Complicating the Free-unfree Divide: Putting ‘Service-Servility-Servitude’ at Work

By Mariana Kelly da Costa Rezende and Elena Barattini

Mariana Kelly da Costa Rezende
Elena Barattini

On 4 – 6 December 2023, at Universidade Federal Fluminense (Niterói, Brazil), the Summer School on ‘SERVICE-SERVILITY-SERVITUDE’, organized by Michaela Dimmers, Paulo Cruz Terra, Sebastian Schwecke, and Christian G. de Vito, took place. The summer school aimed to think about labor beyond the free and unfree division that has been framed for so long in Labor History. The triad of the concept ‘Service – Servility – Servitude’, then, would potentially allow new perspectives over a more diverse category of labor.

Thus, eight PhD students were selected to be a part of the event: Mariana Katz (Columbia University), with her work on labor and politics in Paraguay’s State Owned ranches (1820-1850); Manoel Rendeiro Neto (University of California-Davis), which studies freedom and slavery in Amazonia, Brazil (1755-1798); Tathagato Ganguly (Delhi University), over slavery, ‘marronage’ and ‘new plantations’ in Ecuador; Elena Barattini (Turin University), working on ‘jornaleria’, lawsuits and gender in colonial Cuba (1880-1886); Kiran Kunar (Indian Institute of Technology), with his studies over the Bazaars in South India; Anusha Sundar (Columbia University), about suicide, labor, gender and care amongst Indian Indentured Workers in Fiji (1890-1920); Mariana Rezende (Universidade Federal Fluminense) over child labor in prison institutions in Rio de Janeiro (1900-1913); and Taveeshi Singh (Syracuse University), with her work on the Sahayak System in India. 

There was a great diversity among the PhD students, with a wide exchange of global experiences, over places we grew up (Argentina, Italy, Brazil, and India), places we graduate and the subjects we study. Each one was in a different stage of their PhD projects, which also was very enriching to the discussion. Coming from different areas of humanity studies, facilitated the dialogue between anthropology, sociology, and history.

The Summer School was divided between ‘Texts that inspire’, ‘Teaching modules, and different panels in which the papers were presented. For the session ‘Texts that inspire’, as the title suggests, we were asked to present a text or a source that had inspired our research. The selected texts triggered a lot of reflections on each research and exposed the personal relation of the PhD students and their research, in a more personal and distinct way than the presentations in the respective panels. This session was not only a good introduction to each of our research projects and approaches, but also a fruitful way of knowing more about each other’s works. 

The teaching modules were conducted by Paola Revilla Orías, Christian Strümpell, and Hanne Østhus. In those teaching modules, we were able to think about methodology, as we discussed the texts preselected by the trainers on global history, anthropology, and microhistory.  The active participation in the teaching modules punctuated the PhD students’ presentations, reading against-the-grain texts of both a methodological nature and concrete research examples, highlighting different modalities by which authors confronted porous categories afferent to forced labor. ​​

The panels, then, constituted a major part of the Summer School, where we were able to present, in 30 minutes, not only our papers, but a little more of the research we have done so far. As the papers were previously shared, we had already read each other’s work, which benefitted us greatly during the lively discussions to which everyone contributed. Every PhD student and professor in the room was truly engaged with the works that were there presented.

The questions and points emphasized in the summer school echoed the historiographical references later cited in the symposium discussions. The symposium was opened by a talk by Paulo Cruz Terra, who integrated his research on the Brazilian context into how over the summer school days the participants interpreted, constructed, and deconstructed the triad of ‘Service – Servility – Servitude’. The symposium continued with a talk by Marcelo Badaró Mattos, who focused on the main changes, courses, and recurrences in the historiography of “service contexts”, between Brazil and South America. D.B.G.W. Lyna (Dries’) special lecture emphasized the importance of complicating how we conceptualize urban and rural spaces in our research, discussing the peri-urban spaces in the Dutch empire, and the entanglements of layers of labor and polities in the early modern Indian Ocean World. The discussion on spaces culminated with the talk by Samita Sen, who condensed decades of research on domestic spaces, with a long-term perspective linking caste, domesticity, bodies, care, and wages.

Christian Strümpell and Silvia Grinberg took us to their sites of years of fieldwork and ethnography, in deeply complex and challenging contexts such as the Buenos Aires landfill and the textile and steel factories of India and Bangladesh. It was then Sebastian Schwecke’s turn, with a talk that showed how the anthropology of markets can be a key tool for analyzing truly multifaceted labor relations such as those of the Bazaar, with its credit practices. Both Crispin Bates’ and Michaela Dimmers’ presentations emphasized the importance of studying – while speaking about indentureship and Indian colonial prisons – the complex role of intermediaries, certainly not free of coercion. Hanne Østhus, Paulo Cruz Terra, and Fabiane Poponigis have shown how the study of lawsuits, and legislative texts can be extremely important for issues of service – servility – servitude, for studying the link between slavery abolition and vagrancy laws, or for complicating how we think about manumission and free soil, but also how we interpret wage labor in its relationship with gender, race, and class. 

Collectively, as participants in the summer school and the symposium we grappled with the need to complicate both the categories we employ daily in our research – experimenting with the heuristics proposed by the service – servility – servitude triad, confronting what this kind of lens brought into focus in our reading and analysis of sources and fieldwork – but also what this kind of conceptualization instead risks overshadowing. 

The discussion of the sites of coercion, complicating what can be understood as workspace, both productive and reproductive, was one of the themes brought up in more than one discussion (or dinner!), as well as the deeply relational, fuzzy, and asymmetrical nature of the categories questioned. Lastly, ample space was devoted to emphasizing the contested margins of agency(ies) and coping mechanisms, their scope, and how to overcome problems concerning the use of the term agency itself, going to the heart of historiographical discussions that point directly to present-day challenges.

About the Writers

Mariana Kelly da Costa Rezende is a first year PhD candidate at the Department of History, Universidade Federal Fluminense, Niterói – Rio de Janeiro. In her PhD project, she researches anti-vagrancy policies over minors in Rio de Janeiro, between the years 1890 and 1927. 


Elena Barattini is a PhD candidate in Global History of Empires at Turin University. Her research examines Cuban patrocinadas’ lawsuits filed between 1880 and 1886, and directed to the Juntas de patronato, a juridical body put in place to solve the controversies emerging from the emanation of slavery abolition law. 


Cite this blog post
mwfdelhi (2024, April 16). Complicating the Free-unfree Divide: Putting ‘Service-Servility-Servitude’ at Work. Max Weber Forum for South Asian Studies (MWF Delhi). Retrieved May 26, 2024, from

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