Punishment, Labor and Dependency

Research Group leader: Dr. Christian G. De Vito

PhD Researchers: Adam Fagbore, 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 labor). Conversely, this research group explores the functions which various forms of punishment have played in connection to multiple labor relations. Furthermore, it investigates how the entanglements between punishment and labor have resulted in the production of durable personal, social and spatial dependencies.

Central Aims

This research groups seeks to reach a middle-range theory of the relationship between punishment and dependency. Labor provides the entry-point, as the entanglements are investigated that exist between multiple forms of punishment and multiple labor relations. Global labor history yields the tools to explore simultaneously multiple labor 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 labor relations are especially explored:

  1. the production of convict labor;
  2. the preservation of the political, social and racial/ethnical order, through expulsions and deportations of those considered external and internal enemies;
  3. direct intervention against specific groups of the population in order to modify the composition of the workforce in certain economic sectors;
  4. disciplining functions vis-à-vis the population as a whole, by targeting directly relatively small groups;
  5. the workers' use of legal regimes (norms, values, institutions, practices) in order to enhance their own individual and collective autonomy.

Furthermore, the research group addresses the way the entanglements between punishment and labor 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 labor relations in each historical context tell us about broader processes of dependency? And how do the categories related to punitive and labor practices impact on personal, social and spatial dependency?
  2. How can the study of non-written sources and the perspectives of archeology, anthropology and art history contribute to the understanding of the link between punishment, labor and dependency?
  3. Which institutions, norms and practices shape dependency through the combination of punishment and labor control?
  4. Which place do punishment and labor have at the intersection of gender, class, ethnicity/race and age? And how do punishment and labor contribute to the making of those categories?

Research Projects

The members of the research group engage with the key issues of the research group through the study of distinct historical contexts.

Christian C. De Vito focuses on practices of punishment, labor and empire building in the Spanish monarchy (16th to 19th centuries). Adam Fagbore addresses institutional punishment and organised violence as normative modes of patronage, labor and governance in Pharaonic Egypt. Nabhojeet Sen studies punishment and labor regimes in the Indian Subcontinent (1750s–1870s).

The research group 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.

With a view to future lectures, workshops, conferences and (third-party funded) research, we welcome proposals on any aspect connected to punishment and labor. You may think about issues as various as, but not limited to, the following: the connection between convict labor 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 labor coercion in the aftermath of the abolition of the Atlantic slavery; the functions of convict labor in contemporary China and the US. Contact email: cdevito@uni-bonn.de.

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