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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Stress and the Biopolitics of Work

  • Author(s): Fleming, Mark Daniel
  • Advisor(s): Kaufman, Sharon
  • et al.

Health and labor organizations have increasingly identified work-related stress as a “modern epidemic” with highly detrimental effects on the health and productivity of workers. The definition of work stress, however, remains contested, and there are huge financial and political stakes involved in codifying work stress as an official category of occupational hazard. Taking urban transportation work as a case study, this dissertation examines how understandings of work stress as an industrial hazard are produced, institutionalized and contested.

Transportation workers are one of the most studied categories of worker within the field of stress sciences, and this research has shown transit workers to be among sickest workers of any occupation, particularly in regard to chronic, stress-related diseases. This dissertation project approaches transit work as a uniquely powerful site for studying the broader mechanisms underlying the social and material determinants of chronic disease, and as a point of departure for explorations into the politics of work, the sciences of stress, and state and legal frameworks for regulating injury and disease.

Using ethnographic methods, this project documents workers’ understanding and experiences of stress, how biomedical scientists recognize (and disregard) the harms of work, and how political and economic interests shape everyday and medical understandings of health and wellbeing for workers. My analyses reveal how the bodily impacts of working conditions—as well as the biomedical recognition of work-related harms—are shaped by race, class and a broader reorganization of work in the United States.

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