Investigating the ‘rebellion of the poor’

The work being done by Professor Peter Alexander at the University of Johannesburg in the Research Chair that has been studying social change from below is therefore topical and informative.

His work encapsulates the pressing issues of the day covering labour history, class structure and identity, and social and political protests.

He has published 23 papers and contributed seven chapters in various books, while also authoring and co-authoring a number of books that explore changes in the South African society. 

His two most recent books include Marikana: A view from the mountain and case to answer, and Class in Soweto. He explains that the latter was the result of a study that tried to understand class structure and class identity in Soweto as it pertains to unemployment, strike action and public protests.

The upheaval in the mining industry after the longest strikes in the country’s history has provided rich material for this research work. This also ties in with his research concerned with understanding the agency of ordinary people’s challenge to the status quo, which he terms the “rebellion of the poor”.

He says his investigations into South African protests and strike action are focused on the specific ability or means of protesting, irrespective of the social class of the community members involved. The upshot of the insights he has gained into the wide-ranging protests is that they are less about service delivery than the result of a dissatisfaction by disenfranchised communities.

The recent national elections have also provided a strong data set to investigate political changes in the country and what the emergence of a party such as the Economic Freedom Fighters could mean for the future political discourse.

Naturally, a key aspect of the Research Chair is increasing the country’s research capabilities and expertise. Alexander says he is keen to attract a greater number of post-graduate students to participate in the Chair. He currently has four postdoctoral fellows, a senior researcher and 12 research students enrolled in the Chair.

He believes that there is scope to broaden and deepen this pool of emerging talent and views the topic of social change as a intersection between sociology and history with a touch of politics involved. Collaborations with other fields within humanities are important, he says, as this helps to feed into the ongoing debate about social change in the country.

The postdoctoral fellows, for example, have been drawn from the areas of sociology, history, development studies, political economy, anthropology, politics, socio-linguistics and geography.

 Alexander will be expanding his studies into mass popular protests that have occurred over the past four years. This will include Egypt, Ukraine, Nigeria, China and perhaps Turkey. This research focus has helped the Chair to attract postdoctoral students who make a solid contribution to developing the analytical skills of postgraduates enrolled in his programme.

Diversity studies explore ‘being different together’

Questions related to the social changes in South Africa are being answered by the University of the Witwatersrand’s Professor Melissa Steyn through the Critical Diversity Studies Research Chair, which started operating at the beginning of this year. This research Chair is located in the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, which she leads.

The main focus of her work is the way society constructs differences within social relations of unequal power, and how they “make a difference” to people’s life opportunities. “This dynamic has constructed the deep fault lines we often take for granted in society, such as race, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability. Because centres and margins are constantly shifting, we need to understand both how relations of difference become entrenched and resistant to change, as well as how they reconfigure themselves and can be redrawn by conscious intervention,” she says.

This is important not only because of the country’s past history and its efforts to transform the relations of the past, but also because the notion of diversity has become a root concept of the present age. “Globally, we understand our current era as characterised by increasing, and increasingly complex, diversity,” she says. She defines diversity as “being different together”.

“In our interconnected world we have to find better ways of doing this, which means addressing how difference is used to oppress some people in multiple ways, while affording others unearned privileges.” 

Her research works to investigate how the dynamics of difference operate within our transforming society.

Steyn says the Chair’s research consists largely of case studies of how differently positioned people within organisations are dealing with diversity. For example, studies are looking at how black women in the workplace are experiencing social changes; how a new generation of young white males are understanding themselves and their relations with others; and how an immigrant community relates to current issues in the country. She says there is no shortage of research questions that could be answered through critical diversity studies: “It goes to the heart of sociality – it’s about how we live together as people and how we organise through relations of relative power”. 

This is not to say it is an easy or comfortable field of study — even at a personal level. Steyn says one has to be willing to be discomfited when questioning the discourses that have framed one’s own identity. She says that the outputs from these research studies are not expressly intended to inform policy, although they certainly contribute to a national debate on diversity in all its forms. 

The development of a framework of critical diversity literacy is one area she singles out as having been particularly successful. “We all need to be able to ‘read’ how relations of differences are playing out in our contexts. People recognize the need to develop their capacities to deal with the often difficult dynamics that arise in the workplace, for example. 

Steyn says the goal is to help citizens engage with these in a democratic manner that produces the widest possible opportunities for the greatest number of people. In terms of developing skills through the Chair, there are currently 13 master’s students enrolled at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, five of whom are funded by the Chair, in addition to doctoral and postdoctoral students.

She says the aim of the Chair is to create a cohort of people with a greater understanding of how to analyse and advance critical ways of dealing with diversity, difference and otherness in their chosen field — whether civil society, academia or elsewhere.

This article has been paid for by the National Research Foundation and its contents signed off by the Department of Science and Technology and the NRF.

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