Conference Report "Work, Ethics and Freedom"

February 14, 2020

From 11 to 13 December 2019 a conference entitled “Work, Ethics and Freedom” took place at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (MPI). Using case studies, social anthropologists, sociologists, and legal scholars explored what is understood as “work” today and what rational, emotional, moral, and even spiritual dimensions work can have in various contexts. This was the first conference of the Max-Cam Centre (Max Planck – Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change).

Philosophers have reflected on work since ancient times - and most people would agree that they have worked hard in doing so. But the topic is as contentious as ever: can one distinguish productive work from the non-productive? what makes work pleasurable and creative - or odious drudgery? when is work alienating, and how can it come to be the source of solidarities and emancipation? In exploring such questions, social scientists have long been in thrall to giants of the 19th century: to scholars such as Karl Marx, Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen.

The 21st century is witnessing major reconfigurations of work, shaped by neoliberal economic ideology and the expansion of financial capital, but also by new digital technologies, which eliminate traditional workplaces and transform the social relations of work. To explore how social anthropologists are addressing these issues, following a productive Call for Papers Chris Hann and Johannes Lenhard (Coordinator of Max-Cam) organized an exciting meeting at which the researchers of the Max-Cam Centre were outnumbered by external participants.

The topics covered ranged from work-life balance in China to venture capitalists in California, and from migrant labourers in the Pacific to mobile professionals in Ghana. The conference was opened by sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, who explored the relationship between general regimes (rule-based orders) and particular, localised ways of life. It was closed with a round of discussion led by two of the most illustrious figures of global economic anthropology, Stephen Gudeman and Gert Spittler.

The papers presented will be revised and a book MS submitted for publication in the series "Max Planck Studies in Anthropology and Economy" (Berghahn Books). This meeting was the first of three conferences to be organized by Max-Cam, each addressing the interface between economy and ethics in the context of contemporary social change. Further meetings will be held in Göttingen in October 2020, and in Cambridge towards the end of 2021.

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