Monday, March 12, 2012

advanced pedagogical techniques: introducing the topic of exploitation

"The Intimately Oppressed": How to talk about exploitation in the classroom
 A few years ago, in a conversation one of us had with a fellow graduate student, the issue came to surface of how to approach certain issues that have become a mainstay of the mainstream curriculum over time. We were specifically discussing the issue of how easy it is to fall into the so-called "markets in everything" trap -- whereby you start thinking about how markets for everything from organs to healthcare could solve most of the problems of social inefficiency. But the issue is much more general than that, and exposing that generality is the topic of this post.

So when one of us was discussing how to approach the "markets in everything" issue, which is really quite widespread among the blogosphere (particularly Marginal Revolution, which has made a type of blog series out of the idea... but Greg Mankiw is also guilty of perpetuating the idea, not surprisingly), our friend made the point that, why not start from the other direction, and work your way back? Instead of beginning with the idea that everything should be marketized, begin from the idea and theory that nothing should be marketized, and then ask what would qualify something to be marketized. That is to say, we should expose students' inherent repugnant feelings about a market for body parts or healthcare from the start, and then work backward from there, adding in markets as a qualification of the general argument that commodification should not exist. (In fact, if you think historically, this is actually the way in which the debate occurred -- we didn't start out with a fully marketized society and we only got there from peeling off various layers of social-institutional control!)

It's simple, and it works remarkably well. Furthermore, such a logic can be applied to other ideas which are not easily raised in the classroom, such as the issue of class or exploitation. By starting with certain ideas of exploitation that are more easily recognizable to students (such as the treatment of women in the workplace vs. men), it becomes easier to identify general principles of exploitation that may be applied to workers.

Talking about how women have traditionally been discriminated against in the workplace is a clear example of exploitation. Or talking about how, when they were first integrated into the industrial labor force in the early 1800s, they were pulled from both directions -- into the home because of preconceived notions of women's place in a private sphere; and out to work because of the need to make enough money to feed their children and support their family; all the while not being allowed to vote -- shows vividly how gender norms shape capitalism and employer behavior more generally. The continued persistence and use of racism after formal political freedom had been established by emancipation is another example of using the tools of race or gender to strike at ideas and issues of class exploitation.

Similar arguments can even be made for immigrants. Here is an example of how one of us has incorporated gender into a story of industrial capitalism. We have found that through doing so, it then becomes easier to talk about exploitation in the workplace more generally, because now students have seen how management policy has affected women workers. It is just a small step (really!) from that point to then talking about workers in general.


  1. You: I'm being exploited at work
    Me: So why don't you quit?
    You: Because it's the best of my available options
    Me: So you're better off for having the job?
    You: Yes
    Me: So exploitation is when somebody gives you the opportunity to be better off?
    You: ???

    It really bugs me when people criticize sweatshop conditions. People work in sweatshops because sweatshops are their best available option. If sweatshops were not their best available option then critics would simply suggest better alternatives.

    Option A: Sucks = Sweatshop
    Option B: Really sucks = ??? = subsistence agriculture?

    When people choose Option A over Option B...then it means that Option A > Option B. If you think that Option A sucks then give people a better option. Mortgage your home and start your own business and hire all the people that are being exploited. If you go bankrupt and lose your home then perhaps you'll be more sympathetic to the evil capitalists that do manage to employ some people.

  2. Sweatshops vs. subsistence agriculture is a false choice. There are other options (better wages for sweatshop workers would have knock-off benefits for whole economies)

    As for manufacturing: Dani Rodrik has basically argued (and demonstrated with very convincing careful econometric analysis) that manufacturing is absolutely critical for economic growth.

  3. If it's a better option then mortgage your home, start your manufacturing business and pay your employees better wages. Surely you will benefit...right?

  4. Subsistence agriculture is often better, actually; the move to sweatshops generally relates to a situation in which *the viability of subsistence agriculture has been reduced* by previous environmentally unsound policies.