The force of irony : studying the everyday life of tomato workers in Western Mexico

G. Torres

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    For many years sociological literature on agricultural labourers has largely focused on how surplus value is generated and extracted by both direct and indirect means in the agricultural labour process. However this perspective overlooks the ways in which agricultural workers are important protagonists in the creation and transformation of their own living and working conditions. Labourers appear as subordinate beings, subject to company regimes that operate under formal and informal regulatory forms which are depicted as remaining beyond their control. This point of view inevitably reproduces conceptual images wherein workers are subject to alienating social conditions which determine a constant deterioration in their standards of living and those of their families.

    This thesis explores a different path. Taking as a specific reference point the tomato industry of the Autlán-El Grullo valley in western Mexico, my aim is to analyze the heterogeneous social behaviour of workers who live under extremely complex everyday circumstances. The study's perspective unfolds from the close-up study of the workday. The main challenge is to gain access to the multiple meanings which underlie the trivialities or petty events of daily life which have been systematically written off as less interesting for sociological study. Hence I question the premise - advocated in many sociological studies on labourers - that bosses' and labourers' relations or games of power and knowledge are always and simply victimizing workers.

    In order for this predominant hypothesis of bosses' hegemony to yield us some explanatory value, we insist that it should account for the multiple variations and conditions under which asymmetrical relations of power and knowledge reproduce themselves. As a result this book takes as its point of departure a critical perspective whereby bosses' hegemony or domination is seen to be problematic. This implies conceiving of the process of domination and subordination as the inconclusive result of life circumstances. These circumstances can be analyzed as processes constructed by the actors, where workers themselves are able to develop non-subordinate behaviours, although they can also consent to their own subordination.

    Throughout the book the reader will see how the theoretical focus takes shape, highlighting various practices or expressions of "the force of irony". This focus is the result of an intermittent reflective struggle which the researcher develops in his zeal to understand the implications of the crucial problem of workers' human agency. This consists in defining workers' transformative capacities, how they function in practice and how workers manage to change aspects of the social conditions in which they live.

    The book was written for academics interested in the social sciences and for scholars or practitioners dedicated to the problems of development who work for government institutions or non- governmental organizations. It formed part of a multidisciplinary research project of Wageningen Agricultural University and the Colegio de Jalisco called "Contrasting Patterns of Irrigation Organization, Peasant Strategies and Planned Intervention: Comparative Studies in Western Mexico".

    The empirical foundations of the thesis are the ethnographic situations described in Chapters II, III, IV, V and VI. In these I challenge the frequently held assumption that ethnography is theoretically weak, and show how ethnographic situations orient theoretical efforts and help us reach an understanding of workers' everyday lives. The thesis is structured around two thematics: 1) theoretical and methodological reflections (Chapters I, II, VII and VIII) and 2) the analysis of the politics of everyday tomato work (Chapters III, IV, V and VI).

    Chapter I takes account of: a) The transformation of the subject and object of study, making reference to the successive refraining of the researcher's questions and how an actor-oriented perspective can help construct a theoretically informed ethnography; b) the recent change in orientation of studies of workers, with the central challenge being to understand the complexity of workers' daily lives; c) the ethnocentric nature of sociological intervention; d) the book's specific objective in offering a local theory based on concrete social practices which avoids the pretentious construction of a universal model of workers' behaviour; e) the analytical perspective based on the concept of irony and its basis in the differentiated practices of labourers who work under diverse circumstances; and f) the interactive scenarios studied and thematic content of the thesis.

    In Chapter II the methodological discussion is deepened by clarifying the political character of research, which cannot simply be reduced to neutral contemplation. Using the Mexican metaphor "Plunging into the garlic", the first section presents an original characterization of what it means to intervene sociologically. The second section deals specifically with the political character of fieldwork. This refers to the different forms of conflict in which researchers and their interlocutors (who have different interests and ideological prejudices) finally negotiate a sociological text that reflects the development of various interactive processes. The third section discusses the problem of the researcher's "methodological access". This cannot be reduced to the possibilities of being close to or distant from the centres of power or decision making. Instead, the crucial point is to gain access to a greater comprehension of the multiple meanings implicit in complex everyday situations. Ile final section establishes the analytical consequences which a given methodology can have. Here central questions are posed which are relevant for the theoretical focus of the ensuing chapters.

    Chapter III analyzes how tomato production is directly carried out in the tomato fields. It defines the specific concept of tomato work and highlights the heterogeneity of tomato workers' behaviour and its significance. Tomato work is understood as a series of specific tasks and subtasks which can vary infinitely. These are seen in the specific contexts of daily chores programmed for the tomato season, shaped through the company's history. As such, they are conceived of as particular modalities of labour processes which result from the interplay of global and local influences. We are dealing, then, with a notion which includes the productive and reproductive relations of social life. Its objective is to approximate the points of interconnection and the forms of consensus underlying the organizing principles or work rhythms followed in everyday life and commonly expressed in the idea of "catching up with the harvest" ( alcanzarel corte). The workers' heterogeneity in terms of gender, age, status and commitment to the job emerges from an analysis of the workday. In this sense, tomato work is not an essentialist category which simply stems from face-to-face exchanges; instead it is a very mixed, dynamic process which reveals itself through the constant adaptive mechanisms which workers put into practice in their different established work routines.

    Chapter IV studies the political content of tomato work but stresses my objections to abstract conceptions of politics. From this perspective, and with the aim of identifying the features of a local political profile, the first section states the problems and specific conflicts that emerge from the tomato industry's operation in the region. The second section reconstructs the history of the Autlán valley and describes how various cultural repertoires in the region are interwoven. It also examines the variegated combinations of political values and practices among the different social groups living in the Autlán-El Grullo valley. The third section emphasizes how groups of local producers and workers internalize transnational companies' ways of doing things, which are characterized by the introduction of technological packages and procedures. However, it bears repeating that this is not a unilateral process. Rather, there is a dialogical process, since "external" ways of doing things are transformed and finally fused with local traditions and styles. The last section explores the interconnections between company disciplinary methods and workers' self-regulation.

    Chapter V examines the forms of worker power and the ways in which worker abilities are forged. The focus highlights the dynamic character of power relations. Power is conceptualized as a phenomenon which is constructed and negotiated and which can only be analyzed through its operation. That is, it appears on the scene when actions that confer power to an individual, social group or company within a social network or during the development of a conflict, are identified. Moreover, this implies considering the many variations and the constant possibility of ruptures in the established order. The chapter is divided in two ethnographic sections. The first describes the case of a worker who is reinstated in his former position as company greenhouse foreman, replacing an agricultural technician. This runs counter to the prevailing tendency of replacing manual workers with professional personnel. The second presents the case of a very able worker who makes a fool of an international irrigation expert just when he tries to demonstrate the advantages of cutting edge technology and how to operate new irrigation equipment to a group of technicians and businessmen who are taking a course from him. This situation invites a critical review of the local effects deriving from technological change.

    Chapter VI discusses "the force of irony" in greater detail and examines three situations developed during work routines and characterized by different meanings of irony. I explain how work in the Autlán tomato industry can be depicted as a doubly ironic social condition: on one hand, we are mostly speaking of part-time labourers and of workers who are constantly migrating. Their legal and human rights are not insured. On the other hand, the transnational and local companies characterize themselves as "companies on wheels" but are incapable of guaranteeing good short-term profits.

    Examining the practices of irony also includes specific attempts to describe workers' conceptual articulations and ways of speaking when they intervene in the work process. Here we are not dealing only with individual expressions but with collective profiles. In some ways, workers share power and in others they challenge it, but in the final analysis one can see the ways in which they transform the alienation of their work routines. The irony they display is not a power with identical modalities or even uniform intensity. It is more like a drop of water which slowly but surely wears away the stone.

    Chapter VII revises the conceptualizations of change in workers' life worlds. In a way, it makes the dialogue between ethnographic reflections and sociological literature - which was begun in earlier chapters - more explicit. The first section very specifically questions the meanings of both ordinary and extraordinary change in workers' living conditions. It also questions the contributions of theories which attempt to make change more comprehensible. In the framework of ethnographic situations, the specific possibilities of adopting different macro- or micro- theoretical models for understanding structural change are discussed. The second section reviews the contributions made by the theory of the work process. It asserts that it is necessary to rework the conceptual focus to include a great variety of company disciplinary forms and worker forms of self-regulation and resistance. It also explores differences in gender, class and age in formal and informal work contexts. The final section reconstructs an ethical-political micro-order in the specific circumstances of tomato work.

    Chapter VIII is a distillation of the thesis which summarizes various explicit or implicit attempts to describe workers' human agency in the other chapters. The notion of human agency asserted in this final chapter goes beyond the sociological literature's conceptions of agricultural workers, which have proven to be among that literature's weakest points. Here I assert that exploitation, social marginalization and subordination must not only be seen as obstacles to human agency; instead, on occasions, these must also be interpreted as challenges which impel people to go beyond social conditioning. In fact, the way in which human agency is conceived tells us that it is socially constructed and that it cannot realize itself as an isolated component of individual choice. On the contrary, human agency always presents itself as an embodiment of organized group practices. In these organizational practices, persuasive and charismatic powers that attract other social actors develop until they crystallize in exercises of power. These exercises are the result of diverse forms of involvement in specific projects and interests. Even when workers' passivity appears to persist because they are enmeshed in a specific power network, one should not ignore the possibility that they are making use of the power of other actors, who in turn are enmeshed in their own projects. At least one must consider that passivity is never total and that the reigns of power can change hands, if only for fleeting moments.

    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Long, N.E., Promotor
    Award date14 Sept 1994
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789054852605
    Publication statusPublished - 1994


    • sociology
    • rural communities
    • work places
    • working conditions
    • solanum lycopersicum
    • tomatoes
    • mexico


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