More than a Backdrop:  The Challenges of Seeing Work Anthropologically

By Anne S. Lewinson (Berry College)

I am relatively new to the anthropology of work--most ironic, given that my research focuses on a group whom I defined primarily through their work.  Since 1994, I have been conducting research with office workers in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.  In 1994-5, I focused primarily on employees in government offices and parastatals (state-owned companies), as well as educators and medical service providers.  Members of this group were distinct from other Tanzanians in that they held full-time wage employment and had received some post-primary education, traits which were less common in Tanzania at the time.  My emphasis on state employees grew out of Tanzania’s history as a nation experimenting with an indigenized form of socialism, in which the state had placed itself at the center of the economy and dominated the wage employment sector.  A few employees of private businesses as well as some vendors in the exploding informal sector also found their way into my study, providing interesting contrasts with the experiences and views of the state employees.  Through conversations and participant-observation in life cycle events, home life, and every day activities, as well as analysis of popular culture, I sought to develop a sense of how these “professionals” or “office workers” envisioned the city, urban people in general, and urban life as a whole, as well as how they saw them changing.

Over the course of my fieldwork, I found that the lives of office workers—among other Tanzanians—were transforming fundamentally in response to liberalization policies.  On the one hand, a growing governmental openness to “free enterprise” enabled professionals to augment their tiny salaries through private businesses.  On the other hand, there were new expenses.  Similar to other developing countries, citizens were asked to contribute far more to the costs of health care and schooling.  At the same time, the government cut subsidies and ultimately sold state-owned industries which were ‘inefficient’ (not making profits on their own); as a result, the parastatals employing many professionals had fallen on hard times and ultimately shed most of their employees.  Over the 1990s, the economic situation became tighter.  Those professionals who landed jobs at successful private companies, tapped into the variety of micro-businesses, or started to work at the new foreign-owned businesses have done extremely well.  For the vast majority of urbanites, however, liberalization has mainly brought higher prices and less economic security. 

Professionals in Dar es Salaam certainly provide a unique window onto urbanism in Tanzania, and since their experiences greatly resemble those of office workers in other cities in Africa, they open up broader theoretical questions of how African urbanites define and redefine modernity or respond to global forces.  Yet in the pursuit of these questions, I risk forgetting to consider their work context explicitly, the meanings of their employment as salaried workers.  I spent hours listening to secretaries, clerical workers, and government employees tell each other the latest lurid event which they had read in the tabloid newspapers or heard on the radio.  The content of these narratives intrigued me and showed me their profound ambivalence towards the city world within which they lived. Yet I have spent little time exploring the context of those narratives.  How did the conversations’ embedded-ness in everyday workplace exchanges shape professionals’ view of their rapidly transforming world?  How did the work place itself structure social interactions and develop certain shared—or disputed—visions of the city and modernity?  I often saw office workers invite their co-workers to attend and assist with life event celebrations, a pattern which continues today.  Are these occupation-based networks qualitatively different from social networks based on kinship, ethnicity, and schooling?  Or are they simply one social network among many?  Those questions tend to elude my notice, and an attention to the anthropology of work helps highlight them.

We often use occupational categories to describe our subjects, yet gloss over the question of how that work experience itself influences them.  It is a challenge to think explicitly and consistently about how work, work experiences, and the workplace itself need to be the subject of anthropological analysis, more than simply the setting where we find our subjects or a category by which we decide whom we are studying.  I am honored to have the chance to contribute to this newsletter, and I look forward to exploring the new questions brought out by the anthropology of work.   


[Anne S. Lewinson <> is a faculty of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Berry College.]