The Reconfiguration of Labour: Reflections for Contemporary Anthropology

International workshop arranged by the Anthropos and the Material project.

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo

Call for papers


Across the contemporary world forms of work and employment are being transformed at the same time as they are being made the subject of political negotiations, cultural and moral critiques, and profound rethinking. How can we ethnographically trace – and think with and about – the ambiguities of contemporary labour regimes? For example: How do we conceptualize and understand the (re)making of entrepreneurial subjects and the outsourcing of risk, the construction of special economic zones, the tensions and ambiguities of affective labour, or the role of corporations, unions, or indigenous federations as substitutes for the state in the enactment of public regulation and/or welfare? In the early 21st century we witness changing state forms, changing configurations of capital and corporate power and increased preoccupation with management of health and safety. What are the specific implications for work and labour?

The examination of labour was decisive for key figures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ social sciences – such as Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. In the 1970s and partly in the 1980s, anthropology saw a strong (often Marxist- and feminist-inspired) interest in the comparative investigation of labour regimes and labour processes – and in the same period some of economic anthropology’s key perspectives and most influential concepts (such as “the informal economy”) were developed and given shape. To what extent, or on what terms, should or could classical divisions (between the rational and the irrational, paid and unpaid, work and leisure, center and periphery, formalisation and informalisation) be put to use in order to ethnographically map and explore contemporary labour regimes?

Today’s western debates about global restructurations in contemporary capitalism, or about the neoliberal, tend to raise the question of whether permanent, waged work generally, perhaps lastingly, is becoming something more uncertain, rarer, than it seemed to be in a few decades up to the 1970s in parts of North America and Europe. Yet today’s preoccupation with the precarious and insecure nature of most work and employment needs to be situated in a far wider and deeper history that includes western colonialism and its aftermath. Put differently, let us ask: What generates concern in the first place? How is precariousness experienced? Do we see the appearance of new or altered, contemporary forms of (economic, social and cultural) precarity? How are informalised economies and short-term contracts coped with and experienced? How do changing and uncertain environmental circumstances impinge on the possibilities and/or difficulties of producing, working, and securing a living?

In this workshop we invite a broad anthropological engagement with our world’s manifold and shifting labour realities. We are particularly interested in grounded ethnographies from different parts of world-society that examine labour regimes and labour processes both as expressions of specific histories and as forms of practices, knowledges and experiences. Finally we are interested in anthropology’s shifting relationship to examinations of labour. How have particular anthropological schools and/or authors looked at, or treated, work and labour? What might one learn from it? Examples of issues that could be raised include but are not limited to:

  • Why, and how, should anthropologists seek to explore the diverse ways in which contemporary labour forms are being reconfigured?
  • What is the relationship between particular labour regimes and particular forms of state-making (including production or dismantling of welfare)? How do changing law and/or regulation impinge on work realities and work forms?
  • In what ways is work constitutive of subjectivities, of health, and/or well-being?
  • What is the part played by organized labour or unions? What kinds of political collectives emerge in the face of an increasing sense of inconstancy, heterogeneity and informality – and what kinds of changes, or stabilizations, do they address?
  • In which ways can an ethnographic focus on labour practices further our understanding of how economic and social forces are registered in working bodies? Or, how do the bodies of working people register new uncertainties and/or social tensions produced by the conditions of work.


The workshop is an outcome of a wider effort at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oslo, i.e the collective research project "Anthropos and the material". As part of this broader project a number of anthropologists based at the Department in Oslo have formed a reading group: The Labour Reading Group. The group has had a series of meetings over the last three semesters and have read and discussed texts together, pieces that have in common that they deal with forms of economic analysis and economic anthropology, and especially the understanding of features of labour and work. A complete list of the works read and discussed by the group and an overview of the group's meetings is accessible here: Please have a quick look at the reading list when you prepare your paper and see whether there is a piece or a couple of references on the list that might be of help and that perhaps may be used, in one way or another, to try to contribute to the development of a collective project. We stress that this is only meant as an encouragement. Nothing here is required or obligatory.  Please feel entirely free to shape your paper the way you think is most productive.

The workshop will be an informal two-day event, with 11 or 12 papers and around 16-18 participants in total. We now have 11 confirmed papers (by Sylvia Yanagisako (Stanford), Massimiliano Mollona (Goldsmiths), Jan Grill (Manchester), Cecilie Ødegård (Bergen), Penelope Harvey (Manchester), Alanna Cant (Oslo), Elisabeth Schober (Oslo), Keir Martin (Oslo), Ingjerd Hoem (Oslo), Susanne Brandtstadter (Cologne/Oslo), Christian Krohn-Hansen (Oslo)) and 14 confirmed participants. There may be a 12th paper and we will have two or three more participants without own paper. This means most probably 6 papers the first day and 6 or 5 the second day. The workshop will take place at hotel Soria Moria, located just outside the city center of Oslo. The workshop will start in the morning on Friday the 12th, and we live and eat our meals at the hotel.


Paper titles and 250-word abstracts must be submitted by MARCH THE 15TH, 2015. Please send your title and abstract to Kristian Sandbekk Norsted:

All participants with a paper will be allocated 60 minutes in the program. Presentations should last approximately 30 minutes -- and the rest of the 60 minutes will be used for comments, questions and discussion. When we have an overview of the various presentations with their titles and contents we will secure that each paper is provided with a "discussant" -- a person that starts the round of comments and discussion. In other words, the format will be as follows: Each presenter talks for around 30 minutes. Then one of the other participants is given maximum 5 minutes for comments, and thereafter all take part in the discussion.

About pre-circulation: This workshop does NOT operate with pre-circulation of the papers as something necessary -- let me therefore underscore that it will be perfectly possible to present contributions without having pre-circulated. BUT: We have decided that we wish to encourage participants to pre-circulate texts -- to try to produce a stronger foundation for the discussions in the workshop. Here is the deal concerning this voluntary pre-circulation: All are encouraged to submit their presentation in written form BY JUNE THE 2ND, 2015. The text may be of two types: either it is more or less the exact version of what you intend to present in the 30 minutes that you have for your talk in the workshop; or it is a shorter or longer written version. Maximum word-length for these pre-circulated papers is 7000 words (in other words, you may pre-circulate a 7000-word text and present a considerably shorter version of it in the workshop). Please send your text by June the 2nd to Kristian Sandbekk Norsted: . When we have received the texts we will immediately make them available by e-mail to all the participants of the workshop. Again, pre-circulation is voluntary, not required -- but please use it if you believe it may be useful.

We have already booked a number of hotel rooms at Soria Moria Hotell. Participants who arrive from the US, England, Germany, or Bergen must arrive at Soria Moria the day or evening before the workshop starts -- that is, on June the 11th. They may leave in the evening or late evening June the 13th.  Participants based in Oslo may check in on the 12th and spend the night from the 12th to the 13th at the hotel. For all: Please write an email to Kristian Sandbekk Norstad: by March the 15th and say whether you wish to have a room at the hotel -- and whether you need it from the 11th to the 13th, or from the 12th to the 13th. -- As you will have understood, Kristian takes care of organizational issues -- please send abstracts, texts, and information about hotel directly to him. After March the 15th Kristian will contact you directly by email and ask whether you would like assistance with travel arrangements / booking of tickets. At any rate, please use Kristian to discuss travel arrangements.

Published Jan. 5, 2015 2:53 PM - Last modified Jan. 13, 2015 10:52 AM