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Subjectivations of Work: Subjectivations in Labour

Étienne Bourel et Judith Hayem
Cet article est une traduction de :
Subjectivations du(es) / au travail. Subjectivations en travail [fr]

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  • 1 We refer principally to Genre et savoirs, which Magalie Saussey coordinated with Hélène Guétat-Bern (...)

1The many pronouncements on transformations in work or labour (“digitalization”, “increasing automation”, “uberisation”, “externalization”, etc.), often presented as structural and permanent, must be examined with circumspection. This was one of the goals that we had set for this issue, following upon exchanges with members of the editorial board, especially Magalie Saussey, whose insight greatly influenced our call for contributions1.

2Do we not find the trace of older historical forms of work, such as piecework, in what at first appears to be profoundly new? Following Sébastien Broca (2017), an understanding of digital labour would imply a redefinition of conventional conceptions of “work”. However, in La Nouvelle Revue du Travail (2018: 9), Sarah Abdelnour and Sophie Bernard speculate in these terms: “If digital technology allows for […] the distribution of tasks on a global scale, in an almost instantaneous manner, does work on digital platforms not however resemble forms of labour that characterized the beginnings of industrialization?” Symmetrically, a recent volume of the journal Sociologies pratiques (2017) called, for example, on envisioning digital technology as a catalyst as well as an amplifier of older tendencies. How then to “separate reflections on technology and society from the screed of unceasing novelty, which imposes a future without prospect?” (Le Bot et al., 2017: 20).

Directions in contemporary analyses and debates

3This issue of the Journal des anthropologues continues the task begun by L’Homme et la société fifteen years ago in a volume entitled “Global work, singular work”. Here, we commit to “questioning the reducing of these transformations to great homogenizing tendencies such as development of public service, deindustrialization, etc.” Today we could add “uberisation” to this list of qualifiers that, to continue the citation, all “acquire” “rapidly the function of mythologies concealing the singularity of these situations” (Didry et al., 2004: 11).

  • 2 In the crisis years that characterized anthropology following decolonization and the closure of sev (...)

4This issue also holds a singular place in the history of our journal with regards to its reflection on work and labour. Launched at the end of the 1970s and then named the Bulletin de l’AFA, it served as an echo chamber in the 1980s for the practice of contemporary anthropology, where Gérard Althabe2 promoted the conduct of anthropology in companies and corporate settings. This took place alongside debates over the terms of involvement of anthropologists and applied anthropology alike. In a different manner, these questions also interrogated work itself. This volume is officially the fifth Journal des anthropologues to be devoted principally to work. If one considers separately the prolongations of Marxist anthropology made possible by the 2009 volume in honor of Claude Meillassoux (n. 118-119), one can note that an initial issue focused on anthropology of companies and corporate settings as a theme in and of itself (n. 43-44) in 1991. In 1996, attention was then broadened to the entrepreneurial figure (n. 66-67). The proponents of these themes turned next toward more general questions, such as monetary ones or that of globalization. Finally, in 1999, an issue devoted a major part to labour in its consideration of the “new economic and hierarchical configurations” (n. 77-78). The present volume can therefore be seen as a “return to labour” for the journal. Whereas the company (as a central place for evaluating social dynamics as a whole) is no longer the principal approach here, it nonetheless remains present as backdrop. This observation invites us to question the spatialities of work and capitalism (Harvey, 2006; Castree et al., 2004). The current issue thereby continues the interplay of diffraction and synthetization that has characterized the reflections on labour and work in the Journal des anthropologues.

5The articles that comprise this volume do not claim to be exhaustive. However, they illustrate, beyond our expectations, the persistent diversity in work conditions and forms of subjectivations. These subjectivations are as much at work as of work or due to work, and are more generally subjectivations in labour, as anticipated in our call for papers and stated in the volume’s title. The fieldwork in these case studies is particularly varied. While some took place in France, their geographies are multiple and often relate directly to global issues, without diminishing their singularity. It is largely the research objects themselves that open onto multiple horizons. Proof is amply given, if still needed, of the polymorphic nature of work in the contemporary world and, from the start, of all reflection based on it. This diversity is found in the discipline as well for, however much ethnographic methodology remains a norm in proposed readings, analyses are just as anchored in sociology as in ergonomics or philosophy, and would be in history too if our editorial space had allowed it.

6These contributions also reflect a true amplitude in scale, from the micro to the macro. Émile Duchesne’s article and Chloé Barbier and Pascale Moity Maizi’s one, respectively dedicated to the Quebec Innus’ relation to wage labour and the trajectory of the Paysans-Boulangers (Peasant-Bakers), thus examine aspects of the symbolic and the symbolization of work regarding “relations to the world.” Duchesne indeed shows how the Innus’ salaries allow them to maintain their traditional hunting activities, by securing the preservation of their mode of “production of the person”. As for the article on the Peasant-Bakers, it illustrates an attempt to challenge a sociotechnical system in its entirety. At the other end of the spectrum, in contrast, the quartet of anthropologists and ergonomists, Jeanne Robert, Constance Ruiz, Pascal Béguin, and Valérie Pueyo turn to the problematic of the technical gesture in an article dedicated to the little known and underestimated work of illusionists and live models. Since it is at play here, let us now highlight the role of the body in this volume’s articles. This unambiguous, major axis of the proffered reflections was already evident in the thirty-some proposals for contributions that we received and among which we had to make difficult choices. Central to a good half of these analyses, the body is tacitly a crucial component of the stakes involved in several activities described here, in another echo of the issues currently debated in social sciences on labour and work (La Nouvelle Revue du Travail, 2019). It is not so much suffering or exploited bodies that are emphasized here, but their use under the influence of imposed or self-imposed subjectivations.

Subjectivations in Work

7In order not to hold ourselves to the “ideological phantasms accompanying the perpetuation of capitalism” (Le Bot et al., 2018: 11) nor even to organizational analyses, and to avoid leveling effects that erase particularities and at times conceal the variety of configurations as well as abilities to act and think of those who do work, we hoped that the articles gathered in this volume would provide detailed ethnographies of work situations. But above all, we hoped that they would draw attention to the diversity of forms of subjectivations of those directly involved. And it is because, in our subjective view, Mario Chichorro’s work embodies this diversity and its contradictions that we chose his piece to illustrate our cover. We thank him greatly as well as his partner Marie Delbarre, who granted us permission for its use3.

8We deliberately did not assign a definitive, prior meaning to the notion of subjectivation, which we know to be much used and polysemic (Tumultes, 2014; Hayem, 2016, 2019). Instead, our call for papers described subjectivations as “subjective investments and ways of thinking”. If the mobilization of subjectivities is now a key demand of post-Fordist management (Mercure & Bourdages‐Sylvain, 2017), we aimed for displays of productions of subjectivities created by work today, and their potential diversity and contradictions. Included would be cases where subjectivation is understood and/or manifests itself as consecutive submission to recurring forms of control (Mercure & Bourdages-Sylvain, ibid.) or, on the contrary, as the production of a subject who seeks to emanci­pate or de-identify himself or herself from a designated position (see Jacques Rancière’s many uses along those lines) or else, as the pro­duction of a social imaginary (Hours & Selim, 2003; Althabe, 1969) and of possibles, even political prescriptions (Lazarus, 2001; Hayem, 2016, 2019). The wager of this incentive was that it might enable, through its anthropological approach, close attention to the original and sometimes unexpected meanings that workers of our time attribute, whether freely or under constraint, to their respective activities. Which words are borrowed or chosen by the actors to describe their work and to pronounce themselves on its future? Which issues do they raise in regards to the transformations in work? What effects do these varieties of subjectivations have on the ways to envision, conceive, and carry out work?

9The emphasis on “representations”, “imaginaries” and “horizons of expectations”, “subjective and physical engagements”, “aspirations” and “reformulations” in this series of articles is therefore one of the central points of this volume, in contrast to several other recent studies that focus on issues surrounding contractual reconfigurations of wage-earners and the consequences on work relations and the organization of work itself (La Nouvelle Revue du Travail, 2018; Tracés, 2017; Sociologies pratiques, 2017). This question is nonetheless present in our study, which, reflecting its epoch, also treats the case of digital platform capitalism as represented by bike couriers (Saraceno) and by the attempts of cooperatives of activity and employment (CAE) to form new modes of wage-earning, which offer, on their own terms, greater “autonomy” to their members (Bajart & Leclercq). The question of subjectivations also leads to parallels in contributions to recent critical social theories on the subject, whether in feminism (Simonet, 2018), intersectionality (Journal des anthropologues’ study on “Racism and Sexism”, 2017) or social issues (L’OURS, 2015).

  • 4 If one of the effects of intellectual commodification and digitalization of journals is the crossli (...)

10Indeed, it was particularly important to us that the political dimension of work and at work be identifiable here. Beyond theoretical arguments and scholarly debates on the alienating or emancipating aspect of labour (Jacquot et al., 2019; Tracés, op. cit.), what do lived experiences, actual forms of resistance and effective inventions at work reveal about expected, hoped, or real forms of emancipation? Be they potential political aspirations, social projects, or, if lacking collective ambition, individual life projects. Furthermore, and often in conjunction, which new forms of alienation, whether imposed, feared, avoided, deflected or suffered, are manifest in these productions of subjectivity? Do these configurations systematically reinforce individualism, as is readily deplored, or else do they at times generate new solidarities and social relations? And if so, how? This is the principal line of inquiry chosen for ordering the articles within this issue: from conformity to resistance to attempts at liberation. For this reason, it may be judicious to read the articles by following the table of contents, as one would leaf through a print volume page by page4.

11The volume opens with a series of articles that emphasize the effects of subjection at work. First, there are Giulia Mensitieri’s article on “making oneself fit to measure” in order to penetrate the world of fashion and Julien Debonneville’s study on the training imposed on Filipino domestic workers to be hired abroad − a training which appears as a veritable “conduct of conducts” as notes the author. These two illustrate particularly well how norms and positions are transmitted, employed, and appropriated by workers within a work hierarchy, these being intellectual as well as physical conformations. In turn, studies by Marco Saraceno and Patience Biligha manifest the ambivalence of subjectivities in the situations examined, as different as they may be. The bicycle couriers met by Marco Saraceno, like the Chinese sex workers met by Patience Biligha in Cameroon, assert the freedom from which they benefit through their work: whether in the autonomy gained vis-à-vis a manager and the pleasure and leisure of the race, or, for the second group, thanks to the distancing of patriarchal stereotypes and the financial autonomy acquired through sex work. And yet, on close examination, their representations and practices reveal that this declared freedom rivals with interiorized forms of neoliberal norms of which these actors are more or less aware.

12The awareness of the constraints imposed by systems of production, managers, or specific employment situations, and more broadly by society, as well as the will to break away or at least distance oneself from these constraints, is more explicit in the following articles. Nonetheless and strikingly, the initiative of landless cultivators in Brazil (Pascale Devette & Dan Furukawa Marques), gathered together in agricultural production cooperatives, is the only organized modality that appears to promote an agenda that is at once collective and political. This is certainly because it stems from an “actual political struggle” supported by an explicit philosophy of “companionship” as the article’s authors point out. In the other cases presented here, including that of cooperatives for activity and employment (CAE), the expression of demands in the various subjectivations at and through work is much more diffuse and diverse, and markedly less antagonistic. In several articles of this volume, it is less a question of confronting than of distinguishing oneself, through forms of invention and distancing from prevailing norms. These intentions inform us about how those concerned view the limits of capitalism and maneuvering within its system. Even if they are not representative of collective action groups, these ways of considering work and of working nonetheless create social ties and mutual aid. They even draw protagonists out of isolation and give them a concrete place in society, as shows Mélanie Duclos on the trajectory of Parisian waste pickers (biffins).

13Moreover, the “visibilisation” of completed work and its “recognition” as actual work constitute a transverse issue in several contributions here. This is particularly clear in the case of live models and illusionists, whose work consists precisely, and paradoxically, in rendering invisible the gestures that are at the heart of their activity (Robert et al.). As a result, they struggle for recognition of the specificity of their occupation and their “engagement” with it. As complementary as orthogonal, Giulia Mensitieri’s analysis of fashion exposes the moral codes of a social setting where positions determine consideration of work performance. The will and ability to promote occupations, knowledge, and practices are also important components in Patience Biligha’s article on Chinese women sex workers in Cameroon and Mélanie Duclos’ article on Parisian waste pickers. Drawing on the focus on subjectivations, the struggle for recognition (based on Axel Honneth’s definition, 1995) appears in several articles in this volume. Whereas the institutionalization of conflict is often absent, hidden or developing, acts of resistance are nonetheless discernable in several of the present configurations. One can likewise see the emergence of hidden transcripts, as James Scott (1990) understands it, in the conclusion of Debonneville’s article. This repudiates the idea of the seamless, unobstructed domination of the new global economic and political order. It also highlights the illusory nature of the emancipating ideal expected by uberised workers without a manager, or of the supposed freedom gained by independent entrepreneurs or by actors of the social and solidarity economic sphere (Abdelnour, 2017; Hely & Simonet, 2013). Should one see here the resulting consequence of the disappearance of work sites (places where social demands are thought of and developed) that we raised earlier? Without question. Let us add that an anthropological perspective has its own part in these questions, for field study itself can create openings for social claims, as in the case of Patience Biligha’s interviews of Chinese sex workers in Cameroon, and in the study of the illusionists and live models met by Jeanne Robert and Constance Ruiz. The style of the study may allow the researcher’s interlocutors to express their aspirations and claims. The means of emancipation are thus conveyed by the practitioner of social sciences.

14The choice to feature subjectivations is undoubtedly what makes this complex and nuanced tableau possible. Indeed, as varied as the interpretations of this term may be on the part of the volume’s contributors, they all focus attention on modalities of production of a subject and on their arguments, temporalities, and ambitions, rather than on an already present historical or political subject of/at work. There is no normativity nor ideology and little criticism in their approaches. In these circumstances, only continuing these investigations into the future will lead to knowing whether these subjectivations, like those of the landless workers, become political ones and give rise to collective action.

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1 We refer principally to Genre et savoirs, which Magalie Saussey coordinated with Hélène Guétat-Bernard (2014).

2 In the crisis years that characterized anthropology following decolonization and the closure of several fieldwork sites during the 1970s, Gérard Althabe emphasized the thematic (no difference between the near and the distant) and methodological (ethnological investigation carried out in the continuity of ordinary communication) unicity of anthropology. The anthropology of the contemporary that he promoted was therefore oriented towards urban and corporate contexts, first raising the question of the social situations experienced by the actors. The company was thus conceived as both a catalyzer and a mirror of social dynamics that permeate it, and not as a closed environment (See Journal des anthropologues n. 102-103 (2005) for more details).

3 One can discover other works by Mario Chichorro on his website and at his exhibits in the Pyrénées‐Orientales where he resides.

4 If one of the effects of intellectual commodification and digitalization of journals is the crosslinking of knowledge and the potential for dispersal of journal articles, let’s underline that the order of these articles reflects our editorial work and choices in creating a coherent whole.

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Étienne Bourel et Judith Hayem, « Subjectivations of Work: Subjectivations in Labour »Journal des anthropologues [En ligne], 158-159 | 2019, mis en ligne le 03 janvier 2022, consulté le 28 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Étienne Bourel

LADEC - Université Lumière Lyon 2.
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Judith Hayem

CLERSÉ-UMR 8019 CNRS. Faculté des sciences économiques et sociales − Université de Lille
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