Adam Sargent’s “Building Modern India”

My dissertation explores the politics and semiotics of labor in India’s modernizing construction industry.  I conducted fieldwork on a few key sites in the greater Delhi region where I attended to the ways workers, subcontractors and engineers understood their own and others’ productive activities.  Drawing on linguistic anthropology I treat these understandings of productive activity as what I call ideologies of labor, to highlight the ways in which labor is not a pre-given category of action but rather something that is created through acts of framing productive activity.  By analyzing how actors talked about, remunerated and recorded construction work I argue that production was shaped by tensions and translations between divergent ideologies of labor.

Page 99 falls in a chapter that illustrates one such tension in ideologies of labor based on fieldwork at a construction skill-training center in Faridabad.  As I explain earlier in the chapter students and administrators at the center understood the very same productive activities in divergent ways.  For administrators activities like carrying bricks were part of ‘practical’ training that would help students in their future careers as construction site supervisors. Students had quite a different understanding of this same activity, as for them brick carrying was considered ‘labor work’ and had the potential to transform them in a downwardly mobile direction into a laborer.  Thus while administrators attempted to strip activities like carrying bricks of their associations with labor, students often reframed these activities through humor.  Some students would refer to students who were carrying bricks as “laborers” which, as I point out on page 99, both construed the action of carrying bricks as “labor work” and not “practical” while also expressing an anxiety that engaging in such action would transform the actor into a laborer. The humor expressed a particular ideology of labor that was in opposition to that articulated by administrators. The remainder of the dissertation builds on this approach in analyzing production on a self-described “modern” construction site in Delhi.  I argue that the practices of audit and accounting that marked the site as “modern” depended on the productive translations used by subcontractors and others to articulate divergent ideologies of labor to one another.

Adam Sargent. 2017. “Building Modern India: Transformations of Labor in the Indian Construction Industry.” University of Chicago, Phd.