Edited by James G. Carrier
Chapter 9: Industrial Work
Jonathan Parry Industrial work has had some bad press. Consider Charles Dickens’s Coketown ‘where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness’. Consider the ‘robotisation’ of the assembly-line worker, and the resigned monotony of a regime that imposes, in Jean-Paul Satre’s acid formulation, ‘a captive consciousness kept awake only the better to suppress itself’ (quoted in Beynon 1973: 20). And remember that it is one thing to force people to come to work, and another to persuade them to work when they have come. How is that done? Teleological narratives Although from different theoretical positions, industrialisation is often represented as an inexorable process that has determinate effects on economy, society and culture. Industrial societies are qualitatively different from preindustrial ones and, not withstanding their different starting points, converge on the same design. The English Industrial Revolution pioneered the path that others would tread. The implication once unblushingly drawn was that industrialisation in Africa and Asia would lead the late-starters along a trail blazed by Birmingham. Tribesmen would become townsmen; peasants would become proletarians. As Gluckman (1961: 68–9) famously claimed, ‘an African townsman is a townsman, an African miner is a miner’ who ‘possibly resembles miners everywhere’. Teleological narratives of this sort are not fashionable in contemporary anthropology. Culture must count that anthropologists may dine; and we find plenty of instances in which the expected transition to an urban–industrial way of life has not occurred,...
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