Im/Mobilities: Intimate Labour in a Transnational World

Professor Victoria K Haskins, BIH Visiting Fellow in October 2017 from the University of Newcastle, and director of the Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Studies Centre, recently hosted a BIH symposium on Im/Mobilities: Intimate Labour in a Transnational World. In this blog, Victoria reflects on the symposium and the potential for exciting future collaborations in the area of transnational research in intimate labour.

The theme of the symposium reflected the research interests of myself as a historian of domestic service and colonization, and those of my sponsors at Birkbeck, Professor Rosie Cox, a geographer of transnational domestic workers, and Dr Julia Laite, who researches a global history of sex trafficking. Our aim in putting together this symposium was to bring together diverse Birkbeck researchers working in this broad area, to connect with each other across different disciplines in the humanities. We wanted to share and discuss ways of approaching the questions around intimate labour in a transnational world, with a particular emphasis on considering the analytical and practical possibilities of the concept of mobility. The symposium was also open to scholars from other institutions and interested members of the public.

The symposium was held on Friday October 13 at 43 Gordon Square in London, beginning with a meet-and-greet lunch. We opened with a conversational discussion led by Julia Laite and myself, as historians, on how the concept of mobility is being used in histories of intimate labour, and opening up for responses from the floor, questions around the meaning of mobility, mobilities, and immobility in other disciplines addressing intimate labour in some way or another. It became apparent that the concept of mobility is used in quite diverse and often contentious ways across the disciplines in humanities, and a key issue that emerged was the need to engage with the relationship between agency and individualism/free and unfree labour/commodities and people, and the idea of mobility. There was also stimulating conversation around the notion of “intimacy” and what we mean by “intimate labour.” As a result of this discussion, we decided to create a web link on the webpage Trafficking Past where participants could continue the conversation and particularly, share key readings around mobilities.

After a brief tea-break, we reconvened for a very special round table, where eight scholars outlined their newest ideas for research projects relating to the over-arching theme of im/mobilities and intimate labour. The speakers included: from Psychosocial Studies, Silvia Posocco, on the archive and international adoption in Guatemala, Ruth Sheldon, looking at non-Jewish Eastern European domestic workers in Jewish households in contemporary Britain, and Lynne Segal, on reviving the value of caring and feminism in global carework; from Geography, William Ackah on the entry and impact of white church movements into African American urban communities, and Fae Dussart (from the University of Sussex) on the deployment across British and Indian colonial sites of the concept of master-servant relations; from English and Humanities, Esther Leslie, speaking about the remarkable writings of a Jewish refugee domestic worker in London during the 1930s; and from History, Julia Laite on the development of state controls of “marriages of convenience” between Frenchwomen and Englishmen, and myself, on the South Asian childcarers, or ayahs, who traversed the British Empire from the 17th century to the mid-twentieth century. The intersections and cross-currents between these eight short but fascinating papers generated considerable questions and discussion from the audience – some of whom also shared their ideas for new research – and the speakers, and it was with difficulty we were able to conclude the event and repair to the Cornwallis.

As the symposium made clear, there are many scholars with interests in researching in this broad area and much room for collaborative interdisciplinary conversation. I was inspired and invigorated by the discussions and look forward to seeing the research that will come out of these new ideas.


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