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Jobs, Work, Class, and Public Education: The Work to Become an Anthropologist in Argentina

Published onDec 08, 2023
Jobs, Work, Class, and Public Education: The Work to Become an Anthropologist in Argentina

Reflection about the ways of accessing material resources (work), while we study, requires focusing on personal experiences, group and social ones, institutional frameworks, and the local histories themselves. How should we support ourselves as students in college and graduate school? This question refers to thinking about what we have to support. In this text, I will focus on my experience, thinking about the complex social production of what it means to become an anthropologist. I argue that becoming an anthropologist depends on the possibilities that institutions allow us.

First, I must briefly explain the Argentine educational system. Of course, not all of us start from the same conditions to access the university; many also need to “work” to maintain studies or family. I am a graduate--and postgraduate—from the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), the largest university in Argentina, which in 2021 turned 200 years old. The UBA currently has more than 300,000 undergraduate students.1 Added to that are postgraduate students. The UBA is a public, free-access university with academic freedom. The fact that the university is open and free of charge implies that, in principle, students are not required to compete for places in any degree course, nor is it necessary to have a specific high school grade average to choose a degree. You must just enroll in the desired career degree and pass the Ciclo Básico Común (Common Basic Cycle) entrance course. The public, free, secular educational system has been part of the egalitarian imaginary in Argentina. This imaginary was undermined, however, with the growth of neoliberal policies and the erosion of the public education system during the 1990’s. Nevertheless, the Universidad de Buenos Aires has remained a space of academic excellence and social prestige.

A second clarification requires positioning myself. I am male, cis (I identify with the gender I was born with); I come from a middle-class Jewish family; I am a porteño, “white” (this label has a different meaning than in other countries).2 Although I had to work for a living, my background gave me some cultural and economic capital. I did my high school (1992-1998) under Menem’s presidency (1989-1999), during which the country experienced tremendous economic changes that led to general impoverishment. My family was no exception; my father’s business selling roulette wheels closed its doors, and we lost our savings and the house where I had lived since I was born.

In 1998, when I was starting the Common Basic Cycle (the first year of the University of Buenos Aires, a cycle that all students of all majors must take), my family rented an apartment, we moved, and my father opened a new business selling spare parts. The change of government (to the opposition party) in 1999 failed to reverse the downturn. Subsequent governments continued on the same path. By my graduation, unemployment exceeded 25 percent of the population, and the poverty rate topped 50 percent. My graduate thesis on cartoneros (scavengers) reflects the social consequences of neoliberalism.

Working in the spare parts family business was my first long-term job. I worked from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Then I left for the Philosophy and Letters faculty, where I studied between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. I worked in a small warehouse located about 20 minutes from the university.

At work, the routine varied over the month and years. The new business was built on some leftover merchandise from the previous one. There were still roulette wheels to sell, and little by little, my father was looking for new products. The employees had also worked in the broken business. Although my father’s previous company had its own building, the new one operated in a small, rented place. We were six employees. There was a division of tasks between the more administrative and sales tasks and the “warehouse” tasks. I was preparing orders for crossheads, lamps, bearings, and spark plugs in the second section. I unloaded heavy containers. Then we had to control all the merchandise, classify and order it.

The orders arrived by fax to the administrative area. Then, they passed the orders to the two or three of us, depending on the moment. There, we looked for the requested merchandise, packed it, weighed it, and labeled it to send to the buyers after lunch, which took place between 12:45 and 2:00 p.m. Some afternoons, I had to take the heavy loads to the different transports that would take the orders to other provinces.

This division of tasks also generated the social construction of masculinities and femininities. The workplace was predominantly masculine. While it wasn’t the same space I remembered from my childhood where bikini photos hung on the walls, there was still talk of football, machismo jokes were made, and on many Friday nights, we would go out for eat asado (barbecue) and drink wine. I learned that work was much more than just earning money. It was a space for sociability and friendship.

I lived at home with my parents and worked hard for the family. This was a central point that marked for several years my academic questions but, above all, my psychoanalytic questions (a common practice of middle-class porteños): working without a salary as part of caring for the family. I never really understood if, for my father, my work was “start from the bottom,” doing unskilled and less specialized work, or if he had me there because he needed an employee he didn’t have to pay a salary to. But it also raised specific questions about work relationships, family, forms of dependency, and what a salary implies in a family job. Discursively, in 1998 my relationship with my father’s business had been established as a moral obligation: to help the family survive.3 This is a central point in labor studies that refers to “moral obligations” and the relationships between intimacy and economy and the value and worth of work.

After the change of government and during the Kirchnerism (2003-2015), things started to improve, and the business began to grow. In 2003, I traveled to China with my father to study products we might sell. As a future anthropologist, this trip, the first of four, profoundly influenced me. Moreover, these trips brought me closer to my father, and I began to understand and learn about the work he always envisioned I would continue.

My trajectory was undoubtedly marked by the crisis the country experienced. In Argentina, legitimate access to social reproduction came from the labor market for years. As the anthropology of work and the anthropology of unemployment show, solid moral constraints (social, group, and individual) build the frameworks of possibility around which activities can be carried out. The question of who has access to which the labor system of each country shapes sorts of jobs and situationally.

In 2018 at an international conference, I met a colleague who told me, “I remember that you used to wear overalls to college.” This professor was proud of me for being a “worker” studying at the university, even more so in 2002, during the “crisis.” I never corrected her, but I’m sure I never went to the university dressed like that since part of my routine was to shower and change at the end of work hours. But why, even twenty years later, did I not try to disarm that founding myth of the worker-student?

That look, the student in overalls, was linked to the imaginary of ascending social progress. At the same time, it was related to the moral self-image of the people who dedicate themselves to anthropology. When I was studying, there was a geography of asceticism related to a political commitment within anthropology, which also manifested in the imaginaries about our jobs and how we should earn a living. Sociability in the public university became a space where different social groups mixed, with diverse trajectories, religions, origins, and future aspirations. This diversity in university sociability undoubtedly enriched my experience and provided a conducive environment for exchanging ideas and understanding different perspectives.

Both these looks—approving nods to students in overalls and disdainful looks at visible wealth—balance a central problem around the notion of “meritocracy” that usually governs the academy. Individualism and our own trajectory production are generally criticized when we study social groups. We know that gender, race, and class matter. But it is difficult to think better “inwards” about our own careers. When we look at or explain our own trajectory, social and class positions often disappear.

I do not want to say there is no effort or “merit” in constructing academic careers. Still, our history and our social conditions are essential.4 In my path, other jobs also helped me live during my last years of graduate courses and doctoral studies.

In 2003, after several years, due to an old investment from my father, we opened a restaurant together with some partners, which became a success in a few months and a year later made some profits. The restaurant was also a place of work and friendships for me. Between 2003 and 2004, I performed various tasks, including administrative duties, receiving guests, arranging tables, serving as a waiter, and working as a cashier. A few years later, when we opened another restaurant, I worked as a “manager.” This involved taking and overseeing orders, being attentive to the staff, resolving or replacing absences, ensuring things ran smoothly in the kitchen and dining area, welcoming and seating guests, and so on. I carried out this work twice a week in 6-hour shifts between 2006 and 2011 when I decided to sell my share in both restaurants amid some disputes among other partners.

At the end of 2003, I became a professor in anthropology, and at the end of 2004, I defended my thesis, thus obtaining a degree. At the beginning of 2004, I won an internal competition at the university to start teaching, while I also taught Logic and Human Sciences at a secondary school. In 2005, I obtained a scholarship from CONICET to complete my doctorate. With this money, together with my partner’s salary, we managed to rent a small apartment. However, trajectories are not usually linear, and the vocation crisis hit me hard in 2005. I moved away from research for a while, then returned a year later with a scholarship from the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO) and another to finish my doctorate at CONICET.

My academic career is based on a particular form of “merit” and a set of active policies around CONICET, especially by the Kirchnerista governments (2003-2015).5 Year after year, the scholarships and the academic positions at CONICET multiplied (we can later debate the salary conditions, which, although low, were by far the best I have experienced). But at the time, my job at the restaurant gave me a bonus salary that allowed me to manage the uncertainty of my academic career. Since 2011, I have been a permanent researcher at CONICET as well as professor at the University of Buenos Aires.

I am sure that my academic work is shaped by my jobs and the processes I lived while studying. Living in uncertainty was part of my life for several years and became the central theme of my investigations. I have been trying to figure out how people deal with uncertainty and how uncertainty is socially constructed. I also understood that work, employment, or unemployment were complex processes and that people use these notions situationally. Even more, I started understanding ways of earning money and resources as a part of how people live a life worth living. Uncertainties reveal the moral values around life.


I thank Carrie Lane for the opportunity, once again, to participate in collective reflections on anthropological work and for her patience, as this is a second version of a text that I lost when my computer decided to stop functioning. Anthropology is also made of these things.

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