The body and the workplace

I had initially planned to write something about Charlottesville for my next post, but after reading so much the last two weeks about neo-Nazis and the far right and debates over free speech protections and Confederate monuments and the jagged edges of political debate about public space in the US right now, I decided I couldn’t add much to the conversation without thinking and reading more. So I am going to wait and maybe write something more productive later. On top of that, as I write this, most of the Houston metropolitan area is under water as flooding from Hurricane Harvey worsens by the hour and more rain falls. There are many things I would like to write about, but I am hoping to resist the urge to make this a blog where I respond in (or just after) the moment to important news items using a geographic perspective. I could never feed that beast in a way that would be satisfying to me or readers, as my time is limited. It is about to become even more so as the fall semester begins soon at my institution. This means teaching, meetings, email, and meetings that could have been an email, are about to take up a lot more of my time.

For now, this is a short post about a big topic related to my ongoing long-term research interests, spurred on by a facebook post by Corey Robin last week. If you don’t know Corey Robin’s work, I recommend it. He also has a blog that he maintains, and he posts regularly on social media via facebook and twitter. I cannot easily share the post but a screenshot is below. In it, Robin links to the story of a woman who worked for a 911 dispatcher in Georgia, but was recently fired because, she claims in a wrongful termination lawsuit, of symptoms associated with pre-menopause. It is a potentially complicated case, but as Robin argues, it demonstrates “the intimacy of the humiliations and cruelties employers regularly visit upon their employees” in the American workplace. CoreyRobin.24Aug2017

I am deeply interested in this in my own research, and in my own workplace, the former as I examine the way expertise and bureaucratic labor are organized in state institutions, the latter because of my own work experience in the past and currently, where I am heavily involved in my faculty union. More generally, geographers, especially those working in feminist and labor geographies, have started looking at these issues more closely in recent years, examining questions about work, the division of labor, the workplace, and the organization of our time and the spaces of our daily lives in relation to work, in relation to the body as a scale and a site of struggle and inscription. That is a bit jargony, and I must admit that in my research I come at this from a slightly different angle, joining these debates and conversations from the vantage point of subfields in political geography and critical geopolitics. If I were to take an example from my current research on the recent merger of two related bu formerly independent Canadian federal government departments – namely, CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, and DFAIT, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade – I would emphasize that a major question in the long-term progress and success of this institutional merger rests on how the resulting department (Global Affairs Canada) understands, organizes, and uses the different kinds of expertise and skills that the bureaucratic workers from CIDA and DFAIT bring to the department, and how these might be integrated to produce something greater than the sum of their individual parts. And we should examine this, in turn, by looking at how these workers populating government bureaucracies and state institutions understand themselves and their expertise and its use, and their workplaces. This matters in ways that are at the same time political (e.g., how they view the importance of their policy and analysis work in relation to departmental mandates and priorities), social (e.g., how a career in the public service as a development practitioner, trade commissioner, or foreign service officer might unfold differently for men and women, for Francophone and Anglophone workers, or for those identifying as a visible minority), and material or physical (e.g., many in CIDA had to move to new offices with the merger, and there is the added complexity of the departmental workforce being spread over dozens of embassy and consulate workplaces around the world). In other words, understanding the institutional merger of CIDA and DFAIT is not just a matter of looking at political mandates and strategies. I would argue a better view of how, why, and with what impacts this merger has occurred can be had by examining the resulting merged government department as a workplace, and by centering the views and daily activities of those who work in it.

This is not so far afield from Robin’s post or from the work by authors in geography and related fields on the body as a scale and a site where workers and employers, as well as the state, insurers, NGOs, political parties, and other institutional and political forces battle over the meaning, organization, and direction of work in a complex global political economy where work and workers are often devalued, caricatured, and treated in the abstract. I am hoping in future posts to deal with some of these themes more fully in relation to to my own ongoing research (this helps me work out some ideas that are maybe too half-baked for publication just yet), to my own past work experiences (ah, the three lovely summers I spent working for a county health department taking water samples from public pools), and recent political trends and news (what is the incessant invocation of the “white working class” in relation to Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory in the US than a casual dismissal of the large and growing percentage of the American wage-earning workforce who do not identify white as not politically relevant or astute enough to know their own interests?) There are other topics I would like to write more about as well (Afghanistan, cyberspace and social media, Charlottesville, and Houston), though as I said at the outset, the looming start of the fall semester will mean less time for writing here. I have worked to maintain a two-posts-per-month pace here, but that might slow to once per month. As I prepare to start my intro human geography course again this fall, it is also likely that I will post soon on Windsor, where I live (some of the time) and work, and which I always get students to use as a test case for some basic human geo ideas at the beginning of the semester. So that might provide good fodder for the next post, though Windsor rightly deserves more than a single post. Stay tuned, and bear with me as my work schedule hits me squarely in the face in the coming weeks.