Teaching Precarity

“I plan to become an anthropology professor,” declared A., a student who came to my office last October soon after I began teaching anthropology in Stellenbosch, South Africa. For years I had been dreading such a moment. How can I communicate my ambivalence about academic work to someone who hasn’t experienced it? How can I reproduce an industry that transforms young idealists into incoherent intellectual proletarians? I tried to explain to A., without being too discouraging, that I myself had worked as a web developer during graduate school, and said I thought that anyone hoping to become a professor today owed it to herself to also have in mind a plausible Plan B.

It was all very ironic because A. was a student in my class on precarious work, and yet here she was committing herself to a fantasy of a good life whose precarity she was almost structurally unable to access (see Berlant 2011). We talked for a while, and I kept trying to hint gently at the various snares that beset newly minted academics. Eventually A. looked off into space, at the bare walls of my not-yet-decorated office, and concluded: “It’s precarity, isn’t it?” “Sure is,” I said. Academia is precarious too.

You can lead someone to that knowledge, but you can’t make someone know precarity when they’re invested in nonknowledge. Precarity thus becomes a problem of activist pedagogy; it matters just how we say that academia is precarious. Who makes such statements? In what register, and with what tone (see Thorkelson 2016)? For what audience and to what end? This question—the question of political enunciation and of politics itself—is inevitably tangled up with the two basic questions that precarity poses to our field. Namely: how do we understand it, and what is to be done?

The great merit of David Platzer and Anne Allison’s essay “Academic Precarity in American Anthropology” is to furnish these latter questions with some provocative ethnographic data and to brainstorm some programmatic proposals. It summons us to think historically, ethically, and strategically about academic labor.

As a scholar of academic cultures and a recent PhD, I found their concrete findings brutally familiar, broadly consistent with the existing literature on precarity. My main methodological worries were about their manifest skew toward the “R1 bubble,” and about the difficulty of discerning the contradictory logics of this social field from their composite presentation of its elite zeitgeist. (Could they also publish extended case studies based on their intriguing archive?)

In any event, reading this anxiogenic ethnography, I found myself affected: I could only pause, tense up, crumple, think fraught thoughts, contemplate afflictions, uncrumple, pause for breath, feel baffled, stare at the walls . . .

The humanist in me believes that, if only we all let our guard down and felt the largely repressed feelings of academic precarity, surely that would be enough to spark a movement against it. I say “a movement” because I think we need new political strategies and organizations, not just new debates or new policies. Let us all understand that for several decades now, anthropologists have been trying to redress precarious academic labor through standard disciplinary venues and virtually nothing has been accomplished.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has not done enough—for decades.

More than twenty years ago now, Susan DiGiacomo (1997, 95) described the “breathtaking condescension” of the AAA’s dismissive responses to writing about precarious labor. Johanna Lessinger (1998, 2) reported that her own writing about adjunct labor had been met with the same blithe ignorance that still afflicts some tenured faculty: “I had no idea it was so bad.” Her letter directly anticipated Platzer and Allison’s essay, insisting: “We also need to consider the structural effects on the whole discipline when there are too few jobs to go around.”

This was old news even then. Back in the 1970s, A. E. Rogge (1976, 839) wrote that “the recent crunch in this job market has signaled the imminent saturation of [academic teaching jobs] and has led to the suggestion that young anthropologists seek nonacademic jobs.” Sound familiar?

Is it just that we have massive historical amnesia?

No; it would be more precise to say that critique alone is never sufficient. It needs a political subject to bear it out in the world. I notice that many of these neglected critiques were written by women—who already in the 1970s were calling out the intersection of structural sexism and stratified hiring (Vance 1975; Hurlbert 1976). Does sexism also explain why (in spite of massive improvements in gender dynamics [Philips 2010]) these critiques have never quite hit home? Forty years of good analysis just has not led to good outcomes.

So what kind of new political subject could actually remediate precarity, within the stratified, globalized field of anthropology?

There is no coherent we in our field, of course. No cogent political subject.

But could there be?

We is an important site of struggle precisely because inclusion remains such an unfinished, fraught, and at times violent process in our field (Navarro, Williams, and Ahmad 2013; Berry et al. 2017; Nelson et al. 2017). Can critiques of precarity open up space for thinking intersectionally about our field as a whole? Can we unravel the knot of social domination that entangles labor with gender, race and ethnicity, nationality, language, sexuality, status, and social class?

Hold that thought, because I want to end with some concrete proposals. (I like Platzer and Allison’s too, but they seem more geared toward tenure-track and tenured folks than toward precarious academics.)

First, as workers, we should all go beyond a discourse of solidarity and join the labor movement. There are already unions and advocacy organizations for adjunct faculty and graduate students. Tenure-track faculty in the United States can join the American Association of University Professors. Transnationally, there’s PrecAnthro.

There should also be a union specifically for job seekers. Job candidates are often isolated, disrespected, and powerless. Yet they form a virtual collectivity with massive common interests. Could one not bargain collectively over the terms of recruitment?

Second, we should strengthen the natural alliance between antiprecarity organizing and the ongoing projects of decolonizing anthropology (see Allen and Jobson 2016) and creating a fully inclusive field. It goes without saying that social belonging is central to reproduction and thus to academic work.

Side note: let’s not use words like “irrational” and “masochistic” to describe precarious workers. These politics of representation matter.

Finally, we should all teach precarity (here’s my syllabus, for example). Its history and sociology take us far beyond the tenure-track job market and beyond America; they help prepare our students, and ourselves, for the traps that our fantasies continue to set for us.

My hope is that strategies like these could build new political consciousness and concrete alliances, taking us beyond “shallow symbolic gestures,” as Mariya Ivancheva (2016, 358) puts it, and toward a more equitable distribution of money, work, and recognition in our field.


Allen, Jafari Sinclaire, and Ryan Cecil Jobson. 2016. “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties.” Current Anthropology 57, no. 2: 129–48.

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Berry, Maya J., Claudia Chávez Argüelles, Shanya Cordis, Sarah Ihmoud, and Elizabeth Velásquez Estrada. 2017. “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 537–65.

DiGiacomo, Susan M. 1997. “The New Internal Colonialism.” Critique of Anthropology 17, no. 1: 91–97.

Hurlbert, Beverly McElligott. 1976. “Status and Exchange in the Profession of Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 78, no. 2: 272–84.

Ivancheva, Mariya. 2016. “Precarious Anthropology.” In “Rethinking Euro-Anthropology: Part Three. Early Career Scholars Forum,” by Francisco Martínez et al. Social Anthropology 24, no. 3: 353–79.

Lessinger, Johanna. 1998. “More on the Adjunct Caste.” Anthropology Newsletter 39, no. 4: 2.

Navarro, Tami, Bianca Williams, and Attiya Ahmad. 2013. “Sitting at the Kitchen Table: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology.” Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 3: 443–63.

Nelson, Robin G., Julienne N. Rutherford, Katie Hinde, and Kathryn B. H. Clancy. 2017. “Signaling Safety: Characterizing Fieldwork Experiences and Their Implications for Career Trajectories.” American Anthropologist 119, no. 4: 710–22.

Philips, Susan U. 2010. “The Feminization of Anthropology: Moving Private Discourses into the Public Sphere.” Gender and Language 4, no. 1: 1–31.

Rogge, A. E. 1976. “A Look at Academic Anthropology: Through a Graph Darkly.” American Anthropologist 78, no. 4: 829–43.

Thorkelson, Eli. 2016. “Precarity Outside: The Political Unconscious of French Academic Labor.” American Ethnologist 43, no. 3: 475–87.

Vance, Carole. 1975. “Sexual Stratification in American Anthropology, 1974–75.” Anthropology Newsletter 16, no. 4: 10–12.