From the Archives

By Naomi Zucker

In this series, our contributing editors reflect on a set of articles from the archives of American Anthropologist that speaks to their research interests.

Hebert, Karen. 2015. “Enduring Capitalism: Instability, Precariousness, and Cycles of Change in an Alaskan Salmon Fishery.” American Anthropologist 117 (1): 32–46.

Mole, Noelle. 2010. “Precarious Subjects: Anticipating Neoliberalism in Northern Italy’s Workplace.” American Anthropologist 112 (1): 38–53.

Muehlebach, Andrea. 2013. “On Precariousness and the Ethical Imagination: The Year 2012 in Sociocultural Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 115 (2): 297–311.

Navarro, Tami. 2017. “But Some of Us Are Broke: Race, Gender, and the Neoliberalization of the Academy.” American Anthropologist 119 (3): 506–17.

As an emergent keyword in anthropology, precarity—or preciariousness—has become a way for scholars to attend to new and ongoing forms of economic, political, and planetary vulnerability and instability that have been produced, intensified, or redistributed by neoliberal rationality and policy. Anthropologists have found in precarity a useful analytic for thinking through how neoliberal projects are lived and felt, attentive to material and affective registers through which political-economic formations restructure lifeworlds, labor, relations, and subjectivities. As fieldworkers and concept-workers we are particularly well suited to study “actually existing neoliberalism” (Brenner and Theodore 2002) as it is emplaced and provincialized, always entangled in the push and pull between local and global. A set of recent articles in American Anthropologist take on these issues across various fieldsites and preoccupations, each attuned in their own ways to how precarity is produced, managed, and experienced within the labor regimes of neoliberal late capitalism. How, these authors ask, does precarity reconfigure relations between subjects and understandings of the self? Through what temporalities—anticipation, dread, cyclical return—does it manifest, and with what psychic and affective effects? What are we to make of precariousness in our own discipline—as both a popular analytic and a lived reality for contingent faculty—as much as an “out there” in the fields we study? As a student of US cities in a present characterized by spiraling inequality, increasingly precarious employment, and the ongoing corrosion of even the minimal provisions of a welfare state, I am especially interested in how precarity, as a mode of conceptual and ethnographic attunement, might help me think through questions about livelihoods and relations in today’s political-economic landscape. How are belonging, exclusion, and people’s sense of the future being reconfigured in these precarious times?

The first pair of readings focuses on specific sites of precarious labor and how they are experienced and interpreted by subjects navigating economic instability and uncertainty. In “Precarious Subjects: Anticipating Neoliberalism in Northern Italy’s Workplace” (2010), Noelle Mole explores the ways in which shifting labor regimes in Italy come to bear socially and psychically in the workplace via an anxious and paranoid anticipatory affect. Such affects, she argues, simultaneously index an acknowledgment of newly (and increasingly) precarious labor norms and recognition of older, still-remembered forms of stability and labor rights. “My contention,” she writes, “is that neoliberalism’s arrival becomes something worker-citizens anticipate and even dread: the sensory and experiential apprehension of neoliberal change acts as a unique force, which, in turn, shapes practices, knowledge claims, and moral orders” (40). Amid the tensions of a two-tiered workforce made up of long-term, secure labor with benefits, on the one hand, and precarious contract labor without benefits, on the other, Mole charts the rise in practices of “mobbing,” a form of psychological workplace harassment. As previously robust labor laws were abolished even as one’s employment status remained a crucial axis of personhood and value, she shows, living with and anticipating future risk came to shape both the texture of subjectivity and the psyche.

Moving from the Italian workplace, where people actively experience and reflect upon changing labor regimes, Karen Hebert’s “Enduring Capitalism: Instability, Precariousness, and Cycles of Change in an Alaskan Salmon Fishery” (2015) takes us to the fisheries of Bristol Bay, Alaska, where fishers incorporate their understandings of cyclical ecologies into their grappling with new forms of precarity produced by global capitalism. Studying an industry on the brink of ruin in the early 2000s, she shows how even as fishers sometimes deployed rhetorics of crisis as a denunciation of unacceptable conditions and a bid for state resources and support, they also assimilated the downturn into a longue durée narrative of cycles of growth and recession. These cycles, she shows, were familiar to a seasonal rural industry that has never been characterized by the protections and stability of urban industrial production and has always been subject to the unpredictable vagaries of climate and ecology. From this perspective, Hebert illustrates the distinct ways in which “the intimacy with ecological cycles that is the hallmark of resource livelihoods in Bristol Bay tunes producers to the vagaries of capitalism” (34). Struggling to adjust and compete within the free trade agreements of a globalizing economy, and lagging in infrastructure and resources, Alaskan fishers nevertheless drew on well-established understandings of the “cyclical nature of the fishery” (40) as a means of persisting and pursuing reinvention. Through this lamination of industrial and biological cycles—“spasmodic ecological rhythms, oscillations of biological populations, fluctuations in market prices” (40)—they fold capitalist precarity into visions of flux and return; “their effort to think outside the terms of capitalism,” Hebert writes, “bolsters their ability to persist in its midst” (35).

G20 protest banner. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The second pair of readings draws our attention inward, towards the workings of precariousness in academia itself, via a focus on both the experiences of contingent faculty and on the widespread disciplinary uptake of the term. In “But Some of Us Are Broke: Race, Gender, and the Neoliberalization of the Academy” (2017), Tami Navarro highlights the disjuncture between the proliferation of scholarship on neoliberalism and its effects elsewhere, and the persistent silence about the remaking of our universities and departments under the selfsame logics. “While anthropologists have paid increasing attention to neoliberalism in our research,” she insists, “we have been less willing to apply this lens to our own academic positioning and the ways these roles are shaped by privatization and market models” (506). Navarro sketches the highly precarious work environments faced by contingent academic labor, emphasizing the especially vulnerable positions occupied by women and people of color, who are overrepresented among contingent faculty, and highlighting “the neoliberal logic that masks these inequalities behind the language and practices of financialization” (507). Universities, she notes, are increasingly managed and understood as businesses, jeopardizing humanities and critical social science departments and establishing rigid hierarchies between tenure-track and contingent faculty, the latter bearing the brunt of teaching labor with none of the material resources, support, or stability guaranteed to their tenured and tenure-track peers. This “reliance on underpaid and devalued work,” Navarro insists, “runs counter to the disciplinary ethics of anthropology” (513).

Finally, in her review essay “On Precariousness and the Ethical Imagination: The Year 2012 in Sociocultural Anthropology” (2013), Andrea Muehlebach chooses precariousness as her organizing principle, charting how anthropologists have attended to forms of vulnerability and how people mobilize within and against them across the domains of capitalism, dispossession, protest, religion, and relations. “Precarity,” she writes, “is a shorthand for those of us documenting the multiple forms of nightmarish dispossession and injury that our age entails” (298). Living in a present in many ways “robbed of futurity” (297), she asks: What is the task of ethnography? Even as Muehlebach charts wide-ranging work on these “nightmarish dispossessions,” she takes a hopeful stance on the discipline’s potentials to both attend to people’s mobilizations and resistances, and to act in the world. “I want to dedicate this essay not only to our heightened attunement to precarity,” she insists, “but also to the strength and vitality of our better inquiries” (298). Invoking Trouillot’s thinking on anthropology’s “moral optimism” as one of the field’s “core and most appealing features” (298), she highlights contemporary efforts of scholars to speak in the public sphere in new forms—via engagements with policy and activism, in jobs outside the academy, and in new forms of scholarly publishing that respond to pressing social and political issues. Like Navarro, Muehlebach acknowledges the increasingly dire dynamics of the academic labor market and the precarity it produces and sustains, yet her tone remains positive: “if anthropology is held together by its moral optimism,” she notes, “then we need to consider how and to what effect . . . [it] travel[s] along and across academic and non-academic routes” (305).

Attuned to questions about labor, economy, environment, and landscapes of vulnerability, these works on precarity invite us to think materially and affectively about the stakes of present-day political, economic, and institutional orders. As I seek to find ways of thinking about the large-scale and the intimate together in my own work, precarity emerges as a possible bridging concept between materialist analyses of political economy and more affective approaches to the felt experience of life within them. Across contexts and scales, the concept of precarity can simultaneously direct attention toward the structures, conditions, and political forms that constrain life chances while illuminating the psychic, social, and relational transformations they engender as people struggle to build livable lives (Butler 2004) on hostile and uncertain terrain. As a self-reflexive, ethnographic discipline, anthropology is perhaps uniquely well suited to—and thus all the more responsible for—critically attending to these processes in our fieldsites and in our field.

Brenner, Neil, and Nik Theodore. 2002. “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism.’” Antipode 34 (3): 349–79.
Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.

Zucker, Naomi. 2018. “From the Archives: Neoliberal Precarities.” American Anthropologist website, April 5.

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