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- Author or Editor: Edward Webster x
This chapter problematizes the notion of public sociology by comparing two examples of research undertaken during the apartheid period. It raises questions over the role of sociologists in situations of large-scale suffering and exploitation. Should they take sides, and if they do, on what grounds can such choices be justified? It is argued that one takes sides on the basis of certain value commitments. But when sociologists go beyond the relative comfort of the classroom and engage with organizations outside the university, they dirty their hands. This is the dilemma that lies at the heart of a ‘critically engaged sociology’: how to square the circle between practical engagement with outside organizations and a commitment by the sociologist to scholarship. The chapter concludes by suggesting a response to this dilemma in the form of ‘critical engagement’.
From its beginnings, the sociology of work in South Africa has been preoccupied with three enduring themes: skill/deskilling, racism in the workplace, and Fordism/racial Fordism. With the advent of democracy in the 1990s there was a shift away from studying the labour process. We argue in this article that there has been a return to taking seriously the ways new forms of work in this postcolonial context pose new questions to the global study of work. A central preoccupation in the study of work has been the racialised reinscription of post-apartheid workplace orders, now in the context of new dynamics of externalisation and casualisation of employment. Another important theme is the shift away from studies of the formal sector workplace and toward the broader implications of the precarianisation and informalisation of labour. This focus coincided with the growth of new social movements by mostly unemployed (black) township residents around state services provision. This includes studies on working-class politics more broadly, with attention focusing on questions of organising and mobilising. More recently this interest in precarious labour has grown into studies of the gig economy, returning to earlier themes of technology and skill, as well as new forms of waged labour and wagelessness. We argue for the ongoing salience of labour process studies for understanding the specific issues of the securing and obscuring of value, and through the articulations of ‘racial capitalism’ offered by the long tradition of labour studies in South Africa.