top of page
mapa 03_edited.jpg

Does Skill Make Us Human?

Migrant Workers in 21st Century Qatar and Beyond

cover copy.jpeg

Skill—specifically the distinction between the “skilled” and “unskilled”—is generally defined as a measure of ability and training, but Does Skill Make Us Human? shows instead that skill distinctions are used to limit freedom, narrow political rights, and even deny access to imagination and desire. I take readers into Qatar’s booming construction industry in the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup, and through an unprecedented look at the experiences of migrant workers, I show that skill functions as a marker of social difference powerful enough to structure all aspects of social and economic life.

Through unique access to construction sites in Doha, in-depth research, and interviews, I explore how migrants are recruited, trained, and used. Despite their acquisition of advanced technical skills, workers are commonly described as unskilled and disparaged as “unproductive,” “poor quality,” or simply “bodies.” I demonstrate that skill categories adjudicate personhood, creating hierarchies that shape working conditions, labor recruitment, migration policy, the design of urban spaces, and the reach of global industries. I also discuss how skill distinctions define industry responses to global warming, with employers recruiting migrants from climate-damaged places at lower wages and exposing these workers to Qatar’s extreme heat. I consider how the dehumanizing politics of skill might be undone through tactical solidarity and creative practices.

With implications for immigrant rights and migrant working conditions throughout the world, Does Skill Make Us Human? examines the factors that justify and amplify inequality.


American Sociological Association—Sociology of Development 2022 Best Book Award; American Sociological Association—Labor and Labor Movements 2022 Best Book Award;

American Collegiate School of Planning — John Friedmann Book Award 2022

Additional publications

Iskander, N. and A. Keshavarzian. 2022. The Politics of “Unskilled” Labor in Qatar — An Interview with Natasha Iskander. MERIP: Middle East Research and Information Project. Issue 304.

Iskander, N. 2020.  “Qatar, the Coronavirus, and Cordons Sanitaires: The Use of Public Health to Define the Nation.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 34(4): 561–577

Iskander, N. 2020. Qatar, the Coronavirus, and Cordons Sanitaires SSRC - Items. May 14.

Iskander, N.  2019. “On Detention and Skill: Reflections on immigrant incarceration, bodying practices, and the definition of skill.”  American Behavioral Scientist. 63(9): 1370-1388.

Iskander, N. 2017. “The Political Right to have ‘Society in the Bones’: The Skill and Brawn of Male Workers in Qatar.” Women’s Science Quarterly. 45 (3/4): 234-244

Iskander, N. 2015.  “The Future of Work: 19th-Century Brutality, in the 21st Century.” Pacific Standard Magazine. 

Talks and Media

Defector Media.  D. Moskovitz. World Cup of Blood and Gold. December 19, 2022.

Foreign Policy Research Institute and MERIP. Political Implications of the Qatar World Cup in the Middle East and Beyond. December 14, 2022.

New Yorker. S. Knight. At Qatar’s World Cup, Where Politics and Pleasure Collide. December 3, 2022.

USA Today. G. Hauck. Migrant workers were deceived and died for Qatar's World Cup. Thousands want compensation.  December 1. 2022.

CNN. Lewis, A., P. Acharya and S. Pokharel. ‘Our dreams never came true.’ These men helped build Qatar’s World Cup, now they are struggling to survive. November 21, 2022.

NPR. Marketplace Morning Report. Brancaccio, D., E. Soderstrom, and J. Dang. "The Workers Cup": Inside the “kafala” migrant labor system.  November 18, 2022.

Vox. Today, Explained. World Cup: They Build This City.  November 11, 2022. 

Iskander, N. 2022. Does Skill Make Us Human?: Migrant Workers in 21st-Century Qatar and Beyond (New Texts Out Now).  Jadaliyaa. Newton.  July 20, 2022. 

Making the Gulf: Regulating Movements and Politics. Natasha Iskander and Arang Keshavarian. Crown Center for Middle East Studies. Brandeis University. Feb. 2, 2022. 

BBC4.  Thinking Allowed: Skill. Natasha Iskander and Chris Warhurst.  February 2, 2022. 

“Skill, power, and control in the world of Qatar’s migrant workers.” Princeton University Press.  Ideas. January 27, 2022. 

“Qatar’s glittery World Cup disguises a dark reality.” Washington Post.  Global Opinions. January 25, 2022.

Delmarva Today: Does Skill Make Us Human? By Natasha Iskander. January 18, 2022.

Does Skill Make Us Human? Migrant Workers in 21st Century Qatar and Beyond.  Book Talk.  New York University – Institute for Public Knowledge.  December 2, 2021.  Discussants: Rachel Sherman (New School), Michael Burawoy (UC Berkeley), Paula Chakravartty (NYU) 

Does Skill Make Us Human? Migrant Workers in 21st Century Qatar and Beyond.  Book Launch.  New York University – Wagner School of Public Service. November 10, 2021.  Discussants: Andrew Ross (NYU), Miriam Ticktin (CUNY), Yaw Nyarko (NYU).

Does Skill Make Us Human? Migrant Workers in 21st Century Qatar and Beyond.  Flash Talk.  American Geographical Society. November 1, 2021. 

bottom of page