ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


The uncertain bodily relations of contemporary economic practice

Location Appleton Tower, Lecture Theatre 2
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 09:00


Marit Melhuus (University of Oslo) email
Penny Harvey (University of Manchester) email
Christian Krohn-Hansen (University of Oslo) email
Mail All Convenors


Placing the bodily uncertainties of labour as the nexus of economic practices, this panel attends ethnographically to the concept of precariousness. It traces how the value of labour emerges in uncertain spaces of possibility that typify many current work-places.

Long Abstract

This panel explores the ways in which an ethnographic focus on labour practices can further our understandings of how economic and social forces are registered and engaged in working bodies. Working through the relational dynamics of labour, health and moral sensibility that characterised the economic theories of the Scottish Enlightenment, we set out to explore the affective dimensions of the contemporary 'work-place'. We are particularly interested in attending ethnographically to the concept of precariousness by tracing how the value of labour emerges in the uncertain spaces of possibility that typify so many of these work-places. A focus on labour allows us to transcend the classical divisions between work/leisure; paid/unpaid; formal/informal; salaried/free/voluntary while still attending to how precarity inflects understandings and experiences of both personal and collective health. What de-stabilisations and accommodations are involved in securing a living under these conditions? How and when are relations of solidarity, friendship, and moral community enacted in work-places? The panel invites contributions from those interested in thinking about the ways in which informality and precarity are folded into the structures of the formal economy. We are interested in questions pertaining to scale and diversity, to regulation and deregulation, to material conditions and technological change, in short, to practices and process that illuminate the diverse ways in which labour is being reconfigured. By placing the bodily uncertainties of labour as the nexus of current economic practices, this panel hopes to explore how current understandings of a rising precariousness emerge in the spaces of everyday life.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Desire and the life of labour in central Australia

Author: Diana Young (University of Queensland)  email


A paper about the different kinds of labour carried out by Indigenous artists living on what was once a Presbyterian Mission founded by a Scottish doctor in central Australia. Here the continuous precariousness of working life and bodily health intersects with the imperative for Western things.

Long Abstract

An enlightened Mission founded under the auspices of a Scottish medical doctor and the Presbyterian Church in 1937, Ernabella in the far north of South Australia provided many novel opportunities for Aboriginal people to labour for a reward. Today their descendants are repeatedly positioned by the mainstream media in Australia as economically marginal at best, and at worst, as failed citizens of modernity.

The challenges for Aboriginal peoples in remote central Australia in enacting the habit of the Enlightenment idea of 'work' have been highlighted by Austin Broos and Peterson. Austin Broos distinguishes between 'working for' and working with' in cultures where reIatedness is paramount and things are seen as disposable in this service.

In Ernabella, working life, in the sense that the Scottish doctor might have wished to impart, has always been precarious, but historically less so than in many other settlements of the region. Here I investigate different kinds of labour; the most widely successful recent mode of earning money, namely the hand making of art and craft for the market, and its interconnected with the desire for Western industrial goods as material and visual things.

This paper will illuminate the ways Aboriginal people at Ernabella generate new social capital by transforming their bodies through both the labour of producing art works and of consuming goods, set against the constraints of income management and often, chronic ill health. The paper will also suggest how the particularity of different kinds of labour in contemporary central Australia might pre figure contemporary urban work worlds - rather than the other way around.

Re-learning to labour? From 'inactive' Gypsies to Eastern European labour migrants in Britain

Author: Jan Grill (University of Manchester)  email


Based on fieldwork among Roma in Slovakia and in Britain, this paper explores ethnographically the concept of labour against the transforming lines of economic precariousness, formal/informal distinctions, and unstable and temporary job positions in their homes and in migratory destinations.

Long Abstract

Based on fieldwork among Roma in Slovakia and in Britain, this paper explores ethnographically the concept of labour against the transforming lines of economic precariousness, formal/informal distinctions, and unstable and temporary job positions. It discusses changing forms of income generating strategies and re-drawing ambiguous and blurred lines between formality and informality among Slovak Roma. Being officially categorized as long-term unemployed, and even 'unemployable' in public discourses in Slovakia, most Roma combine various precarious economic strategies, and participate in state programmes for poor in Slovakia, and project their hopes for betterment to dreams associated with labour migration. In Britain, these migrants enter the low-paid and temporary jobs mediated by various job agencies and middlemen, such as packing in meat production. This paper interrogates ethnographically some normative assumptions underlying discourses surrounding policies targeting long-term unemployed in Slovakia, which evolve around their alleged 'activity' and 'inactivity'. More specifically, I will discuss how ideologies and policies of activation operate on various scales and in everyday practices of those who are implementing them and those who are targeted by these. It will then move to discuss how a movement from Slovakia to Britain re-draws Roma understanding of labour, and asks what kinds of implications do these 'heavy' jobs have for perceptions of health, body and well-being of Roma.

Creating (un-)certainties at the crossroads between regulation and improvisation

Author: Cecilie Vindal Ødegaard (University of Bergen)  email


Being concerned with collective action and leadership in the (in-)formalization of outdoor markets in Peru, this paper discusses the precariousness of labor among vendors. At the crossroads between regulation and improvisation, vending emerges as spaces of possibility as well as dispossession.

Long Abstract

Being concerned with collective action and leadership in the (in-)formalization of outdoor markets in Peru, this paper discusses the precariousness of labor among market vendors. It seeks to illustrate the ambiguities and uncertainties of labor in a context of neoliberal policy and discourse: a setting in which discourses of formality, legibility and juridical power are both fetishized and expanding. Central questions are: In what ways are (un-)certainties regarding market vending produced and reproduced? How do people deal with economic and legal uncertainties, for instance in cases when semi-legal actors employ 'modes of administration'? By exploring these and related questions, the paper outlines the different and intersecting terms and conditions for vending, such as questions of land title, infrastructure, documentation, and the trading of contraband goods. It discusses the arbitrary effects of official demands and procedures of documentation, and highlights how the negotiation of a market's legal status is socially embedded in ways that diffuse different modes of administration; that of the authorities and of organizational leaders. By exploring how labor is thus negotiated in-between parallel, partly overlapping modes of administration, the paper highlights the relational dynamics of market work. At the crossroads between regulation and improvisation, the value of labor appears as being constantly 'emergent', as labor becomes both the means and ends of vendor's investments, as well as of their opposition to official interference. In discussing these issues, the paper explores how market vending emerges as spaces of possibility as well as dispossession.

Bodily skills, affective relations and inequality in Mexican craft production

Author: Alanna Cant (University of Oslo)  email


This paper demonstrates the ambiguous position of Mexican artisans employed by relatives, through exploring the bodily skills and labour practices involved in their work. It argues that both attachment and alienation can emerge from seemingly favourable work conditions within familial household workshops.

Long Abstract

Even when embedded within capitalist economies, artisanal production is frequently understood by states, development institutions, and consumers as inherently more egalitarian and less alienating than industrial forms of production; crafts are often assumed to be communally beneficial products, rooted in place-based traditions or cultural identities. While earlier analyses have emphasized gender and class inequalities that emerge in contexts of craft production, in this paper I argue that artisanal labour may produce other kinds of inequalities that are particular to craft contexts. Based on ethnographic research in San Martín Tilcajete, a Mexican woodcarving village, I show that while skilled labour within small household-based workshops appears to foster achievement and economic well-being, in fact this socially embedded production creates ambiguous conditions for those artisans who work in the workshops of relatives.

Drawing on analyses of "affective labour," I argue that the intermingling of kinship and employment relations within San Martín's household-workshops locates the overall value of artisanal labour in the interconnections of different people's bodily skills, thus generating affective attachments amongst artisans and between artisans and their work. At the same time, however, these durable affective relations put pressure on employees to remain in their relative's employment rather than using their skills to establish their own workshops, and potentially finding greater work fulfillment and economic security. I demonstrate that "affective labour" not only can produce social relations, but also economic relations and physical objects, and also that relations of solidarity themselves might at times produce particular forms of inequality and alienation.

Working as a livery driver in New York: immigrants and the neoliberal city

Author: Christian Krohn-Hansen (University of Oslo)  email


This paper will discuss the work activities and the survival strategies of Dominican cab drivers in New York City.

Long Abstract

New York City has three categories of taxis: the familiar yellow taxis, "livery cabs", and "black cars". Black-car services are primarily used by corporate clients. Livery cabs offer most of the taxi services outside Manhattan's central and lower areas. A large proportion of the city's over 40,000 livery cabs are currently owned and driven by Dominicans. In Upper Manhattan and in the Bronx, Dominican immigrants completely dominate the industry. The basic entity in the industry is "la base" or "the base", the livery-car service operation that includes a certain number of drivers. The bases have been, and remain, precarious operations - a means of survival. Groups of men have pooled resources and cooperated to secure a livelihood. In my paper, I will discuss the activities of these Dominican labour migrants and their bases. Central questions will be: How do these Dominican cab drivers secure a living? What characterizes their daily rhythms? How do they think about, and represent, their work? What characterizes the organization of the bases? What is the bases' history? In sum, a main objective will be to explore and demonstrate the significance, and the effects, of these migrants' labour forms and highly fragile business ventures. A process that has helped transform American cities since the 1970s has been the nation's emphatic turn toward neoliberalism - and in the paper I will therefore seek to briefly place the history of the Dominican labour migration and the Dominican livery bases in a wider (global) history of important political-economic changes.

Normalising precarity: high-skilled labourers' workplace experiences in East Kent

Authors: Daniela Peluso (University of Kent)  email
Jessica Lucas  email


This research explores how various forms of work-related precarity and crisis as destabilizing processes, are extended to, experienced, coped with and talked about by high-skilled labourers in terms of their workplace practices and well-being.

Long Abstract

We most often recognise precarity and crisis when they are elsewhere or 'other' - particularly in the persons of migrants, refugees and low-skilled labourers. Our current fieldwork in East Kent alternatively focuses on high-skilled labourers' and emphasizes how precarity alongside notions of crisis should also be examined 'at home' where they are easily guised by the everyday practical survival skills of peoples and organisations, and become normalised to the extent that precarity and crises are no longer recognised as such.

This presentation will discuss how peoples' everyday practices of workplace life mitigate against precarity and crises inherent to current workplace environments, while also normalising such predicaments. Corporations, institutions and other organisations, particularly in conditions of economic recession and neoliberal market reform, are increasingly passing risk onto employees through such mechanisms as short-term contracts, reduced benefits, increased expectations and the possibility of downsizing and redundancy. In some cases this may lead to major restructuring and subsequent redundancies while in others it may lead to streamlining with increases in individual workloads. We suggest that the ongoing upheaval of workers, in one form or another, as businesses consistently reinvent themselves in the face of economic conditions, fuels what has become a continuous state of precarity and crisis. With rising job insecurity, employees face workplace environments that have become increasingly unstable and stressful. Our current research examines how formal and informal practices shape precarity and how high-skilled labourers, individually and collectively, cope with their workplace lives as precarity and crisis become 'ways of living'.

Who will hold us in their hands? Precarity and the scientific career in East Africa

Author: Branwyn Poleykett (University of Cambridge)  email


Drawing attention to different quotidian types of non work conducted in scientific workplaces, this paper explores how theories of precarity can be used to analyse the lives and careers of East African scientists who seek to secure and stabilise the symbolic and economic value of their work.

Long Abstract

This paper examines precarity as a condition of labour and daily existence in East Africa and explores how theories of precarity can be used to analyse the lives and careers of African scientists who seek to secure and stabilise the symbolic and economic value of their work. While the postcolonial period is conventionally narrated as a progressive loss of the professional possibilities of the stable and continuous career - a loss which engenders different forms of nostalgia and mourning - the accounts of East African scientists run counter to this narrative and nostalgia for "possibility" is inflected by class. In this paper I examine the appeal of a time of precarity for those who feel they are uniquely equipped to prosper in the uncertain and illicit interstices between different kinds of work.

Under conditions of professional precarity the conditions of success have come to appear opaque and distinctly arbitrary. Scientists weigh the risks of strategies such as migration or educational investment against uncertain potential gains and frequently find themselves stuck in strategising. I empirically consider the bodily experience of the "meantime" between the past and a future of achievement and success. I examine the bodily experience of different kinds of "non-work" (Paulsen, 2013); the arrested labour, simulated labour, empty labour and appropriated time which all figure as practices and strategies with which to question and reconfigure the value and meaning of work.

Interrupted futures: the contested value of co-operative labour

Author: Penny Harvey (University of Manchester)  email


Working with an ethnographic case from Southern Peru, the paper explores diverse contemporary interpretations of the value of co-operative labour paying particular attention to how specific forms of precarity emerge in the movements between agricultural, contract and migrant labour.

Long Abstract

Sociological interest in precarious labour has focused on the existential insecurity associated with the discontinuous work relations of contemporary modes of production and the difficulties of forming effective modes of social and political solidarity. This paper, by contrast, explores the continuities of precarious living in the Southern Peruvian Andes over the past century. Following Stewart's (2012) affirmation of precarity as 'a form that takes place through attachments, tempos, materialities and states of being' the paper traces how specific forms of precarity emerge in the movements between agricultural, contract and migrant labour. In particular the paper focuses on how the affective force of social obligations and responsibilities to wider collectives (such as the family, the peasant community, or the co-operative) interrupt the trajectories of entrepreneurial subjects in search of more stable personal and collective futures.

The paper draws on the case of a highly successful agricultural co-operative set up following Peru's Agrarian Reform of 1969. Today the co-operative is much diminished and marked by inter-generational and community conflict, its lands largely dispersed, its leaders widely accused of corruption and self interest. Legal changes have systematically undermined the status of these co-operative ventures rending them irregular in relation to more formally demarcated peasant communities and political districts. The paper explores diverse contemporary interpretations of the value of co-operative labour, and understandings of the responsibilities of co-operative membership, paying particular attention to the affective dynamics of personal commitment to other people through engagement in collective ventures.

Kangnam style and the Korean spirit of capitalism: exercising bodies at a South Korean shipyard in Subic Bay (Philippines)

Author: Elisabeth Schober (University of Oslo)  email


This paper looks into the bodily relations formed during daily morning exercises at a South Korean shipyard in Subic Bay (Phil.), where Korean foremen make their workers do gymnastics to “Kangnam Style” in an attempt to inculcate a Korean kind of work ethic into a seemingly reluctant Filipino workforce.

Long Abstract

Offshoring is an economic practice that allows globally operating businesses to profit directly from differing labor costs in various regions of the world. Clearly contributing to the rise of precariousness amongst workers, the offshoring of manufacturing processes may also entail extended and contentious encounters between foreign management and local laborers at the shop floor that are worth exploring.

This paper will look into the complex relations established during daily morning exercises at a South Korean shipyard in Subic Bay (Philippines), where Korean foremen make their Filipino workforce do gymnastics while listening to Psy's "Kangnam Style". Initially, a militaristic tune from the Park Chung Hee-era called "Chal Sarabose" - which glorified hard labor in the years before Korea's economic take-off - served as the main soundtrack during these daily routines. But the global hit of "Kangnam Style" - a mocking ode to 21st century casino capitalism - proved to be infinitely more successful with the Filipino workers.

I will argue that these joint practices serve a key purpose: through the physical and affective manoeuvre of dancing to Psy, the attempt is made to inculcate a Korean kind of work ethic into a seemingly reluctant Filipino workforce. While loyalty to the foreign shipbuilder is an elusive good in an environment of highly unstable labor conditions, these daily routines may have been designed to make the Korean spirit of capitalism tangible to Filipino workers, who in turn fill these Korean promises of prosperity with their own (at times rather diverging) visions of the good life that is to be attained.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.