SWOP | Society, Work and Politics

The Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) is one of the University of the Witwatersrand’s most enduring research entities. Our work is shaped by the overarching aim of producing knowledge to help understand ‘the making and unmaking of social order’, with a particular focus on disadvantaged communities and the problems they face, as well as collective efforts to effect change.

Our research is shared through publications (both academic and more popular forms of writing), teaching, seminar programmes and conferences, as well as engagement in and with processes of policy formulation, legal processes and other more activist-driven interventions. It is our intellectual endeavour to contribute to different forms of theorising, theory-building and critique from our particular vantage point in ‘the global south’.

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Land, Labour, Life are commonly significant to different experiences of colonisation, proletarianisation, and social, economic and political transitions away from them. While the study of each, on their own (as concept, question, theme) has produced (and continues to produce) important insights into the character of society, thought together they provide different paths and windows to unravelling what has been and become, what is, and what is yet, to come. At SWOP, this has been an important shift in how research about society is imagined and undertaken, especially when considering what is foreclosed when thinking them separately. 

Coal mining and burning are a major driver of environmental inequality in South Africa. Such inequality is evident in the poor’s exposure to toxic pollution, in the lack of universal access to critical resources such as clean water and air, the land, clean, affordable energy, and their vulnerability to the extreme weather events, such as droughts, heat waves, crop failures and floods, associated with climate change. To mitigate the later, South Africa is undergoing a transition from coal to renewable energy. This project, therefore, aims to investigate the implications of a just transition from coal for workers and people living near coal mines and coal-fired power-stations, many of whom have experienced the dispossession of their land, graves and livelihoods amongst other things because of coal mining.

The Popular Politics programme at SWOP considers the popular and the political broadly. Popular Politics covers work on protests, the movement landscape, the shaping of political alternatives, representative politics and democracy. The programme has covered three main projects over the last five years; Movement Landscapes – focusing on deepening this concept through the study of cycles of protest since 1994 – , Mapping the Fault-lines in the Rising South – that looks at popular politics in the BRICS countries – , and Contentious Democracy – looking at the relationship between protest, electoral politics and democracy. 

Questions of research method have come to form a core part of the ongoing research and knowledge production at SWOP. SWOP, as a research institute, has continuously engaged with critical questions relating to research methods – from debates about public sociology, to the concept of critically engaged sociology, and beyond. More recently, there has been a rethinking of some of these terms and renewed experimentation with ‘method’ that often happens across disciplinary boundaries.

This programme brings an alternative perspective to bear on violence. We seek to foreground the acts, processes, meanings and moralities of violence, and in so doing to gain a deeper understanding of violence, why it occurs and how it is embedded in society. We attempt to suspend immediate and ‘common sense’ judgements about violence in favour of a deeper understanding. This programme is a collaboration between SWOP and the School of Human and Community Development

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