartphone to deliver food coordinated by an Internet platform. Mobile phones represent modernity and progress and are very concrete elements of what we call the era of information and digitalization.

This project wants to contribute to a better understanding of the way technological change produce practices and socio-material configurations of securing livelihood, depending on institutions with different histories. Hence, it brings into dialogue the experiences of Abidjanese phone box workers and Berlin based food delivery bikers, as exemplary cases of urban contexts with contrasting legal orders and different positions in the global economy.

The analysis draws on in-depth interviews and participant observations with young male adults in their twenties in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire and in Berlin, Germany. I am interested in the perspective of those who make digital infrastructures run on the ground. I call them "débrouillards” of the digital era, to refer to urban residents who seek to make a living in configurations characterized by their temporariness, insecurity and low remuneration. The Ivoirian-French term “débrouillards” designates those who are “hustling” to make a living. 

Adopting a praxeological approach, I understand security not as a state of being that is achievable or not, but I suggest to looking at what I call “practices of securing livelihood”: practices that serve economic integration, which includes work, labor- and support relations. As result of my empirical analysis, I suggest to look at the ways actors make agreements that produce legitimacy, how they build trust and they negotiate value, as analytical strategies that allow for the development of conceptual lenses across the two cases.

On this basis, I critically engage with sociological literature that understands socio-economic security in modernistic terms as the product of stable state institutions and individual agency, and instead focus on areas of social life in which hybridity and contingency become structuring principles of relations of securing. At the same time, ideas about stability, purity of institutions and legal orders are relevant references shaping the interaction and spaces to manoeuver as “débrouillards”. This said, an analysis of current practices of securing livelihoods shows for example the influence of ideals of wage work, which circulate as parts of projects of modernity between colonial centers and its peripheries.

In the end, the analysis of the practices of securing livelihood of so-called “débrouillards” of the digital era will contribute to a critical working with concepts related to security, labor and livelihood in the times of digitalization, and promote a global sociology that is reflective upon its historicity and standpoint.



since 05/2015
DFG associate Fellow at the International Graduate Research Program Berlin - New York - Toronto, Center for Metropolitan Studies, Technical University of Berlin.


Master of Social Sciences, Humboldt University Berlin, Germany: Social Inequalities, Immigration and Integration, Urban Studies; Thesis: Not only for Faith – Religious Organizations and the Fabric of Social Ties


Research Stay at the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Centre Maurice Halbwachs, Paris, Tutor:  Prof. Serge Paugam


Master of Sociology and Anthropology, University Paris-VII-Diderot, France; Studies of Migration and Interethnic Relations, Gender and Religion; Research project: Le débat autour du port du voile intégral 2010-2011 - une analyse comparative du discours médiatique en France et Allemagne


Exchange semester at the University Complutense Madrid, Spain: Studies in International Relations; International Organizations; Global Inequalities


Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences, Philipps-University Marburg, Germany: Peace and Conflict Studies; Sociology; Psychology; Thesis: Nationale Identität und Migration. Eine Analyse der Stellungnahmen der französischen Regierung



10/2016 – 03/2017

Lecturer at the Institute for Social Science, Humboldt University of Berlin: Classes in “Sociological Theory”

04/2015 – 09/2015

Lecturer at the Institute for Social Science, Humboldt University of Berlin: Class in “Social Structure Analysis, City, Diversity”


Research Associate in the project “Urbanizing Faith”, Humboldt University & University of South Australia, directed by Prof. AbdouMaliq Simone and Prof.Talja Blokland


Research Assistant at the Chair of Urban and Regional Sociology, Humboldt University


Research Assistant at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin in the Emmy-Noether-Research-Group “Immigration Policies in Comparison (OECD Countries)”, directed by Dr. Marc Helbling


Internship at the regional office of the foundation “Heinrich-Böll“, Frankfurt


Teaching Assistant of Prof. Matthias Bös at the Center for Conflict Studies, University of Marburg




Les débrouillards de l'ère digital. Regards croisés sur les gérants de cabine Abidjanais et les livreurs de répas à vélo Berlinois, Présentation aux journées d’études « Travail globalisé. Approches historiques et contemporaines » du CESSMA, Université Paris-7-Diderot, 9 - 10 November 2017, Paris.


Ambivalente Abhängigkeiten. Eine Analyse von Praktiken sozialer Sicherung in informalisierten Erwerbskontexten. Lecture at the Colloquium of the Institute of Social Anthropology on “Care/Work”, Free University, Berlin.


Working with Concepts – Conceptualising Work.

Presentation at the 8th Annual Seminar of the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology 30 June - 2 July 2016, Bielefeld University, Germany.


Please Stay on The Line: Abidjan’s Phone Boots’ Youth.

Intervention at and organization of the workshop “From youth’s work practices in Abidjan
to conceptual lenses on work beyond wage”, Center for Metropolitan Studies, Technical University of Berlin.


Practices within Precarity. Youth, Informality, and Life Making in the Contemporary City. With A. Simone, Paper presented at the RC21 Conference in Urban Studies, 27 - 29 August 2015, Urbino (Italy).


La pratique religieuse comme ressource. Mobilisation du lien électif dans deux églises pentecôtistes africaines à Paris et Berlin

Lecture, Master course ‘Régimes d’attachements’, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris.


Die Kirche als Infrastruktur der Ermöglichung

with Stephan Simon. Annual Meeting of the Section Urban and Area Studies of the German Sociological Association, Humboldt University of Berlin.



“Jouer ensemble, sans se mélanger: Sociabilités des jeunes autour des jeux de hasard dans un quartier populaire de Yopougon”, Dossier special sur la Cote d’Ivoire (M. Miran-Guyon et K. Yakouba, eds.), Afrique Contemporaine (under review), forthcoming.

“Le marketing relationnel du bon chômeur : La cabine téléphonique comme ressource des jeunes pour gagner en « entregent » et reconnaissance sociale”, Actes du Colloque, Collections Harmattan Cote d’Ivoire (under review), forthcoming.

“The Mobile Generation. Young people struggle to make a living in the digital economies – two stories from Abidjan and Berlin” Digital Development Debates #20, 2017.

with Laruffa, F.. “Work and Inequality Revisited: A Global Socio-Historical Perspective and its Political Implications”, Sociologia del Lavoro (144), p. 85-100, 2016.

with Blokland, T./Giustozzi, C./Krüger, D. (eds.): Creating the Unequal City – The exclusionary consequences of everyday routines in Berlin, Ashgate: Aldershot, 2016.

“Holding on to faith: religion as resource to create capabilities in the face of institutional discrimination”, in: Blokland et al. (eds.) Creating the Unequal City – The exclusionary consequences of everyday routines in Berlin, Ashgate: Aldershot, 2016.



since 05/2015

Doctorate DFG-Fellow (German Research Foundation) at the International Graduate Research Program, Center for Metropolitan Studies

since 02/2015

PhD Fellow of the German National Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes)


Georg-Simmel Prize 2013: Best Master-thesis in Urban and Area Studies at Universities of Berlin, Georg-Simmel Centre for Metropolitan Studies, Berlin.


Fellow at the European-Leadership-Program “Studienkolleg zu Berlin“; German National Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes) & the Hertie-Stiftung Berlin


ERASMUS Scholarship for the Semester Abroad at the Universidad Complutense, Madrid


Fellow of the German National Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes)



since 10/2012

Member of the NYLON Young Scholars Research Network (London School of Economics, London/ Goldsmiths College, London/ New York University, New York/ Georg Simmel Centre for Metropolitan Studies, Berlin)

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