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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.
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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