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Archaeologies of Labor
29 February 2024
Archaeologies of Labor
The rise of the gig labor, the growing disparities in uncompensated household labor, and the expansion of exploitative immigrant labor have raised anew the question – what does it mean to work? Marx’s categories – of slave and wage laborer, bourgeoise and the artisan – seem both more present, and ever less useful as the nature, compensation and place of work changes. A more recent effort to taxonomize labor relations over the modern long-term has both reified these categories, around relationships with employers and the state, while also calling them into question. The Covid pandemic has re-introduced the category of “essential” worker, raising urgent questions about how societies allocate value to different kinds of work. Gig workers increasingly elide typical professional categories as they juggle multiple kinds of work in order to make a living. And immigrant laborers from harvesters to sex workers exist on the boundaries between freedom and enslavement as they trade their labor for cross-border movement.
This new world of labor urges us to reflect on labor practices in the deeper past and their material residues. What might archaeology reveal about the complex and category-resistant ways people worked in the past? Did certain kinds of activities yield a “professional” identity, and how were those identities constructed or blurred? What kinds of labor both reified and defied gender, age or legal categories and how can we read these relationships from the material record? Are enslaved and free labor as tasks or as people distinguishable and how? And how might horizonal relationships between workers, as well as vertical ones, impact the meaning of work?
This issue seeks articles which critically examine the complex characteristics of work in the past. Labor practices which elide categories and typologies – cross-craft workshop practices, jobbing, convict and itinerant labor, or labor done by both enslaved and free– are of particular interest. So too are studies which shed light on the relationships between jobs and identities, such as the concept of profession, the definition and practice of “child” labor, or the construction of pejorative identity categories by elites. As labor as an act is largely proxied through its product, articles which reflect on how labor is reconstructed from the archaeological record are also welcome.