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Punishment, Labour, and Dependency

Research Group leader: Dr. Christian G. De Vito

PhD researchers: Adam Fagbore and Nabhojeet Sen

Standard approaches on punishment and labour have focused on the entanglements between single types of punishment and single labour relations (especially imprisonment and wage labour). Conversely, this field explores the functions which various forms of punishment have played in connection to multiple labour relations. Furthermore, it investigates how the entanglements between punishment and labour have resulted in the production of durable personal, social and spatial dependencies.

The members of the Research Group (RG) engage with the field through the study of distinct historical contexts. The coordinator focuses on the Spanish empire from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The PhD students might address issues as various as, but not limited to, the following: the connection between convict labour and enslavement in Ancient China, the punishment of serfs and slaves in Medieval Europe; enslavement as punishment in Africa before and during the Atlantic slave trade; anti-vagrancy policy and labour coercion in the aftermath of the abolition of the Atlantic slavery; the functions of convict labour in contemporary China and the US.

The RG as a whole features a trans-epochal and trans-regional comparative and connected approach. To this end, a methodological perspective combining global and micro-history is embraced.

This field seeks to reach a middle-range theory of the relationship between punishment and dependency. Labour provides the entry-point, as the entanglements are investigated that exist between multiple forms of punishment and multiple labour relations. Global labour history yields the tools to explore simultaneously multiple labour relations; the concept of ‘punitive pluralism’ (an expansion of ‘legal pluralism’) allows us to embrace all forms of punishment and the related institutions and practices.

Five functions of punishment vis-à-vis labour relations are especially explored: (a) the production of convict labour; (b) the preservation of the political, social and racial/ethnical order, through expulsions and deportations of those considered external and internal enemies; (c) direct intervention against specific groups of the population in order to modify the composition of the workforce in certain economic sectors; (d) disciplining functions vis-à-vis the population as a whole, by targeting directly relatively small groups; (e) the workers’ use of legal regimes (norms, values, institutions, practices) in order to enhance their own individual and collective autonomy.

Furthermore, the field addresses the way the entanglements between punishment and labour relations result in the creation of individual, social and spatial dependency. To this end, the following sets of questions are asked: (1) What does the grammar of punishment and labour relations in each historical context tell us about broader processes of dependency? And how do the categories related to punitive and labour practices impact on personal, social and spatial dependency? (2) How can the study of non-written sources and the perspectives of archaeology, anthropology and art history contribute to the understanding of the link between punishment, labour and dependency? (3) Which institutions, norms and practices shape dependency through the combination of punishment and labour control? (4) Which place do punishment and labour have at the intersection of gender, class, ethnicity/race and age? And how do punishment and labour contribute to the making of those categories?

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