Society for the Anthropology of Work 

Joshua Wells

Posted May 1999



Focus and Goals: To advance the study of work in all its aspects, by anthropologists from all areas of the discipline; and to encourage the communication of such study (SAW Bylaws, Article II, Purpose).


Organization Website:


Total Membership in 2006: approximately 300


Type of Organization: The SAW, true to its stated purpose, combines the activities of applied and research anthropologists along with interest from the private and non-profit research sectors.  SAW encourages studies on human relations and activities ranging from foraging to dealing with computer networking.


Essential Information


Date founded:  
December 1980 (The SAW informally began in 1977). 

Newsletter or Journal:  
Anthropology of Work Review (formerly Anthropology of Work Newsletter, 1980-1983). 

Analysis of AWR through time

Analysis of AWR through space

The SAW also has a column in the monthly newsletter of the AAA, Anthropology Newsletter.    

Annual Membership fees 
$20/year, non-voting member subscription only.  $120/year or $65/year (student) membership in AAA and SAW.  For member information, contact: 

Membership Services 
4350 N. Fairfax Dr 
Suite 640 
Arlington, VA 
Tel: 703-528-1902 


Affiliation with other groups:  
Too numerous to mention fully.  Some examples include: American Anthropological Association (SAW is an section of the AAA), Council for Marxist Anthropology, Society for Applied Anthropology, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. 


Listserve: ANTHWORK-L


Contact Address: 
Society for the Anthropology of Work 
American Anthropological Association 
4350 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 640 
Arlington, VA 22203-1620 

Ann Kingsolver 
Editor, Anthropology of Work Review 
c/o Department of Anthropology
University of South Carolina 
Columbia, SC. 29208


Prizes, Projects, or other Special Programs


Conrad Arensberg Award.  Presented annually to the person who made the most exemplary scholarly contribution to the anthropology of work during the previous year.


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A Brief History of the Society for the Anthropology of Work


The SAW's official beginnings were announced in the December 1980 issue of the Anthropology of Work Newsletter, though it had existed earlier as a more informal grouping since 1977. The SAW's periodical (AWN) began in June 1980 and was renamed the Anthropology of Work Review in February 1983.  The SAW began the process of affiliation with the American Anthropological Association in 1989 and since then has conducted its activities as a section of the AAA. Along with having meetings at the official AAA annual conferences, the SAW also has its own meetings and roundtables at other times.


About the Society for the Anthropology of Work.


The SAW, when it began formally, was still a very informal organization.  In 1980 Tom Greaves, first editor of the AWN and later first President of the SAW began mailing out his low budget publication.  The early richness of the AWN contents contrasted fiercely with the obvious cut-and-paste typing and photocopied format of the articles themselves.  However at $2.50/year for a subscription and full membership in the SAW -- what could have been a better deal? 

The SAW was immediately focused upon their perceived duty to provide an excellent discursive forum on the anthropology of work in all its aspects.  The writings of applied anthropologists, university researchers, corporate executives, government bureaucrats, and workers from all walks of life found their way into the AWN.  This early diversity of sources was also a factor of trying to promote interest among enough contributors to publish issues, but I have no doubt that the SAW staff (with their espoused commitment to 4-field anthropology and varied viewpoints) would not have had it any other way. 

Many of the topics discussed by the SAW in its periodicals are addressed by way of topical book reviews which seem to serve as much as essays upon the subject matter as they do in the way of critiques.  Indeed, there is a consistently large and varied list of current books which the editorship is always haranguing the readers to write about.  This format is triply nice in that it provides: (1) an up-to-date snapshot of the published anthropology of work arena, (2) intelligent reviews of such, and (3) combines both with an insightful commentary which enhances comprehension of the subject whether or not you read the book.  Following this article is a selected bibliography of books which illustrate some of the SAW's interesting trends. 

When the Anthropology of Work Newsletter became the Anthropology of Work Review in February of 1983 they began work on a trend of thematic issues for the journal that continues to this day.  The first special issue in June 1984 was based on "Unpaid Work," a subject which has special meaning for women and children whose economic activities might often be left out of an equation by researchers or NGOs, with possibly dire consequences.  Now and again these special issues and other articles of the AWR seemingly coincide with national (USA) and international crises of policy.  Some examples include: 

  • Comparison/Contrasts of Japanese and American corporate management styles.  These are especially prevalent during the early and mid-1980s when the United States was seemingly under an Asian invasion and American products were considered overpriced and shabby.
  • During the late-Reagan and early-Bush US Presidencies we learned of the corrupt failures of the American "war on drugs." AWR has run numerous articles about the relations of especially coca production to the economic survival of peasant communities throughout Central and South America.
  • Studies of the fieldwork experiences of disabled anthropologists.  After the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act AWR enlightened us on the sticky issues of how one conducts fieldwork in foreign locales if blind or confined to a wheelchair.  "Working With Disability: An Anthropological Perspective," (v. 15, n. 2, Summer/Fall 1994).
  • The trend of "downsizing" in all aspects of business and governmental life, internationally, has brought the need for understanding organizational cultures from more than just a "bottom line" driven analysis. AWR has considered the problems of communication and production in organizations where employees are overworked and/or pushed into increasingly deskilled niches where a few warm bodies are as good at filling the job as is a trained professional.  The SAW brought this subject to their membership with striking intimacy in an issue entitled "The Academic Sweatshop," (v. 15, n. 1 Spring 1994).
  • In an increasingly information linked world the SAW has brought us analyses of how humans can interact now (and perhaps will, in the future) to immediately share knowledge about such diverse topics as AIDS research and industrial production.  Undoubtedly this subject will only continue to flourish in the pages of AWR during the years to come, especially under the presidency of Dr. David Hakken (whose interests lie in that direction) and as the world "wires" itself further.

In AWR v. 2, n. 1 (March 1981) Frederick Gamst provided some insight as to the history of the anthropology of work as an entity within the discipline.  The beginnings of the anthropology of work were in the 1930s as scientists came to understand the differences the industrial world had to offer humans as social animals in comparison to any environment previously encountered.  These studies flourished in North America, and as the century progressed towards a post-industrial era the study of industrial archaeology (studying industrial sites with an archaeological mindset to discern activity patterns and class distinctions) gained momentum.  By the 1970s the need for a coherent understanding of all of the aspects an anthropology of work required prompted the early formation of what was to become the SAW. 

Currently the SAW, through the AWR, has kept abreast of the constant fluctuations in conditions for workers that, more than anything, may define this economic era in history books of the future.  Their major emphasis of focus is generally on the here-and-now of the anthropological world (again underscoring the SAW's affinity with applied anthropology); though they occasionally delve into the history of work, it is more often the exception than the rule.  However the importance of such a focus on industrialism, post-industrialism, and their growth/polymorphism amongst multiple cultures is certainly not to be derided.  This is ever more true in a time when the almost complete dominance of the American and Western European economic and technological models have prompted the statement that "We are all Americans now, like it or not," (G.P. Zachary, Mother Jones, Jan/Feb. 1999). 

Selected Bibliography

Adler, Patricia.  Wheeling and Dealing: An Ethnography of an Upper-Level Drug Dealing and Smuggling Community.  1985. 

Form, W.H.  Blue Collar Stratification: Autoworkers in Four Countries.  1976. 

Hakken, David.  Cyborgs@cyberspace? : An Ethnographer Looks at the Future.  1999. 

Hamada, Tomoko.  American Enterprise in Japan.  1991. 

Mars, Gerald.  Cheats at Work.  1982/1994. 

Marx, Karl.  Capital. (3 vol.) 1867, 1885, 1894. 

McCarl, Robert.  The District of Columbia Fire Fighters' Project: A Case STudy in Occupational Folklife.  1985. 

Nash, June.  We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines.  1979. 

Rigauer, Bero.  Sport and Work.  1981. 

Safa, Helen.  The Myth of the Male Breadwinner: Women and Industrialization in the Caribbean.  1995. 

Schwalbe, Michael.  The Psychosocial Consequence of Natural and Alienated Labor.  1986. 

Trice, Harrison.  Occupational Subcultures in theWorkplace.  1993. 


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