7Qs for Academics: Ruth Castel-Branco
Today we speak to Ruth Castel-Branco, Research Manager – Technology and the Future of Work(ers) Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS).
This is an ongoing series where we introduce some key researchers and academics getting to understand their work, their developing research interests as well as what keeps them engaged.
Explain the nature of your work and/or how it relates to inequality.
I manage the research project on Technology and the Future of Work(ers), which explores how digital innovation is reshaping the world of work and inequality. After all, work is the primary source of sustenance across the world. The project conceives of work as productive and reproductive, formal and informal, paid and unpaid. To capture the diversity of experience within the global South, we focus on five countries: Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Mozambique and South Africa. Importantly, we conceive of digitalisation as a contested process and are thus especially interested in sources of worker power and new forms of organizing.
My own research focuses on the relationship between land, labour and social welfare – most recently, the role of cash transfers conditioned on participation in labour-intensive public works in rural Mozambique - as part of a broader strategy to rethink redistribution and reclaim production.
Why do you think inequality remains such an intractable social and economic problem?
Inequality ultimately reflects the organisation of production and the balance of forces between capital and labour, in the broadest sense of the word. Ideology has normalised inequality and despite growing evidence that inequality can stifle economic development, the notion that a rising tide will lift all boats continues to drive policy in many parts of the world. Underlying this ideological dogma are competing class interests and an understandable fear of disrupting the status quo. With the fall of the Berlin Wall (in 1989) and grand proclamations of the end of history, states across the globe moved to liberalise trade, deregulate labour markets and impose a brand of austerity politics which has ultimately increased inequality. Digitalisation has only further concentrated capital by facilitating the convergence of activities previously dispersed across industries and geographies, enabling multinational corporations to increase their monopoly power, based on value extraction rather than value creation.
What continues to keep you engaged in your work or areas of research?
First, is a sense of purpose; a sense that by generating counter-hegemonic ideas based on empirical analysis we can contribute to the construction of a world where we are socially equal, humanly different and totally free, to borrow from Rosa Luxemburg. Second is praxis or the application of counter-hegemonic ideas through engagements with policy-makers and collaboration with workers’ organisations and social movements. Most of my work in this respect has been centred on Mozambique – engaging primarily the Ministries which oversee labour and social welfare policy, in collaboration with trade unions and informal workers’ organisations – but the Technology and the Future of Work(ers) project has broadened my focus. Finally, curiosity and the thrill of learning about the world, humanity and ourselves through the research process.
What is one thing your field is not focusing on that it should?
I’m an interdisciplinary scholar so it’s difficult to pin down a single field. However, I would say that not enough attention is being paid to the differentiated way in which digital technologies are reshaping the world of work in the global South. We seem to swing between grand narratives of the end of work and digital labour flexibility, paying limited attention to the historically specific factors and contentious politics which inevitably mediate what technology is developed, how it is developed and for whom. Indeed it seems that some of us have traded in teleological theories of capitalist development for technologically deterministic views of the future of work. This is one aspect we hope to unpack through the Technology and the Future of Work(ers) project.
Who are some academics (in your field or otherwise) whose work you follow closely? Why?
Andre Gorz, for his empirical and theoretical contribution to the study of the changing nature of work under contemporary capitalism;Tania Li for her insights on the crisis of reproduction in the postcolonial South and the contentious nature of improvement schemes from above; Jayati Ghosh for her analysis of the relationship between politics at the point of production and redistribution, Lena Lavinas for her critique of the financialisation of social welfare and collaterisation of the poor in Latin America; Jimi Adesina for his critique of donor policy merchandising of cash transfer schemes across much of the African continent…among many others.
What books are you currently reading?
“The Meanings of Work: essays on the affirmation and negation of work”, edited by Ricardo Antunes; “Joburg Noir”, a collection of short stories by Niq Mhlongo; and the cartoon “Mafalda” by Quino.
Complete the sentence: “The first thing I do each morning once I get up is ...
… water the bougainvillea and hibiscus on my veranda, over a cup of coffee.”
If you are interested in her work, please contact her at: Ruth.Castel-Branco@wits.ac.za