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  6. Precarious lives in motion. Ambulant selling on Buenos Aires trains

Precarious lives in motion. Ambulant selling on Buenos Aires trains

Principal Investigator: Prof. Rosina Márquez Reiter (The Open University)

Researchers: Dr. Marina Cantarutti, Dr. Elizabeth Manrique Cordeje (The Open University)

In collaboration with: Dr. María Inés Fernández, CITRA, Buenos Aires. Research assistant in Buenos Aires: Camila Stefanetti (CITRA)

Focus country: Argentina  

Dates: 2021-2023

The pilot study explores the livelihood strategies of a group of a group of workers that contribute to the informal economy: ambulant vendors (AVs) on Buenos Aires mainline trainline. It offers on the-ground knowledge of AVs’ working lives to understand the diversity of approaches they use in their sales rounds on trains to secure a living.  In particular, the study investigates the persuasive strategies of AVs in their natural contexts in order to outline their multimodal (lexico-grammatical, prosodic, gestural, kinesic) characteristics and how these relate to the structural and material conditions they inhabit in their daily work (e.g., limited choice over products to sell, management of merchandise on the move, sharing of space with passengers and other AVs/beggars/buskers, inattention by passengers). 

By drawing on different types of information -namely 20 days of video recordings of sales activity and 4 days of group WhatsApp messages-, the study aims to contextualise, understand and analyse as fully as possible the interactions that are carried out during the AVs’ work rounds, as well as to observe the individual and collective activity of ambulant sales, and capture the problems and risks that AVs encounter in their daily work activities and their relationship with the linguistic practices they engage in. The results are meant to inform our understanding of ways in which AVs could have their work deficits alleviated, such as providing free access to trains, station toilets, lockers and better-quality products for their sales. 

Some preliminary results

In spite of their limited choice over the products to be sold and their quality, and within the spatial and material constraints of working on a train in motion, AVs display professionalism and construct their legitimacy as workers by:

  • accounting for their unsolicited presence on the train by offering exceptional and timely offers that come to the passengers’ own seats;

  • displaying technical knowledge of the products sold and offering passengers possibilities of immediate quality control;

  • producing a well-crafted sales pitch that introduces the offer and creates forms of product placement by targeting the passenger collective in adaptive ways; 

  • displaying mastery and resourcefulness in the coordination of different multimodal resources in their sales pitch to enhance their visibility and hearability in the train coach and demonstrate the functioning of the products to gain attention and trust;

  • offering a respectful and orderly use of space without imposing of passengers’ own trajectories or the workspace of colleagues.