- The Liminal Worker: An Ethnography of Work, Unemployment and Precariousness in Contemporary Greece by Manos Spyridakis
The Liminal Worker is a compilation of three ethnographies on the transformations of work identities, labor relations, and the work process in Greece in the context of postindustrial reorganization. The ethnographies are based on the work experiences and life trajectories of tobacco workers, shipbuilding workers, and bank employees in the current situation of increasing job deprivation and crisis. The ethnographic data were collected between 2009 and 2011, although regarding shipbuilding workers the ethnographic findings rely—in addition to interviews done in 2010—on 11 years of participant observation fieldwork in the industrial district of Perama. The book is engaged in a fruitful and interesting dialogue with anthropological and sociological studies on work and career trajectories. Providing a thoughtful and critical approach to the aforementioned fields, the book offers a balanced theoretical and ethnographic investigation of the impact of postindustrial society on employment relations.
The author departs from the dominant perspective that views human labor solely as an economic activity and within the context of the production process; rather, he reworks the understanding of labor as a means of livelihood. This perspective enables him to take into account the interconnections of all spheres of life and the impact of precariousness, employment, and underemployment on all aspects of subjectivity, assessing their subsequent threat to identities. In this way, the focus on the meanings that the workers give to their experiences, as well as the ensuing emotional impact that they have, provide an understanding of the process through which identities are [End Page 419] transformed and reformed. Here the concept of liminality is particularly helpful in illuminating how the changes of flexible production and processes of deregulation have affected people’s ordinary and working lives. According to Spyridakis, “people experience a liminal process of breaking off a safe past and being led to an undefined ‘flexible’ future for their work lives and careers” (19). The concept has been used already by social researchers in order to give a sense of the ambiguous position of workers in the context of postindustrial employment relations. Liminality can offer an understanding of “workers’ passage from a relatively stable pre-liminal situation of secure employment to another, post-liminal differentiated one” (17). The author argues that however unorthodox the use of Victor Turner’s concept of liminality might appear for its application to employment relations, it can help us to understand employment as a state in which workers do not seem to belong anywhere.
The study offers a deep understanding of the multiple factors—structural, organizational, local, and subjective—that were at play in making the transition into regimes of continuous job insecurity, which is particularly painful and, indeed, devastating for workers.
The ethnographic findings of the book come from three different workplaces. The ethnographic data presented on tobacco workers previously employed in the Keranis factory in Piraeus shed light on their experience of unemployment. The study situates the experience of unemployment in the career trajectories of the workers and the employment policies of the company. The career choice of tobacco workers was shaped by personal motives related to employment availability and local networks of relatives and friends. Paternalism was the pervading organizational culture of the firm, as recruitment was based predominantly on kin networks. As Spyridakis argues, “employers were interested in developing social and moral relations with the workforce, characterized by strong expectations of trust and commitment to the firm’s ideals” (62). For workers, this culture shaped a particular work ethic based on identification with the firm and led to the creation of strong social networks among them. Gender segregation in the firm was based on gendered definitions of skill, especially as technical training was deeply gendered and reserved for men. Yet female workers’ identification with their labor and the firm was as strong as that of male workers. The workplace formed a labor community that extended beyond the factory’s premises and which had acquired a regional character. The firm...