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Global Labour Studies: Opening the Field to a New Generation of Students

by Marcus Taylor on January 9, 2018

Writing an undergraduate-orientated textbook that gives students strong analytical tools to unpack the rapidly changing world of labour is easier said than done. Perversely, the concept of labour is one that garners less recognition among many undergraduate students precisely at a time when it is increasingly relevant to them. Students certainly need to understand the dynamic forces that are reshaping labour markets, driving forward automation, expanding the scope of precarious work, and re-writing the spatial division of production. Yet many students are uncertain of what it means to study global labour and where that would fit in their academic horizon.

A key obstacle lies in the fragmented nature of the field. Although labour studies programs and departments provide important unifying institutional structures against the centrifugal force of disciplinary knowledge production, much research continues to be done within disciplinary frames that reinforce specialisation within disciplinary traditions, privileging specific issues and topics over others. Despite the wealth of studies emanating from this deepening of research questions and sensibilities that have been key to a better understanding of labour, rarely do we find a book aiming to offer a comprehensive synthesis of these developments, even at the disciplinary level. This lack is even more obvious at the level of the field as a whole, as the growing complexity of disciplinary traditions has tended to undermine attempts at broader synthesis.

In response, Sébastien Rioux and my new book Global Labour Studies is designed for in-class use with the purpose of providing a unified approach that offers students an accessible repertoire of analytical tools to shed light on key topics and controversies. Drawing together insights from political economy, sociology, geography and development studies, we relate how questions of power, networks, space and livelihoods provide key entry points for analysing global labour issues. This framework is deployed systematically throughout the book as a way to give coherency to the field of global labour studies and make it meaningful to students looking to understand past and contemporary trends.

So how do we make the idea of global labour relatable to undergraduate students across disciplinary contexts? First we break down the concept of labour as ‘work in its social context’. To talk about labour, we argue, is to engage a set of questions around who is performing work for whom, under what conditions, and how such work fits within the wider production of goods and services at a society-wide level. By coupling ‘labour’ to the concept of ‘global’, we then encourage students to explore how livelihoods in any one part of the world are intimately connected to processes on-going in others. We pose this as an invitation for students to analyse what forms of interconnection exist between labouring processes, how are they established and reproduced, what scale they operate on, and to whose benefit they function.

A key element of this approach is to convey the central point of the book that labour forces do not simply exist waiting to be put to work by globally-mobile capital. Rather, labour forces must be actively produced with particular skills, aptitudes and dispositions. The social institutions and processes through which labour is created, we stress, are pivotal for how it may be utilised within production. This connection between the politics of production and those of social reproduction is drawn out across the book, not least through a multitude of empirical examples ranging from migrant software engineers in Silicon Valley to scrap recyclers in coastal China. Emphasising this point helps students to draw tangible links between questions of gender and household livelihood strategies, and see the political dynamics of a labour both inside and outside of any workplace.

While our interdisciplinary approach constitutes the most original aspect of Global Labour Studies, another innovative aspect of the book is the space that it dedicates to methodological issues. Through chapters respectively addressing labour regimes and global production networks, the book equips students with a methodological grasp of the discipline and illustrates how labour scholars have sought to understand the use and deployment of labour in time and space. This allows us to address a broader set of themes within global labour that is usually the case within a more traditional, disciplinary approach. With chapters on informal labour, agrarian labour, migrant labour, forced labour, and the relationship between nature and labour, the book innovates by shedding light on issues that too often have remained confined within specialised discussion despite their relevance for the field of global labour studies.

As a synthesis of this rich tradition, we hope that Global Labour Studies can help carry these conversations forward in a way that engages students directly in discussion of the changing world of labour they inhabit.

This blog post was co-written with Sébastien Rioux.

Marcus Taylor
Marcus Taylor is an Associate Professor in the Department of Global Development Studies at Queen’s University in Canada. His new book, The Political Ecology of Climate Change Adaptation: Livelihoods, Agrarian Change and the Conflicts of Development was published by Earthscan/Routledge in hardback and ebook versions. The author, however, has access to a special print run of paperback copies that he can make available for anyone wanting to purchase the book at a greatly reduced price!
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