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While fieldwork has been lauded as the sine qua non of anthropology, the work associated with “making a living” or “putting oneself through school” has been far less acknowledged as sources of skills and insights suitable for an anthropological life. As I reflect on my working-class background, I see how my varied labor experiences provided great opportunities for valuing and practicing respect, humility, reciprocity, and service, long before I came to learn these to be core tenets of anthropology. My many exertions, both before and during college, have also been germinal for seeing a bigger world and its vast interconnectivities, and for recognizing how firmly ethnography is grounded in relational methods. I have come to realize as well how much these experiences shaped not only my values, but also my lifelong curiosity and advocacy regarding children’s activities, in highland Guatemala and schools and communities in the United States.
My admiration for the adaptability and tenacity of people across the world certainly has precursors in both in my own work experiences and in my ancestry. Expectation to work was foundational in the seven years my father’s father spent as a journeyman in Vienna, before he set up a cabinet-making shop in Prague. It was also central to the midwifery and food provisioning that characterized the work of women of Bohemia and Slovakia in the first half of the 20th century, to whom I trace descent through both parents. I inherited work ethic as well from my mother. Both of her parents managed to borrow sufficiently from relatives to pay steerage class across the ocean, and so escaped the impoverishment of small-scale farming and coal mining in Central Europe. Instead, they established life on forty acres in central New York, which my mother recalled, with a mix of tears and laughter, as sometimes little more than growing rocks. Pre-dawn milking and cooking and canning for a family of eleven were among the many chores done daily and with little question.
Preceding the assorted jobs that I had during college, and since, was a decade of laboring in and beyond home, beginning when I was nine or ten years old. A tradition of household labor that characterized much of my upbringing is of course cross-culturally common. My memories of childhood include working alongside my father and brother, doing house repairs as well as heating work, avenues open to my father after he arrived as a refugee in the early 1950s. When furnaces would go out, as seemed to happen mostly during blizzards and cold spells in upstate New York, I might be under a house, digging trenches and installing sheet metal piping for new central heating. Saturdays, and much of the summer, meant painting, repairing, carrying, cleaning, and otherwise pitching in, either “on a job” or at home. Basements and roofs were common settings. Sometimes I’d be atop a ladder, stretching to scrape and paint distant eaves. In a pre-harness era, I gained first-hand confirmation that fear of heights is completely rational human instinct.
My understanding of the links between labor and capital came largely through raising money in a variety of ways: mowing lawns in summer, raking leaves in autumn, and shoveling tons of snow in upstate New York winters. My awareness and love of seasonal cycles is grounded, literally and figuratively, in that labor. Earning also came through creating or taking opportunities: collecting returnable bottles, parking cars for sporting events at a nearby university, and especially through paper routes. Being a “paper boy” meant becoming adept at folding, lugging, and tossing newspapers, even while on a bicycle. It also brought lessons in fairness, including having to deal with being stuck for financial loss when “collecting” from customers who skipped out on paying. Perhaps my first stand against injustice was when, after a few days of being paid a pittance for carrying the entire load by an older boy who strolled as I struggled, I dropped everything mid-route, declared my outrage, and quit on the spot.
It was not lost on me that children in some nearby households enjoyed more leisure, even summer vacations. What I did learn, however, was that work was duty to family, with rewards yet to be realized. Resources — including time — were to be used carefully and fully. Metals and materials were to be sorted, long before this was called recycling. Thriftiness, planning, and long hours of work were modeled by my parents, and conscientiously encouraged in my siblings and me.
It is hardly surprising that other anthropologists, past and present, harken to having been on or near the margins. This can provide points of comparison regarding proclivity for either challenging or conforming to dominant conventions and beliefs, animating what poet Emily Dickenson referred to as telling “slant.” I imagine that my own dismay regarding having to work, when I’d rather have been out playing, along with discomforts with wearing hand-me-downs, have contributed to my empathy for those facing economic needs or social exclusion. My applied research with people facing displacement and violations of human rights undoubtedly also emerged in part from growing up in a household strongly influenced by labor and refugee realities.
To meet college expenses, I also took on a range of jobs, including some others might have avoided. Caring for a man with advanced Parkinson’s, I acquired experience in what I came to realize involved nursing skills and emotional labor. Helping elders in gardening not only led to a continuing passion for dahlias and landscaping, but was fortuitous for work study placement on grounds crew while at Haverford College. Not only could I be outdoors, but I also worked and lunched alongside Italian immigrants from Abruzzi and African American men from families that had come north as part of the Great Migration. I rather enjoyed waiting on tables during meals at Bryn Mawr College, which continued to be referred to as “waitressing” even after we pioneered co-ed dorms. Monitoring a usually deserted wing of the old gothic library meant hours of quiet for studying, along with income. Working as a security guard provided time for course readings and assignments.
Though much of my labor history was thought-out, some came about through being present or in the right place at the right time. When air hockey first appeared, I arranged to have a table installed in the student union, along with pin-ball machines. More than income, a pass key was key to instant popularity with students hoping to rack up a few free games.
Off-campus employment included pumping gas at a Getty station on Philadelphia’s wealthy Main Line, offering only premium gas along with service for Mercedes-Benz vehicles, meant regular lessons in inequality and privilege. A bit of dreaming, too, such as when first hearing “Layla” booming from a young woman’s fancy white convertible. Work sometimes involved taking chances. I surprised even myself by modeling for an art class. On another occasion, I agreed (for modest compensation, plus food and fun) to jump out of a large cake as a special surprise organized by women for a friend’s birthday.
Some of the most formative work I did during college and graduate school was unpaid labor. When hearing that the likes of Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall would be on campus, I jumped at the chance to accompany them to their engagements. That was heady stuff for a student, but also led much later to my favorite essay question for students: There you are, finding yourself next to [fill in name of notable personage]. Now, what’s your question?
As I encountered the many ways anthropology can be applied towards human needs and rights, in both undergraduate and graduate classes, I became increasingly involved in the work of solidarity and human rights. Four decades ago, as genocide enveloped Guatemala, it touched and took the lives of people that a budding anthropologist like me knew and cared for. News of atrocities in remote places like Guatemala was rare in the early Reagan years. So, in what was still a pre-computer era, I was more than ready to take on the task of mailing to thirty human rights and media organization copies of news clippings that were cut, pasted, and sent to me weekly from sources in Mexico. I began as well to devote time to organizing visits and media coverage for visitors from community and service organizations worldwide. Although such efforts did not end the violence, it helped in some measure to lessen its horrific scope, while awakening people in the United States to our government’s complicity. Such work has also provided powerful insights that continue to be relevant today. They include lessons about history, institutional power, and effectiveness and methodology of activism.
Work we may do prior to professional life may have multiple impacts on that life, as my experience exemplifies. In my case, the jobs I have had were unbelievably varied. They did not always conform to familiar schedules or been lucrative; some were not even income-generating. Yet together they encompassed a range of responsibilities, settings, personnel, and objectives – arguably as valuable as the advisories covered in methodological courses. My exertions entailed interacting with many diverse people, who are at once ordinary as well as being proficient, inspiring, and even visionary. Listening to them prepared me well for later ethnographic work. Opportunities to work together deepened my appreciation for the strengths inherent in cooperation and reciprocity. Diverse places of work deepened my awareness of the power of settings for shaping activities and routines, in turn shaping my ecocultural perspective as well.
As we engage in the work of learning about and working with people, the raison d’etre of our discipline, our own work experiences may serve as sources of guidance and preparation for the endeavors and challenges that we undertake as anthropologists. In doing so, we are as well likely to better approach what E.F. Schumacher means when writing about “good work.”
James Loucky is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.