EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

New trends in the anthropology of unemployment after the economic crisis of 2008-9 [Anthropology of Economy Network]
Location U6-23
Date and Start Time 20 July, 2016 at 14:30
Sessions 2


  • Francisco Arqueros (National University of Ireland, Maynooth) email
  • Patrícia Alves de Matos (University of Barcelona, GRECO) email
  • Michele Filippo Fontefrancesco (Durham University) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Antonio Maria Pusceddu
Discussant Manos Spyridakis

Short Abstract

The last economic crisis has brought to the forefront the topic of unemployment as a 'social problem'. Unemployment, however, does not constitute an area of research on its own right in anthropology. This panel tries to show the new work that anthropologists are carrying out since 2008-9.

Long Abstract

Since the onset of the last economic crisis (2008-2009), a high rate of unemployment in the EU countries has become a key issue for governments, social organisations, ordinary people and the social sciences.

Unemployment does not constitute an area of research on its own right in anthropology (Lowe 1990; Jancious 2006). In social science, in general, there is a lack of studies on the collective responses of civil society to unemployment as well as the experience of being unemployed (Perelman 2007; Guigni 2009)

Anthropologists, however, have been writing about unemployment since the crisis of the 70s: the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' unemployed (Howe 1990); ideologies of the unemployed (Pappas 1989); the social and historical construction of work cultures (Perelman 2007); narratives of survival (Procoli 2004); unemployment and precarity as liminal conditions (Spyridakis 2013).

This panel is looking for papers showing the research agendas of anthropologists currently working on the topic of unemployment, in EU countries but also outside them. This panel tries to address a broad range of issues, although it is not reduced to them:

The ongoing dismantling of the social welfare system and how that affect the way in which the unemployed make their livelihood; the blurring of the boundaries between formal and informal work;

How people experience unemployment and how they respond to it, both individually and collectively;

How the 'problem of unemployment' is socially constructed by different social actors;

Work and unemployment ethics among different groups of workers and ethnic groups;

Analyses of unemployment policies

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Introduction to Section 1: wageless livelihoods: history, theory and critique

Author: Patrícia Alves de Matos (University of Barcelona, GRECO)  email

Short Abstract

This paper seeks to expand the under-theorized phenomenon of unemployment in contemporary societies through three main axis of analysis: history, theory and critique. The aim is to expand our conception of life under austerity capitalism from the analytical standpoint of wageless livelihoods.

Long Abstract

This introductory paper seeks to expand the under-theorized phenomenon of unemployment through three main axis of analysis: history, theory and critique. I begin by referring to the Great Depression of the 1930s, the public policy normalization of unemployment seen through the post-World War II welfare states emergence; followed by the 1970s Great Recession, the introduction of new management techniques and the changing geo-politics of production. My aim is to trace the shifting state apparatus for governing and categorizing the unemployed population within broader capitalist imperatives. After, I focus on a selection of theoretical tools and debates enabling a greater understanding and explanation of unemployment. These include Marx's contributions vis-à-vis the dialectics of capital accumulation and the accumulation of labour (e.g. 'reserve army of labour'; relative surplus populations; lumpenproletariat; virtual paupers, etc); the 1970s politics of informal labour in the capitalist periphery, and the 'end of work' debate at the core; critical feminist theory and reproductive labour; and, debates centered on the precariat, surplus populations, wageless life and the politics of distribution and 'predatory formations of expulsion'.

I conclude by arguing for the relevance of history, theory and critique in deconstructing normalized and ahistorical understandings of employment vis a vis unemployment, while also capturing the articulations among differentially and unevenly geo-political situated labour forces. This is illustrated through an analysis of wageless livelihoods in austerity capitalism.

Under the skin: the embodied consequences of unemployment in a Portuguese community

Author: Bruno Monteiro (Instituto de Sociologia - Universidade do Porto)  email

Short Abstract

Using an ethnographic approach that combines participant observation, archival work and in-depth interviews, this research uncovers the visceral expressions as well as the coping tactics that unemployed workers from an industrial community in Portugal showed under the recent economic crisis.

Long Abstract

The economic crisis hit hard in Rebordosa (North-western Portugal), an industrialized community (highly specialised in the furniture and wood sectors) that was especially tarnished by the combination between the negative business cycle, the international competition, the neo-liberal restructuring of productive management, and the financial pressures among the workers' families. Using an ethnographic approach that comprised participant observation, archival work and in-depth interviews, this research aimed to uncover the visceral implications that the economic crisis brought to local workers, especially the unemployed ones. Working as a machine operator in a furniture shop, in 2007, and sharing the community's everyday life (playing in a local football team, participating in the local festivities, joining the unemployed workers in their institutionalized routines) throughout 2008, the researcher used is own body as a methodological instrument to capture and inquire the usually silent and invisible processes of economic transformation. This presentation focus on the magnified consequences these changes have over the most vulnerable segments of the workforce: unemployed workers with more than 50 years old, with comprehensive obligations (including huge bank loans) and deprived of scholar certificates. Seen as «obsolete» or «un-convertible» from the bureaucratic point of view of the job centre, which privileges formal «certificates» or psychological «qualities» these workers seem to lack, they enter an existential limbo. Notwithstanding, this paper also highlights the tactics of self-preservation that are used by workers in order to circumvent the institutional prejudices and explore their comprised margins of freedom (through the emigration, for instance).

How is unemployment contributing to capital accumulation in the context of the present crisis? The case of agricultural daily(unemployed)workers in Vélez Málaga

Author: Diana Sarkis (Universidad de Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers the dialectics between the state regulatory framework regarding agricultural work and unemployment and the forms that capital/labour relations adopt in the subtropical sector of Vélez Málaga. It aims to grasp the entangling between state benefits and chains of exploitation in daily labour

Long Abstract

During the current crisis in the construction and service sectors, intensive subtropical agro-export became one of the epicenters of economic dynamism in Vélez-Málaga (Spain). From the point of view of capital, intensive subtropical agro-export is characterized by high profit international chains of processing and commercialization, as well as expanding markets. Meanwhile self-employed familiar work and precarious dailywork are dominant at the level of production. An apparent paradox pervades daily work: an important part of the workers are formally unemployed, not only in the sense that they are not legally contracted, but also because they continue to obtain their unemployment benefits (subsidio agrario). Alongside the resistance of employers to formalize employment contracts, the absence of formalization responds to a direct pressure put by daily workers to conserve their unemployment benefits; particularly because of the conditions defined by the State Program of Agrarian Employment (PROFEA/PER).

This paper considers the dialectics between the state regulatory framework regarding agricultural work and unemployment and the forms that capital/labour relations adopt in the subtropical sector of Vélez Málaga. It aims to grasp the entangling between minimal state benefits and chains of exploitation in daily labour, beyond the unemployment/employment dichotomy. For this purpose I bring together the perspective of feminist economics on the transfer of value produced outside the wage realm to support capital accumulation (Dalla Costa y James, 2005 [1972], Federici, 2011, Hartsock, 2011) and recent discussions about the liquid boundaries between formal and informal economy (Martínez Veiga, 2008).

"I rather go abroad and work while improve my English": Catalan youth expectations towards migration

Authors: Clara Rubio (University of Lleida)  email
Tanja Conni Strecker (Universitat de Lleida)  email

Short Abstract

The lack of job opportunities in Spain has a repercussion to its young people, especially in terms of mobility. Are the international experiences a solution to their situation?

Long Abstract

Mobility has become one of the buzzwords in current political discourses regarding solutions for youth unemployment, especially in times of crisis. Mobility may be meant in the strict sense of being ready to move to another place (abroad or not) for a job offer, or in the broader sense of being active and on the move: by being physically active, by investing in education, or by becoming an entrepreneur. This contrasts to "immobile" young people who lack drive and are therefore victims of self-inflicted unemployment or precariousness.

These definitions lead us to two main questions: (1) Has "mobility" become a generalized option for young people in crisis-shaken countries? (2) What do their real experiences look like?

For this purpose we employed online surveys with three different target groups: (1) Young Catalans living in London, (2) Catalan University students and (3) young Catalans who used the services of the CIAJ (Centre d'Informació i Assessorament per a Joves) to receive assessment of their immigration plans. With more than 2,000 responses in total, the first two surveys are representative for the whole collective of young Catalans living in London and Catalan University students, respectively, and enable us to draw clear pictures of both expectations and experiences making their differences visible. The later study facilitates additional information on the preparation and planning process before moving abroad, giving us hence further input how to improve the support young people who consider to move abroad receive.

Work and survival strategies in the Serbian waste economy: an analysis from the perspective of "poverty management"

Author: Eva Schwab (Central European University)  email

Short Abstract

I analyze new forms of policing informal waste work through interventions from the repertoire of 'poverty management' as multiplying forms of 'atypical labor' and thus suggest a perspective that seeks to overcome the epistemological divide between survival strategies and work

Long Abstract

Today, in Belgrade and other Serbian towns a growing interest in extracting value from communal waste goes hand-in-hand with new forms of policing increasingly illegalized economic activity of scavenging through interventions from the repertoire of "poverty management". These interventions include the introduction of micro-finance and subjecting informal waste pickers to "activation measures" for the unemployed. Sanyal (2007) explains such 'rehabilitating' interventions directed at informal labor as a "modern politics of exclusion", which secures the legitimacy of the accumulation economy by managing the space of those permanently excluded from it. In contradistinction to Sanyal, I suggest that the idea of economic activities outside the accumulation economy relies on problematic understandings of un/productive work. I will argue, instead, that measures of 'poverty management' directed at waste pickers establish a disciplinary regime that redraws the very distinction between productive and unproductive work. In that I seek to contribute to an anthropology of unemployment, which seeks to overcome the bifurcation of studies of poverty/survival strategies on the one hand and work/labor relations on the other (Perelman 2007). I will show how a perspective on 'poverty management' as a labor regime gives new insights into the processes that contribute to multiplying forms of 'atypical labor'. Here I refer especially to the production of 'quasi-entrepreneurial' or as Denning (2010) says, 'disguised wage-labor'. This does not only challenge the distinction between work and survival strategy, but also blurs the line between of formal and informal economic activities.

Introduction to section 2: old and new trends in the anthropology of unemployment

Author: Francisco Arqueros (National University of Ireland, Maynooth)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will compare and contrast new and old ethnographic work carried out on unemployment. It will engage with the most salient topics and approaches to see how the research agendas of anthropologists are related to conflicts over ideas and power in society at large.

Long Abstract

Higher rates of unemployment in the EU since the last economic recession have become key issues for governments and ordinary people as well as for anthropologists.

The increasing relevance of Informal and precarious work have blurred the boundaries between 'work' and 'no work' and what constitute an economic activity in order get a livelihood. The ongoing dismantling of the social welfare state is having an effect on how people make their livelihood. This poses questions such how people cope with unemployment individually and how they respond to it collectively.

This paper will compare and contrast recent ethnographic work with research carried out by anthropologists in other period of high unemployment rates such as the 1980s and early 1990s. The idea is to critically engage with the most salient topics and approaches in our discipline during the two periods, to see how the contradictory research agendas of anthropologists are related to conflicts over ideas and power in society at large.

Finally, this paper will point at new trends in the anthropology of unemployment and will relate them to debates over neoliberal versus Keynesian alternatives to the crisis. In this context I will discuss how our discipline can contribute to this ongoing debate.

Abjection, dependency and the struggle for personhood on the periphery of capital: the case of the "stechajci" in the Republic of Macedonia

Author: Aleksandar Dimitrovski (University of Sussex)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at the history of a particular category of aging, unemployed labourers in the Republic of Macedonia and their struggles to overcome social abjection in the aftermath of structural adjustment.

Long Abstract

The dominance of "austerity" as the new economic paradigm in Southern Europe, has revitalized anthropological interest in the social movements opposing it on the ground. Linking up with these debates, this paper examines the history of one particular social movement in the Republic of Macedonia, the so-called stechajci, and its relationship with the wider workers' struggles of the post-socialist era. After spending decades of employment in socialist enterprises, the stechajci found themselves occupying a uniquely peripheral position to capital as an unemployable "surplus", as a direct result of structural adjustment policies. My analysis revisits the concept of "moral economy" and "right to live", as developed by E. P. Thompson and Karl Polanyi respectively and relate these to recent debates on class, labour and personhood. I emphasize the absence of class based politics and the prevalence of moral struggles that rely on a specific understanding of personhood that significantly diverges from the market model of "possessive individualism". I suggest that the outcome of these struggles has not been to challenge social inequality in itself, but to challenge the specific kinds of inequality and subject categories introduced by the transition to a neoliberal market economy.

'Neet' What?, 'Neet' Where?: empirical evidences and reflections from Novara (Italy)

Authors: Michele Filippo Fontefrancesco (Durham University)  email
Giacomo Balduzzi (University of Pavia)  email

Short Abstract

The paper reflects on the category "NEET", an emergent device in European politics. Discussing the case of Novara, it frames it within the crisis of Western industrial society and argues for its abandonment in favour of a socially and geographically localised analytical approach to youth.

Long Abstract

The paper reflects on the category "NEET", an emergent device (Callon, Millo, & Muniesa, 2007) in European politics for unemployment.

The category was introduced in the late '90s (Blair, 1999) to draw the public attention to the growing number of young adults not in employment, education or training. Since then the use of the category has spread world-wide. However anthropology only marginally investigated it. The paper analyses NEET as a keyword (Williams, 1983), and explores the liminal space that this word rhetorically defines (Carrithers, 2009). While this category does not describe the condition of the young adults but only highlights the personal divergence from a model of cultural and social individual development based on a linear passage from education to work, the paper claims that its a-critical use led to ineffective policies, particularly in terms of social inclusion (McKendrick, Scott, & Sinclair, 2007).

The paper reflects on the Italian policy, focusing on a the case study of Novara. This city in the North of Italy initiated a pilot job placement program for unemployed young adults in 2015 implemented by public institutions and third sector organizations. The program's initial results help to fathom the limits of the category and foster a new heuristic, place-based approach. While the paper frames the rise of NEET category within the broader crisis of the Western industrial social model, it argues for the abandonment of this category in favour of a socially and geographically localised analytical approach to young population.

Unemployment, active labor market policy, and the presentation of self in the Norwegian welfare state

Author: Kelly McKowen (Princeton University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the impact of policy on individual experiences of unemployment through examining the ways Norwegian active labor market policy limits the financial deprivation associated with joblessness while nevertheless constructing it as a deeper crisis of self and self-presentation.

Long Abstract

If the powerful crisis that closed the first decade of the 21st century showed the striking interdependence of European economies, it also revealed interesting disjunctures in the fates of the unemployed themselves. Behind the headline-grabbing figure of the "unemployment rate" unfolded trajectories of joblessness differing markedly in terms of financial deprivation, length, and patterns of social inclusion/exclusion. Tracking these trajectories, as well as identifying how they are shaped by different regimes of social and active labor market policy, signals a productive frontier for the emergent anthropology of unemployment. Drawing on my own fieldwork among unemployed benefit recipients in in Norway, I show that the the services and benefits administered by the Norwegian welfare state largely mitigate the deleterious material effects of unemployment while transforming the experience of joblessness into a series of encounters that encourage particular ways of orienting oneself to the labor market and the state. In particular, I argue that the combination of generous benefits and "job-seeker" courses using the rhetoric of motivation and personal values casts the loss of a job and the ejection from the labor market in terms of a breakdown of the self. The goal for the unemployed person thus becomes a rebuilding or reinvention of the self that is more attractive to the labor market and internalized sense of one's status as a working subject. I conclude with thoughts on productive future questions and avenues for an anthropology of unemployment that focuses on policy.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.