EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet

Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012

(W070)

Work and consumption: insurmountable links in uncertain times (EN) (FR)

Location V503
Date and Start Time 11 Jul, 2012 at 11:30

Convenors

Emília Marques (Lisbon University Institute / CRIAnthropology) email
Fernando Bessa Ribeiro email
Marta Vilar Rosales (Instituto de Ciências Sociais) email
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Short Abstract

We call for empirically rooted and theoretically backed contributions that tackle the practical and moral economies of work, consumption and their multifaceted symbolic and practical mutual links, which tightness and necessity our current times of uncertainty and disquiet are so boldly unveiling.

Long Abstract

The assertion that consumption has replaced work as a preferred identity arena is an influential one in contemporary social theory. In our westen-type societies, the rather necessity‑bound, monotonous work‑based politics of belonging would have loose appeal against the exercises of individual choice and appropriation that are promised by consumption, and that would be quintessential to the contemporary subject's reflexive self‑building. Thus work was left within the realms of economy driven alienation, while consumption was rescued to freer domains of expressivity, creativity and culture.

Yet the twin ideas of work as an identity-deserted, instrumental chore and of work and consumption as two fundamentally separated fields of practice and meaning have received no remarkable empirical support. Ethnographies of work and workers depict instead people's diverse and creative efforts to obtain from their work a sense of dignity and ownership. And current times of uncertainty have prompted an increased awareness of how tight and insurmountable the links stand between waged work and expressive consumption.

This panel calls for contributions that tackle the practical and moral economies of work and consumption. For instance (but by no means exclusively), how is the symbolic and material value drawn from work translated into or displayed through consumption? What connections are (or are not) established between value of work and entitlement to consume? How are any discrepancies between entitlement and actual access evaluated and dealt with, practically as well as symbolically? How do people navigate expressive consumption amidst the uncertainty and disquiet they experience as workers?

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Selling an 'image of leisure': women's small-scale trade and consumption in Dakar, Senegal

Author: Agnes Hann (London School of Economics and Political Science)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper analyses urban Senegalese women's small-scale trade in consumer goods. It is argued that these traders' work practices and the consumption of their wares are linked to ideas about social visits, the importance of appearances, leisure time and gender.

Long Abstract

Many urban Senegalese women trade small quantities of consumer goods such as clothes, shoes, perfume or mobile phones through networks of friends and family to whom they extend credit. They self-identify as entrepreneurs and aspire to become a part of a global capitalist economy. Although they are sometimes accused of being greedy and materialistic, their activities are accepted and a few are able to achieve considerable success. Traders combine their work with social visits, since they have few other ways of bringing their merchandise to their clients' attention. Although social visits are commonplace in Dakar, they require a relatively high degree of preparation and attention to one's appearance. Traders are careful to look their best on these occasions, wearing fully accessorised outfits which may in fact include examples of the items they retail. They make their merchandise attractive by epitomizing an ideal of well-being and leisure which their clients can emulate through purchase of their wares.

This paper attempts to make visible the connections between women's small-scale trade, and the entitlement to consume in urban Senegal. I argue that the two are not merely joined in a cycle of supply and demand, with the commmercantes providing clients with consumer goods on credit. Rather, the practice of commerce, which generally takes place during social visits, is facilitated by a cultural and gendered expectation of consumption and dressing well in the context of leisure time. This is connected, on the one hand, to specific cultural and historical factors including fear of gossip, hierarchy and patron-clientage, the development of urban identities, and Islam. It is also shaped by ideas about men and women's roles and the way in which work time and leisure time are gendered.

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Organic farmers in Belgium : challenging the link between food production and food consumption

Author: Audrey Vankeerberghen (Université de Liège)  email
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Short Abstract

Based on ethnographic research in Belgium, this paper aims to give a better understanding of the relation between the professional domain of organic farmers in Belgium and the associated domain of their personal consumption.

Long Abstract

While my PhD research initially focused on organic farming as a profession, analyzing its associated practices and meanings, the matter of the personal consumption of the farmers emerged as a significant factor to understand what "being an organic farmer" means. Many organic farmers link their own consumption practices to their professional commitment, but this is far from general. For instance, some organic farmers consume organic food (to various extents) and others do not. In some cases, eating organic might be a criteria used in the building of professional "organic identities" : on the one hand, this criteria might be used in the definition of one's identity as a farmer ; on the other hand, organic farmers might use it to evaluate the professional commitment of other organic farmers. These empirical observations raise several questions I will deal with in this paper : how do farmers link their practices of food production with their food consumption ; through which practices and meanings ? Why and how are these two spheres of practice disconnected in some cases ? The particular case of organic farmers highlights in a very clear way the complexity of the relations between the professional realm and the realm of personal consumption as two separate but closely linked spheres of practices and meanings.

"Back to Serve" or "Back to Consume"? The uncertainties of return among highly skilled Indian professionals in Bangalore.

Author: Helene Ilkjaer (University of Copenhagen)  email
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Short Abstract

Based on ethnographic fieldwork among highly skilled Indian return migrants in Bangalore, this paper discusses how consumption practices can be ways of managing the experienced uncertainties of return and addressing expectations of giving back to the Indian nation.

Long Abstract

Based on ethnographic fieldwork among highly skilled Indian return migrants in Bangalore, I will discuss the relations between consumption practices, experienced uncertainties of return and expectations of giving back to the Indian nation. I argue that the highly skilled Indians who have returned after several years abroad can manage the uncertainties of return to India through consumption practices that cushion them from the surrounding Indian society, such as settling in California-style gated communities and joining associations of expats meeting in Bangalore's upscale restaurants and hotels. At the same time, however, many of the highly skilled return migrants also identify with the idea of returning to serve India. They talk about giving back and as an addition or alternative to the traditional involvement in charities they conceptualise their employment and training of hired help, such as maids, chauffeurs and gardeners, as an indirect way of giving back to India. For the returnees, consumption thus goes beyond material things to include people and feelings (of safety, of fulfilment) and becomes a way of addressing the expectations of being back to serve.

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The celebration: a look inside the elite social network of a Chinese firm in Nigeria

Author: Umoloyouvwe Ejiro O. Onomake (University of Sussex)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper seeks to examine how social capital, through the twin modes of consumption and production, is used to bolster the social network of a Chinese conglomerate in Nigeria.

Long Abstract

This paper seeks to examine how social capital, through the twin modes of consumption and production, is used to bolster the social network of a Chinese conglomerate in Nigeria. Much of the research concerning China and Africa explores this growing relationship in the aggregate. However, as yet, we understand very little about these processes of investment and how the operations they generate are actually taking shape on the ground. Through the example of a Chinese owned conglomerate in Nigeria we gain insight into the day to day realities of these relationships. Recent anthropological interest in corporate forms and global capitalism has directed our attention to the ways in which global corporate operations and patterns of investment are socially constituted through elite networks and relationships.

Using the ethnographic example of a social event hosted by the Chinese firm we can explore it's use of social capital. The lines between production and consumption are blurred when producers become consumers and a production space, in this case a large open air area adjacent to buildings filled with assembly lines and storage areas, is transformed into a place of consumption-a party space. In the context of the company, the attendees are elites of varying levels including office support staff, mid to high level management as well as members of vendor firms and foreign consular officers. I posit that the participants' attendance and subsequent consumption of food, entertainment and gifts are predicated upon their roles in the organisation's production process. Because front line workers are not attendees it is necessary to consider the roles of elites in the production process. Ultimately this social event contributes to the maintenance and reinforcement of social capital which aids the corporation's ultimate goal-to conduct business in Nigeria.

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The injured precariat and call centre labour: shame, stigma and downward social mobility in contemporary Portugal

Author: Patrícia Alves de Matos (University of Barcelona)  email
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Short Abstract

In this paper I examine the particular history and contemporary feelings of shame and resentment which afflict young people currently working in call centres in Portugal due to their inability in fulfilling the generational social hopes of middle-class distinction which were casted upon them.

Long Abstract

In recent years the call centre sector in Portugal has been transformed into the main symbol of precariedade laboral (labour precariousness). The categories of trabalho precário (precarious labour), trabalhador precário (precarious worker) and precariado (precariat) have only recently entered everyday language in Portugal. These terms are used by politicians, journalists and citizens as well as in social movements discourse as a way of describing and protesting against the growing insecurity of formal wage employment.

The trajectories of call centre workers - whose parents were (and are) mostly from a working class background - was deeply shaped by the social production of prestige associated with higher educational achievement (ser doutor), stable employment and middle class lifestyle and consumerism. These expectations were promptly dashed after they finished their college degrees and had to enter call centre work. A form of work perceived as unskilled, inferior and lacking career options.

The anthropological literature on call centres or outsourced, deskilled knowledge economy work, which is largely focused on India (or companies working for global clients), tends to underline this form of work with aspirational desires of upward social mobility and how this is linked with the rise of new middle classes and global consumption practices (for instance, Upadhya and Vasavi 2008; Freeman 2000). My paper, by contrast, shows that call centre work is much more commonly related with new forms of casual, precarious work which illustrate in a singular way frustrated hopes of social mobility among the lower middle classes.

Highly skilled labor migration from India to Europe: consuming leisure on-site

Author: Hannelore Roos  email
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Short Abstract

This paper discusses how the new middle class from India defines its boundaries through the sphere of leisure. Based on a case study of Indian ICT professionals in Brussels, it is questioned how traveling becomes a status marker for the professional middle class.

Long Abstract

Career-paths are no longer linear trajectories, nor neatly defined in time and space, but have become fluid in what Bauman (2000) describes as "the age of liquid modernity". In booming economic sectors of emerging economies such as the outsourcing service industry in India, ideal résumés reflect the traveling from project to project through which employees can build up "exposure" or the expertise of flexibility. What was once a scarce and highly desired assignment, namely to travel outside the country to the client on-site, has quasi become a routine practice. As a proof of taking full advantage of the opportunity assigned to a mobile meritocratic class of professionals and its distinguished identity, individual profiles on social networking sites depict series of travel photographs. These are not merely aesthetic representations of a corporeal mobile class of cosmopolitans who circumvent the uncertainties related to job-related relocation as a result of a volatile global economy, but exhibit also the visual experience of consumption of leisure abroad. The sharing and displaying of these photographic accounts of the consumption of touristic places play an important role in the construction of their identity as belonging to the new Indian middle class. Drawing upon ethnographic research conducted in Brussels and online, this paper considers how the professional identity of highly skilled migrants from India and the symbolic value of their displayed identity of leisure are entangled. These images reveal the uplifting of the professional identity through the consumption of leisure and questions boundaries between tourism, traveling and migration.

'My daughter asked her forewoman if it was OK to get pregnant!': labour, consumption and subjective agency

Author: Emília Marques (Lisbon University Institute / CRIAnthropology)  email
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Short Abstract

Memories of stable work by former female manufacturing workers are taken as starting point to discuss the complex links between work, consumption and subjective agency. It is argued that fluid socio occupational structures may prove harmful rather than nurturing to subjective agency in consumption.

Long Abstract

Memories of stable work by former female manufacturing workers in a de industrializing town are taken as a starting point to discuss the complex links between work, consumption and subjective agency.

Having entered manufacturing work in a full employment context - the early 1970s industrializing Lisbon suburbs - and having enjoyed, in their particular factories, a Fordist-like job regulation regime, these women fondly recall work (and wage) as available and controllable tools they would enlist for private life goals. Against this picture they contrast both their own current economic downgrading and the following generation's experience of work as a scarce, elusive resource, the struggle for which often overwhelms private life. While renouncing to goods and services they used to afford, and sometimes resorting to some old skills (just as sewing) as coping devices, they are fully aware that the income stability they once enjoyed has allowed them, besides a certain consumption level, the possibility of making long term private life decisions in such terms that neither their parents nor - ominously - their children could experience.

If they were social theorists, then, those women (among whom I am conducting a postdoctoral research on work, consumption and the complex relations between both) would likely challenge any claims that a liquefaction of labour structures may lead to the flourishing of subjective agency in the realm of consumption. In their experience, solid socio-occupational structures had been associated with practices of subjective freedom and agency in consumption, while more liquid, unstable ones have brought about uncertainty and restrain.

Inconsistent prestige and constant alienation: an ethnography of work and consumption among Romanian coal miners

Author: Maria Voichita Grecu (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, CMH)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper examines the ongoing processes of value transformation in work and consumption in Romania’s Jiu Valley mining region.

Long Abstract

The paper describes and analyses the dynamics in the arena of work and consumption in a context of declining labour. Using data drawn from an ethnographic research in Jiu Valley, carried between 2005 and 2007, and from additional interviews and observations made before and after this period, the paper provides an example of how attributes of social esteem are constantly negotiated by people on the margins of global processes. It gives an anthropological assessment of de-industrialization and examines how social, economic, and institutional transformations affect forms of solidarity and subjectivity, and shape new relations of inequality. It focuses on the changing images of work and attitudes to work of a mixed group of coal miners, different manual workers, and unemployed people, as well as on the consumption patterns and exchange forms developed between them. The everyday emphasis on consumption as a practice for attaining social difference and prestige, weaken the claims of work in defining social identity. Yet, in a context of marginalization and economic vulnerability, work offers a range of social and symbolic supplementary guarantees and challenges the role of consumption in social differentiation.

Changing work, sustaining leisure among Estonian miners

Author: Eeva Keskula (Tallinn University)  email
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Short Abstract

I explore why the practices of spending leisure time have remained similar to the Soviet period and changed little during the 2008 crisis despite large changes in the nature of work and changing class relationships. I claim this is because of a particular ideology and morality of miners' work.

Long Abstract

Despite the neoliberal and nationalist pro-Estonian ideology, the Russian-speaking miners of North-East Estonia still feel considerable pride about being miners, the former vanguard of the Soviet working class. The changes in the political economy of the state have diversified opportunities for spending free time. Despite the changes in political and economic regimes and the constant fear of losing the job in the crisis that coincided with my fieldwork, I claim that there are ways of spending free time that have remained particularly characteristic to miners of the region, and are shaped by the Soviet system and the nature and morality of miners' work. These activities involve both particular ways of relaxing as well as work outside the workplace. Increasing class differences between workers and engineers are not reflected in their leisure practices that are still linked to being a "miner" in the wider sense of the word. Differences in cultural consumption have instead widened along the ethnic lines emphasising the different moralities of collectivism and individualism among Russian and Estonian speakers. The single biggest change has been has been a shift from the work-collective-based leisure to the realm of the family. By this ethnographic example I aim to demonstrate that postmodernity or new opportunities of consumption in capitalism do not necessarily change or diversify the practices of spending leisure time. Rather, the ways of consuming one's free time are intimately linked to the nature and morality of work and the workplace. This link proves stronger than the changes in the political economy or new opportunities of leisure.

Beyond coping? Alternatives to consumption within Russian worker networks

Author: Jeremy Morris (Aarhus University)  email
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Short Abstract

Social networks support alternatives to consumption outside the market economy for the working poor in Russia. Under neoliberalism, sociality emerges as meagre, practice-based; nonetheless it reveals enduring and shared ethical and cultural categories of meaning around production/consumption.

Long Abstract

Research on the post-socialist lived experience of the working poor often focuses on economic survival. It is equally important to examine how social networks facilitate self-provisioning and mutual-aid practices for non-subsistence consumption (decorative, non-utility items) in the face of material want. Ethnographic materials presented here of workers (both in the formal and informal economy) in a Russian province show how self-resourced homemaking and decoration constitute a social practice linked to membership of a class-based network. Socially recognized practices such as making furniture and aquariums are focused on. The resources of the network provide opportunities for alternatives to consumption outside the market economy. Worker identities at work cannot be detached from those at leisure and at home; for the working poor, both consumption and work become increasingly mobile, interstitial. Against a backdrop of Russia as a testing ground for the most extreme neoliberal reform, a post-socialist, post-working-class sociality emerges as meagre, practice-based; nonetheless it is based on enduring and shared ethical and cultural categories of meaning around production/consumption.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.