Laboring Lives: the Experience of Work in Eastern Europe

August, 2016 to July, 2018

The collapse of state socialism and the end of the ideal of the “workers’ state” have breathed new life into thinking about work. Instead of categories of formal and second economies, proletariat and bourgeois, capitalist and communist, work is being seen not just as a class formation or a means of production, but as an activity that changes over the life course and involves many ruptures and adaptations. New concepts such as precarity, monetization, micro-industry, the work-life-balance and the transnational family have brought new forms of work into a discussion of what types of activity contribute to the meaning of human life. Scholars using methods of study derived from anthropology, history and cultural studies, have reformulated the concept of work in terms of experience and agency. New studies based on historical and ethnographic sources and using interdisciplinary methods describe the relation of migrants to work and home, everyday life practices that combine waged and unpaid labor in ‘making a living,’ the intersectionality of gender, race and class in the distribution of work opportunities, and the household as a unit of analyzing how family members and generations inherit, invest, and share work responsibilities over time. The global context of large-scale historical trends and movements have offered new insights into the duration and persistence of patterns of inequality in labor relations, the entangled development of free and unfree labor, as well as workers’ agency in attempting to make better lives under these circumstances. Our proposal for the CEU Humanities Initiative seeks to build on and contribute to these new, inclusive studies of work from the perspective of Central and Eastern Europe writ large, including not only the state-socialist period but also the broader imperial contexts that have preceded them. Due largely to the post-state-socialist legacies, interest in the history of work in this region is still very limited with the partial exception of the studies on the state-socialist period (which, however, have more often than not remained self-referential) and the transition from state-socialist period. We propose to add historical depth by highlighting and exploring the manifold adaptations and solutions to work that were adopted by men and women in Central and Eastern Europe from the imperial period through the end of the twentieth century.