Society for the Anthropology of Work

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Virtual Issue: Precarity

In recent years the concept of precarity, shorthand for the “multiple forms of nightmarish dispossession and injury that our age entails”, has inserted itself into the heart of anthropology (Muehlebach 2013). Although anthropologists have long been attuned to the cultural and historical specificities of precarity and how it is embodied and lived by subjects in diverse locations, its broad contours are mapped onto a specific set of factors, including increased economic uncertainty; the loss of state and corporate provisioning; threats of violence, marginalization and injustice;  and environmental destruction, which have eroded not just labor and the state but the possibility of life itself.

The articles in this virtual issue of Anthropology of Work Review date back to 1994 and together they bear witness to our sub-discipline’s long and nuanced engagement with the lived experience of economic and social precarity around the world. Perelman’s (2007) article provides unique insight into the subjectivities and collective actions of the large number of unemployed and underemployed workers in Argentina and an equally important exploration of the ways in which the conditions of economic and social precarity are reshaping the discipline of anthropology in that country. Taking a closer look at the relationship between workers and employers, Broughton (2006) examines the ways in which industrial workers in America’s Rust Belt have adapted to the realities of downward mobility by discarding elements of the “breadwinner ideal” while clinging to other beliefs about the American dream and fatherhood. Higgins (2005) explores the lives of disempowered workers (or “bodies”) populating the labor camps that fulfill the manual labor needs of oil and gas companies in southern Louisiana. Also touching on the theme of economic decline May (1996) illuminates the precarious lives of Tanzania’s “invisible” working children. Finally, Wojcicka Sharff and Lessinger’s article is an early (1994) and significant engagement with precarity in academia through an insightful examination of the rise of adjuncts on U.S. campuses.

Taking a slightly different tact, the remaining articles in this virtual issue highlight human resilience in the face of precarity. Millar’s (2008) article presents a nuanced examination of informal workers under neoliberal capitalism. While the catadores, or garbage pickers, might appear to be living the very definition of a precarious life Millar optimistically concludes that their struggles to earn a living are creating new spaces for alternative economic practices, social relations, and class politics today.  Similarly, Preston-Werner (2008) finds that older women in Costa Rica, who occupy an increasingly precarious employment niche characterized by part-time work, irregular scheduling, and few or no fringe benefits, are embracing the new opportunities presented by direct sales positions. Finally, in her study of female sidewalk vendors in North India Aggarwal (1995) focuses less on their precarity and more on the ways in which these Tibetan “antique” sellers successfully carve a place for themselves under conditions of exile and forces of transnational capitalism. Together these pieces illustrate not just the embodied and lived experience of  precarity but also speak to anthropology’s “moral optimism” (Touillot 2003) and our collective ability to highlight precarity’s opposite, humanity’s ongoing investment in social reproduction and the cultivation of future possibilities.

Making Trash into Treasure: Struggles for Autonomy on a Brazilian Garbage Dump
Kathleen Millar

Valuing the “Professional” in an International Direct-Selling Organization: The Commodification of Class Identity in Southern Costa Rica
Theresa Preston-Werner

Theorizing Unemployment: Toward an Argentine Anthropology of Work
Mariano D. Perelman

Downsizing Masculinity: Gender, Family, and Fatherhood in Post-Industrial America
Chad Broughton

Bodies for Rent: labor and Marginality in Southern Louisiana
Rylan Higgins

Handshops and Hope: Young Street Vendors in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Ann May

Shadow Work: Women in the Marketplace in Ladakh, India
Ravina Aggarwal

The Academic Sweatshop: Changes in the Capitalist Infrastructure and the Part-Time Academic
Jagna Wojcicka Sharff and Johanna Lessinger