Her journey to a professorship began with an evening course in sociology

Marita Flisbäck will be installed as professor at the Academic Ceremony 22 April.

Inaugural professorial lecture (to be held in Swedish): Vad är det för mening med att gå i pension? Existenssociologiska perspektiv på tillvarons brytpunkter
(Title in English: What's the point of retiring? Existential sociological perspectives on life’s turning points)
Date and time: 11 April at 09:00–11:30
Location: C203, University of Borås

(The inaugural professorial lecture will open to the public).

 Read more about the Academic Ceremony

We meet for an interview remotely and she talks about her path towards becoming a professor as well as her research. We have a conversation about something very relevant to everyone’s lives – finding existential meaning in professional life and how an equal work life can be achieved.

“I've been involved in various empirical fields, but overall my research has been about power and social sustainability in work life and how to combine family life and professional careers,” she began.

But how did she come to be a researcher in sociology in the first place? Her original plan was to work in the cultural sphere and she attended artistic educational programmes in image and form, but also in animated film and screenwriting. But there was time for other things, as well. She signed up for an evening class in sociology and got hooked.

“Here was a topic that addressed issues of social class, gender, and ethnicity, and which offered tools for analysing issues of power. I was, after all, in a world that is often highlighted as being so free and where everything is possible, but where you found it difficult to see how social structures and power relations worked in your own everyday life. Paradoxically, precisely that ‘freedom’ can allow hidden power structures to reign. I became curious, put simply, about illuminating the artistic world using the sociological perspective,” she explained.

The goal at first was only to write a few papers about this, but her work was received with a great deal of interest and she was encouraged to apply to a doctoral programme in 2001. She earned her doctorate in 2006 with a doctoral thesis on educational and professional paths into artistic fields and the importance of power, such as class and gender.

“The more time I spent in the research community, the more exciting I found teaching and research.  The plan was to go back to the artistic trajectory, but I discovered that even within writing and educational activities, there was great scope for language and expression, which suited me nicely.”

Research on views of occupational status

After receiving her doctorate, her research revolved around low-status occupations, and then mainly on the importance of professional life to people's well-being and recognition in work life, something practitioners in “low-status” occupations often lack; the questions revolved around how they dealt with this.

“Occupational status is very interesting because when you ask people to rank the status of different professions, those lists look pretty much the same today as in the 50s. The professions that end up at the bottom of the rankings are not at all well-researched; this is something we want to remedy with a study that we started in 2006. The question, then, was what it means for these professional groups in their everyday lives when in professional life they do not receive recognition for their professional practice, as well as how they see this in practice,” Marita Flisbäck continued.

She takes garbage collectors as an example. It was very evident that they noted their status, partly in professional everyday life, where people held their noses as they walked by, or when children said “I want to be a garbage collector when I grow up,” that parents responded “No, you don't want that.”

“It's also noticed in private contexts; for example, if you're at a party and you're asked ‘What do you do?’ and the reaction to your answer is ‘Oh!’, after which the conversation quickly comes to an end. It is such concrete experiences that need to be studied: how recognition is communicated and to understand the importance that these experiences have for well-being in professional life and how it further affects the identity and manner of the whole person,” she continued.

In her research, Marita Flisbäck looked into how to build up a sense of intrinsic value if it is not present in professional everyday life, such as what collective and individual resistance strategies develop, e.g. claiming that one's profession — regardless of status — is vital to society, and without one’s own efforts, everything would come to a stop. In doing so, the research question of the existential meaning of the work became more and more central.

Why is research around existential meaning important?

“It is important because the existential sense of people's incentives to continue working has almost not been emphasised at all; it is not only underemphasised, but it is absent from this debate. My and my research colleagues' empirical studies around this believe that this is very important,” she said.

“The existential meaning of work is not so much about pay, about the instrumental importance of the profession. It's about it there being a value in what you leave behind, that you want to have an impact in a larger context,” she explained.

Politicians and welfare researchers say we need to work until we are older in order for our welfare system to function. In these discussions, you talk about health, class, and financial incentives. In our research, we want to highlight additional issues and bring in more aspects politically.

When she considers what parts of her research have gained the most importance, she identifies a project about the retirement process.

“From what we have written, this has had the greatest importance in societal debate. Politicians and welfare researchers in Sweden say we need to work until we are older in order for our welfare system to function. In these discussions, you talk about health, class, and financial incentives. In our research, we want to highlight additional issues and bring in more aspects politically,” she explained.

“In the age around retirement, before and after, you find that time is limited and thus precious and important. While money is important, there is the significant issue of social inequality; above all, it is important that the job should have an existential meaning, that you can have an impact and experience that your work effort is significant in a larger context. If we don't address that aspect, we miss something important,” she noted.

Marita Flisbäck believes that if you really want to develop strategies to get people working longer, then it is a matter of being able to offer more work tasks that people find meaningful, such as skills transfer or some kind of mentoring. She gives as an example a study with doctors who continued to work after retirement. It turns out they had specific knowledge they wanted to pass along. It wasn't about a technical skill, like how best to operate; the younger ones were quite good at it, but what the older doctors wanted to hand over was a form of existential professional life knowledge, which they carried with them both as a consequence of rich life experiences and long professional experience.

“There is always an uncertainty in a profession and knowledge can change. Can one take advantage of the unique skills that those who are older may have when it comes to dealing with similar insecurity? That would be a gold mine!”

What do you and your fellow research colleagues have going on right now?

“Among other things, we have recently started a project funded by Forte on the importance of parental insurance to create an equal everyday life in terms of class. You could say that gender equality insurance is the most important tool of Swedish gender equality policy in order to influence family life in an equal direction. There are previous studies on how people working in middle-class occupations use insurance, but we know very little about how people in working-class occupations perceive Swedish equality policies and what is considered to be a fair and equal family life. There is a big gap here,” she said.

What goals do you have as a professor?

“The role includes working to increase the proportion of external research funds and thus writing research applications, but also working with external engagement. I have had the amazing opportunity to be the Director of the Centre for Welfare Studies, where we work on projects that are university-wide and interdisciplinary, where research is done in collaboration and therefore has a larger audience than other research activities. As a professor, I think it's important both to work and have influence in the local context in which one lives. And here I think the university is very good in terms of external engagement. It is something I would like to develop even more. Not least on social sustainability issues of equality.”

Marita Flisbäck

Professor of sociology, at the University of Borås since 2021. Has also been the Director of the Centre for Welfare Studies since 2019.
Lives in: Borås
In her spare time: Spends time with family, jogs, watches football (supports Elfsborg), reads, enjoys music and art.
What makes her happy: Health, when you feel strong and healthy.
What makes her angry: Exploitation of other humans, nature, and natural resources.
That's how I want my colleagues to experience me: Creative and a good listener, and hopefully wise.

Researcher's profile 
Learn more about the Centre for Welfare Studies