Factory Reloaded: Transregional Perspectives on the Industrial Workplace
An introduction to the TRAFO Series “Factory Reloaded”.
By Görkem Akgöz, Malak Labib, and Nurçin İleri
The idea for this blog series originally started as a workshop to be held in May 2020 at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. Like countless other academic events, the workshop was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These circumstances encouraged us, as conveners of the workshop, to try out an alternative form of academic exchange that our colleagues at the Forum had just sketched out. We opted for the format of a blog series through a collective peer-review process facilitated by the “TrafoHub”, an internal collaborative platform of the Forum. Meanwhile, the pandemic also hit the object of our scholarly interest: factories. While employers’ anxieties over the problems of steep drops in demand, sudden material shortages, and worker unavailability have frequently made it into news agendas, large numbers of COVID-19 clusters in factories and manufacturing settings rarely appear in the news.
Factories have received attention almost exclusively at times of crises, such as the Dhaka garment factory fire, the Foxconn suicides, or the liquidation of large public-sector companies in some developing countries – the latest example of which is the contested liquidation of the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company. Yet, the factory as a “classic” workplace and factory work as a specific form of wage labour seem to have lost their relevance. While the factory was once regarded as the emblematic workplace of modern economies, with the alleged shift to a post-industrial economy, some argue that the factory has lost its political and economic centrality. Interest in industrial work has also declined in a context marked by the waning of organised labour. At the same time, the geographical and topical expansion of studies on labour have shifted their attention to its non-industrial forms. This shift has gone so far that the study of industrial labour and workplaces have been marginalised in fields such as labour history. The most common use of the word industrial has taken the form “deindustrial”, as scholars extensively study the effects of deindustrialisation on cityscapes, ruination, gentrification, “ruin porn” and “smokestack nostalgia”.
At the level of economic policy, however, the tide seems to have turned, as evident from Donald Trump’s promise to revive American industry, former UK Chancellor George Osborne’s aspiration for “a Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers”, or India’s Narendra Modi’s slogan, “Make in India”, for his development agenda. The return of the factory has also been picked up in the world of culture. The 2019 Netflix hit documentary – and the first film produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company – “The American Factory”, tells the story of a Chinese auto-glass manufacturing company opening a division in a shuttered General Motors factory near Dayton, Ohio, in 2016. Recent years have also witnessed a revival of scholarly interest in factories. Researchers from various disciplines have deployed new interpretive lenses to investigate the factory’s changing cultural and productive significance in the world. Scholars writing on the Global South, where the history of industrial work has been understudied, turned their attention to both the history and the myth of the factory in contexts of catch-up industrial modernisation.
Based on recent historical, anthropological, and sociological work on factories, this blog series explores new methodological perspectives on factories in the past and present. In particular, we seek to open a conversation on the question of space and scale. We look at the ways in which the shifting political-economic regimes and macro-political developments at the national and global scales interact with shop floor dynamics. On the national level, factories were key sites for entanglements of state-building, class formation, and modernisation. For a good part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the large factory laid a claim to define the most significant aspects of life associated with modernity, and became a site of the construction of ideologies, imaginaries, and structures of feelings. The factory has also been a hub for collaborative projects between global and national actors and institutions. The balance of power within these networks was shaped in part by the shifting contours of the geopolitical and global economic order. Yet, local dynamics at the shop floor level also played a role in shaping the transnational flows of ideologies, expertise, and knowledge.
The blog series brings together a group of interdisciplinary scholars focusing on factories in various geographical regions in the contexts of both early and late industrialisation. They address a variety of questions and themes, including, but not limited to, the production of class, gender, and race-based difference on the shop floor, transnational working-class militancy, circulation of managerial expertise, and cultural imaginaries of factories and factory work. The authors use a variety of textual materials – such as press and archival sources – in addition to non-textual sources, including oral interviews and visual artefacts. This is the introduction to a sequence of eight blog essays and an interview, which have already been selected to be published in the next four months. We thank the authors for their contributions. If you would also like to contribute to our blog series, please send your abstracts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Görkem Akgöz is a Gerda Henkel fellow based at re:work – Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History. Her main areas of focus are the histories of labour and political economy, women and gender, and social movements and culture. She is the founder and co-coordinator of the Factory History Working Group of the European Labour History Network. The group brings together recent historical, sociological, anthropological and visual works that present new methodological and epistemological perspectives on the study of capitalism at the point of production. Görkem was a research fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in 2018/19.
Malak Labib is a research fellow at the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale (IFAO), Cairo. She received her doctorate from Aix-Marseille University / Institut de Recherche sur le Monde Arabe et Musulman (2015). Her background is in history and political science. Her research interests cover the history of knowledge, political economy and the history of development. She has taught at Aix-Marseille University, the American University in Cairo, and Cairo University. Between 2018 and 2020, she was a postdoctoral EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien, affiliated with the Freie Universität Berlin.
Nurçin İleri is a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in 2020/21, associated with re:work – Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her dissertation focused on the social and material geographies of night in late Ottoman Istanbul. She has taught at Binghamton University, Boğaziçi University, and Işık University, and worked as an assistant coordinator at the Boğaziçi University Archives and Documentation Center. She continues to work on urban history, the history of science and technology, and archival and cultural heritage studies in the late Ottoman Empire and Turkey.
Citation: Görkem Akgöz, Malak Labib, and Nurçin İleri, Factory Reloaded: Transregional Perspectives on the Industrial Workplace, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.02.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26736.