Working Paper 198

“I have never been unemployed”: narratives of work, worth and worthlessness in an East German town


Katerina Ivanova

Abteilung ‘Resilienz und Transformation in Eurasien’

Jahr der Veröffentlichung


Working Paper 198

This paper discusses the narratives regarding (un)employment which emerged before, during and after German reunification in the East German town of Zwickau. Previous research in the anthropology of postsocialism has argued that the experience of work in socialism provided a foundation for East Germans to contest the viability of modern capitalism. However, I argue that such a “social” alternative has been to a large extent defeated by neoliberal hegemonic discourse. I do so by focusing on the narratives of worth and worthlessness in relation to employment, as well as the processes that shaped these narratives. First, I briefly present my field site and elaborate on the methods of my field research on the automotive industry in Zwickau. Second, using the life story of one of my informants, I show the disparity between personal experiences of dispossession and individual moral economic dispositions. Finally, I discuss the heightened moral and social importance of work in postsocialist former East Germany, the turbulence of its labour market since 1989, the process of welfare state retrenchment, and the narrative of labour shortage as factors which paved the way for the establishment of neoliberal hegemony. These developments, I argue, also contributed to framing issues of employment in individual rather than structural terms.

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