Book Talk | Does Skill Make Us Human? Migrant Workers in 21st Century Qatar and Beyond
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NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge invites you to a book talk for Does Skill Make Us Human? Migrant Workers in 21st Century Qatar and Beyond, featuring the author Natasha Iskander in conversation with Rachel Sherman, Paula Chakravartty, and Michael Burawoy.
Skill—specifically the distinction between the “skilled” and “unskilled”—is generally defined as a measure of ability and training, but Does Skill Make Us Human? shows instead that skill distinctions are used to limit freedom, narrow political rights, and even deny access to imagination and desire. Natasha Iskander takes readers into Qatar’s booming construction industry in the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup, and through her unprecedented look at the experiences of migrant workers, she reveals that skill functions as a marker of social difference powerful enough to structure all aspects of social and economic life.
Through unique access to construction sites in Doha, in-depth research, and interviews, Iskander explores how migrants are recruited, trained, and used. Despite their acquisition of advanced technical skills, workers are commonly described as unskilled and disparaged as “unproductive,” “poor quality,” or simply “bodies.” She demonstrates that skill categories adjudicate personhood, creating hierarchies that shape working conditions, labor recruitment, migration policy, the design of urban spaces, and the reach of global industries. Iskander also discusses how skill distinctions define industry responses to global warming, with employers recruiting migrants from climate-damaged places at lower wages and exposing these workers to Qatar’s extreme heat. She considers how the dehumanizing politics of skill might be undone through tactical solidarity and creative practices. With implications for immigrant rights and migrant working conditions throughout the world, Does Skill Make Us Human? examines the factors that justify and amplify inequality. If you’re interested in purchasing the book, please use code NI30 for a discount off when you add the book to your cart.
Natasha N. Iskander, Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Service, conducts research on the relationship between migration and economic development. She looks at the ways that immigration and the movement of people across borders can provide the basis for the creation of new knowledge and of new pathways for political change. She has published widely on these questions, looking specifically at immigration, skill, economic development, and worker rights, with more than 30 articles and book chapters on these topics. Her first book, Creative State: Forty Years of Migration and Development Policy in Morocco and Mexico (Cornell University Press, ILR imprint, 2010), looked at the ways that migrant workers transformed the economic development policies of their countries of origin. Her forthcoming book, Does Skill Make Us Human?: Migrant Workers in 21st Century Qatar and Beyond (Princeton University Press, 2021), examines the use of skill categories to define political personhood, in ways that have become increasingly salient with the hardening borders and the pressures of climate change.
Rachel Sherman is Professor and Chair of Sociology at The New School for Social Research and a 2018-2020 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. She is broadly interested in how and why unequal social relations are reproduced, legitimated, and contested, and in how these processes are embedded in cultural vocabularies of identity, interaction, and entitlement. Her research and teaching focus on labor, culture, social movements, social class, and qualitative methods. Her first book, Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels (University of California Press, 2007), draws primarily on participant observation research to analyze how workers, guests, and managers in these hotels made sense of and negotiated the class inequalities that marked their relationships. Her second book, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence (Princeton, 2017), uses in-depth interviews to explore the lived experience of privilege among wealthy and affluent New York parents and their moral standards of worthy personhood. Her current project, tentatively titled Class Traitors, explores the world of wealthy progressives who are challenging the unequal social systems that have enabled their wealth–analogous to, and often overlapping with, white antiracists striving to dismantle systems of white supremacy.
Paula Chakravartty is associate professor at the Gallatin School and the Department of Media, Culture and Communication. Her research and teaching interests span comparative political economy, migration, labor and social movements , and decolonial and critical race theory. Her books include Race, Empire and the Crisis of the Subprime (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), Media Policy and Globalization (Edinburgh University Press, 2006), and Global Communications: Towards a Transcultural Political Economy (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008). Recent publications include #CommunicationSoWhite (2018) in the Journal of Communication, and two special issues on “Mediatized Populisms: Inter-Asian Lineages” for the International Journal of Communication (December 2017) and “Infrastructures of Empire: Towards a Critical Geopolitics of Media and Information Studies” for Media, Culture and Society (2016). Her current research focuses on racial capitalism and global media infrastructures, and migrant labor mobility and justice. Chakravartty is a member of the NYU Sanctuary Coalition. She serves on the executive board of the NYU Association for University Professors (AAUP), and is affiliated faculty at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, South Asia @ NYU, and the NYU Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.
Michael Burawoy has been a participant observer of industrial workplaces in four countries: Zambia, United States, Hungary and Russia. In his different projects he has tried to illuminate — from the standpoint of the working class — postcolonialism, the organization of consent to capitalism, the peculiar forms of class consciousness and work organization in state socialism, and, finally, the dilemmas of transition from socialism to capitalism. Over the course of four decades of research and teaching, he has developed the extended case method that allows broad conclusions to be drawn from ethnographic research. The same methodology is advanced in Global Ethnography, a book coauthored with 9 graduate students, that shows how globalization can be studied “from below” through participating in the lives of those who experience it. He has been president of the American Sociological Association (2003-4); president of the International Sociological Association (2010-14); founding editor of the magazine, Global Dialogue (2010-2017); and co-chair and secretary of the Berkeley Faculty Association (2015-2021).