Work and Makeshifts

Ann: a workshop in Vienna, 28 November

Work and Makeshifts - Vienna 11/08

Production of Work-Team (ERC Starting Grant; principal investigator: Dr.Sigrid Wadauer), Department of Economic and Social History, University of Vienna, Vienna 28.11.2008-29.11.2008, Marietta Blau Saal, University of Vienna, Dr.Karl Lueger-Ring 1, A-1010 Vienna

Since the 1970s, the term economy of makeshifts has proven an innovative and useful tool for historians of poverty, welfare, and work. It highlights the fact that making a living is not limited to income from gainful (self-)employment or alternatively to (sufficient) welfare support. Making a living has very often relied - and still relies - on an irregular mix of different resources. Moreover, the term economy of makeshifts has helped to free historical research from an earlier fixation on the public administration of poverty and on its representations of the poor.The terms work and makeshifts are ambiguous, however. Firstly, speaking of work and makeshifts runs the risk of neglecting the manifold, changing and often contradictory character of what was seen as work and non-work, makeshifts and non-makeshifts, poverty and non-poverty in different contexts. These definitions are not based on intrinsic attributes of practices. Rather, practices change meaning and value according to changes in their historical contexts, and these contexts change according to changes in practices. What is seen, for example, as reasonable maintenance changes with the emergence of new possibilities of work and social support. These changes, however, do not occur homogeneously on a national or statewide scale. There are regional differences as well as differences between cities and rural areas.

Mobility, to cite another example, is often seen as closely linked to the economy of makeshifts. Mobility itself, however, has no fixed meaning. It can be part of a legitimate occupation or career; it can be a makeshift or even a criminal activity in another context. Its actual meaning and value also vary according to age and gender. Secondly, definitions of work, makeshifts or poverty imposed by states (or made ex post facto by historians) are not necessary identical to people's own perceptions and (practical) definitions. In fact, that was seldom the case. Thirdly, the poor are not the only ones who rely on patchy strategies to earn their keep. This is most obvious in economic crises. Yet even in more or less "normal" times, people who do not live near the subsistence level may also mix gainful work and other strategies to organize their livelihood. We might consider makeshifts as necessary not only for merely material survival. Nowadays, debates on precarity refer to this aspect.Finally, making a living has social and symbolic moments as well. It is not only a matter of economics and cannot be reduced to mere material or physical (re-)production. It varies and changes according to time and place, social position and throughout the course of one's life.In sum: work and makeshifts are not fixed but are subject to change, relationally as well as historically. Their meaning and value have been and still are at stake.

To explore how work and makeshifts are historically produced, altered and interrelated, the workshop will bring together researchers dealing with these questions in various case studies.

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