Anthropology of Work Research Paper

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Work is defined as a continuous human activity aimed at producing  goods and services. It is a phenomenon that exists in all human societies. In contrast  to sociologists,  anthropologists primarily  have  studied work in nonindustrial/noncapitalist societies (hunters and gatherers,  cultivators, pastoralists, craftsmen). Unlike  historians,  they are interested  mainly in contemporary societies. Anthropologists recently have started studying work in capitalist enterprises, and the transformation from noncapitalist to capitalist  work. Key concerns of the anthropology of work include the interaction between humans and nature,  tool use, and the institutional and cultural  embeddedness  of work. In these contexts, work is treated  as part of a system.

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In another  perspective, work is studied as action and performance. The  anthropology of  work  has  been delineated  by Applebaum (1992), Gamst  (1995), and Wallman  (1979).

1.    The Origins Of The Anthropology Of Work

Many  leading scholars  became interested  in work  in the wake of European industrialization. Their  main focus was industrial work, but they made comparative reference  to  pre-industrial  work.   Marxpraised  the high productivity and discipline of capitalist industrial work, but criticized the alienation it caused. Precapitalist  work was less productive  (e.g., the work of craftsmen); nonetheless it had aesthetic character. In a comparative study on religion in Europe,  India,  and China,  Weberwrote   about   the  development   of  the work ethic and the rationality of work.

Bucher (1893) studied the division of labor and cooperation, and formulated a theory of ‘independent household  economy,’ in which work is subordinate to the autarchy of the household. Bucher (1896) turned his attention to performance: How was it possible to perform  constant, strenuous   work  in  pre-industrial societies? In his view, the answer lay in the aesthetics and rhythms of work. In contrast to Marx and Weber, Bucher  also  drew upon  contemporary ethnographic literature, placing him at the forefront  of the anthropology  of work.  He  did not,  however,  conduct  any fieldwork personally.

Malinowski, the founder  of modern  anthropological fieldwork,  was a student  of Bucher’s in Leipzig. Bucher and  other  German  scholars  (including  Hahn and Weber) inspired his interest in the topic of work, which became  the  primary  focus of his research  on gardening  practices  on  the  Trobriands (Malinowski 1935). On the one hand, he was interested in the issue of performance: How do the Trobrianders succeed in performing sustained, strenuous work? His findings conclude  that  generally  they  were motivated  by  an interest   in  food,   but   were  also  interested   in  the aesthetics and social organization of gardening. Malinowski  also  examined  the  relationship between work and  magic. Unlike  Weber, he did not consider magic a hindrance  to successful gardening:  Magic is compatible with rational work, helping people to cope with the vicissitudes of gardening.

Two of Malinowski’s  students,  Firthand Richards, continued  his line of study. In her classic work on the Bemba in Northern Rhodesia, Richards (1939) stressed more  than  Malinowski  the  separation of work  and needs: Work is not related merely to food requirements, but is embedded in cultural traditions, in this case the warrior  past of the Bemba.

Based on intensive fieldwork,  the studies produced by Malinowski, Firth,  and  Richards  are  still worth reading, mainly due to the diversity of issues and abundance of material. At a theoretical level they were functionalists, taking into account  economic, ecological, institutional, and cultural factors. Subsequent studies on work, however, belonged  to more specialized subdisciplines of anthropology.

2.    Theoretical Approaches

2.1    Ecological And Technological Approaches

Ecological  anthropology investigates  work  as interaction between man and nature.  The studies focus on hunters  and  gatherers,  cultivators, and  pastoralists. Quantitative measurements  on energy input and output  are  characteristic of  this  approach. Lee  (1979) investigated the hunting and gathering activities of the Kung San of the Kalahari (Botswana). One interesting finding was that  the women—for  less work—yielded more calories collecting nuts and plants  than  did the male hunters.

The Kung  spent  an average  of 17 hours  per week (i.e., 880 hours  per year) hunting  and gathering.  The average  calorific  value  of  the  food  yield was  2,355 calories, i.e., it exceeded the daily requirements of the Kung,   who  are  of  relatively  short   stature.   These findings  triggered  off a series of debates  in anthropology and other  fields. Based on the findings of Lee and  other   researchers,   Sahlins  (1972)  argued   that hunters and gatherers led a life of affluence consisting of little work.  Other  anthropologists challenged  the thesis, provoking  a debate that has yet to be resolved.

As a rule, farmers  work  more  hours  than  hunters and  gatherers.  This  is particularly true  of intensive agriculture (Netting 1993). The annual person-hours in shifting  agriculture   is 480–960,  but  it  is 3–4  times higher in intensive agriculture. This type of agriculture generally is practiced on small, permanently cultivated areas, often artificially irrigated  and situated  in high-density  population  areas.  The  work  requires  long working hours,  and specialized knowledge and skills.

From  an  evolutionist   perspective,  many  scholars view intensive agriculture  as primitive in comparison to the mechanized  agriculture  practiced  in industrial countries, where labor productivity is higher. Netting, however,  argues  that   labor-intensive   agriculture   is more  suited  to  densely populated regions.  It  is also more  sustainable.   In  the  USA,  the  energy  input– output  ratio   for  rice  production  is  1:1.55,  while in the Philippines it is 1:7.

Herdsmen are often described as lazy in comparison to farmers.  This verdict is based on the premise that only  manual  activities  involving  tool  use constitute work.  But  in his study  on  camel  herding  and  goat herding,   Spittler   (1998)  shows  that   long  working hours, complex knowledge and skills, and the strain of a harsh environment (wilderness) are all part of their work.

Technological  approaches in studies on work concentrate  on tool use. Craftsmen  are the main focus of these studies, not hunters and gatherers, or farmers and pastoralists. In anthropology, the study  of tools is a traditional one. This is due partly to the accessibility of collections in ethnological museums, and partly to theoretical   paradigms.  For   many  years,  tool  production was seen as the essential human characteristic. Technical and social evolution was also linked to tool development.

In effect, this fixation  on tools was a hindrance  to research on work. The fact that  many types of work require few or no tools was overlooked. Above all, too little notice was taken of the fact that the starting point for any study on work should  be human  action,  not tools. This is especially true of preindustrial tools, the use of which requires considerable  skill, strength,  and stamina.  Bucher (1896) identified this fact, but found no following at first. Later, two Hungarian folklorists, Fel and  Hofer  (1974), wrote an excellent analysis of work with agricultural tools. Their detailed  accounts of working  with hoes, scythes, whips, etc. show that such work  entails  a number  of factors  (family traditions of work, general work ethic, emic theory of the body and of tool use, and the social life of tools) which cannot be deduced from the study of the tools themselves.

2.2    Institutional Approaches

With the one important exception of housework, work in industrial  societies generally is organized  in capitalist or public companies.  One major  feature  here is the recruitment of free labor. There exist other types of work institutions. Slavery is a historically  widespread form of organizing  agricultural and  industrial  labor, e.g.,  in  ancient   Greece  and  Rome,   in  precolonial Africa,  and  in colonial  America.  Hunters  and  gatherers often work in loosely organized bands. The most common  form of work organization among  farmers, herdsmen,  and  craftsmen  is the  domestic  economy, also known  as the domestic  mode  of production or family  economy.   The  concept   was  introduced  by Bucher  (1893), developed  by Chayanov  (1923), and established  by Sahlins  (1972) in the  field of anthropology.

Domestic economies produce either for private consumption  or  for  the  market.   The  aim  is  not primarily  profit,  but to provide for the household. In the pure family economy studied by Chayanov, labor is recruited  exclusively from the ranks  of the nuclear family.  A  domestic   economy   involving  additional labor (relatives, servants, slaves) can grow to a considerable  size, comprising  100 or  more  workers (e.g., the ancient Oikos).

For  a long time, the family was seen as a unit  in which decisions were made in the interests of the entire family, a claim that  is being challenged  increasingly. Gender  studies show that the burden  of work is often distributed unequally,   with  women  performing   the greater  share.  The  same  applies  to  the  age-related division of labor,  which is not always decided on the basis of natural abilities. Children are sometimes exempted  from  work,  but  more  often  are  forced  to work  particularly hard.  Both  work  and  the fruits  of work are often distributed unequally within the family, with elderly men and women enjoying the most privilege.

The term domestic or family economy is misleading, since a household, or  family,  is not  exclusively—or even primarily—geared toward  production, performing a range of other tasks as well. The members of a household  are usually provided  for, both materially and psychologically, irrespective of their work output. Children are reared and marriages arranged. The members   of  the   household   cohabit.   Due   to   the diversity of tasks involved, work cannot  be separated from  other  activities as it is in capitalist  enterprises. On the contrary, it remains  embedded  in the multifunctional  institution of the household.

In  the  purely  family  economy,  the  number   and combination of  the  workers  is determined   by  biological reproduction within the family. It depends on the family cycle and demographic contingencies.  The output of individual  workers fluctuates  considerably, depending  on  the  number  of  consumers.  Such  imbalances can be rectified by a temporary or permanent increase or reduction  in the number  of workers  (e.g., by employing servants or farming out family members as  servants).  Greater   flexibility  is  also  achieved  if households   work  together   on  a  cooperative   basis. Since Bucher, anthropologists frequently have studied the formation of work  groups  extending  beyond  the individual  household. Due  to  internal  competition, such work groups often lead to increased productivity.

In family economies, the division of labor is mainly on the basis of gender and age. This limited division of labor  leads  to  a  lack  of  specialization,   since  each member  has  to  accomplish  a number  of tasks.  The tasks are learnt at an early age in an informal  process of teaching and learning.  Work discipline is enforced by parental  authority, but also through specific family sanctions  (e.g., inheritance  law).

What  is the  level of  work  efficiency in  domestic economies?  Inadequate specialization  and  restricted sanctions   are  often   identified   as  negative   factors. Family  workers  cannot  be recruited  or fired. On the other  hand,  family solidarity  and  early training  can improve  work  performance. In  areas  where  a large number   of  workers  is  no  advantage, e.g.,  in  agriculture, domestic economy proves competitive even under  capitalist  conditions  (Chayanov 1923, Netting 1993).

In  contrast  to  domestic  economy,  apprenticeship prepares people for a specialized activity. Apprentice- ships occur mainly in the crafts (e.g., smiths, potters, weavers). Through the  apprenticeship itself and  the voluntary enrollment  of apprentices,  work  is rationalized more than  in domestic  economies  (Coy 1989). Similar to domestic economy, trial and error, demonstrations, and  repetition  are  more  important in acquiring skills than  written  instructions, explanations, and questions  (Keller and Keller 1996).

From  a methodological point  of view, this implies that work can only be researched partially on the basis of interview. Precise observation and participation are required.  These findings  apply  to  both  the  study  of work and to other areas. They challenge the predominance of the linguistic paradigm and the interview as its methodological correlate.

2.3    Cultural Approaches

In the 1970s and 1980s, a cultural  (albeit not entirely new) perspective  began to appear  in anthropological studies of work (Wallman  1979, Godelier 1984, Applebaum 1992). Weber’s analyses  of the religious foundations of rationality and the work ethic were an excellent precedent. Now, however, new problems emerged and the approach was radicalized.

Semantic   analyses  of  the  definition   of  work  in various cultures show that the meaning of any linguistic equivalent  to ‘work’ can be expressed in broad  or narrow terms. In most societies, the most arduous subsistence activities are defined by this one word. However, work is not always confined to useful activities, but can include what is good and beautiful. By contrast, intellectual  work  is rarely  placed in the same category as physical work.

Cultural   analysis  goes  beyond  semantic  analysis and the specification of taxonomies. It investigates models  or  commonsense  theories  of  work.  For  example, work is seen variously as the transformation of objects (the prevailing view in industrial  societies), as fighting  with  nature,   or  as  caring  for  plants   and animals.  Commonsense  theories  also  express claims about  the part  that  work  (in comparison to chance, magic,  divine  influences)  plays  in  the  outcome   of action,   and   how  human   work   capacity   (physical strength,  knowledge, skills) is created. Cultural  analyses also re-explore the question raised by Marx: What are the implications  of work for human  identity?

Concepts of work differ from culture to culture, but also change over the course of history. However, many analyses  of the history  of the concept  of work  since classical  antiquity   do  not  address  the  question   of whether the philosophers’ concepts were shared by the working  population. In contrast, Applebaum (1992) includes in his study contradictory interpretations of work between philosophers and working people.

Ecological, technological, institutional, and cultural approaches are  mutually  complementary. Although materialistic  (ecological, technological)  and idealistic (cultural) approaches were once opposed sharply, they have been combined fruitfully in several recent studies. Descola  (1986), for example,  in his study  about  the Achuar Indians in Ecuador, combines the structuralist theory of Levi-Strauss with ecological approaches.

3.     New Directions And Future Research

3.1    Work  In Capitalist Societies

Since the 1980s, anthropological research on work has shifted increasingly to capitalist societies. The Anthropology  of  Work   Review,  founded   in  1980,  focuses almost exclusively on work in capitalist societies. What is the anthropological content  of these studies? What distinguishes them from technological, sociological, or psychological work studies? Anthropology focuses on culture. Work culture and the culture of organizations are, therefore,  one of the main  areas  of study.  As a result,  the  anthropological  definition   of  culture   is often modified  considerably,  especially in the case of corporate culture.  The  methodological approach  of these studies is even more important than their cultural perspective.  Most  anthropological studies  are  based on participant observation. Many  researchers  complete an apprenticeship, and often practice  their acquired trade  for several years. As a result, they practice participant observation far more radically than  most classical anthropologists.

Many domains of work in modern societies interest anthropologists. Some concentrate on craftsmen, since their trades are affiliated most closely to classical anthropology. In  a  study  on  blacksmiths  based  on personal   job  experience,  Keller  and  Keller  (1996) showed how closely learning and working practice are based  on nonverbal  cognitive  influences  and  experiences.

Anthropologists’ traditional predilection  for exotic themes is confirmed by their interest in kinds of work with  a romantic  flair  (cowboys,  and  more  recently, locomotive  engineers, truck  drivers) or fringe appeal (hustlers).  Recently,  however, they have turned  their attention to executive management. Industrial work and its transformation is another  topic of interest, and some anthropologists spend many years in industrial employment (Burawoy 1979). In recent years, the modern  service and  information sector has attracted major   interest,   including,   for   example,   fast   food outlets,  computer  firms,  repair  services, and  science laboratories.

Despite  the diversity of occupations and  different theoretical   approaches, these  studies  have  a  lot  in common  due  to  their  uniform  methodological approach.  Anthropologists proceed from the actor’s perspective, not from the perspective of economic, technical,  or  cultural   systems.  They  show  that   an actor’s skills are not limited to the specifications  of a job description.  They also include physical strength, manual skills, knowledge, stamina,  energy, and learning  ability.  In  most  jobs,  more  is learned  through acquired  experience  and  discussions  with colleagues than through formal training.

Performance at  work  is ensured  only partially  by checks, incentives, and sanctions.  Other  motives also play a role, although not  necessarily a specific work ethic. In the minimum  scenario,  people work simply because it is preferable to ‘killing time’ over a long day. All the investigations  show that consistent work performance possesses an  inherent  structure  that  is not  governed  by checks  or  sanctions.  Furthermore, the  work  world  is never  determined  exclusively by work; it is a life world, providing  scope for personal relationships, emotions  such  as joy and  frustration, and a range of other external influences.

3.2    Work  In Comparative Perspective

The classical writers of the nineteenth  century (Marx, Bucher, Weber) assumed that pure work first evolved in modern times as a result of capitalist wage labor or a process  of rationalization. Still today,  most  social scientists would agree that  precapitalist work  is embedded  in  society  and  culture,  and  combined  with other  activities.  They  also  argue  that  there  is more freedom, because there is less rigid control.

However,  if we review the research  findings of the 100-year history of the anthropology of work, we tend to  arrive  at  the  opposite   conclusion.   Precapitalist, preindustrial work  seems determined  largely by eco-logical and  technical  factors.  The  actors  are  merely peripheral. By  comparison, the  studies  of  work  in capitalist  society reveal autonomous actors  who not only perform  their  work  but  also  display  emotions, cultivate personal relationships, and see their work as a life world.

Are  the  old  theories   wrong?  The  new  research findings   partially   correct   the   dichotomously  constructed   theories   on  the  antagonism  between  pre-capitalist   and   capitalist   work.   To  a  large  extent, however,  these  results  are  research  artifacts.   Most anthropologists working  in capitalist  societies accept the structural conditions  of work as given, and  concentrate  on the scope for individual  action  (but,  see, Burawoy 1979). This view is endorsed by the methods of participant observation. The economic  and  technical  framework   conditions   are  already  known  or being studied by other sciences.

By  contrast,  the  anthropologist,  whose  research centers around peasants, herdsmen, or foragers, has to investigate  all  aspects  of  their  work.  This  includes ecological, technical, and institutional structures.  Anthropologists do not  measure  working  time in capitalist  societies,  since the  data  are  usually  otherwise available.  In  precapitalist  societies,  however,  time- consuming methods are often required for its measurement.  On  the  other  hand,  the  actor’s  point  of view is rarely examined (but see Malinowski  1935, Fel and Hofer  1974, Spittler  1998). The  method  is also  important in this context. Participant observation, which favours  the actor’s  perspective,  is practiced  more  in capitalist  than in noncapitalist societies.

The conclusion is that comparison is difficult, since the   investigations   are   based   on   different   presuppositions.  In  noncapitalist societies,  anthropologists should  investigate  work  performance and  the  work world far more closely than in the past; in the case of Western  society,  they  should  concentrate more  on structural  conditions, including  the  latest  developments in the international division of labor. Although the social division of labor was once a central theme of the social sciences (Marx, Bucher, Durkheim), anthropologists have largely ignored it, except for the genderspecific division of labor.

Other  major  comparative research  deals with processes of transformation from  noncapitalist to capitalist societies. Extensive anthropological literature  is now available on the transformation of work in developing countries and Eastern Europe. These transformation processes show that the labor process in capitalist institutions differs considerably from that of noncapitalist institutions. Conflicts about  time schedules, labor  recruitment, and labor  relations  not only express the different interests of workers and management but are indicators  of a conflict between work cultures. Therefore,  we may expect that the transformation process will not result in the enforcement of a pure capitalist work culture but in a hybrid type of labor process.


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