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‘Unique intellectual’ Hunter Akridge named Beinecke Scholar
Emory University senior Hunter Ackridge

Hunter Akridge, a junior in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, is one of only 16 Beinecke Scholars selected nationwide this year. The award will help defray the cost of pursuing his PhD.

— Emory Photo Video

Hunter Akridge arrived at Emory College of Arts and Sciences armed with a personal understanding of workplace inequality and a relentless curiosity about economic injustice.

He filled the next two years with directed study and coursework in his double major of anthropology and economics, even conducting research in Germany despite the pandemic, to sharpen his focus on the impact of new technology on workers.

Now, as one of only 16 Beinecke Scholars selected nationwide this year, Akridge is motivated to tackle issues of employee autonomy through graduate study and research.

The esteemed national award comes with $34,000 to help defray the cost of pursuing his PhD: $4,000 to use prior to entering and the rest while attending the graduate school of his choice.

“This feels like the culmination of my personal and academic experiences before and after coming to Emory,” Akridge says. “Being a Beinecke Scholar gives me more breathing room to think more authentically about how I can take that to shape these next few years, researching how increased power, autonomy and knowledge to workers can benefit both them and business.”

Combinining curiosity with conscientiousness

Akridge’s high school job in a Texas grocery store and years watching his mother support the family exposed him to struggles low-wage workers face with unpredictable schedules, limited benefits and unsteady hours.

The financial stability that came with his selection as a QuestBridge Scholar gave him the freedom to explore different scholarly frameworks for practical perspectives and possible solutions to those challenges.

His first year, at a time when most students were studying remotely, he sought out social science classes and independent study projects grounded in substantive ethnographic research and writing.

Akridge raised thoughtful connections between the working poor in the United States to theories and initiatives covered in Sam Cherribi’s upper-level course on economic development in Africa and the Middle East.

A senior lecturer in the departments of Middle Eastern studies and economics, Cherribi encourages students to examine development through the lenses of sociology, anthropology and economics — all fields that Akridge immersed himself in, both in class and on his own time.

“He was like a hummingbird, coming in with thoughtful questions and then flying backward to think about it,” says Cherribi, who has since worked with Akridge on two directed studies in economics. “That ability to listen and be very critical, even willing to rethink his own ideas, makes him a unique intellectual.”

Michael Peletz, the Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of anthropology, found those same qualities when Akridge took his 300-level course examining the social, cultural and political dimensions of law and justice. Peletz says he cautioned Akridge that the coursework might be too much for a first-year student, only to find him taking on even more than the course required.

“In addition to being brilliant, Hunter has an insatiable curiosity and would pursue additional readings to develop a more thorough understanding of every question he raises,” says Peletz, who later admitted Akridge into a graduate-level seminar. “He is so motivated to learn and so kind and conscientious, it’s just a joy to talk to and get to know him.”

Akridge’s outside readings included papers and books by cultural anthropologist Carla Freeman, the Goodrich C. White professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies whose research focuses on the globalization of labor and the meanings of work in people’s everyday lives.

As the executive associate dean of Emory College, Freeman has not been teaching formal classes. Akridge sought her out to discuss her work and his own goals of conducting an ethnography of work.  

That meeting launched two years of research under Freeman’s guidance, starting with literature reviews and developing virtual ethnographic methodologies to examine Emory College faculty’s work-life balance during the pandemic.

“I have come to see Hunter as a genuine colleague,” Freeman says. “His boundless curiosity, exemplary analytical and communication skills, and generosity of spirit as a student, scholar and citizen are qualities that will serve him well in any career path.”

Creating opportunities for research

Akridge’s research with Freeman shaped his interest in labor studies and the role of technology. Specifically, he is interested in social shaping — how the layers of privilege such as gender or migration affect workers.

After the pandemic canceled his planned study abroad, he moved to Germany on his own last fall to continue his research. Freeman, who was in Germany on a research fellowship, was able to meet with Akridge regularly as he conducted his research and attended classes online.

“The experience of the pandemic has made it more clear that the American labor movement is in transition, so it feels very topical and relevant to me to ask these questions now,” Akridge says.

Back on campus this spring, Akridge has served as co-editor of the Anthropos undergraduate journal and was invited to join the Lambda Alpha and Omicron Delta Epsilon honor societies for anthropology and economics, respectively.

He also is continuing with timely research. As an intern with The Workers Lab nonprofit, Akridge has been synthesizing the social science literature around app-based work and conducting interviews with gig workers to learn from their experiences. 

This summer, Akridge will be part of a project at Carnegie-Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, focused on the design of hospitality work and technologies.

The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, will include qualitative research with housekeepers to see how they experience — and resist — the app-based management practices that limit their autonomy in completing their jobs.

Akridge expects to turn that research into an honors thesis next year, to critically examine algorithmic management. He then plans to pursue a doctoral degree to conduct further ethnographic research on sociotechnical systems to advance more equitable workplace technologies and conditions.

“A lot of discussions about the future of work center on glamorous remote work, like digital nomadism, or the fear of full automation for blue-collar work, like long-haul trucking, and pending mass technological unemployment,” Akridge says. “But the reality is, the way AI and automation are affecting low-wage work now are often invisible, insidious and undemocratic. They don’t get the attention that could help ensure dignity for all.”

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