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Book Review: Moral Economy at Work

Book review of Lale Yalçın-Heckmann's edited volume Moral Economy at Work: Ethnographic Investigations in Eurasia (2022)

Published onNov 25, 2022
Book Review: Moral Economy at Work

Moral Economy at Work: Ethnographic Investigations in Eurasia, edited by Lale Yalçın-Heckmann (2022). New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

The new edited volume Moral Economy at Work: Ethnographic Investigations in Eurasia contributes to the anthropological study of work by focusing on the moral dimensions of work in smaller settings. In this text, the authors show how a variety of value regimes as well as tensions between self-interests and moral norms shape the social organization of work. Their investigations on medium- and small-sized firms in Eurasia provide a different understanding of the processes of social reproduction, as these firms integrate household economies and enterprise in a manner more intimately than do factories.

The first three chapters explore the individual versus social level of the moral economy. Anne Erita Berta’s chapter explores what “being good” and “living good” mean for well-educated, middle-class small-business owners in Aarhus, Denmark – including bakery owners, toy sellers, and goldsmiths. For them, being good involves living a meaningful, entrepreneurial life that strikes a balance between profit and ethics. Such individual ideals constitute and reflect the moral values of Danish society, but only in a limited way. To her interviewees, these “values” mean that they charge “just prices,” sell locally produced goods, and pay fair wages to their employees. In response to attaining these values, Berta’s small-business-owner interlocutors expect to be recognized for “being good” at the same time that they remain able to maintain a healthy work-life balance. 

Laura Hornig describes how perceptions of subordination at work creates aspirations for self-employment in Pathein, Myanmar. Those who only have access to low-status employment would rather become “own account workers” due to their valorization of autonomy (p. 39). Hornig’s interlocutor Ko Ko chose to engage in a small-scale water-selling business because he values the power to decide over whether or when to work, even though he barely makes ends meet. Hornig suggests this autonomy is relational, as it must be understood along with social expectations pertaining to flexibility, such that these autonomous workers can meet demands from relatives or respond to emergency, such as caring for ill family members.

Akin to the aforementioned business owners in Denmark, tobacco-shop owners in Szeged, Hungary perceive themselves as morally benevolent vis-à-vis their workers. In chapter three, Luca Szücs shows how these employers’ ideas of goodness are rooted in the societal values of mutuality. Andras, a tobacco-shop owner, felt an obligation to help some frequently absent employees who were experiencing personal difficulties by not firing them. Szücs argues that such a decision, made in the name of solidarity, burdened other employees with additional work but can also be understood as an avoidance of the risks associated with new hires. 

Several of the chapters engage with the role of the state in shaping the moral economy. Daria Tereshina’s contribution looks at firms’ business strategies in Smolenks, Russia amid the transition from a state-controlled command economy to a market-driven version of capitalism. A failing small-scale garment manufacturer, Alekseevna, responded to market pressure by employing fewer workers and lowering salaries in order to continue the production of her business’s fancy-albeit-unprofitable dresses. Alekseevna refrained from purchasing low-quality fabrics and kept producing long-lasting coats out of respect for her clients. Tereshina understands that the owner’s strategy and persistence is rooted in multiple values, including individual subjective morality, Soviet-era ideals of building a “better future,” and Russian philosophies of resistance (pp. 120-121).

In contrast with Tereshina’s study on a small-scale manufacturer, Ivan Rajković describes a large car factory in post-socialist Serbia. Rajković specifically looks at contestations over a public-private partnership (PPP) scheme between the Serbian state and Fiat Chrysler, which culminated in workers protesting for salary increases, additional job creation, and lower output quotas. Rajković analyzes this division over moral obligations within the PPP scheme, in which paternalism is projected toward the state – meaning that capital becomes liberated from its social obligations, such as providing workers with accommodation (p. 137).

Moving away from examples in Eastern Europe, Sudeshna Chaki examines the Indian state’s economic policies aimed at creating new entrepreneurs in Palghar, India – a provincial town near Mumbai. Chaki’s research troubles the widely held assumptions of a linear pathway from trading to industry, by looking at the varieties of industrial development associated with entrepreneurs’ familial backgrounds. Instead of attributing the success of particular social groups to their entrepreneurial spirit, which is ultimately backed by state support, Chaki argues that the morality of kinship and modes of belonging shape capital-accumulation strategies.

State economic policy is not the only element that shapes the organization of work. Several chapters illustrate the role of kinship in shaping labor regimes and their implied obligations. In chapter five, Ceren Deniz elaborates on modes of labor recruitment and mobilization in Çor-mak, a medium-sized machine factory in Çorum, Turkey. Deniz observes that the morality of kinship influences the employer-employee relationship depending on which stage of life a firm is in. Employers may hire employees based on kin and familial relationships upon establishment of the business. However, merit and skill determine the continuation of employment in the long term. Furthermore, business owners may put familial values aside whenever these misalign with the firm’s interests. In the case of Enes, the nephew of Çor-mak’s co-owner, his recklessness at work, which resulted in a financial loss for the firm has caused him to experience temporal unemployment and threats (p. 108).

Detelina Tocheva, on the other hand, explores the morality of kinship in the organization of unpaid labor. Tocheva conducted research between the town of Plovdiv and Belan village, pseudonymous locales located in the south of Bulgaria. One of Tocheva’s interlocutors, Yassen, received help from his relatives to build a new house (p. 164). Tocheva argues that unpaid labor performed by kin members is not merely a form of reciprocity, but is also a result of social pressure and systems of trust within the informal economy.

This edited volume provides valuable insights into the lived experiences of ordinary citizens who do not neatly fit into the “rational, autonomous, self-regarding maximizers” category imposed by neoclassical economists (p. 186). Taken together, this set of ethnographic studies shows that a sense of justice experienced by different social groups at work can give insight into moral aspects of economies throughout the world. Scholars in the fields of economic anthropology, development studies, and labor relations will enjoy reading diverse examples of these phenomena from a wide range of locations across Eurasia.

Author Biography:

Made Adityanandana is a Ph.D. student in Development Sociology at Cornell University in New York. His dissertation is about the work experiences of migrant farmers in a state-led agricultural development megaproject in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

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