The past wasn’t stable, so history shouldn’t be

Choosing a historical methodology to write about work, and why it matters

“Painting depicting the activities of the National Youth Administration,” Alden Krider, Kansas National Youth Administration, 1936, Oil on canvas. Held by FDR Library, Source.

When I used to teach history, the thing I’d struggle with was getting my students to realise that history was an interpretational practice. I’d ask them to consider the contested nature of current affairs, and then compare it to the sources they were reading about the 1950s, or the 1860s. Invariably they would see that people in the past were just as argumentative as people are today. I’d then ask them why they thought that there was one historical 'truth' that could somehow be uncovered, or why they yearned to settle the narrative about the past. I was fascinated by their belief in a magical point where the debate of people solidified into “truth” about the past. They could of course never identify such a point when pushed.

The way we approach the past really matters, and I want to talk through an example from my current research project. A few months ago I posted a working definition of work. I’ve been becoming more and more unhappy with it as time’s worn on. It’s far too materialist: it can’t contain or explain the psychic or emotional effects of work on our lives, and they matter. As Steven Salaita puts it in his recent post on post-academic life:

We mainly think of job loss in economic terms. It’s a reasonable focus; the suddenly unemployed must consider food and shelter in a society unempathetic to destitution. The destitute are terrific symbols of caution, which makes them a class to vehemently avoid. But we’re also conditioned by jobs. They organize social relations. They influence mobility. They are essential far beyond utilitarian qualities.

Sociological, Economic, or Governmental definitions of work tend to be quite inflexible. They tend to assume that work is a thing that has always existed, will always exist, and can be approached with a stable set of boundaries and rules that apply as well to the seventeenth century as they do to the nineteenth or twenty-first. In academic parlance, they prefer structural explanations that raise work itself to the level of historical constant or ontological truth.

Consider the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ definition of employment:

According to the international guidelines, persons in employment comprise:

- employed persons “at work”, i.e. who worked in a job for at least one hour; and

- employed persons “not at work” due to temporary absence from a job, or due to working-time arrangements (such as shift work, flex time and compensatory leave for overtime).

How would this definition work if you were reading sources that didn’t use the words ‘job,’ ‘shift,’ ‘leave,’ or ‘overtime’? How would it apply to a monk in a European monastery? Or a Viking on a raid? Or an Eora man living near Manly Cove prior to European invasion? It can’t be used to make sense of these lives because it’s far too historically specific.

This is true of most concepts of work. They assume that the world has worked in much the same way as it has since Marx’s day: with people selling their labour by the hour so their employers can direct it towards the production of economic value. It’s an idea that makes less and less sense the further back you go, and the more you try to force the past to conform to your model in the present, the more of a disservice you do the people form the past.

So I want to do something different: I want to offer a definition (or conceptualisation) of work that highlights the ways it has changed over time; its historical variability. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

In an excellent recent lecture at Sydney University, Frances Flanagan used the phrase ‘New Work Order’ to denote a coming hierarchy of different types of work and the value system attached to or created by that hierarchy. The Foundation for Young Australians has also used the phrase in a similar way.

The idea of a ‘work order’ or order of work presupposes different kinds of work that are arranged in a hierarchy, from homeless and unemployed to overworked millionaire. It treats work as a thing that exists before human lives come along to fulfil it. I propose instead to examine the way we talk about work, and the way we order our lives as a result.

Unlike Flanagan and FYA, rather than thinking about work as something that is ordered, I want to think about work as the thing that does the ordering.

What I mean by ‘work is an ordering principle’ is that it is the idea of work, not the job itself, that creates a hierarchy of activities, relations and practices around which we organise our lives. The fact that it’s a hierarchy also means it apportions value to certain actions and people over others; it’s an ethics; it contains a set of ‘shoulds’. This is perhaps most visible in Max Weber’s early 20th century classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Many people elide the two clauses of Weber’s title into the phrase ‘Protestant Work Ethic,’ but Weber was very clear that the ethic under study began life as a Protestant one, only later to morph into one that governed commercial behaviour.

I want to talk about the ways that work-as-ordering-principle arranges things into a hierarchy. I want to talk about the ways in which it orders space, time, relations, and through them, lives.

At some points in history, it separates ‘workplaces’ from ‘homes,’ while at others, it brings them together. Think about the way that the household has changed over time to accommodate work. In the pre-industrial moment work was brought into the household in the form of ‘putting out,’ and distributed to household members. Later, men would leave the house to go to a place of work centralised around a power source — the ‘factory,’ or a site dedicated to work. Recently, we’ve seen notions like ‘working from home’ blur the lines between home and work, committing what Oli Mould calls ‘domicide’ — the death of the sacred mid-century middle-class notion of the home as a site untarnished by work. Over time, these different assumptions about space have had different effects on the people holding them. I want to know, for example, did a weaver in 18th century Austria feel the same way about the blurred lines of home and work as a contemporary knowledge worker?

In the first instance, wage labour is the sale of hours of one’s life to another. Because of this, we have some discrete and immutable ideas about ‘the workday’ and ‘hours of work’. The very notion of ‘work/life balance’ is based on a division between free time and time sold to another, the workday and the weekend. How does subsistence work, or vernacular work, or labour against growth and decay in the form of maintenance activities in a pre-industrial household differ from the simple divisions of time implied by punchcards, timesheets, and the mechanical time of factory work? How do all of these differ from the ‘always-on’ norm of smartphones in contemporary knowledge work? From the peaks and troughs of the gig economy?

The clearest example of this is the management relation, but consider also the idea of colleagues or workmates. Consider also the difference between the worker/employer relation, governed by collective bargaining and regulation, and the contractor/employer relation that limits the responsibilities of the employer and powers the ‘gig’ or ‘sharing’ economy. But beyond that, consider the way work (or its absence) structures relations between the employed and the unemployed, or between the full-time worker, the part-time worker, or the casual worker, or between two people earning different salaries for roles that are not easily compared.

It orders lives through education and the notion of a ‘calling,’ a ‘vocation,’ or a ‘career,’ but in the past it has also helped to order lives in relation to the difference between subsistence and the market. More recently work as part of the ‘sharing economy’ or the ‘gig economy’ has helped to unravel the distinctions between public and private lives — in the case of uber drivers, Deliveroo riders, or Handy cleaners occupying roads, streetscapes, or public transport.

I said at the beginning that an order was always a hierarchy. If you consider the four categories I’ve outlined above, you can see the ways in which that hierarchy is resolved. To our contemporary eyes, these categories can line up in recognisable ways: an office worker and a beggar in the street at lunchtime, a full-time worker and a part-time worker in a meeting room at 9:00pm, a manager sending a text to their direct report on a Saturday morning, colleagues from different departments on a smoke break, workmates at post-work drinks.

All of these vignettes are immediately recognisable by virtue of their construction in space, time, relations, and lives. They also have clear ethical imperatives: you could easily place these people and their behaviour in a hierarchy (though this hierarchy is subjective; the order you placed them in would tell me a lot about you).

But most importantly for a historian, they allow for historically variability. Think of the example of a 19th century New York cigarmaker and his son working in their tenement living room at 10pm on a Wednesday, or a beggar and a monk in a monastery in France in 1300 on a feast day. Do you as a 21st century reader understand the hierarchies established by these spaces, times and relations, in their historical contexts? Are they normal? Abnormal? Do they suggest things about these historical subjects that are different to the assumptions you might make about them given little contextual material? Do you understand these lives as readily as you understand the lives I sketched out above? Probably not. And that’s why a history of work that takes the past seriously is important.

This post is an edited version of one originally posted on my blog.

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.

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