ASA15: Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms

Righteous scroungers: distribution, reciprocity and fairness after full employment
Location Room 3
Date and Start Time 16 April, 2015 at 09:15
Sessions 2


  • Ivan Rajković (UCL) email

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Discussant Katherine Smith (University of Manchester)

Short Abstract

Inspired by current welfare shifts, this panels calls for papers that ethnographically portray how concrete actors try to renegotiate the boundaries between work and aid, contribution and abuse, reciprocal and irreciprocal, in order to assert their deservingness in the age of unequal access to work.

Long Abstract

In industrial societies, labour market has been permeated by the idea of reciprocity. As studies of unemployment have repeatedly shown, wage work was seen as the foundation of fair exchange and legitimacy of one's rewards; without work, the unemployed were unable to achieve a righteous position. The context of deindustrialisation and the recent recession, however, further undermine this ability to reciprocate due to structural inequalities in access to work. Economies of the Global North increasingly face the issue of those who do not produce, and "take without giving"; peripheries with mass unemployment have the challenge of organising welfare provision that will not be based on work membership, as "full employment" might not happen again.

This panel investigates the changes welfare systems and citizens undergo in this context. Relying on the momentum of current welfare shifts, it calls for papers that ethnographically portray how concrete actors try to renegotiate the boundaries between work and aid, contribution and abuse, reciprocal and irreciprocal, symbiotic and parasitic, in order to reconstitute ideas of fairness and assert their claims. In such way, it analyses the shifting logics of deservingness in the age when one of its foundations - work - is being questioned, yet remains normative.

1) Claims of deservingness within and beyond the ethos of work

2) New (ir)reciprocal relations with encompassing collectives (a nation-state, international bodies) and their justifications

3) Governments' usages of the reciprocity theme in austerity campaigns

4) Social dynamics of contemporary idioms of fairness

5) Political potentials of distribution after "work".

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Righteous citizens: the new voluntarism and the (post)neoliberal welfare landscape

Author: Tess Altman (University College London)  email

Short Abstract

Using ethnographic evidence from fieldwork in the European Voluntary Service, this paper considers to what extent voluntarism has become the ‘ideal’ form of responsibilised, reciprocal and productive citizenship, and its implications for a late modern (post)neoliberal welfare environment.

Long Abstract

Since the roll back of the state implemented by conservative neoliberal governments in the 1980s, volunteering has been actively pursued by governments as a neoliberal political project to shift responsibility for social welfare onto citizens. The aim of such a political project is to responsibilise citizens to 'help themselves' and their own communities (Rose 1999, Hyatt 2011) through promoting volunteering as a means to civic participation and socially cohesive communities. In this context, volunteers symbolise the ideal, active neoliberal citizen, righteously deserving of full citizenship due to their productive contribution to society.

This paper explores this new brand of neoliberal voluntarism which plays a central role in the current 'disorganised welfare mix' (Bode 2006), and critically unpacks the assumption that volunteering inherently leads to positive outcomes. Using ethnographic evidence gleaned from 2012 fieldwork in the Netherlands with youth volunteering for the European Voluntary Service, the paper argues that voluntarism, set against a background of austerity measures and a Europe in crisis, has become an instrumental tool for governments in cost-shifting through constructing ideal neoliberal citizens. However whether the citizens constructed end up being those responsible active citizens the program intends is not always the case. Further, the (ir)reciprocal nature of the volunteer-recipient relationship is considered. The paper concludes by posing questions on how the new voluntarism and volunteer-citizens may shape the contours of a late modern hyper- or post-neoliberal welfare landscape.

"I literally lived with the orphans to understand them and setup a good CSR project". The workings of Corporate Social Responsibility in the (re)configuration of contemporary societies

Author: Deniz Seebacher (University of Vienna)  email

Short Abstract

Corporations seek to cross boarders between economy and well-fare. They enter areas formally ascribed to societal well-being and thereby define ways of "doing good" and the receiving communities. Drawing on ethnographic research, this paper deals with boundary work in CSR practices.

Long Abstract

Current shifts in state well-fare systems make businesses organizations even more powerful. In their push to take the lead in social issues they claim to compensate for political misconduct and step in where needed. Through collaboration with actors in civil society, in religious and political spheres they seek to access the realm of societal responsibility. Thereby organizations strengthen their role in today's society as work providers as well as well-fare contributors. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) shapes ideas of contemporary society by renegotiating what responsibility, fairness and well-being stands for. In every-day CSR practices corporations and recipients are constituted dialectically but not reciprocal since it constitutes around the idea that "giving without taking" requires somebody "taking without giving". However, in business language those recipients are referred to as "Stakeholders". Within this frame management, employees, future generations and disadvantaged groups can be defined as recipients of corporal goods.

In this paper, I draw on ethnographic data from my ongoing PhD project within a major corporation in Turkey, operating in a particularly criticized business sector. The boundary work of actors at top management level, in supply chain audits, international project meetings and other internal CSR activities serves as a lens through which the conceptualization of receiving communities and society at large can be explored. Applying identity theories from ethnicity studies, I use belonging and othering (Gingrich, Baumann 2006) to analyze the constitution of the different groups as well as power relations within the (re)configuration of contemporary society.

Exporting the domestic, importing the public, serving the divine: the volunteering women of a soup kitchen in northern Greece

Author: Phaedra Douzina-Bakalaki (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper, women’s voluntary labour put in the operation of a Soup Kitchen in Xanthi, Northern Greece is argued to form an activity mediated by religiosity and blurring the boundaries between the public and domestic spheres.

Long Abstract

Schematic distinctions between paid and unpaid labour associate the former with the public domain and notions of objectivity, while they view the latter as being diffuse and forming a matter of the private/domestic sphere. European austerity's implications, evident in the increasing unavailability of paid work and the institutionalisation of voluntarism, could be seen as unfortunate occasions for reconsidering the aforementioned bipolarities. This paper examines unpaid labour through ethnographic data gathered from the soup kitchen of Xanthi, Northern Greece. Operating under the authority of the Greek Orthodox church, offering 150 meals to the poor daily, and run by unemployed and pensioner volunteering women, the soup kitchen of Xanthi facilitates an exploration of unpaid and voluntary labour with reference to gender, class and religiosity. Specifically, the paper argues that the soup kitchen can be understood both as a collective (and public) household and as an opportunity for (re)entering a (private) labour market. Similarly, the labour put in the soup kitchen can be seen both as another example of (gendered) exploitation, and an opportunity for the performance of solidarity and the acquisition of (philanthropic) power. Finally, while voluntarism forms an epitome of unpaid labour, religiosity often becomes a vehicle through which voluntary work is organised and perceived to have a meaningful exchange. In light of Xanthi's soup kitchen, unpaid labour emerges as austerity's symptom and remedy at once, it speaks of both public and domestic matters, and it becomes facilitated through expressions of religiosity.

Work, politics of deservingness and unemployment among Roma in east Slovakia

Author: Jan Grill (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

This paper ethnographically explores how are neo-liberal reforms of labour ‘activation' experienced by Roma subjects against the redrawn lines of deservingness and struggles for being recognised as ‘active’ citizens.

Long Abstract

The last two decades in Central Eastern Europe have been characterised by a dramatic changes in the forms of public aid for the poor and growth of ethnicised poverty. In popular discourses the Roma/Gypsy groups came to be portrayed as the ultimate figure of 'scroungers' who 'take without giving', 'lost their working habits' and become 'dependent on social benefits.' In Slovakia, the state has introduced several neo-liberal reforms marking a shift from more protective forms of welfare towards more disciplinary workfare. One of the policies aimed at combatting long-term unemployment were so-called 'activation works', designed as temporary tool for activating 'passive subjects' and bringing them back to formal work. This paper will ethnographically examine how are these 'activation' projects experienced by long-term unemployed Roma participants against the redrawn moralising landscapes of deservingness and struggles for being recognised as 'active' citizens. I will explore how do these works operate in practice, as well as what activities count as more or less legitimate form of 'work' in the unequally distributed hierarchies of worthiness. Particular attention will be paid to contested meaningfulness of 'work', to questions of exploitation and to particular temporality in which boundaries of 'temporary' blur into ambiguously long-term prospects.

Between entitlement and assistance: struggles over different economic and political models

Author: Francisco Arqueros (National University of Ireland, Maynooth)  email

Short Abstract

The long economic crisis is provoking an intense debate in Spain about what are the basic entitlements of citizens. Mainstream social thinking argues that the poor tend to abuse the welfare system; the poor are starting to challenge in a collective way their entitlement to a minimum income.

Long Abstract

High rates of unemployment in the EU have become, since the onset of the last economic recession (2008-2009), key issues for governments, ordinary people and social scientists. Generalised unemployment, informal and precarious work have blurred the boundaries between 'work' and 'no work', what constitutes an economic activity in order to get a livelihood.

The so-called unemployed and the poor possess an array of strategies such as unemployment benefits, assistance from charity organisations, and irregular work in the informal economy.

Mainstream economists and civil servants tend to emphasize the abuse of public assistance on the part of the unemployed and the poor. In their opinion, high assistance levels do not encourage people to look for jobs. They also think that most of those claiming assistance from the state and NGOs work in the informal economy and therefore are abusing the system.

On the other hand, the unemployed and the poor show signs of coming together in associations of the unemployed, against evictions and through new NGO's assisting those in need. The political expression of their needs is the 'basic income'. And they pursue in a practical way by combining different economic strategies or by arguing, politically, their entitlement to a minimum income.

This presentation is based on fieldwork in Andalusia, Spain, in two NGO's working with the poor. I intend to show how the economic crisis and subsequent stagnation initiated in 2008 is provoking an intense debate in Spanish society about what are the basic entitlements of citizens.

(In)comparable parasites: claiming social worth in the context of 'mock-work' in Serbia

Author: Ivan Rajković (UCL)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the effects of Serbian state involvement in securing employment for workers in recent privatizations. Blurring the line between labour and social question, productivity and citizenship, under-productive employment creates dispersed but unstable, levelled sense of deservingness.

Long Abstract

After former president Milošević was overthrown in 2000, the state reformers in Serbia mixed privatizations with measures perceived as "buying social peace", namely selective incorporation of the surplus workforce into the enlarging public sector. For the increasing number of those outside of public firms, the under-productive employment they created blurred the line between categories of labour and the "social question" (Castel, 2003), ultimately destabilizing the legitimacy of employment.

I base my case on ethnography of a labour activation programme organised for Zastava Cars' workers who were made redundant, a group notoriously seen as the biggest 'victim', but also as the most privileged by state redundancy programmes. In a twist of deservingness logic that describes employment as only simulating work, Zastava Cars' unemployed portray politicians and those 'above', employees in the state sector, as the ultimate parasites. Yet they face the same accusations from those 'below' them, for being on paid redundancy programmes is taken as being not entirely abandoned by the state.

What results is an Escherian landscape of graduality of privilege, where all actors can position themselves relatively in the language of deservingness, yet never achieve absolute validity in the lack of legitimate 'work' itself. Unable to achieve a righteous position in such context, Zastava Cars' try to approximate it: claiming that they are less of parasites than those 'above', and more state-making than them. Still, this distinction is unstable, leading them to yearn for a more disembedded job market as something that will, paradoxically, enable greater legitimacy.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.