Beginning in 2010, the Society for the Anthropology of Work has given an award each year for a book highlighting the theme of work. The criteria are relevance to the anthropology of work, significance of the research, clarity and effectiveness of the presentation, and appeal to a wide readership in anthropology and beyond. Books which are based on fieldwork and have not received other awards are given preference. Two years out of three the award is for a single-authored or co-authored monograph and every third year for an edited collection.
In the four years of the award, this year was the first time that the committee rated the top two books too closely to select one over the other. Both winners develop public health themes, but in very different contexts and very different ways.
In Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (University of California Press, 2013), Seth Holmes accompanies Oaxacan Triqui Mexican farm laborers, many of whom speak neither Spanish nor English, from their homes in southern Mexico to Washington and California. He reframes classic participant observation as “embodied anthropology” (sharing a dangerous border crossing, substandard living conditions, and backbreaking farm labor). The multi-sited study includes ethnographic accounts of life in seasonal labor camps, mainly on strawberry farms. Holmes applies the concept of structural violence to the discrimination based on race, ethnicity and class, as well as the direct physical causes of suffering, experienced daily by the migrants. One critical topic addressed is the economically devastating impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has allowed cheaper corn imports to displace corn-farming in the migrants’ home village. Another is the white-skin and class privilege observed in a medical clinic, in a fast food restaurant, and in the contrast between the comfortable working conditions of the field supervisors and those of the Triqui field workers. As an MD as well as an anthropologist, Holmes practices advocacy anthropology. His analysis is particularly illuminating against the backdrop of current debates about industrial agriculture, health care priorities, and immigration reform.
In Labor Disorders in Neoliberal Italy: Mobbing, Well-Being, and the Workplace (Indiana University Press, 2012) Noelle Molé ties “mobbing” to the rise of neoliberalism in the northeastern Venuto region. She places both in the context of the contemporary Italian state, with its legacy of Catholicism, paternalism, and worker protections. “Mobbing” refers to bullying by bosses, peers or subordinates intending to force well-established, usually competent workers to leave their jobs. In Italy the practice escalated in the 1990s with the increasing displacement of protected jobs (those with benefits and long-term security) by non-protected jobs. Although women are affected most often by “precariousness” and “mobbing,” claims of “moral harassment” are more compelling than those of “sexual harassment.” Molé’s innovative fieldwork in office workplaces and health centers results in a powerful analysis of the ways “mobbing” is seen in the Italian context as a health condition rather than a labor issue. With deep roots of resistance and the, as yet, incomplete social transformation, hopes for assistance and continued legal protection shape workers’ understandings when jobs are lost. Many throughout the world will recognize her portrayal of the impact of the “new economy” on the economic, physical, and psychological well-being of workers experiencing the insecurities of “flexible” labor markets.
Each of the two winners makes an important contribution to the anthropology of work and to the anthropology of public health. Together with the third finalist, Daniel Mains’ Hope is Cut: Youth, Unemployment, and the Future in Urban Ethiopia (Temple University Press, 2012), they are outstanding examples of a broadly conceived anthropology of work with implications that extend well beyond traditional workplace boundaries.
Contact SAW Contributing Editor Susanna Donaldson at email@example.com.