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Anthropology of Work Review

Theorizing Unemployment: Toward an Argentine Anthropology of Work

Mariano D. Perelman, Universidad de Buenos Aires
[translated by Ann Kingsolver and Mariano Perelman]

Abstract would make it recognizable as a subfield. In the past several

The recent crisis related to neoliberal economic poli- years, however, because of the changes that have occurred
cies in Argentina brought more of a focus in Argentine an- in Argentina, there seems to have been a resurgence of the
thropology to issues related to work and unemployment. anthropology of work. Transformations related to work
The anthropology of work, before the crisis, was a neglected have been the strongest effects of the crisis. Precarious, in-
area of the discipline. I am proposing that we pay theoretical formal, and temporary work, as well as unemployment,1
attention, in and beyond Argentine anthropology, not only have become constants in a society accustomed to high em-
to labor relations and conditions, but also to the subjectiv- ployment rates in the formal sector, with social welfare
ities and collective actions within the growing unemployed guarantees to workers.
and underemployed population in Argentina. Unemployed At the same time, as Merklen (2005) has argued, the
individuals still conceptualize of themselves as workers; it degradation of labor relations was accompanied by impor-
is how they have constructed their identities. A theoretical tant changes in political support for workers. The unions that
focus on the unemployed in the anthropology of work will had represented workers since the 1940s fell apart because
contribute to our understandings of heterogeneous capital- of declining employment rates.2 Leftist political parties were
ist relations and subjectivities. not able to respond satisfactorily to the crisis, falling into
Keywords: anthropology of work, Argentina, capi- divisions and crisis themselves. Peronism (having been con-
talism, unemployment solidated as the workers’ party), in its Menemist form (1989
to 1999), was the staunchest supporter of the international
Introduction credit institutions (e.g., the Interamerican Bank, the World
The anthropology of work is a withered branch of Bank, and the International Monetary Fund). Peronists were
Argentine anthropology. Although it has been a recurrent applying neoliberal policies of which the party had previ-
theme of investigation since the founding of the discipline ously been suspicious. The policies’ implementation caused
in Argentina, anthropology of work has not developed its a deep salary regression and the dismantling of the economy.
own homogeneous set of core concepts and methods that This application of policies reducing the effectiveness of the

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Anthropology of Work Review

State to address the unemployment crisis was the govern- (Castillo 2000; Abramo and Montero 2000) along with in-
ment’s own decision. In this context, the workers who had creasingly widespread mass production in core countries
been central to Argentine identity (Grassi, et al. 1994) lost and discourses of modernization and development in the
their leading role to a new set of social actors: the poor. periphery. In the 1980s, the sociology of work moved toward
During the last decade of the twentieth century, a focus on the reorganization of production (Castillo 1996).
anthropologists came to view the loss of employment as Interestingly, with changes in the system of production
a fact of everyday life in growing sectors of the Argentine (Castillo 1996) and with discussions of “the end of work,”3
population, and focused on new forms of collective action anthropologists focused on the other, e.g., survival and
among the unemployed (cf. Manzano 2003, 2004; Quirós 2006) migration strategies of the very poor (Álvarez Leguizamón
or on the effects of new social policies in relation to the un- 2005), and sociologists of work have developed a core set of
employed (cf. Grassi 2003; Álvarez Leguizamón 2005). There theories and methods to look at the “set of collective rela-
arose a specific area of state intervention—the categorization tions through which the production of goods and services is
of the population and of collective action—and an intellec- realized” (Castillo 2000:60; translated). They remain focused,
tual project to understand the social construction of the I argue, on a fairly narrow interpretation of capitalism and
problem of unemployment. Some anthropologists have be- its social relations of production, but can be seen as allies of
gun to study the diverse forms that collective social action the growing subfield of the anthropology of work.
has taken in Argentina, specifically related to unemploy-
ment. Some are focusing on the ways that traditionally con- Work and Employment
ceptualized units of analysis, like the union or the worker, The fact that the anthropology of work does not really
have become more precarious. Others are studying the spe- exist as a subfield of anthropology in Argentina brings
cific new forms that precarious labor takes, like telemar- attention to the ways in which we construct our research
keting or working in supermarkets. In this project, we are agendas and how we analyze social problems,4 which are in
proposing theoretical and methodological approaches focus- turn, as Frederic and Soprano (2005:31) point out, shaped by
ing on subjects who find themselves unemployed as the basis national frameworks and problems. While work is not absent
for building an Argentine anthropology of work. in anthropological studies, it more often shows up as
To position ourselves in this way is not to imply a re- a marker (in economic explanations) or, in cultural analyses,
ductionist economic focus—in fact, we intend the reverse. as part of the mix in the construction of identities. I argue,
We think that unemployment processes must be seen in rela- however, that the anthropology of work should be more
tion to the labor market. But above all, we think that indi- central in Argentina, given the prominent place of the worker
viduals’ ways of identifying themselves as workers are not in the national history and imagination.
erased with unemployment, especially in a country in which When I refer to work, I realize that I need to clarify
high employment rates in the formal sector characterized the what I mean and define some theoretical boundaries, since
population and was a source of pride and identity. In this my goal is to bring work conceptually to the center of our
case, an anthropology of work perspective can be used to analyses.
understand the constitution of new subjectivities. First, the focus here is on the social relations of capi-
talist production. By this, my colleagues and I refer to work
Reconstructing Subfields as historically and socially constituted in societies in which
Anthropology’s subfields have been historically con- capitalist relations of production have been dominant.
structed based on the specific problematics articulated in Capitalist relations of production are by no means homoge-
the constitution of large departments and funding organi- neous. On the contrary, our task in the anthropology of
zations. These groups have defined the scientific concepts work is to look at the heterogeneity of subjectivities within
and perspectives used for viewing social life (cf. Appadurai capitalist relations of production, as they have been vari-
2002; Gledhill 2000; Menéndez 2000; Vincent 1998, 2002). At ously constituted in time and space. We have an opportu-
the University of Buenos Aires, for example, large research nity to better understand social complexity through this
teams have always included work as a topic of investiga- form of analysis in the anthropology of work.
tion, but always in relation to other issues. Work has not As Polanyi (1989) said, capitalism was not just a “great
been the central conceptual and methodological focus of transformation;” it was complex and heterogeneous. Changes
many studies; work has been more often a contextual factor have not just been at the production level, but have also
than a way to explain social life. It is not that work has been established new subjectivities, new social organizations and
absent from anthropological research—in fact, it appears relations, and have limited the range of legitimate activities
almost constantly. In economic anthropology, political an- through which individuals could earn money. Juridical
thropology, and anthropological studies of consumption, systems have also changed, providing legal support for new
education, and health, work appears, but not as the central forms of production and exploitation.
focus of investigation (cf. Visacovsky and Guber 2002; That is how we came to have a work ethic or work
Frederic and Soprano 2005). culture. Here, this is understood as the need to earn a living.
There are some social science disciplines in which sub- In Marxist theory, work culture would mean that the place
fields focused on work are well-established. The sociology one occupies in the chain of production determines the way
of work, for example, gained prominence in the 1960s in which one sees oneself in relation to the world. The work

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Anthropology of Work Review

ethic is an ideology. According to Bauman (2000), there are temporary employment, or employment without benefits;
two explicit premises and two tacit assumptions in this and new worker strategies for survival. All of these changes
capitalist work ethic. The first premise is that in order to get have to be understood in relation to each other. I propose
what you need to live and be happy, it is necessary to do that the anthropology of work needs to take into account
something that others consider valuable and worthy of certain activities and relations that are not strictly labor con-
payment. The second premise is that you do not have to be siderations, because of this broader social context (Perelman
satisfied with what you have, but that it is always necessary 2004, 2006).
to seek more. The first tacit assumption is that everyone has
the capacity to offer themselves on the labor market and Work, Poverty, and Unemployment
make a living by selling their labor. Following that line of The anthropology of work is a particularly relevant
argument, work for cash comes to be seen as a normal con- disciplinary lens to use in understanding the subjective expe-
dition of life; to be unemployed is, then, considered abnor- riences of unemployed people. As I have argued, Argentina
mal. The other tacit assumption imbued in this work ethic is constitutes a special case when it comes to discussing un-
that only labor that is valued through the market is consid- employment, since the identity of ‘worker’ has been tradi-
ered work; not every activity is considered valuable work in tionally such a strong identity in the nation. Although
modern society (Weber 1980, 1999). Argentina cannot be considered a welfare society (cf. Castel
Things were not always so. Until the seventeenth 1997), it is the case that until the late seventies, the political
century, work relations were not at the center of social rela- and juridical systems supported workers through strong,
tions. Work was associated with suffering and humiliation. collective wage guarantees and workers had the double
Significant changes occurred in the middle of the following protection of good wages and a strong social security system,
century, when three inseparable processes occurred.5 First which insured that those who retired continued to have
of all, with the ascent of capitalism, mercantile relations be- good access to health care and other services. Workers did
came dominant, and “free” manual labor had a key role to not see themselves solely as selling their labor on the mar-
play in those new market relations. Second, in this period, ket, but as contributing to a larger sense of societal security
there arose a dominant view in which civilized and naturally through their labor. This broad system of social supports for
uncontrolled, or unmanaged, inclinations of humans were workers deteriorated in the nineties.
seen as in opposition. Third, economics itself became articu- Although the problem of poor areas was “discovered”
lated as its own autonomous domain, with its own logic and in the fifties, and framed in terms of development and un-
problem-solving capability. All of these came to bear on a new derdevelopment (Escobar 1995), poverty was not new—it
way of conceptualizing work, with a unified, abstract, and was merely redefined in this period of development
market-centered meaning, with time being essential to its programs. As Rahnema (1996) argued, there had been
definition. Work now became not only a means of subsis- a rupture in the system of administration of, and interven-
tence, but also as a fundamental ethic of capitalism and a tion in, poverty. Of course, “poverty” does not have just one
mark of excellence and moral obligation for civilized societies. meaning, and there are debates about how to conceptualize
This new perspective has dominated Western cultures poverty and use the concept. (See Gutiérrez 2005; Narayan,
since the 19th century. Since that time, work has come to be et al. 1999; Rahnema 1996; and Sen 1992.) Escobar (1995)
seen as the true essence of humanity; culture has been re- points out, in relation to the ‘discovery’ of poverty that de-
duced to work, and to a “secular religion,” as Kunan says velopment discourse appeared as a new colonial discourse.
(Nun 2001). Arendt (2003:20) put this similarly when she Poverty can be seen as a new configuration of modernity’s
stated that work constituted an artificial world, distin- ‘other.’ New terms were used to explain poverty and
guished from the natural cycle of life; within its limits each unemployment—e.g., marginalized and informal sectors
individual is walled up, and yet it transcends and survives (Álvarez Leguizamón 2005). Because of the intervention of
all individual life. This work ethic is mirrored in the posi- development discourse, poverty and work began to appear
tions taken up about labor relations and job quality by left- as unrelated spheres. This gap widened with the passage of
ist parties over the past century. The focus was not on the time, especially in the eighties with the structural adjustment
structure of work itself, but on labor relations. In organiza- policies of the international lending organizations; poverty
tions of unemployed workers, today, we can see this legacy and formal work were completely separated in this frame.
in their demand for formal-sector work. Their self-reference There were effects of this bifurcation in the academy, as well.
as workers, even while they are unemployed, shows how Those who focused on studies of poverty tended to consider
they construct themselves as subjects. Although what I have how the marginalized survive (cf. Lomnitz Adler 1991) and
outlined above has been a global process, it has acquired their survival strategies (cf. Gutiérrez 2005). Why are these
important differences between countries and regions. In not also conceptualized as forms of work? In the anthropol-
Argentina, for example, the Unemployed Argentine Workers’ ogy of work, we can reconnect these discussions and con-
Movement is asking for actual work and not social pro- sider unemployment as the marginalization of a formally
grams for the unemployed—for Argentine workers, formal- central identity: that of the worker. The unemployed are
sector jobs provide them with dignity and identity. actively seeking work in the formal sector because of the
Recent social, political, and economic transformations ways in which they construct their identities; they are not
have generated different effects: new labor relations and simply seeking participation in social welfare or develop-
the appearance of new jobs, like telemarketing; a rise in ment programs.

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Some Concluding Thoughts Acknowledgments

Is everything work? The answer does not necessarily A preliminary version of this article was presented in
need to be yes, but it is important to broaden our focus in the VIII Argentine Congress of Anthropology. I appreciate
the anthropology of work to include some forms of social the comments of the participants in the symposium on the
relations that have not traditionally been seen as labor “Anthropology of Work.” I would especially like to thank
relations. As the participants in the Núcleo de Estudios del Gloria Rodriguez and Ann Kingsolver for their readings of,
Trabajo, or NET (2005:15) explained, the problem is with the and comments on, earlier versions of this article.
way work is conceptualized in some academic projects; the I must also say, here, that my ideas in this article have
concept of work is not synonymous with “having a job” but been shaped by my having been trained in the University of
instead needs to be understood in broader terms as part of Buenos Aires. They have also been influenced by a number
the construction of the identities of workers. Work is con- of conferences and by my conversations with other profes-
stantly mentioned in anthropological studies, but the con- sionals interested in themes that we could refer to as in-
cept needs to be further problematized. We need to study cluded in the anthropology of work. I have also been
how different actors conceptualize and contextualize work. informed by postgraduate study in a number of national
It is important not to split, in our analyses, the survival and Latin American academic institutions.
strategies of subaltern sectors in capitalist production, re-
production, and consumption, but to see these together in Notes
one frame (Anderson 1991). We need to develop tools to 1The Permanent Household Survey implemented by

look critically and ethnographically at the whole, diverse the National Institute of Statistics and Census shows a sig-
picture of what it means to be a worker (unemployed or nificant drop in employment rates in Greater Buenos Aires
employed). (in and beyond the City of Buenos Aires). Unemployment
When we understand the complex ways in which in- rates rose from 2.4% in April, 1975, to 12.6% in the first third
dividuals construct and reconstruct their realities, and how of 2006, having peaked at 22% in May 2002. The rate of un-
their different representations combine and form a network deremployment rose from 4.7% in April 1975 to 12.3% in
of social relations, we can better situate the agency of work- 2006. According to the same survey, in the second half of
ers and the history of work relations. Indeed, as Rosato and 2005, 30.5% of individuals (22.5% of households) were living
Balbi (2003) have argued, in focusing on the experience of under the poverty line in Greater Buenos Aires.
individual actors, we have the opportunity to examine the 2In some speeches, unions were blamed for the hard

intersecting modes of politics, religion, economics, etc., in times on which the working class had fallen. Unions them-
looking at the world of work. selves were divided. Some unions participated in reproduc-
In using this kind of analysis, we can understand that to ing hegemonic discourses.
work means subjectively more than exploitation to workers. 3There is a large literature on the “end of work,” and it

It is a whole universe of feelings and relationships that is a theme taken up not only in the social sciences, but also
acquire significance in the individual and collective experi- by specialists in marketing and philosophy, for example.
ences of the subjects. It is key to understand these aspects of Some of the works that best problematize this topic and
workers’ lives in our analyses. Since neoliberal reforms cover the debates on it include de la Garza Toledo and
have not occurred in the same ways and had the same Neffa (2001); Neffa (2003); and Antunes (2003, 2005).
effects globally, it is important to include these interpretive 4It is not within the purview of this article to provide a

perspectives in the anthropology of work to understand the full history of Argentine anthropology, or even to summa-
local articulation of global processes (cf. Gupta and Sharma rize all the currents within Argentine ethnography. For such
2006; Trouillot 2001; Ferguson 1994). We need to include an overview, see Visacovsky and Guber (2002) and Frederic
attention to how individuals experience change in their lives and Soprano (2005).
as a result of these policies, and to their actions, strategies, and 5As Nun (2001) says, capitalist society and, in particular,

interpretations. neoclassical economics encourage us to see work as wage

In Argentina, the particular configuration of labor work. In the Middle Ages in Europe, work was scorned as
relations (cf. Grassi, et al. 1996; Beccaria 2001); the until- something for the lowest classes or seen as a form of pun-
recently high employment rates; the role of the unions; and ishment or penance. But Luther, and then clearly the
the influence of Peronism have contributed to a view of Calvinists, placed value on work for other classes. With the
work as a natural part of life. Academics have contributed rise of capitalism, especially in Western Europe and the U.S.,
to this social construction of the normal citizen as a worker. work was moralized through the work ethic particularly for
Now, it is vital to apply our understandings through the the middle class.
anthropology of work to see how individuals—accustomed
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The SUNY series in the Anthropology of Work,

edited by June Nash, welcomes manuscripts
dealing with problems of work organization
throughout the world. The series has the
advantage of simultaneous paperback editions
and usually a rapid publication schedule.
Manuscript proposals should be sent to: June
Nash, 68 Prospect Street, Plainfield, MA 01070;
Tel.: 413-634-2128

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