Cutting out the Middleman: A Hasidic Enclave in Economic Transition

Drs. Sam Shuman

Mentor: Prof. Vivia Liska

Drs. Sam Shuman is visiting research student in de periode 2017-2019.

Research exploring changes in the contemporary workplace has tended to focus on the shift from waged, contracted employment to more flexible labor arrangements. Some view these as preconditions for creative economies. Others are concerned with the extent to which these regimes have generated precarity in the labor force. But what conclusions can be made when the focus of study is on those who have historically functioned outside the discipline of contract labor practices, such as artisans, merchants, and middlemen?

Sam Shuman, a PhD candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology from the University of Michigan, seeks to address a broader phenomenon that economists refer to as "disintermediation," in which middlemen are being cut out of industries and supply-chains.

His research centers around the disintermediation of labor within the diamond industry and the concomitant displacement of Antwerp’s Hasidic workers. Through long-term ethnographic fieldwork, Sam is exploring a generational shift within Antwerp’s Hasidic male workforce: the vanishing of a lifeworld attached to the global diamond industry and the rise of a new generation of vocational workers and entrepreneurs whose livelihoods depend upon the local Belgian service industry. Within the context of this transition, the study asks three series of  questions: 1) How are attitudes toward work, value, and virtue becoming reshaped through this economic transformation? 2) Why precisely at the moment when the rest of the world’s workers are looking towards “global” markets to secure employment, are Antwerp’s Hasidic workers looking in the opposite direction, namely, to the “local” Belgian service industry? 3) What does this economic transition reveal about the role of the middleman within the long history of global Capitalism and what might it illuminate about a new phase of Capitalism where middlemen may no longer be needed?