American Journal of Cultural Sociology

, Volume 5, Issue 1–2, pp 181–224

Work, welfare, and the values of voluntarism: Rethinking Anscombe’s “action under a description” in postwar markets for human subjects

Original Article

DOI: 10.1057/s41290-016-0022-6

Cite this article as:
Stark, L. Am J Cult Sociol (2017) 5: 181. doi:10.1057/s41290-016-0022-6


This paper documents an exchange for healthy human subjects of medical experiments brokered and carried out by a labor union (The United Mine Workers of America) and the federal government (The US National Institutes of Health). The organizations legally established the exchange in a 1960 contract; jobless people took part in the exchange throughout the decade; and the exchange served as a “prototype” for additional exchanges between NIH and organizations in blue-collar communities. The exchange was successful because the organizations negotiated two “dissonant descriptions” of the same action to manage two different audiences – one legal, one vernacular. The case engages three issues in cultural sociology. First, the episode illustrates how philosopher GEM Anscombe’s concept of “action under a description” solves a puzzle embedded in studies of culture-in-action and offers a way to more systematically study symbolic action. Second, it demonstrates precisely how organizations, paradoxically, use the language of voluntarism to accomplish market goals. Third, it illuminates the terms of engagement with new commodities and markets in the age of biocapital and in doing so helps deepen understandings of moral markets.


Anscombe inequality employment welfare War on Poverty volunteer economy UMWA moral markets labor unions NIH human subjects 

Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Vanderbilt UniversityNashvilleUSA

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