Asian Working-Class Households

International workshop in Taipei

Working-Class Households, Survival Strategies, and Social Movements: Asian Perspectives
International Workshop, Taipeh, 22-24 March 2001
Call for Papers

For a long time historians and social scientists have assumed that workers know only one “natural” reaction to problems like poverty, unemployment, etc. and that is: building or joining trade unions, labour parties or other movement organizations, and supporting collective action (strikes, demonstrations, etc.). Naturally, these scholars were aware of the fact that workers could also react in different ways (e.g. by accepting patronage), but this was considered as an inferior coping strategy, and as a deviation from the “norm”. It has been precisely this normative approach which has nourished debates on the “exceptionalism” of various national working classes: Why has the majority of the workers in a certain country never shown the “normal” reaction to adversity and exploitation that one might expect?

Only if one recognizes that there is no such thing as a “natural” or “normal” reaction to issues of working-class household survival will it be possible to transcend the concept of “normal behaviour” and to replace endless discussions on “exceptionalism” with a debate on the real issues. Workers (male and female) and their families always dispose of a variety of possible answers to challenges.

Traditional labour studies usually take an organization (e.g. a trade union) or an action (a strike, for example) as their point of departure and then try to contextualize and understand this event or development. This is of course a legitimate research procedure. But this approach also harbours a danger: using the result of a process as the point of departure may lead to fallacies. Suppose, that we ask ourselves “Why was trade union X founded by workers of group Y at time Z?” Our research will then produce evidence that the workers involved had all kinds of grievances; that they simultaneously had at their disposal a number of resources (experienced leaders, money, media access, or whatever); and that for these reasons they decided to build union X. Such a reconstruction gives the impression that a combination of grievances and resources almost automatically produces a social movement organization. The untenability of this argument becomes clear in those many cases in which not all workers of group Y took part in the organizing process. Although the non-participating workers had the same grievances and resources as the “organizers” they apparently chose one or more other options. But these options remain out of sight. The traditional view suggests that those who did not take part in the action made a purely negative choice: they did not join.

There is strong empirical evidence that this is a wrong approach. The present workshop tries to reverse the traditional approach by departing from the workers and their families, and by investigating the whole repertoire of strategies with which they could respond to an economic challenge. From such an inverted perspective, collective action becomes one of several options and its explanation becomes more complicated but also more realistic.

A reversed research approach would investigate specific cases of working-class groups and would deal with the following questions:

  1. Which survival strategies were available to the households involved, apart from wage labour? (Examples: petty commodity production, subsistence labour, theft, kinship support, patronage.)
  2. Which (combinations of) factors lead to the choice of a particular combination of survival strategies?
  3. Which (combinations of) factors induce (members of) households from the labouring classes to join social movement organizations?
  4. If (members of) households join social movement organizations, then which factors influenced the social basis of these organizations (class, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.)?
  5. If (members of) working-class households organize themselves on a class basis, then which factors influence the choice of forms of collective action (petitions, strikes, demonstrations, occupation of land, etc.)?
  6. If (members of) working-class households organize on a class basis, which factors influence the choice of ideology?

All these questions are of special importance in the Asian context.

The uneven economic development and the rapid growth of the number of wage earners in many Asian countries show that many different responses to economic changes exist. The study of these responses and the “logics” behind them is an important scholarly task.

The Program for Southeast Asian Area Studies (PROSEA), Academia Sinica and the Dutch-Scandinavian research project “Changing Labour Relations in Asia” (CLARA) are jointly preparing a workshop on these questions. This workshop will take place in Taipeh, on 22-24 March 2001. Scholars interested in presenting a paper at this workshop should send a summary of 100-200 words, no later than 31 July, 2000 to the organizers:

Prof. Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao
Director Program for Southeast Asian Area Studies (PROSEA)
Academia Sinica, Taipeh, Taiwan
Fax +886-2-2788-8911


Prof. Marcel van der Linden
CLARA/IISH, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Fax #31-20-665-4181

Posted: 22 May 2000