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Encoding Race, Encoding Class

Indian IT Workers in Berlin

by Sareeta Amrute

Last tended to December 10, 2020

Amrute is a cultural anthropologist who conducted field work in Germany between 2002 and 2006 with Indian programmers. Primarily upper-caste Hindus in Germany on short-term visas specially designed for IT workers.

Germany presents "a particularly sharp and visible version of the global dynamics of race in software economies." The IT visa initiative was meant to make up for a lack of specialised technical knowledge among German nationals, and garnered a lot of attention from anti-immigration political parties.

"As in the United States and Australia, in Europe the figure of the Indian software engineer became a specter haunting the stability of white-collar careers in Europe, threatening the loss of technical skill and engineering know-how to the “third world.”"

Amrute uses the lens of race and class to consider how Indian coders and their colleagues "take up, remake, and materialize paradigms of difference in work and working bodies."
"This book examines the alignments, realignments, and misalignments of race and class in transnational coding economies"


Software and Programming work is usually framed as Knowledge Work, "cognitive labor, immaterial labor, or, more simply, post-Fordist, postfactory production" #Fordism

These kind of terms focus us on two things:

  • "that intangible goods—including social relations and methods of communication—are the primary products of these economies"
  • "that the personality, individual quirks, and mental capacities of workers are resources critical to producing such “immaterial” goods."

These terms all "imagine the cognitive worker as a universal, unmarked subject" which "obscures the embodied realities of work,"

Amrute argues cognitive labour is embodied, and yet is in opposition to manual labour.

Builds on Autonomist Marxism theory – a phenomenon of Neoliberal Capitalism where we devote extra energy and attention outside of work to make us more valuable within the system.
Aka. voluntarily hustling on the weekend, and efforts to be "productive" in downtime. Similar to Andrew Taggart's concept of Total Work

"Autonomist Marxism understands the cognitive worker as someone who devotes herself fully to the office. Her creative capacities, developed outside the office in leisure and free time, are a vital resource to be tapped (at any time) by a cognitive economy that relies on the circulation of ideas and symbols to produce value." (5)

Amrute pulls on postmodern theorists like Bifo Beradi. Beradi proposes the notion of "Eros" - an effort to slow down time and refuse to let work expand into every crevice of life. "Eros describes both a politics of refusal and of deflection." (6)


On Doing Ethnographic Field Work

Amrute found she had limited access to the Fieldsite – only being allowed into the work context for small periods of time. A specific interview, or a day shadowing a manager.

Interviewed over fifty, and had a core group of around twenty she spent time with in and out of the office.

Amrute makes clear her perspective is subjective and particular - “ ethnography does not represent a neutral reality but instead follows the realities of the life of its protagonists”

Amritsar refreshingly advocates for anthropologists studying cultures of programming to properly learn programming languages. Doing so is the only way to understand the culture fully and see the world the way coders are able to see. it opens up a whole new dimension of understanding -an extra layer on reality of both the material world and the software world #Response

While existing anthropological books on programming focus on open source software, Amrute was instead interested in “ what happens at the boundary between the office and the world outside the office”

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