Roxanne Varzi on her ethnographic novel, Last Man Underground

Cover of Last Scene Underground by Roxanne Varzi

Harvey Stark: What inspired you to write Last Scene Underground and what one or two main things do you hope your readers will come away with?

Roxanne Varzi: I was most inspired by the theater I saw while I was doing fieldwork in Iran, but it wasn’t until I was I was teaching visual anthropology at SOAS in London and was writing a lecture about how Jean Rouch’s documentary, Les Maitres Fous morphed into Jean Genet’s The Blacks and it occurred to me that there was a  connection there that I could write about as an article in terms of how the Blacks is later interpreted in Iran by a young theater director, Hamed Taheri for a post-Revolution audience. I was interested too in what sorts of shifts happened in order to both radicalize and protect the budding theater movement in Tehran in the late 1990’s just after Mohammed Khatami’s election when the first real alternative artistic space in the Iranian public sphere began to form. Mostly I was interested in theater praxis as a political and a personal transformative art… How did practicing theater change the individual?  What did it mean for notions of community and nation?

The theater being done in Iran in 2000 inspired me to think about ways that I too, as an anthropologist, could push through boundaries–disciplinary, genre, political and personal to write about resistance, creativity and hope. To that end I wrote and re-wrote this ethnographic novel about a group of young Iranian college students who form an underground avant-garde theater group and, defying censorship and using other forms of social resistance and attempt to put on a play.

I want readers to come away with a greater understanding of the complex cultural world that is Tehran. I’d also like them to question their own notions of selfhood and identity and to think about ways that we perform and practice those.

For the anthropologist reader I hope Last Scene Underground is also a meditation on the possibilities and limitations of ethnography as a genre and as a medium at this political juncture. The book mediates and channels lives through the filter of other lives, political and theoretical and disciplinary frames.  It is also a political act in that it directly addresses the issue of censorship and the inability for an anthropologist like myself to write ethnography openly and hope to continue to work in Iran.

Harvey Stark: One of the most fascinating things about your work is the liminal space that exists between ethnography and fiction. How do you want your readers to understand this space?

Roxanne Varzi: Throughout my first book I used a variety of narrative voices, from the academic first person, to the essay to fiction, creating characters and events while staying within historic and ethnographic facts based on my own research. I also used passages from my ethnographic field notes and from entries quoted verbatim from either my diary or from the journals of my interlocutors. This second book experiments further with a new ethnographic form for my research findings. An ethnographic novel that is at once an act of experimentation and one that will protect my subjects and my future as an anthropologist of Iran. Writing ethnographic fiction allowed me to stay away from political specificities that might link a particular theater moment or individual to a particular political moment in time, be it 1999 (the dormitory protests in Iran) or 2009 (the green movement) while maintaining the ethnographic specificities at the heart of this theater movement.

The book has two convergent narratives that are wound around one another.  There is the “fictionalized ethnographic story” and “the director’s notes” — a fictional notebook kept by a fictional theater director but with real notes that are a culmination of my research, which ranged from the people whom I interviewed and plays that I read and watched to my reflections, observations and interpretations. They assume the responsibility of the writer and anthropologist to inform the story. In short, they are partially a version of my own notes from the field but fictionalized to the degree that nothing was included that an Iranian character like the director would not he himself have known or read.  They contain what as well would ordinarily be found in academic footnotes.  This allows all information equal footing…nothing is hidden away underground as it were in a smaller font and easily ignored as footnotes and endnotes often are.

Throughout is a story about representation, about manufacturing knowledge and lives, censorship and the role of creativity in social change.

Harvey Stark: Can you tell us about the complex and nuanced attitudes your characters have toward religion. 

Roxanne Varzi: Religion is a very personal practice that has been made public by virtue of folks living in a religious republic. I wanted to reclaim the notion of spirituality, which is the individual relationship with God and not one that is necessarily filtered through a nation-state, or even a strong religious organization.

Harvey Stark: If pressed, what one character in the novel do you most identify with?

 Roxanne Varzi: Hooman, the director. The director’s notes are my notes…and I think I secretly I have wanted to write and direct plays my whole life. My first theater class was as a child in Iran… and now this year, as an anthropologist I am doing a rough reading at the AAA of my first play ever (not counting a children’s play I did as a theater director at a summer camp in the Sierras!). It feels like a very natural progression and not at all strange that it would be my field, anthropology, where I could make this happen!



Kristina Jacobsen on her new book, The Sound of Navajo Country


Morgan Siewert: On its face, your project to analyze expressive culture among Navajo country music artists using both ethnomusicological and linguistic anthropological methods seems daunting. However, your final product is a nuanced but informative and approachable ethnography using both music and language to locate country music as a site where Navajo identity is navigated and negotiated. How would you describe your book to someone unfamiliar with how seemingly Western expressive forms are used to perform Navajo authenticity?

Kristina Jacobsen: My book is a situated story of one Anglo singing anthropologist’s journey into the rich, vivid and totalizing world that is Diné country western music and cowboy culture. Contrasting our stereotype of “cowboys and Indians,” Indian people, and Diné people in particular, have long identified as both “cowboy” and “country;” the affinity seems natural to many Diné people I know, so much so that it barely bears explaining. Country songs are often about dispossession, loss, nostalgia, tradition, relocation and the centrality of kinship and family: these same themes are themes that resonate very powerfully with my Diné interlocutors, both through the performance of country music and through participation in rodeo.

Morgan Siewert: On page 21, you write, “I understand the speaking voice as being equally central as the singing voice in illuminating the nuance of Diné politics of authenticity and belonging.” This is a succinct illustration of your use of ethnomusicology and linguistic anthropology to bridge disparate approaches to the concept of “voice.” Could you elaborate on the significance of complicating “voice” in your book?

Kristina Jacobsen:  In song and in the songwriting world, there is a heavy focus on lyrics and on the text; what does the song say, what is being signified through the lyrics, what can we infer about the identity of the singer through the performance and voicing of the song, how do we shape the listener’s experience through a tightly-crafted song? This is also true in ethnomusicology and in popular music studies, where often the focus is exclusively on the lyrics of a song and where the lyrics come to stand in for/represent “the song.” In linguistic anthropology, the emphasis is also often on text, or what has been transcribed in the form of discourse analysis or ethnographic writing in the text, where prosody, poetics, and line-by-line analysis often form the primary “meat” of analysis. In contrast to this, I wanted to focus in the book on the sound of the voice itself: what do different voices sound like, when they are speaking and singing? What is the timbre or tone color of a voice, its range, its speech style, dialectal and idiolectal inflections, and how is a voice affected by the body it inhabits? How do voices have their own agency, not just symbolically and politically, but also literally, when a voice is “thrown” into a room or sounds (and affects its listeners) in a particular way, and how are voices connected to Indigenous sovereignty? Also, how can we combine our analysis of both singing and speaking, and what productive and rich overlaps might we find by combining both uses of the vocal tract within the same frame? To me, sounds matter in the world. How someone else sounds—whether over the telephone, in person, in a radio interview or on television—affects me deeply and resonates in my ears and mind long afterwards. I wanted to capture some of this affective resonance not only through my ethnographic vignettes, but also through the analytic methods and tools used in the book.

Morgan Siewert: Important to your book’s discussion on the complexities of authenticity and voice is jaan, defined initially as “the culturally intimate […] term for a working-class rube from the ‘sticks’” (4). You define jaan several times and in diverse ways throughout the book, demonstrating what you describe as a malleability that reveals “the slippages, or cracks, between worlds” (42). As I read your book, I came to understand the jaan figure as an example of how people become metonyms for attitudes about imperfect Navajoness, for “matter out of place” (33). Through “betwixt and between” figures such as the jaan, innovation in language and the expressive arts is both stigmatized as inauthentic Navajoness as well as valorized as privileged local knowledge. I find this discussion—which ranges from the jaan to Miss Navajo to politicians—to be the most challenging aspect of your book. I came away with a sense that modalities framed as the most inauthentic are, in practice, among the most authentic icons of Navajo experience and identity. In other words, being “matter out of place” is what anchors country music as an authentic Navajo expressive art form. How would you supplement or challenge this reading?

Kristina Jacobsen: This is such a lovely and provocative question. I think your read that jaan becomes a refraction for how “imperfect Navajoness” circulates at the local level is spot-on; in my experience, these discussions of ideal Diné-ness occur almost constantly, in public and very performative spaces such as political campaigns and radio stations, but also at very intimate levels, among family members, over dinner, at the flea market, during family cattle roundups or even at the tribal veterinarian’s office. So yes, being “matter out of plaee” at some level makes something—songs or speech styles in this case—authentic in a way that is hard for others without this abjected cultural capital to touch. At the same time, the irony perhaps is that things deemed as “matter out of place,” such as country music dubbed as “rez” or “jaan,” are also profoundly in place and locally emplaced, so much so that even performing off-reservation is rarely an option for “rez bands.” So, rez country music is both matter out of place and completely sutured to place, at one and the same time. To add a bit more to this discussion: I also think that the whole idea of the jaan is a term that implies an outsider, non-Diné gaze looking in on Diné practices; in this way, jaan as a concept—in its stigmatizing and laudatory uses—sits in the crosshairs of settler colonialism, and perhaps could not even exist outside the setter colonial context and the ways in which Diné identity has been parsed, dissected, judged and quantified by Bureau of Indian Affairs Bureaucrats, anthropologists, missionaries and other entities. So, it’s the colonial gaze turned inward, with powerful repercussions. At the same time, there is innovation, both linguistic and musical, and this is one of the things I find so powerful: that even within a very narrowly constrained field of aesthetics and where the politics of authenticity almost always hold an upper hand, there are musicians, spoken word artists, poets and language users—among them Chucki Begay, Radmilla Cody, hip hop artist Def-I and improvisers like jazz trumpeter Delbert Anderson- who continue to carve their own path and express themselves assertively, gracefully, and with incredible power, through their chosen linguistic medium.

Morgan Siewert: What is your next project?

Kristina Jacobsen: My next ethnographic book project, Sing Me Back Home: Songwriting, Language Shift, and Italian Colonialism in Sardinia, focuses on country music, singer-songwriters and language shift on the island of Sardinia, Italy. As a touring country musician, singer songwriter and cultural anthropologist living in Sardinia for the past two summers, I have been captivated by the surprisingly rich Americana and country music scene. It struck me that the reasons were connected to Italian colonialism, and this led me to formulate my main question for this research: how do performances of American roots music by Sardinian musicians serve to secure a sense of connection to the island of Sardinia, and strengthen a sense of political and cultural separation from the Italian mainland on this semi-sovereign Mediterranean island?

So, in Sardinia, I have begun writing songs with Sardinian songwriters in Sardinian (“Sardo”), English and Italian as a form of participant-observation to get at questions of language, sovereignty, identity and relationships to the Italian mainland (the “Continente”). Here, the process of songwriting itself forms part of the core research methodology, where writing a song with one’s interlocutors forms a powerful point of connection as a way toward deeper intercultural knowing that is both artistic and ethnographic. The second part of this project, therefore, will focus on recording ten cowritten songs for an album that will accompany the book, where I ethnographically document how language politics play out in microcosm in the space of the recording studio, and where the music and the book text are two interdependent parts central to my analysis of both sound and politics. I will be spending my sabbatical year in Sardinia, doing twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork toward this project, and living in the mountain village of Santu Lussurgiu.

 You can listen to two early “demo” recordings and cowrites for this project, here:

Hallie Wells comments on p. 99 of her dissertation

My dissertation examines how slam poets in Madagascar have forged a novel form of public discourse that emphasizes both freedom of speech and accountability for one’s speech. This illuminates broader questions about how speakers determine what kinds of speech are possible and appropriate in various contexts, how they perform authority, and how they anticipate and manage the consequences of their speech. Slam—a performance poetry competition created in Chicago in the 1980s—has become a popular social movement around the world, but in Madagascar it has flourished in a context that includes pre-colonial genres of verbal art that are central to everyday life and to politics. In many of these genres, public speech has long been reserved for elder men. Slam’s insistence on “free expression” thus constitutes a radical break from long-standing notions of the social roles and risks associated with public speech. Treating the concept of free speech as historically and contextually specific rather than abstract and generalizable, my dissertation shows how Malagasy slam poets balance liberal discourses of individual freedoms with notions of responsibility and accountability, dialogic authority, and embodied relationality.

The excerpt below from page 99, then, is not particularly representative of the rest of the dissertation. It’s a bit of a historical interlude that sets up some of the core issues that I examine later in the chapter, so I return to these ideas about linguistic difference and language politics but without this level of historical detail. Most significantly, this excerpt stands out because it doesn’t reference any of my own fieldwork research, or even mention slam poetry at all. Most other sections are based around ethnographic vignettes, poems, and interviews. But this historical section is critical for understanding the heft and significance of contemporary language politics—the dominance of “official” Malagasy (based on the Merina dialect), and the sociopolitical valences of French versus English. This history is critical to understanding the imbrication of language and public speech with contemporary social inequalities and political and economic networks of power.

from page 99:

[…] The British were eager to forge an alliance with the Merina Kingdom, which in turn was eager to further its control over the rest of the island. As Velomihanta Ranaivo’s (2011) history and analysis of language politics shows, the British support of the Merina Kingdom in developing formal education was structured to train the children of elites in the Highlands. She writes that the emergence of Malagasy as a codified language based on the variety used in the Highlands fits into this logic of subtle domination. It establishes the development of the monarchy via church, school, and press—the favored channels of communication and the diffusion of ideas. This domination is systematically worked from the inside using the existing machinery, which had been progressively transformed within a kingdom in full expansion since 1787, long before missionary incursion. (Ranaivo 2011: 72, my translation)

In 1835, the Merina Kingdom’s reigning monarch, Queen Ranavalona I, began a violent campaign of repressing Malagasy Christians, prompting most missionaries to leave the island and bringing an end to the U.K.-Madagascar alliance forged by her predecessor and husband, King Radama I, and to the evangelization of the country. It also likely enabled the French colonization of Madagascar in 1894: with the British gone, France saw an opportunity to invade. They struck a deal with the British in 1890, in which they ceded Zanzibar in exchange for Madagascar. From a less-than-equal partnership with a foreign power, in which Britain had the military and economic advantage over Madagascar yet recognized the sovereignty of the Malagasy Kingdom, the nation was thrust into more than 70 years of forced labor, extreme poverty and famine, massacres, violent repression, racialized debasement, and cultural and linguistic subjugation.

To speak of the linguistic context of Madagascar today, we must remember that “Malagasy,” while technically one single language, is in practice a catch-all term for a wide variety of dialects. One study found that Bara children in the South do not understand the Merina dialect (Bouwer in Larson 2009: 34), yet Larson nevertheless concludes that dialectal differences are “weak” and “never a hindrance to mutual comprehension” (idem). Larson does not provide evidence for this claim, nor does he expound on what constitutes “comprehension,” a concept I address in Chapter 3. […]

Hallie Wells. 2018. Moving Words, Managing Freedom: The Performance of Authority in Malagasy Slam Poetry. University of California, Phd.


Patrick Eisenlohr on his new book, Sounding Islam

Sounding Islam by Patrick Eisenlohr

Interview by Ben Ale-Ebrahim

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In Sounding Islam, one of your primary arguments is that anthropologists of religion should focus more attention on the importance of sound and sonic atmospheres in the study of embodied religion. What originally motivated you to focus this project on the role of sound in religious communities?

Patrick Eisenlohr: In the recent material and media turn in the study of religion, the sonic tends to be rather marginal compared to work on the visual and visual cultures. But there is more to the focus on the sonic than merely redressing this obvious imbalance. There is, above all, the privileged link between the sonic and the emotive and affective. Saying this, I do not want to set up a binary contrast with the visual along the lines of what Jonathan Sterne has called a Christian “audio-visual litany.” But the privileged link of the sonic to the emotive and affective cannot easily be dismissed. This is because the sonic implicates the body, or to be precise, the felt-body, what is called the Leib in German, in a most comprehensive way, as sonic events can not only be registered by the hearing apparatus, but potentially the entire body, its flesh. In parts of sound studies, the sonic, vibrational phenomena that transmit energy through a medium in ways that very often extend beyond the acoustically perceivable, have been equated with affect. This ties into longstanding questions about the proverbial power of music to profoundly affect people in ways that often seem ineffable. Without attention to the sonic, the study of religion would be oddly incomplete. Finally, for anthropologists, the sonic, especially as atmospheric, is relevant for many other fields beyond religion. One only has to think of the present political moment, where powerful moods and felt currents are reshaping politics and public spheres across the world, while deliberation and appeals to enlightened self-interest seem so irrelevant in so many places.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Throughout this book, you develop a theory of sonic atmospheres that accounts for the different socio-cultural factors that influence whether or not one’s body is likely to respond to a particular sonic stimulus, making a clear distinction between understandings of sound as affect versus atmosphere. For example, you describe how Mauritian Muslims of the Ahl-e Sunnat tradition respond to na‘t performance in a positive way, feeling as if they are transported to Medina by the sound, whereas Deobandi- or Salafi-oriented Mauritian Muslims respond to na‘t negatively and do not experience the same feelings or affective responses. Can you talk a bit more about why you chose to focus on the analytic of sonic atmospheres and how you anticipate this analytic being useful for the anthropological study of religion in other contexts?

Patrick Eisenlohr: Thank you, I am glad you asked this question. Distinguishing atmospheres from affect is important. Unlike affect in the Deleuzian genealogy that dominates understandings of affect in anthropology, atmospheres do not categorically operate below the threshold of consciousness. They are also highly meaningful and not “autonomous” in Massumi’s sense, yet they speak to the same concerns about the movement of energy through and between bodies and the need to grasp what cannot be discursively specified as affect theory does. Atmospheres, whether sonic or in other modalities provide a bridge across the chasm that separates affect from sociocultural mediations and forms, therefore they are relevant to many other contexts that anthropologists study, far beyond what is commonly understood to be religion. To return to the example you just mentioned, sonic atmospheres, such as those generated by a voice, exert suggestions of movement on the felt-bodies of those they envelop. They do not just provoke feelings, seen from the vantage point of the neo-phenomenology of Hermann Schmitz such atmospheres themselves are feelings extended into space. But atmospheres can also be merely observed, as the Deobandis or Salafis you mentioned are likely to do, while the Ahl-e Sunnat devotee will probably be seized by them. By locating feelings outside human subjects, an analytic of atmospheres addresses the movement of energy between and through bodies, but also allows for sociocultural mediations to influence what stance subjects take to atmospheric forces, sonic or otherwise.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: I am fascinated by the spectrogram and waveform diagrams that you include in chapters five and six. You mention that you were motivated to include these partly as a result of your training in linguistic anthropology, where formal analysis is typically paired with discursive analysis. What was it like collecting these audio samples and working with this type of data? Can you talk a bit more about your methodology here?

Patrick Eisenlohr: In order to do justice to sound as a separate mode of knowledge and meaning-making, it is important to provide other forms of access to it than discourse. This is one of the main reasons why I used the spectrograms. They give a different sense of the sonic dynamics and movements that make up na‘t recitation. Like discourse, these visual representations of sonic events also have inherent limits in coming to terms with the sonic. They captures sonic movements in a very striking way, but the movements in three-dimensional space they visualize are not the same as the suggestions of movement enacted by sonic movement from a phenomenological perspective. My interlocutors directed me to the parts of na‘t recitals they found most powerful and emotionally compelling, often expressing this through metaphors of travel and spatial displacement. I decided to complement their verbal descriptions of the power of a na‘t reciter’s voice with the perspective on auditory cultures they afford with the spectrograms and the analysis of pitch, volume, timbre, and reverb the spectrograms and waveforms allow. This was inseparable from the analysis of the technologically amplified, modified and reproduced voices, since most examples of what my interlocutors considered a particularly “moving” voice also included its media-technological shaping. Comparing the verbal description and formal analysis of vocal sound in this context helped me to make sense of one through the other in ways that an exclusive focus on either verbal characterization or the formal analysis of sonic events would not have allowed.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: You discuss how media play a very important role in the reception and performance of na’t throughout this book. In chapter three, for example, you emphasize how small media like CDs, DVDs, and books work to enable transnational connections between Muslim communities in the Indian subcontinent and Mauritius. What changes have you observed over time in the way na‘t recordings are distributed and shared? Do social media outlets like Facebook and YouTube, or other internet-based platforms, play a significant role in na‘t performance communities today?

Patrick Eisenlohr: The story is quite familiar. In the late 1990s, I still encountered the use of audiocassettes with na‘t collections, which were quickly supplanted by audio-CDs in the early 2000s, and finally by mp3 files in the last ten or twelve years. A newer phenomenon is the popularity of videos of na‘t recitals. Unlike in India, cheap low-grade video CDs never really played an important role in Mauritius, DVDs were more popular, and videos streamed via the internet on mobile devices have dominated in the last 7 to 8 years. In the meantime, social media like YouTube and Facebook have come to play a huge role, performances are not just routinely recorded but now also shared online. According to what my interlocutors have told me, the visits and live performances of Indian and Pakistani na‘t khwan played a decisive role in making the genre more popular in Mauritius, not just the availability of imported cassettes and audio-CDs. These visiting na‘t khwan in turn inspired the emergence Mauritian na‘t khwan. In at least one case, a Mauritian na‘t khwan got his first training by an Indian Imam residing in Mauritius at the time. These local na‘t khwan then started to produce and circulate their own collections of na‘t recordings.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Many of the ethnographic examples you reference in this book are drawn from your discussions with amateur na’t performers living in Mauritius, such as Shareef and Nazeer. You discuss how they learn to perform na’t, imitating previously released recordings of famous na’t khwan in order to capture their unique ler or manner of vocal expression, for example, and describing the ways in which their behavior outside of performance spaces, such as their general level of piety and their reputation in the Mauritian Muslim community, affects their reception as professional performers of this particular style of religious music. I’m curious to hear more about what happened to your interlocutors, such as Shareef and Nazeer – did they end up “making it” and becoming professional na’t khwan? When does one break the barrier between amateur and professional in the world of na’t performance?

Patrick Eisenlohr: None of my Mauritian na‘t khwan friends has become a professional in the strict sense of the word, for none of them is this their main occupation. Shareef is now the director of a primary school, Nazeer is retired, and Farhad is an Urdu teacher. Although they are justifiably proud of their na‘t recordings, they all say that they do not see themselves as a match for the Pakistani superstars. The latter are famous and make a good living from reciting na‘t. But for my Mauritian interlocutors there is also a certain ambiguity surrounding the superstars’ professional status, there is admiration for them, but there are also moral doubts about reciting na‘t for money, and not for the love of the Prophet alone. Doubts over whether such professionalism allows for the benefits a na‘t performance is supposed to bring about point to exactly the importance of perceived piety and personal reputation you have mentioned. Certainly, I heard my share of stories about what some perceived as the aloofness and the high financial demands of visiting professional na‘t khwan. Seen from such a perspective, “making it” as a professional also invites suspicions of moral corruption, and becoming a professional in the sense above may therefore be felt to be not entirely desirable.


Origins of Job Application Forms and Some Types of Job Interviews

by Ilana Gershon

Job Application Forms

The military introduced this as a widespread practice starting in 1917, when the Committee on Classification of Personnel in the Army developed forms to standardizing practices for evaluating soldiers.  Initially these forms were called application blanks, and were intended to accompany a cover letter that was supposed to be tailored to that particular company. (Thelen 1998: 64)  Prior to the resume and application blank, cover letters could be more generic, but in the 1920s, authors offering job advice began encouraging applicants to write a letter addressed specifically to that company, and ideally, to a specific named potential employer.

Thelen, Erik. 1998. “The Evolution of the Application Letter in America: 1880-1960.”  Phd Thesis. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


Informational Interviews

The first mention of informational interviews that I can find is in 1975 – the first volume of Women’s Work suggests that women conduct informational interviews about the jobs in which they might be interested.

Behavioral Interview Questions

Tom Janz introduces this approach at a conference in 1977, but only addresses it in print in his 1982 article “Initial Comparisons of Patterned Behavior Description Interviews versus Unstructured Interviews.” in the Journal of Applied Psychology 67(5): 577-580.

Structured Interview Responses

In 1986, Tom Janz had published his book, Behavior Description Interviewing in which he recommended that people deploy the SHARE Model to structure their answers when responding to a behavioral interview.   Over time, this has morphed into at least two other acronyms that I have come across during my fieldwork – the STAR model and the PSR model.

The SHARE model:

S Describe a specific Situation.

H Identify Hindrances or challenges.

A Explain the Action that you took

R Discuss the Results or outcome

E Evaluate or summarize what you learned.


PSR Model – I found this more on the West Coast





STAR Model – I found this more in the Mid-West and on college campuses





History of U.S. Employment Centers

By Ilana Gershon

Since people weren’t using job ads to find applicants or positions until the mid-1880s, what did they turn to?  They ended up turning to intelligence offices, which managed a number of different tasks, including staffing, finding lost animals, branding animals, providing information about how commodities were doing in the marketplace, or information about commodities that are rare or unusual, and also serving as a pawn shop.  The first ad for an intelligence office I could find is James Hulme announcing in the Pennsylvania Gazette that he has successfully set one up in 1774.  By 1812, people were writing op-eds to New York City newspapers criticizing intelligence offices for placing servants and then luring them to another position by delivering tempting flyers about a new workplace to the servants’ workplace only a few days after they were placed.  From this critique, it seems clear that in 1812, both job seeker and employer paid the same amount (50 cents) to be matched.  The intelligence offices became such a problem that the NY legislature passed a law on February 4, 1822 insisting that intelligence offices required a license in an attempt to regulate them.  Other states soon followed – scurrilous intelligence offices was a concern for state legislatures for many decades, and various states experimented with ways to regulate the private employment offices.  It did take a while, however, for dictionaries to acknowledge this institution.  Webster (in 1884) defined intelligence offices as “an office or place where information may be obtained, particularly respecting servants to be hired.”

By the time the Webster dictionary started defining intelligence offices, employment bureaus which were free to the job-seeker had already been well-established.  In the 1850s, the New York YMCA branch offered services similar to intelligence offices, hoping to help the young men who were boarding at the YMCA find jobs.  In 1866, the Chicago YMCA became concerned that Civil War vets were having trouble finding jobs when they returned home, and hired a man to work full time on job placement, and in 1875, he had placed 4,000 men that year alone (Hopkins 1951).

Starting in perhaps the late 1880s, the widespread distrust of private employment bureaus sparked an interest in having government-run employment bureaus.  The Colorado Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1887-1889 publishes the first official statement advocating for government involvement in labor exchanges (Sautter 1983: 375).  But this attempt did not succeed in the Colorado state legislature.  Instead, the first government agencies were established in Ohio in 1890, in part because the Ohio Labor Commissoner was so impressed by Parisian employment bureaus, and was able to persuade the Ohio legislature to create agencies in the state’s five biggest cities (Sautter 1983: 382).  While in Ohio, the government-run employment agencies were relatively successful, other states found it more difficult to serve a wide range of clients well.  The New York agency closed in 1906, after being open only 10 years, in part because it had devolved into only helping workers in domestic service.   At the time, there were over 800 commercial employment bureaus in the city.  Unions, meanwhile, were suspicious of these charitable and government bureaus, and believed that part of their function was to help employers easily hire strike-breakers.


Hopkins, Charles Howard. 1951. History of the Y.M.C.A in North America. New York: Association Press.

Savickas, M. L., & Baker, D. B. 2005. The History of Vocational Psychology: Antecedents, Origin, and Early Development. In W. B. Walsh & M. L. Savickas (Eds.), Contemporary topics in vocational psychology. Handbook of vocational psychology: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 15-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sautter, Udo. 1983. “North American Government Labor Agencies Before World War One: A Cure for Unemployment?” Labor History 24(3): 366-393.


History of U.S. Jobs Ads

by Ilana Gershon

American newspapers carried announcements about jobs from as early as 1705.  The first job ad I found was in The Boston News-Letter, asking for a “single able man to drive a team in Boston.” (March 4, 1705; issue 98; page 4).  A few job ads appeared in every newspaper, but they were clearly outnumbered by the other ads announcing goods or land for sale, or runaway indentured laborers or slaves. In a newspaper filled with approximately 400 ads, there might be 4 ads about hiring someone.  And these ads were as likely to be ads in which the person was seeking a position as much as an employer looking to hire.  Most of the job ads until around 1750 weren’t even what we might consider proper bjob ads.  They advertised indentured servants, asking if anyone wanted to buy their time. It wasn’t until around 1825 that newspapers began to carry a substantial number of job ads.  A few years later, ads began to run for factory workers.

People tended to advertise for apprentices, cooks, maids, and wet nurses.  Women were as likely to be requested or advertise themselves as available in a newspaper ad as men, although it was always clear which jobs could be filled by women and which by men.   Around 1785, jobs ads began to discuss whether the applicant should be black or white, and black people might also be likely to advertise that they were looking for a position.  In 1790, George Washington, or at least “the family of the President of the United States” advertised that they are looking for a cook and a coachman.

Around the 1830’s, newspapers began to clump ads together – beforehand job ads would be scattered throughout the newspaper, interspersed with everything else being advertised.   Clumping was not adopted uniformly, and it wasn’t until 1856 that newspapers began to reliably have “help wanted” and “situation wanted sections.”  At some point around 1856, newspapers began to split the help wanted section based on gender – lumping ads for help-wanted females or situation-wanted females together, as well as help-wanted males or situation-wanted males.  Given how gender specific jobs were at this period, the division isn’t surprising at all.  This however didn’t happen in all newspapers at the same time, and indeed, ten years later, newspapers such as the Providence Evening Press still hadn’t adopted this way of classifying ads. Once established, this division was a practice which would continue until the Civil Rights Act legislated against it in 1964.

There are a few other things to note about what early job ads can reveal about how information about jobs circulated in those days. Until around 1795, employers did not suggest being contacted directly.   Instead applicants were supposed to ask the Postmaster about the job details, or ask the printer. After 1795, job ads often mentioned exact street addresses where named people could be approached about the job. Recommendations were occasionally asked for – sometimes employers wanted an applicant to be well-recommended, sometimes a job seeker promised that he or she came with good recommendations. While recommendations weren’t discussed much until the early 1800s, between 1800 and 1805 it became commonplace for employers to insist that servants come with good recommendations. But that was the only thing asked for – there was no mention of resumes or interviews until much much later.

Job Advice That Has Lasted Over the Years

by Ilana Gershon

Job Advice I Was Surprised to Find in the 1920s

In 1917, employers were paying for employee referrals – I had no idea that this practice has been so longstanding.  (Baer 1917).

As early as 1921, Kilduff in his job advice manual was strongly encouraging job-seekers to contact the hiring manager directly whenever possible, and circumvent the employment personnel bureau – which is what HR was called in those days.  People have been trying to get around HR since 1921!

While every job advice manual I have ever read recommends some form of networking (although the earliest mention of “networking” as a verb I can find is in 1977), this practice wasn’t very highly valued in the 1920s.  In 1921, Norman Shidle warns prospective job-seekers not to rely too heavily on their personal connections.  “The help of friends and relatives should not be ignored when you begin to seek a position, but such persons should not be relied upon as the main source of a job.” (Shidle 1921: 4)  He is concerned that depending only on one’s social network will lead people to take the job that is most conveniently available, and not the one best suited to their temperament.


Baer, A. K. 1917. “How We Lifted Hiring Out of the Rut.” In Handling Men. New York: A. W. Shaw Company: 9-12.

Granovetter, Mark. Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Kilduff, Edward. 1921. How to Choose and Get a Better Job. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers.

Shidle, Norman. 1922. Finding your job: sound and practical business methods. New York: The Ronald Press Company.


Histories of the job ad, the resume, and so on

by Ilana Gershon

This is my application to be a member of the Society for the Study of Boring Things.  To write my book, Down and Out in the New Economy, I attended many workshops for job seekers and read many job advice manuals.   I kept wondering how and when these practices ever got started.  Some things are well-known — Mark Granovetter started the trend to favor weak ties when networking through his 1974 study, Getting a Job (which I talk about at length in my own book).   But other aspects I had no idea — where did the resume come from?  What was the first job ad in the United States?   Who first came up with the idea of behavioral interviewing or the informational interview?

In honor of Labor Day, I am posting this week everything I have uncovered about the history of hiring.   Clearly, this is a topic that needs a better and more systematic historian, and if anyone wants to do this, I will happily hand over all my primary sources.

Today — Resumes

Resumes, or curriculum vitae, might have existed in various forms in the 1910s, but were not yet a named genre. For quite a while they were called data sheets, and were not necessarily expected to accompany an application (DeKay 2003). Indeed, the resume was so far from being a widely circulated genre that in 1914, a magazine writer describing how to hire good employees, was forced to explain in detail what type of document an especially desirable applicant submitted, since the writer lacked the handy term “resume.”  He wrote: “With the letter was enclosed an abstract giving a complete history of education and business experience, including all positions held salaries received and names of firms worked for.” (Oliver 1914: 137)  The applicant was not inventing this genre out of whole cloth, 1914 was the same year that the resume as a genre was also first discussed in college business communication courses. (Popken 1999)  Job applications did not regularly contain a separate sheet of paper listing educational and vocational history labeled a resume until the late 1930s. (DeKay 2003)

In my survey of U.S. newspaper classified ads, job ads were not consistently requesting applicants’ resumes until the early 1950s – the first mention in a job ad that I found was 1952.  The mention I found was in a Washington D.C. newspaper, The Evening Star, in an ad for an automobile salesman.  The same classified section had ads for engineers or IBM machine operators, as well as cooks and all sorts of office jobs or blue-collar jobs, but none of these ads asked for a resume.  Even until the mid-1980s, most job ads didn’t request resumes up front – instead they suggested a number to call to arrange for an interview or recommending applying in person.  But by the mid-1980s, almost every ad that discussed office work or a job that might require a BA also mentioned submitting a resume.

Functional Resumes

The first mention of the functional resume can be found in 1952 – first suggested in Carl Naether’s The Business Letter: Its Principles and Problems. By 1955, 50% of the textbooks discussing resumes described functional resumes as a viable option. (DeKay 2003: 370).


DeKay, Samuel. 2003. “The Historical Evolution of a Written Genre: The Employment Resume in the United States, 1950-1999.” Phd Dissertation, Fordham University.

Oliver, H. M. 1914. “Finding the Right Man: Efficient Methods of Selecting Men to Fill Important Positions.” Business (March): 136-138.

Popken, Randall. “The Pedagogical Dissemination of a Genre: The Resume in American Business Discourse Textbooks, 1914-1939.” JAC 19 (1999): 91-116.

Thelen, Erik. 1998. “The Evolution of the Application Letter in America: 1880-1960.”  Phd Thesis. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


Erin Yerby take the page 99 test for her dissertation

On page 99:

 “Spiritualism troubles the separation between here and there: as modern, western and mostly ‘white,’ but also because Spiritualists inhabit the problematic prejudices of modernity as uncomfortably “religious,” skirting the secular-religious divide, and adopting the very stance of the scientific observer with regard to their own bodily sensorium. The body becomes an object of observation, and simultaneously, the site of an intimate participation in one’s own affective experience. Mediumship involves, I argue, the practiced bodily technique of refusing to put images to rest, at least as properly historicized and situated pasts. The past returns as a living presence available to sensation, a revenant stutter interrupting American history in its sublimation of the dead, and making visible the ongoing entanglement of colonized bodies and spectral figures within settler-colonial imaginaries.”

Mediumship is an always-present encounter with ephemeral images and affects that  reveals the intimate way pasts are congealed in the body. An encounter, in other words, with something at the limits of what we neatly designate the social or culture, that gets into the body—a spectral remnant within experience that exceeds experience. How to think about such encounters was Mauss’ problem, it seems to me, in calling for a study of the techniques of the body, and in making the far-reaching claim that even the most metaphysical of our practices—mystical states— are “at bottom […] techniques of the body.” And then we might follow Nietzsche’s claim that philosophy has always concerned the body, or rather a misunderstanding of the body. It is as if thought has abstracted itself from its most fundamental encounter—a missed encounter with the body, from which thought arises. The body is thought’s otherness—its condition, as Deleuze and Guattari say: thought has its condition in the non-thought of the body, “its tiredness and waiting.” More precisely, the claim I am making here is that mediumship presents us with time in the body, the past sensed (in the body) as an animate and figural sliver of the present: living images of the dead. This dissertation explores modern Spiritualist mediumship as giving shape to a specifically modern sensorium, wherein the body appears as the primary, or primordeal, media of spiritual presences.

The section in which I discuss this, which includes p.99, explores the problematic relation of “dead” images to history, drawing upon Chakrabarty’s post-colonial critique of historicism as the conversion of the “plural” life-worlds of non-western others to a “bit of the past.” I propose here that the problem of history, or historicism, turns upon its relation to images—and the power of images which theological iconoclasm so deeply confronts. For Protestant reformer Calvin, the only safe, non-idolatrous images—those that cannot be confused with a living body, or entrance a living body into an ecstatic identification with itself—are images sequestered to pastness: that is, effectively de-animated and rendered dead, through their enclosure within an historical context. If historicism also names a way of writing we are comfortable with, and even, following a Marxian post-structuralist vein, is said to make for responsible, ideologically weary scholarship, mustn’t we also ask ourselves if such writing sequesters ideas and images to a dead zone, eliding (and thus missing) the full sense of their force in the now of the present?

Enfolded in a modern dialectic of proximity and distance, the medium’s quasi-scientistic re-making of the body into an instrument of observation is her means of drawing near the overlooked sensations affecting a body that have elided history—the many animate spectral shapes of the past. North American Spiritualist mediumship, I am saying, puts in relief the iconoclastic distinction between dead and living images by placing the body at the center of a sensory engagement with the past: not as a history of dead images, but as an erotics of plural entanglements with the living-dead. In its performed refusal of history, mediumship dialectically adheres to, yet refuses, the deadening of external images which iconoclastic prohibition demands. In making the body the locus or house of living images, mediumship expresses an immanence between presence and past, the body and the image.

Erin Yerby. 2017. Spectral Bodies of Evidence: The Body as Medium in American Spiritualism. Columbia University, Phd dissertation.




Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2001. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mauss, Marcel. 1973. “Techniques of the Body.” Economy and Society, 2:1, 70-88.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2003. The Genealogy of Morals. New York: Dover.