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Profile of the President

Tales of the Kefir Furnaceman: Michael Burawoy

by Jeff Byles

On a frigid February morning in 1985, Michael Burawoy’s dream came true. He passed under gate number one of the Lenin Steel Works, ground zero of Hungary’s industrial heartland, and found himself belly-to-brimstone with the flame-belching maw of an 80-ton furnace. This was no velvet-rope tour for the Berkeley sociologist, however. Over the course of three separate stints totaling a year, it would be Burawoy’s job—along with seven comrades in the work team called the October Revolution Socialist Brigade—to tend this ungodly vessel, in which molten pig iron and scrap steel are melded in a roiling bath and pierced with high-pressure oxygen, kicking temperatures upwards of 1600 degrees. “A departing Boeing,” he later wrote of the works at full gale, “couldn’t make more noise.”

It was music to Burawoy’s ears. “The dream of my life was to get a job in a steel mill in a socialist country,” he told a conference of graduate sociology students. He added bemusedly, “I think I’m the only person in the world who’s had that dream.”

It’s the rare academic who can add the title “furnaceman” to his CV. But for the past 30-odd years Burawoy has been sociology’s underground man, scribbling field notes from the factory floor and beaming back dispatches against the global grain. He’s spent one-and-a-half years as a personnel officer in the Zambian copper mines; worked 10 months as a “miscellaneous machine operator” in a South Chicago engine shop; toiled variously in champagne, textile, and auto-parts factories as well as a steel mill in Hungary; and ended up at a furniture plant in Arctic Russia. His take-home message? Don’t believe the free-market hype until you’ve lived it from the bottom up.

And hitting the bottom of the slag pit at the two-century-old Lenin Steel Works was for Burawoy a career-defining coup. “It was my pièce de résistance,” he says. “I had finally gotten to the heart of the socialist working class.”

You might call him the Walter Benjamin of the ravaged post-Soviet landscape. A professor at the University of California-Berkeley since 1976, the self-described itinerant worker-academic built a career spending one semester out of four and most summers scouring small-parts departments and scrap yards, seizing on the picked-over details of ordinary lives—say, the stamp on the wobbly radial drill he plied in a Hungarian auto shop that reads Csepel Machine Factory, 1959—just as Benjamin wrote of the arcades of Paris, where the slag of mass culture imparted utopian jolts to strolling passersby. His antennae as a global ethnographer are keenly tuned to signals of “the planetary zeitgeist within the mundane, the marginal, the everyday.”

Utopian jolts, moreover, are increasingly charging his academic endeavors. For Burawoy is carving out a vision of a public sociology—the theme of his year as ASA President—that puts not only society’s margins but also the big questions of the day firmly in the disciplinary cross-hairs. A critical, engaged sociology ought to be “a sociology about the public, for the public,” as Burawoy defines it, one that galvanizes a wide audience by wrangling with hot-button issues such as globalization, world hostilities, and grievous inequalities. We need public sociology more than ever, he argues, to reckon with the world’s problems and to sharply reawaken sociology itself.

His outlook may be utopian, but Burawoy is no factory flaneur. Whether at a Moscow rubber factory or, in more recent years, tracking the devolution of a furniture plant in the Arctic Circle burg of Syktyvkar, he has immersed himself in what he calls “the politics of production,” tossing carbon bags into molten steel and brewing up “steelworkers’ soup” on the night shift. Then it’s back to the tie-dyes of Telegraph Avenue and the relative luxury of Barrows Hall, to ponder his encounters with the world’s industrial working class. “I’ve got almost two different personalities,” he explains simply, “and I like to think the one complements the other.”

Baptism by Fire

Bipolarity, perhaps, comes with the social-historical territory. Burawoy’s parents met in Leipzig and landed in England in 1933—his mother having fled Petrograd (previously St Petersburg and later to become Leningrad) just after the Revolution when she was 13, his father leaving Ukraine in 1912 at the age of 8—and raised Burawoy in lower-middle-class Manchester. His father was a chemistry lecturer never quite welcomed by the chummy academic world of Manchester’s College of Science and Technology, being a foreigner and a Jew—and one with avowed Communist sympathies. Following the elder Burawoy’s unexpected death, the family took in lodgers to make ends meet, turning the small, semi-detached house at 22 Queensway into “a veritable United Nations” of doctoral students from Pakistan to Poland to Peru.

Burawoy took a mathematics degree at Cambridge University but—his restless optimism kindled by a tour of America during the heady, proto-revolutionary ferment of 1965—found himself drawn into the inner Kings College sanctum of distinguished American sociologist (and eventual Burawoy nemesis) Edward Shils. Piqued by the nexus of education and politics, he embarked for South Africa in 1968, and an encounter with the austere Jack Simons (veteran freedom fighter, then sociologist-in-exile at the University of Zambia) steered Burawoy to a personnel post at the Anglo American Mining Corporation. There, he covertly researched the breaking points of race and class while tasked with the mammoth project of integrating the pay scales of blacks and whites amid the newly independent Zambian state. His clandestine research gave rise to The Colour of Class on the Copper Mines, which caused a commotion when published in 1972, depicting a color bar that merely floated upwards as whites were promoted over the new Zambian managers. The ensuing media melee made this study the first and only case of “public sociology” Burawoy says he has truly ever engaged.

A grueling “baptism by fire” awaited him at the University of Zambia’s department of sociology and anthropology, where a master’s degree under Simons and Jaap van Velsen set Burawoy firmly in the Manchester School tradition of social anthropology. (“I learned sociology and anthropology on the anvil of terror,” he recalls of the time, “healthy preparation for the University of Chicago but devastating for my ego!”) During his doctoral work at Chicago, he was shepherded through a frankly skeptical department by Bill Wilson, while reveling in poli-scientist Adam Przeworski’s virtuosic renditions of Gramsci, Poulantzas, and Althusser.

Determined to tangle with the Chicago School on its own terrain, Burawoy plunged feet-first into industrial sociology by working at a Chicago machine shop (a former Allis-Chalmers plant) that turned out to have been the same factory studied 30 years earlier by intrepid workplace ethnographer Donald Roy. Burawoy’s 1979 book based on the experience, Manufacturing Consent (Chomsky would later pinch the title), has become a canonical text. Full of industrial-absurdist tales of “goldbricking,” “time-study men,” and “making out,” it examines the miraculous ability of the factory floor to contain class struggle and produce worker consent—construing the labor process as a drudgery-abating game to be played by sporting individual workers. “Monopoly capitalism,” Burawoy’s Foucault-esque conclusion states, “has managed to shape our very character in accordance with its rationality.”

Painting Socialism Black

Such engine-shop insights have helped turn industrial sociology upside down, using the extended case method—mounding up data through sustained participant-observation—to shovel grit into the works of so much armchair sociology. “My main focus has been in seeking to make little contributions to shifting sociology in a critical direction,” Burawoy explains. “As a Marxist I try to bring visions from the shop floor to academia, to recover visions from below that might inform alternatives for the future.” In honing these newfound visions, Burawoy has most recently been working with his friend Erik Wright to develop a sociological Marxism that taps into the emancipatory potentials of civil society. In essence, they’re aiming to shift the production-centered Marx of Capital toward a society-centered Marxism, refreshing the latter with a vitalizing slug of sociology.

Collecting bona fide Marxian visions, however, has proved a tale unto itself. Landing the gig at the Lenin Steel Works entailed feats of diplomacy from fellow sociologist János Lukács, who prevailed only through the favors of a relative in the ruling party’s Central Committee. Moreover, during Burawoy’s tenure at the plant, one worker was burned alive; a brigade-mate had his leg chopped in two after being pinned under a steel pipe. The constant threat of danger ended up endearing him to his comrades—at least in Hungary. “One of the most interesting things is how skilled workers respond to somebody as incompetent as myself,” he says. “In Chicago they were disgusted. In Hungary they thought it was rather charming and they would come round and help me. In Russia they once again showed their disdain.” (Indeed The Radiant Past, a book on Hungary he co-authored with Lukács in 1992, reads at times like the witty screenplay for a lost Elia Kazan film.)

Fortunately, the October Revolution brigade took a shine to him. When he couldn’t stomach the lumps of pork fat his mates carved up for meals, subsisting instead on cartons of diluted yogurt, they christened him “Misi, the kefir furnaceman.” The camaraderie was sealed before a visit by a state dignitary, when the workers were ordered to paint their slag drawer bright yellow. Burawoy could only scrounge a black brush and proceeded to paint the group’s shovels black. When a supervisor demanded an explanation, he replied haltingly that he was, well, helping to build socialism. A comrade shot back with gallows humor: “Misi, you are not building socialism, you are painting socialism, and black at that.”

The metaphor became a potent one. Workers in the plant, Burawoy found, were forced to paint over waste and favoritism spurred by meddling managers. When Burawoy and Lukács, who studied management while Burawoy tended the furnace, reported this to the plant’s officers, they took it icily. “We argued that in a socialist economy there’s a lot of uncertainty, with shortages and the like,” Burawoy says. “The only way to handle that is to have flexibility on the shop floor. We accused management of continually undermining the workers’ autonomy.” He returned after communism to find Lenin Steel Works jettisoning most of its employees, only to be bought by a Slovakian company in 1997, one of many factories in eastern Hungary sputtering as the global market sucked capital from the region.

Burawoy set the controls for the last great socialist destination on the map: “After the fall of goulash communism I got on the next plane out of Budapest and headed for Moscow.” Foiled again. “I arrived in January, 1991, and by August the place had disintegrated,” he says. “Everywhere I went, everything collapsed after me. Now my friends won’t let me go anywhere. China? Cuba? They say no. You’re staying in the Arctic Circle.” Over the last decade, Burawoy has hung out at Polar Furniture Enterprise in Syktyvkar, a heavily forested outpost that was thick with labor camps until the 1950s. As the Soviet Union imploded and a seedy merchant capitalism sprang up, workers’ wages toppled, then vanished. Some of them got paid in butter, others in wood. Burawoy returned in 1995 to find most of the factory in darkness. Working with colleagues Pavel Krotov and Tatyana Lytkina, he set to tracking the fate of Polar’s employees, focusing on the household and gender. “Men become increasingly marginalized as their industrial jobs disappear,” Burawoy explains. “Their life expectancy dropped to 59 during the first years of the post-Soviet period. Russian society as a whole is being re-peasantized, with urban populations turning to their dachas and collective farms reverting to communes of subsistence producers.”

Slag Heap to Public Sociology

The liquidation of factories in Russia’s Komi Republic happens to comport well with Burawoy’s career. It’s a big problem working on the shop floor, after all, when one is in one’s 50s. So trading in his kefir garb for the ASA scepter, the ethnographer comes home. Having completed a term as chair of Berkeley’s sociology department—and fresh from a year as Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation—the itinerant worker embarks on a new assignment: transforming his own discipline through the crucible of public sociology.

In truth, Burawoy has long and zestfully toiled in the academic trenches, teaching Berkeley’s required undergraduate theory course for 25 years—fashioning it as a two-semester sojourn through “Marxism and Sociology” that offers harried undergrads provocative engagements with Marx and Engels, De Beauvoir and Fanon, Durkheim and Weber. His research practicum on participant observation, meanwhile, has produced two volumes co-authored with graduate students: 1991’s Ethnography Unbound, which deployed the extended case method to detach sociology from the “micro” view of American urban life; and the 2000 title Global Ethnography, which probed the slippery concept of globalization as lived by its agents and victims—welfare clients, homeless recyclers, breast cancer activists, and software engineers.

Forging a sociology that touches people’s lives, in short, has been the leitmotif of Burawoy’s work—from the slag heap to the ivory tower. “I don’t love working on the shop floor,” he explains of his post-Soviet forays. “I’d be much happier just sitting in my office. But there is very little research of an ethnographic kind on Russia. Most of what’s written doesn’t really touch people’s day-to-day existence, I’m afraid to say.”

Besides, a little humility helps in the machine shop of the modern university. “It’s good to be humiliated from time to time,” he says, recalling his chagrin on the factory floor. “Getting to know the underside of domination is the first step to change, a quite healthy exposure. Perhaps all academics should have to do this sort of work.”

A version of this article appeared in The Village Voice, April 17, 2001.