The Politics of Precarious Society

Theme Leader: Dr Karl von Holdt


Over the past decade SWOP research into precarious work has led to a growing research focus on its consequences for the household, and on the internal dynamics and survival strategies of the precarious household.  From this has grown our interest in exploring the precarious nature of society more broadly in South Africa, rendered fragile not only by an economic structure which marginalises large segments of our population, but also by the violent and destructive processes of colonisation and apartheid.  In this theme, then, we explore not only the ways South African society generates precariousness as a way of life, but also the ways in which society itself has been rendered precarious, with high levels of social fragmentation, the construction of local moral orders and informal networks that frequently subvert the formal institutions, hierarchies and authority structures of society, high levels of contestation over virtually every social institution, from sexual morality to the Constitutional Court, and the pervasiveness of violent conflict, whether manifested as domestic violence, strike violence or waves of xenophobic violence.


Processes of class formation – on the one hand the formation of new middle classes and a black political and business elite, and on the other the formation of a large marginalised under-class – are central to understanding the fragmentation of society and what Bourdieu might call the classification struggles, or classification crisis, that underpins it. The state is central both to the formation of the new middle classes and elite, as well as to efforts to implement policies to overcome the marginalisation of the poor.  Indeed, the state is a site of contestation over class and racial formation, and over the constitution, cohesion and fragmentation of society.  Both within society and within the state, and in the interplay between them, power, authority, order and politics are constituted, reconstituted and contested in new ways.  The research projects under this theme seek to investigate and understand these processes.

© 2016 by SWOP

t: +27 (0) 11 717 4460   |

  • Facebook Black Round
  • Twitter Black Round
  • YouTube - Black Circle