Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Economic Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Ethics
Secondary Theme: Labor
The relation between labor and the creation of value has been a perennial topic in anthropology, particularly in conversations among Marxists and their critics. However, contemporary anthropology exhibits a proliferation of approaches to disentangling the plurality of value regimes that can underpin economic action. Taking inspiration from Malinowski’s (1935) Coral Gardens, fresh interest has arisen in "value" and "values" as critical terms in anthropology. Attention has been drawn to, for instance, Hannah Arendt’s (1958) distinction between labor, work and value as a way to conceptualise the relations between domestic, social, and political reproduction. Building on Marx’s labor theory of value, scholars have engaged with different versions and sides of the idea that value is created through productive labor and not through exchange, which itself only realises values. More recently, Laura Bear and her interlocutors (2015) have drawn attention to feminist substantivist approaches that challenge the ‘economic’ as a separate domain of study, while scaling up their critique to the level of systemic logics, ‘capitalisms’ in plural, that reproduce inequality.
In dialogue with these foundational conversations, in this panel, we revisit the relations between labor and value through the prism of the anthropology of ethics. We are interested in ways ethical considerations are involved in shaping new kinds of value regimes across diverse realms of economic production: what is the role of ethical value in economic pursuits, from making ends meet to accumulating profits? Defining economic action as part of the ordinary striving for a good life (Das 2012; Lambek 2010; Robbins 2013), we examine, for instance, the realm of the market, the home, the enterprise or the care facility, as potent sites of ethical subject-making. We encourage contributions that go beyond the idea that ethical self-reflection is restricted to monks, believers and at times the rich. Protagonists can range from farmers and butchers, mothers and clan chiefs, consultants and investors to refugees and job centre administrators engaging in processes of making a living as varied as presenting a pitch, strategizing for corporate profit, haggling, begging or applying for social aid. The central questions this panel raises, however, go beyond the routine and point at values and motivations: to what kind of a good life do these practices contribute? What are they motivated by?
Possible questions to ask:
- In which sense do different macro-level modes of economic restructuring – post-socialism, neoliberalism, Fordism – engage the ethical imagination by harnessing work as the central vehicle of ethical subject-making?
- Building on Arendt, what kind of work produces value in marginal settings, e.g. for people engaged in begging or scrap work? What kind of ethical considerations characterise economic action in a context of mere survival?
- What kind of moral economy underpins the devalued nature of (often gendered) domestic labor?
- What kind of work is perceived by people as unproductive, not valuable, even immoral? What drives people to engage in it?