Victoria Bernal, Cultivating Workers: Peasants and Capitalism in a Sudanese Village (Columbia, 1991).

Jenny White, Money Makes Us Relatives: Women’s Labor in Urban Turkey (Texas, 1994).

At first glance, these two ethnographies might seem an unlikely pairing. Using a structural approach, Bernal focuses on the logic underlying household decision making in rural Sudan. White, on the other hand, using an interpretive approach, highlights the power of kinship ideology among women workers in urban Turkey. Together, however, they provide insight into family life and economy on the “margins” of the global economy. They give renewed life to long-standing questions, raised by both Marxist and non-Marxists, about transitions to capitalism using contemporary Middle Eastern cases. How can poor urban and rural families survive high prices, runaway consumerism, social uncertainty and the intrusion of the capitalist market? Bernal and White reveal how rural and urban households, facing very different circumstances, strategize to confront these problems. These strategies, in turn, depend heavily on the loyalty, labor contributions and reciprocity of kin networks, off-farm workers in the one case and women pieceworkers in the other. Both make important contributions to a growing literature on the role of social relations in a contemporary understanding of economic change.

Focusing primarily on the Blue Nile Scheme (a government-managed agricultural project) in the Sudan, Bernal addresses persistent concerns about the class categorization of peasants and workers, and the nature of what were once considered culturally determined agricultural decisions in an increasingly market-dependent world. Selected from a random sampling, her unit of analysis is the peasant-worker household (including out-migrating workers) and the agricultural choices they make. Bernal traces the transformation of agriculture from colonial schemes to those of the contemporary, post-independence era. Historical policies and various market conditions have clearly set the frame for class relations and for ownership and use of land (including the dispossession of women).

In the village of Wad al-‘Abbas, the locus of Bernal’s study, cotton production is regulated by the government while individual farmers enjoy more control over the production of sorghum, the main subsistence crop and, at times, a source of cash income. The resources which allow households to continue planting sorghum and working cotton, making use of surplus, unskilled rural labor, come largely from migrant worker remittances. What would otherwise appear to be an “irrational” investment of remittance money in the domestic economy is actually a reasonable allocation of labor and other resources. Bernal supports this with tables on crop production, labor and household wealth.

Bernal convincingly argues that migrant labor, in what would typically be considered the capitalist sector, is essential to maintaining peasant productivity, and she shows how access to this income affects farming decisions and labor inputs. Although, for example, some social and economic mobility is afforded through trading and education (not, incidentally, through investment in land), Bernal demonstrates that for agricultural households, it is capital from off-farm earnings that accounts for household success and village inequality. Capital investments from workers outweigh even such factors as farm size or stage in the household cycle. This connection between the capitalist and agricultural sectors underscores the methodological difficulty of neatly categorizing these households into distinct agrarian and proletarian classes: Some “landowners work for wages and wage workers own land.” This illustrates what Bernal calls “incomplete proletarianization.”

What is implied (but not stated) as a link between the so-called capitalist and non-capitalist sectors in Bernal’s study of the Sudan is what White calls the cultural logic of family relations which are depended upon to generate economic investment or security. For, as Bernal states elsewhere familial bonds and the high value accorded to household subsistence needs are neither dissolved nor replaced by market calculations. [1] Rather, these enduring values and relationships are acted upon and activated within the terms set by the market. White focuses on urban squatter (often migrant) households in Istanbul to examine the culturally-generated use of women's labor in pieceworking businesses (ateliers) that are tied to a global market economy. One might argue that White’s study of urban squatter (often migrant) households in Istanbul suggests what portends for Sudanese women (who already weave for additional income) when they move off-farm. For, although Wad al-‘Abbas women in the Sudan do not have a large role in agricultural production at this time, Bernal anticipates a time when villagers will need women to work because “withholding the labor of women from the market will be a luxury villagers cannot afford.”

White’s unit of analysis is the “social web,” composed primarily of family and neighborhood networks that support atelier production and the gender exploitation involved in the use of these women workers. She illuminates the way in which women’s understanding of the reciprocity of kin relations (or the cultural logic of kinship) encourages women to work for low wages in return for unpaid social/economic debt (i.e., what is owed them by others, like atelier owners, in their networks). Women view piecework as an expansion of their domestic and family obligations — rather than employment — not recognizing the inequalities of power involved in the exchange of cheap labor for unpaid debt. White’s point is that women are working because of family/neighbor loyalty, not simply money-making motives, and do not expect to be repaid only in cash for their sacrifices. White supports these arguments with descriptions of Turkish family relations, gender socialization and the organization of work in several types of ateliers around Istanbul.

White problematizes money by comparing its use and value as a medium of exchange to kin relationships (“money makes us relatives&rduqo;). She argues that the metaphor of kin reciprocity structures both social and economic life and that in the world of piecework production generally, accumulating markers of prestige and status are more important than just making profit. As she says, “The construction of unrepayable debts is a source of power and domination not only within the family but throughout Turkish society.” The allocation of women’s labor to these activities makes what is seen as culturally appropriate female work integral to the viability of small scale (often neighbor or family-owned) businesses, many of which could not be maintained otherwise. In other words, like Bernal, White implies a “rationality” to the cultural ideologies of kinship that, in effect, make women’s labor available to small businesses.

Some critics may take issue with aspects of their respective arguments or presentations. One example of this is White’s implication (through a lack of specificity) that the dynamics of kinship ideology and reciprocity, as she describes them, extend to family/neighbor relations in all classes and to all types of businesses throughout Turkey. It seems probable that “the lack of money” among marginal workers might make them even more necessarily “relatives” in the pooling of resources. Likewise, some may desire elaboration of women’s own explanations about the potential power and influence which White acknowledges are part of the unpaid debts they accumulate or about their work situations. For example, while atelier owners may see these labor exchanges as forming bonds of kinship, women, as White points out, do take on piecework to supplement household income. Other studies of Turkish workers indicate that women are aware of their work options, but recognize that neighborhood-based piecework allows them to maintain both their domestic roles and their reputations while making the most of limited job skills. [2] There is also evidence in White’s description that women do use what Kandiyoti terms “patriarchal bargaining“ [3] with piecework industry owners who are distantly “related” as neighbors or kin. White’s goal, however, is not to ascertain women’s deliberate, rationalized decisions about work but to concentrate on the important role of cultural factors in capitalist relations of production. By focusing so exclusively on the power of kinship ideology, she persuasively establishes a relationship between family dynamics, as well as showing the problem with excluding cultural practices from the analysis of market-driven industries.

With respect to Bernal’s argument, some may quibble with the lack of much explicit discussion of cultural and ideological factors, a dearth of information about women, her emphasis on class concepts or the implication that her sample of households (using both migrant and local wage strategies) represent some unified worker/peasant class. However, Bernal’s goal is to highlight the reasonableness of household decisions to maintain wage labor in the interest of agricultural production, not to explore the cultural commitment of off-farm workers to the farm household or to encompass all the possibilities of a peasant-worker class through her examples. By elucidating the importance of market factors in agricultural production, she shows us the impracticality of viewing the peasant household as autonomous from non-agricultural sectors of the economy or of viewing their choices as motivated only by cultural tradition.

In contributing to an understanding of transitions to capitalism, both authors emphasize the role of kin relations and the interrelationships between the market and household — between capitalist and “less capitalist” sectors of the economy. As Bernal frames the issue elsewhere, “Non-market relations affect the operation of markets, and markets influence the organization of non-market relations. Waged labor and unwaged labor coexist in dynamic relationship within capitalism…. There are, thus, a plurality of productive relations and rationalities within capitalism.” [4] Central to this, as White suggests, are cultural ideologies that support, and perhaps make sense of, the oppressive consequences of these relations for women. It is kinship ideology, she says, that “reaffirms their [women’s] roles as members of these social groups…. This allows them to contribute financially, while remaining reconciled with the moral standards of the traditional family.”

For those of us still convinced that political economy is important for understanding contemporary social cultural processes (such as the rise of religious fundamentalism), these monographs reflect the contemporary anthropological attempt to ground theoretical questions about political economy, gender and labor in fieldwork-based studies. The local detail each provides avoids oversimplifying (or essentializing) culture while illustrating the importance of culturally-defined kinship relations in a global market-oriented society. White and Bernal offer compelling examples of the need to balance grounded inquiries with our theoretical discussions of capitalism and proletarianization on the peripheries of the Middle East and elsewhere.


[1] Victoria Bernal, “Peasants, Capitalism and (Ir)rationality,” American Ethnologist 21/4 (1994).
[2] Mine E. Cinar, “Unskilled Urban Migrant Women and Disguised Employment: Home-working Women in Istanbul, Turkey,” World Development 22/3 (1994).
[3] Deniz Kandiyoti, “Bargaining with Patriarchy,” Gender and Society 213 (1988).
[4] Bernal, op cit, p. 806.

How to cite this article:

Janet Bauer "Making It on the Middle Eastern Margins of the Global Capitalist Economy," Middle East Report 202 (Spring 1997).

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