Bridget Kenny

Faculty / Academic Staff
Labour (sociology, anthropology, history)
Intellectual Biography: 

More than twenty years ago, when I came to South Africa, I worked at a worker advice centre called the Industrial Aid Society in Jeppe Street in central Johannesburg. It was through working at this advice centre for three and a half years that I realised how sociologically significant was precarious labour and how mutually constitutive ‘casualisation’ and regulation have been. My PhD grew out of these experiences, and I explored the changing political subjectivities of precarious retail workers on the Rand. I was particularly interested in how the political subject ‘Worker’ (or its collective form Abasebenzi) continued to be affectively significant to these precarious (and mostly women) workers. The irony struck me of how the iconographic casual worker, the shop assistant, (temporary, female, service worker) reinforced a masculinized worker political subjectivity and reproduced divisions with other precarious workers similarly confronting poverty at home. In the context of my PhD work, I began to trace a longer geneology of the subject form ‘Worker’ through the constitution of retailing through white women’s labour in the 1940s to the 1960s. Little was written about white women workers in the 1950s and 1960s. White working class women seemed anachronistic to an apartheid symbolic order. I engaged this silence and its implications: how the sector, formed as it was under a feminised and racialised labour force of white women contributed to shaping experiences and thus political imaginaries of black women workers in the later period. These questions pulled in very different directions than the dominant paradigms of labour sociology in South Africa. I showed how gendered labour contributed to broader notions of what was deemed to be ‘political’. Thus, my work shifted to how imaginaries of belonging and participation could be located historically within contestations in ‘public’ arenas less well studied, like these realms of consumption. These interests took me further to my current comparative historical project using the lens of ‘service’ through women’s labour in department stores in Johannesburg and Baltimore, Maryland (1940s to 1970s) to delineate differences in racial urban orders. This work is multidisciplinary and located in critical feminist and queer theory which explores how other publics become constituted through socialities and intimacies defining boundaries and intersections of private and public. Through archival and interview research collected over several years in South Africa and in the United States, I am exploring differences in contested political imaginaries. By bringing together consumption and labour as the material of political attachments, I am working through what desires for ‘inclusion’ looked like in each (divided) city. Finally, to come full circle, this historical comparative work offers me a vantage point to track lineages of political imaginaries today so tied into notions of precariousness and work in South Africa. In other words, I am partially going back to deconstruct ‘stability’ and ‘decency’ (‘decent work’), in both places, in order to track forward a productive relation with ‘precariousness’. I would like to historicise, then, through the analytic of the play of market, work and polity, political subjectivities and attachments now. I have built into my scholarship an organic appreciation of comparative work. I accept critique of much historical comparative sociology that focuses on identifying causality (for ‘theory making’) and in reifying a national unit of analysis, for instance. I find more exciting, in general, the turn toward transnational relations, connections, disconnections, traces, lineaments, projections, carry-overs, etc. that is enlivening both labour scholarship and much new global South-South (and South-North, after the Atlantic) study, and I keep an eye out for instantiations that enable me to follow these lines. But, in doing comparative work between sites of ‘North’ and ‘South’, I am mainly looking for differences, through juxtaposition really, that help me see the specificity of places and times within global history. I am doing “history that compares”, as Frederick Cooper puts it, rather than Comparative History. Theorising from the ‘Global South’ (as in colonial/post-colonial, but not only) has a currency now, its circulation itself accumulating value (and actually, as this collaboration attests, a political economy of sorts). I am inclined to use the framing heuristically, if asked. What does it do for us to think about a relation ‘North’/’South’? What is the Global South/What is ‘its’ Other? What does it do for us to think about the flows (and ebbs) of knowledge and bodies and commodities and ideas and directionality of those flows across sites, that complicate and reconfigure always these discursive devices? I am less interested in claiming a geographical coherence/positionality to knowledge production in/from the South (although I understand the frustration behind some theorisations of its urgency—e.g., Connell). I am a bit wary of a rhetorical stance—the GS as “angle of vision” (Comaroffs)—taken to argue for the specificity of the nexus of conditions ‘there’ (here) as a particularly clear lens through which to view, experience, and ultimately decode the globe (in technocolour), if only because I think its conceptual force has a politics that is more complicated than that of re-centring (and re-valuing) the margins. In short, with this collaboration, I am interested in thinking concretely about what might be unique or particularly vivid or even globally definitive about Johannesburg/South Africa and its capacities to offer up theorisation through comparison of both embedded histories of different places as well as the connectedness of world historical processes.

I'd love to join the writing retreat, but may not be able to depending on teaching schedule and on childcare duties. I am tentatively ticking Yes.