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Researching global labour movements: where do digital methods fit in?

A Digital Methods Development Workshop organised by Cambridge Digital Humanities Network and Researching (with) Social Media Reading Group in collaboration with the Dying for an iPhone project
When Oct 19, 2015
from 11:30 AM to 03:00 PM
Where B4, Institute of Criminology
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Dr Jenny Chan (Contemporary China Studies, University of Oxford)
Dr Anne Alexander (Digital Humanities Network, University of Cambridge)

This workshop explores the place of digital methods in the labour researcher's methodological toolkit, drawing on case studies from research in China and Egypt investigating workers' attempts to improve their working conditions through collective and individual acts of resistance directed at their employers and the state. The first session will present the key findings of the collaborative research project Dying for an iPhone, which investigated the lives of workers producing digital devices for Apple and other high profile buyers at Foxconn factories in China, and open discussion on the place of digital methods within a broader array of ethnographic methods in labour research. The second session will analyse the challenges and opportunities for researchers through access to user-generated content (UGC) created by workers themselves and published on social media platforms, drawing on cases studies from research on the workers' movement in China and Egypt.

Spaces are limited and pre-booking is essential. Book online here. Please see below for a short reading list for participants.

Provisional programme

Session 1 - 11.30am - 1pm

Dying for an iPhone (led by Jenny Chan, respondent Anne Alexander)

Taiwanese transnational corporation Foxconn Technology Group holds more than 50 percent of market share in global electronics manufacturing. Its 1.4 million employees in China far exceed its combined workforce in 28 other countries that comprise its global empire. The Dying for an iPhone project assessed the conditions of a new generation of Chinese workers on the basis of the intertwined policies and practices of Foxconn, international brands (notably Apple), and the local government, as well as the diverse forms of collective actions workers deploy to defend their rights and interests. Within the tight delivery deadlines, some Foxconn workers leveraged their power to disrupt production to demand higher pay and better conditions. While all of these labor struggles were short-lived and limited in scope to a single factory, protestors exposed the injustice of “iSlavery,” garnering wide media attention and civil society support. The spate of suicides during 2010 by young Foxconn workers aged between 17 and 25, in particular threw a spotlight on the appalling working conditions endured by those creating the material devices on which the digital society depends.

In order to gain access to the factory and its workforce, Jenny Chan and her fellow researchers used a variety of methods including applying for jobs at Foxconn and interviews with worker activists. From summer 2010 to 2015, they also analysed workers' blogs, social media postings and news coverage of workers' protests.

Key questions for discussion:

  • How should we situate digital communications with worker activists within a wider ‘toolbox’ of qualitative social research methods?
  • When and how should we set up interviews and one-to-one communications with worker activists over social media platforms?
  • How do we establish credibility and trust in computer-mediated communications and does this differ from the process for establishing trust and credibility "offline"?
  • Are there different ethical considerations for researchers observing workers' communications in online and offline fora?

Lunch 1pm - 1.30pm

Session 2 - 1.30pm - 3pm

Workers' media and the researcher (led by Anne Alexander, respondent Jenny Chan)

The Egyptian revolution of 2011 triggered a dramatic expansion in the volume and variety of online content created by worker activists. In contrast to the pre-2011 period, when the vibrant culture of self organisation in Egyptian workplaces was largely publicly documented by outsiders, including sympathetic opposition groups and journalists, for a brief period after the fall of Mubarak, activists in large numbers of workplaces experimented with creating online content of their own in order to communicate with other workers and present their own narratives of their struggles to wider publics and the media. The proliferation of cameraphones combined with growing access to social media platforms via mobile broadband helped to create rich, yet fragmented and fragile deposits of audiovisual media documenting workers' strikes and sit-ins. In the context of a military-led counter-revolution which has severely repressed strikes and also sharply reduced opportunities for researchers to meet or communicate with worker activists directly, such online traces of worker activism assume a new importance as historical and sociological documents. Chinese workers have also used social media to document their struggles and demands, despite the risks of identifying themselves to the hostile attention of their employers and the state. This session will explore the challenges and opportunities for researchers in analysing and using workers' self-published media in the context of Egypt and China.

Key questions for discussion:

  • How can we situate workers' self-published media within a wider understanding of the political economy of communication in Egypt and China?
  • What are the questions we need to ask ourselves about quoting, attributing, re-publishing such media?
  • How do we deal with questions of authenticity in relation to workers’ self-published media?

About the speakers

Jenny CHAN (Ph.D in 2014) is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Oxford and an elected Junior Research Fellow (2015-2018) of Kellogg College. Educated at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (B.Soc.Sc) and the University of Hong Kong (MPhil), she was a Reid Research Scholar while pursuing her doctorate at the University of London. In 2013-2014 she received a Great Britain-China Educational Award. She is a Board Member of the International Sociological Association’s Research Committee on Labor Movements (2014-2018). Her recent articles have appeared in Current Sociology, Modern China, Human Relations, Asian Studies (Official Journal of Hong Kong Asian Studies Association), Critical Asian Studies, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Global Labor Journal, The Asia-Pacific Journal, The South Atlantic Quarterly, New Labor Forum, and New Technology, Work and Employment. She is writing her first book, provisionally entitled Dying for an iPhone (with co-authors PUN Ngai and Mark SELDEN).


Email: /

Anne Alexander is Coordinator of the Digital Humanities Network at the University of Cambridge. She is the co-author of Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution (Zed, 2014, with Mostafa Bassiouny), and a member of the Steering Group of Cambridge Big Data.

Email: raa43

Priority Reading

Miriyam Aouragh and Anne Alexander, ‘The Egyptian Experience: Sense and Nonsense of the Internet Revolution’. 2011. International Journal of Communication, 5

Anne Alexander and Miriyam Aouragh Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution: The Role of the Media Revisited’ 2014. International Journal of Communication 8, 890–915

Jenny Chan, Pun Ngai and Mark Selden. 2015. “Apple’s iPad City: Subcontracting Exploitation to China.” Pp. 76-97 in Handbook of the International Political Economy of Production, edited by Kees van der Pijl. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing. [available in Cambridge University library]

Pun Ngai, Shen Yuan, Guo Yuhua, Lu Huilin, Jenny Chan and Mark Selden. 2014. “Worker-Intellectual Unity: Trans-Border Sociological Intervention in Foxconn.” Current Sociology 62(2): 209-22.

Further reading: news articles and blog posts

Jenny Chan. 29 May 2013. “Who Speaks for China’s Workers?” Labor Notes (USA).

Aditya Chakrabortty. 5 August 2013. “The Woman Who Nearly Died Making Your iPad.” The Guardian.

Aditya Chakrabortty. 14 October 2013. “Forced Student Labour is Central to the Chinese Economic Miracle.” The Guardian.

Nicki Lisa Cole and Jenny Chan. 19 Feb 2015. “Despite Claims of Progress, Labor Violations and Environmental Atrocities Continue to Plague Apple’s Supply Chain.” Truthout.

Litzinger, Ralph A. 2013. “The Labor Question in China: Apple and Beyond.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 112(1): 172-78.

Richard Maxwell, ed. 2016. The Routledge Companion to Labor and Media. New York: Routledge.

Richard P. Appelbaum and Nelson Lichtenstein, eds. 2006. Making Blue the Next Green—Achieving Workers’ Rights in the Global Economy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


The Truth behind the Apple iPad (June 2011):