The History of Human Qualities: Product Value and Alienation During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
We invite researchers to submit paper proposals on topics related to the social transformation and perception of labor skills, the assessment and construction of product value, and different forms alienation during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Panel session at the World Economic History Conference, Kyoto (2015)
Richard Biernacki (Sociology UC San Diego)
Bert De Munck (Centre for Urban History, University of Antwerp,)
Jelle Versieren (Centre for Urban History, University of Antwerp)
Research and debate on workers’ alienation and estrangement during the industrial revolutions has in its heydays in the 1970s and 1980s predominantly focused on technological, organizational and managerial transformations. While Marxism often translated in vulgar views on the loss of control over the means of production and the division of labor, alienation was reduced to deskilling and factory discipline. Discussions during the subsequent ‘cultural turn’ have helped to appreciate the importance and relative autonomy of perceptions of and discourses on labor – whether from outside or from the workers themselves – but here the connection with the material and social reality of producing and selling tended to be obscured. Theoretical debates on alienation and commodity fetishism notwithstanding, historians have refrained from examining the practical and at the same time imagined and discursive connections which artisans and workers forged with raw material and the products of their labor.
In this session we intend to enter that terra incognita by studying the (changing) importance of the human element in the construction of product value. Both art historians and historians of material culture have already pointed to the different ways in which product value relates to labour, skills and the personhood of artisans. While guild-based artisans tended to stress their hands-on skills and trustworthiness, Jan de Vries has for instance pointed to a possible transition from an ‘intrinsic value’-based material culture (in which the value of the raw material was a predominant factor) to a ‘design’-driven one. In a similar vein, art historians have pointed at the growing impact of notions such as ingenium from the renaissance era on. Building on these insights and linking them to a labour perspective, we intend to return to the broader issue of the relationship between manufacturer and product and to the processes of alienation which characterized the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Given that the concepts of alienation and ingenium and the like are very much related to European history, we adopt a comparative angle in which European regions will be compared with perspective from other regions.
In particular, two perspectives will be combined in our session:
1. Strategies of artisans: Starting from the communication between sellers and buyers, it will be analysed how (changing) product qualities were objectified by manufacturers in particular. The various instruments and strategies used – regulations, trade marks, shop signs, bills, trade cards, display, catalogues, packaging, ads, etc. – will be addressed from a long term perspective.
2. Perception of consumers: Historians have argued that it became increasingly difficult for consumers to connect product quality to a specific labourer and specific skills, but the impact on the perception of skills and competencies is yet to be tackled. Which role did human competencies play in the customers’ assessment of the value of a given product?
Submission of proposals
Proposals for papers should include:
* Paper title
* Presenter's name, affiliation, and contact information
* Brief abstract (no more than 500 words)
Please send proposals to:
Jelle Versieren (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Subject: WEHC Proposal
Deadline for proposal submissions: 15 August 2013.
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