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The disciplinary biopolitics of sweat: scaling the slippery slope between environment and employment

Authors: Elspeth Oppermann*, Ludwig Maximilians Universität
Topics: Human-Environment Geography, Hazards, Risks, and Disasters, Geography and Urban Health
Keywords: Sweat, heat-health, climate change adaptation, weathering, micro-geographies
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In Australia’s hot and humid monsoonal north, sweat is completely normalized. For six months per year, sweat is the inescapable medium through which one encounters the air and the outside. It doesn’t have any particular connotations as a marker of class or cleanliness. On the contrary, in hot conditions, it is not sweating that is cause for concern – it is, in fact, a symptom of heat stroke. In this context, sweating is not only normal, but required to survive, particularly for those most exposed to the heat by working outdoors. Here, the politics of sweat lies in what is required to maintain it. Outdoor workers engaged in moderate to heavy physical labour typically need to drink between 5-8 litres during a shift (8-12 hours) to maintain their sweat rate without becoming dehydrated. However, the micro-geographies of worksites, particularly in high-risk environments (working at heights, or in contaminated areas), makes maintaining sufficient hydration difficult and time consuming. This challenge can create novel workplace practices, but also results in dehydration and heat illness becoming normalized. Furthermore, implicit in managing a workshift without becoming ill is the requirement to pre-hydrate before, and re-hydrate after, work. In both the maintenance of sweat, and the health and wellbeing impacts of failing to do this, work is transgressing domains and shaping domestic and recreational practices. In sum, this paper reflects on the micro-geographies and materialities of sweat, the disciplinary biopolitics implicit in its management, and the resulting geographies of heat illness in labour-intensive work.

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