The Social Life of Skills

Online Workshop, 5 - 7 July, 2021

Across the global South, governments are investing in skill development and vocational education in order to drive productivity increases and address chronic problems of youth unemployment. This emphasis on skills has been amplified recently, as hopes are being attached to ‘skills-led recoveries’ to the economic downturn associated with Covid-19.

Yet, skills are not merely ingredients in a formula to enhance economic growth – they are embedded in a social, cultural, and historical context and are often sources of deep personal meaning. This online workshop, jointly organized by the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne and the Australia India Institute, will bring together researchers from the social sciences to discuss recent research on the ‘social life of skills,’ with a special focus on the global South. Participants will consider the ways in which social and cultural context shapes the meanings and status invested in skills, the ways in which skills are utilized, and their potential to transform lives. Questions of inequality are paramount in this discussion and due consideration will be given to how skill acquisition and deployment are experienced differently on the basis of various axes of social difference, including gender, class, location, and ethnicity.

Carswell and De Neve (2018: 313) define ‘the social life of skills’ as ‘the social processes, relationships, and ideologies that enable (or constrain) people’s access to skills, and subsequently to employment, wages, satisfaction, and dignity.’ Such a perspective suggests a serious engagement with questions of inequality in both the acquisition and deployment of skills; as well as the meanings and values ascribed to skills within family and community contexts.

Papers presented at this workshop will represent a broad spectrum of disciplines across the social sciences (sociology, anthropology, human geography, development studies, political economy, etc.) related to the social aspects of skills and skill development, with a special focus on the global South.

Papers will engage with the following questions:

  • How do debates in the social sciences on skills in the global North need to be re-thought to address the unique contexts and challenges of the global South?

  • How do social inequalities affect access to skill development opportunities, as well as processes of skill acquisition and skill utilization?

  • What is the potential of skills to inspire and empower individuals and communities, as well as to challenge social norms and stereotypes?

  • How are skills assembled in particular contexts and disarticulated in others? How are we to understand processes of skilling and deskilling?

  • What roles do skills play in social reproduction?

  • What are the class-, gender-, and ethnicity-inflected meanings and values ascribed to skills and being skilled?

  • How do skills and skill development intersect with the aspirations of youth and other sections of the community?

  • What are the roles of informal, non-formal, and formal skill development in social, economic, and political life at various scales?

  • What kind of ethical and normative frameworks are associated with particular skillsets – for example, normative dispositions associated with entrepreneurship or craftsmanship?

  • How does social context shape the processes, meanings, and effectiveness of various pedagogical approaches to skill development, such as apprenticeships?

  • How does social and economic power impinge upon the structures and practices of skill development, at local, regional, national, and international scales?

  • Can skills foster more creative, sustainable, and inclusive societies?

  • What is the potential role of skills in social responses to Covid-19, climate change, and other global challenges?


The online workshop will take place on the 5th, 6th, and 7th of July 2021; 4.30 pm-8:30 pm AEST (7.30 am-11:30 am BST).


Those wishing to attend the event as observers can express their interest to



  • Dr. Trent Brown, School of Geography, University of Melbourne, Australia.

  • Prof Geert de Neve, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, United Kingdom.

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