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Work - Pre-capitalist Civilizations: The Incas, India, And Classical Greece And Rome, European Ideas From The Late Roman Era To The Industrial Revolution

activities life little labor

Work as a unitary experience, set off in time and place from the rest of life, is a concept bound in the culture of wage labor (see especially Thompson, 1967, on disciplined promptness and time regulation accompanying factory work). Only when effort—physical and mental—is turned into a commodity sold to an employer who then monitors and controls it can we discern an abstract concept of "work." Other concepts stand outside of that context, such as "a work" being a finished product of a craftsperson or artist, or work divided into concrete activities of particular people—warrior, farmer, smith, and so on. The situation where productive activities blend into the overall flow of daily life especially challenges our commonsense notion of work. In the recent past of the Dobe Ju/'hoansi of Botswana, women, men, and children sporadically gathered plant foods and hunted small animals, interspersed with visiting, eating, and relaxing. Hunting large animals, performed by men, stood out from the rest of life because meat was desired and was the basis for much social interchange. But although the ethnographer Richard Lee could designate specific activities as "work" in his own cultural terms, and count the hours and minutes spent in them (surprisingly little time was needed to produce quite satisfactory subsistence), no clear concept equivalent to abstract work emerged from the Ju/'hoansi themselves.

Many cultures do distinguish activities requiring disciplined effort and focus to produce a concrete result, however. Among farmer-fishermen living by Lake Titicaca, Benjamin Orlove found that the general word work (Spanish trabajo or Quechua llank'ay) was used only in conjunction with a specific activity. This demanded concentrated effort, often physical but sometimes mental, and produced a tangible product, so that fishing was "work" while repairing nets while sitting, chatting, and relaxing was not. The richest study of work embedded in culture is Bronislaw Malinowski's ethnographic classic, Coral Gardens and Their Magic (1935), which focuses on the rituals of birth, growth, and death and the magical control over chance that envelop South Pacific farming and fishing. Although there is a long tradition of considering labor to be the defining human characteristic (e.g., Karl Marx, discussed below), when looking across cultures we see instead a pattern of alternation between disciplined routine and vibrant, expressive release. Both qualities, then, must be part of our understanding of humanity.

Another methodological concern in studying work is that upper-class intellectuals have produced most of the texts. There are two serious problems with writing a history of the idea of work based solely on these authors, who may or may not have personally experienced or carefully observed nonintellectual labor. First, they represent the interests, perspectives, and biases of their social origin and position. Second, they often take the articulate words of intellectuals to be the sole or characteristic voice of their era or place. But these authoritative sources do not necessarily represent the full range of ideas within a complex and unequal society, even if they do influence the notions of others. Thus in a society dominated by men, we often hear little about women's ideas of work; in a society of landowners, artisans, and slaves, we often hear little from the latter two groups. How are we to rectify this? We should locate and listen to working people's voices as directly as possible, through novels and diaries (e.g., Levi), or at least such voices mediated by careful and sympathetic observers (e.g., Mintz; Nash). And we should be imaginative in uncovering evidence about the conceptual lives of nonintellectuals, paying attention to folklore, jokes, inscriptions on products, and so on.

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