Labor involves purposive effort, mental or physical, toward a goal. In studying labor, we should be particularly careful not to import the biases of our own economic culture. Labor is not always clearly segmented from other activities in daily life, although the wage labor system favors such segmentation; this confusion obscures unpaid labor within capitalism as well as work in noncapitalist settings. Likewise, we need to be careful not to extend male gender biases to the study of labor; child care is as much labor as is cutting hay. Finally, we need to include multiple dimensions of labor, such as ideas and social organization, as well as physical effort, and we need to pay corresponding attention to nonstereotypical instances of work and workers, for example, bureaucrats as much as miners.
Labor is a central characteristic of human life; indeed, a number of scholars have proposed it as the defining characteristic, one that has shaped human evolution and history. David Ricardo and other early economists proposed a labor theory of value, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels made labor central to their theory of society as well as to their revolutionary politics. They viewed labor broadly, as active engagement with the natural and social world, and saw it as integral to human species. However, labor’s products and value became separate from the humans who made them with the development of commodities, class society, and especially wage labor capitalism. The past results of labor, taken and used in the form of capital, then confront current labor as an alien and powerful force.
A number of anthropologists, such as Lewis Henry Morgan (who influenced Engels), similarly saw labor, or its close associate tool use and technology, as central to cultural evolution. Even as 19th-century evolutionary schemes faded, labor continued to be a central concern of anthropology. Many scholars saw tool use as central to the evolution of the brain. Julian Steward’s combined approaches of cultural ecology and multilinear evolution focused on work, as Robert Murphy has noted. Steward’s notion of the culture core was the social organization of labor in food production within a particular environment.
Important insights were achieved in grand theorizing about labor, but its importance was exaggerated. In hominid evolution, for example, bipedalism preceded well-formed tool manufacture, and social organization and language use must be accorded equal evolutionary importance to labor (although all are interrelated). Likewise, in the findings of cultural anthropology, expression and imagination balance purposive labor. The human condition combines work and release, discipline and antidiscipline, production, reproduction, and play, and no single view seems adequate.
Labor in small-scale societies is tightly integrated with the rest of daily life. Gathering, for example, takes place along with child care and socializing, and it produces an immediate product for consumption rather than a product to be stored and alienated from the producers. The gender division of labor, along with age, largely organizes small-scale production, but as with so many human phenomena, flexibility and variability are the rule; most hunters are men, but there are female hunters, and gathering is done by males as well as by females (similar comments can be made about horticulturalists).
Time allocation studies have been particularly influential in the study of labor, and their striking result is that people in small-scale societies work significantly fewer hours than do people in industrial societies filled with “time-saving” devices. In fact, increased time spent in labor is a sensitive indicator of greater social inequality because labor goes to provide not only for the person and immediate dependents but also for a wider social structure of surplus takers and a vast apparatus of technology.
This is seen clearly as we move to unequal agrarian societies. In some ways, there is continuity with small-scale cultures, for example, in patterns of direct production for use. However, Eric Wolf used an analytical framework of peasant “funds” to identify the uses of labor’s products—subsistence, replacement funds, and ceremonial funds directed to peasant needs and goals as well as funds transferred to others as “rent” (including taxes and unequal market relations as well as payment for land as such). The question of transfer of the product of labor becomes more central yet with wage labor capitalism. In this context, some labor (physical and mental) is segmented from the rest of life, used to create commodities for an employer, and then turned into money and, in turn, into other commodities made by yet other workers. In the process, direct production for use declines (but by no means disappears, as feminists have shown for housework), and the accumulated past product of labor—or capital—has power over current laborers.
Engaging this range of settings, a rich anthropology of work has emerged. There have been numerous ethnographies of industrial workers, with June Nash’s study of Bolivian tin miners notable for showing connections between seemingly disparate preindustrial and industrial cultural frameworks. Sidney Mintz provided a superior life history of a Puerto Rican plantation worker and later explored, in the case of sugar, global connections between commodity production and commodity consumption. Ethnographers often reveal hidden, informal social organization and implicit knowledge among workers, exemplified by Herbert Applebaum’s study of construction workers and Frederick Gamst’s ethnography of locomotive engineers.
Recent work has examined light manufacturing of consumer goods for global export in Mexico (by Maria Patricia Fernandez-Kelly), in Malaysia (by Aihwa Ong), and elsewhere. Carla Freeman explored the emerging global trade in white-collar services and, in so doing, highlighted the management of self-required by such industries. The sociologist Arlie Hochschild opened up an important line of inquiry into caring work, including both paid and unpaid caring for children, the elderly, and the ill, raising important feminist questions about the cultural frameworks surrounding contemporary labor, and Josiah Heyman explored the labor of consumption (again with a gendered perspective) seen as the production of daily life within commoditized societies. Clearly, the list can go on because labor is indeed fundamental to human existence.
1. Applebaum, H. A. (Ed.). (1984). Work in market and industrial societies. Albany: State University of New York Press.
2. Applebaum, H. A. (Ed.). (1984). Work in non-market and transitional societies. Albany: State University of New York Press.
3. Nash, J. C., & Fernandez-Kelly, M. P. (Eds.). (1983). Women, men, and the international division of labor. Albany: State University of New York Press.