The future of ‘history from below’ symposium: concluding remarks

Brodie Waddell

Since publishing our invitation to this online symposium four short weeks ago, we’ve had over 5,000 visits from nearly 2,000 different readers.  Even more importantly, we’ve had scores of substantive comments here and on other social media. More people seem to be joining the conversation almost every day. From our perspective, then, this little experiment has been a success that has far exceeded our expectations.

We would thus like to offer our heartfelt thanks to the hundreds of you who have contributed, commented, linked, shared, tweeted and read over the past few weeks.  You’ve conclusively proven one of the key points that I was trying to make on Monday – many of the most interesting discussions about history aren’t happening in wood-panelled seminars rooms or within the pages of academic journals.

But it doesn’t end here. The beauty of this form of scholarship is that the conversation needn’t come to a close at the end of the final paper. Instead, we hope that you will continue to contribute to the discussion over the coming weeks and, in fact, indefinitely. To this end, we’ve created a stable page that can be accessed through the ‘History from Below’ link on the menu bar below our banner. This includes the introduction to the symposium as well as links to each individual piece. Alternatively, you can see all the pieces in the series through the ‘history from below event’ tag. What’s more, we’ll ensure that contributors are alerted when people offer new comments on their pieces, so they have a chance to respond.

We are also very pleased to announce that there will be more pieces on the future of history from below published later in the summer. These too will be linked on the main ‘History from Below’ page. They emerge from a second workshop we held on this topic, hosted at Cambridge and attended by some of the most eminent scholars in the field. The forthcoming pieces will include contributions from John Arnold, Christopher Briggs, Emma Griffin, Julie-Marie Strange, Selina Todd, and Andy Wood. Check back soon for more details…

Thank you again for making this such an exciting event.

Brodie Waddell, ‘History from below: today and tomorrow’

[This is the tenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Brodie Waddell is a historian of early modern England and one of the founders of the many-headed monster.]

We’ve won.

At least on one battlefield, ‘history from below’ has been totally victorious. The men and women who pioneered this approach had to fight hard to gain academic recognition. But today, their work is part of mainstream historical research and their subjects – poor stockingers, radical shoemakers, East End gangsters, peasant women – are warmly welcomed into the pages of academic journals. Indeed, two of the most influential journals in the profession, Past & Present (1952) and History Workshop Journal (1976), were actually founded by these once marginalised historians.

Yet winning the battle is not the same as winning the war. As other contributors have shown, many crucial struggles are still on-going. For example, female scholars continue to experience a level of discrimination in academia that limits their personal options and professional advancement. Although feminists have succeeded in making universities much less unbalanced than they were a generation ago, women are still systematically underrepresented amongst academic decision-makers. In addition, other fronts that had once seen steady progress have turned into partial reversals or outright routs. Access to higher education in Britain and North America expanded dramatically through much of the twentieth century, but the recent spike in tuition fees in England and the long-term rise in the US has made university much less affordable for students from working-class families. Worse still, this has hit part-time students especially hard, leading to a 40% fall in part-time applications since 2010 in the UK. These and other setbacks, discussed in more detail by Samantha Shave, mean that today’s advocates of a truly democratic ‘history from below’ cannot simply welcome our triumphs in research and quietly get on with our own work. We must do more. Continue reading

Samantha Shave, ‘History for below’

[This is the ninth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Samantha Shave is a research associate at the University of Cambridge, working on the project ‘Inheritance, Families and the Market in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Britain’. She has recently published on paupers’ lives and poor law reform in the early nineteenth century.]

Historians of welfare and poverty have seemingly now found the sources which, in the words of Tim Hitchcock, provide a more ‘democratic’ history from below (Down and Out, p. 239). The voices of the poor are being found in court records, ballads, threatening letters and petitions for poor relief, to name just a few sources, and we are putting them at the centre of our analyses. The word ‘democratic’ here has always struck me though; it makes me wonder whether, whilst we have been busying ourselves with this task, history itself has – as a discipline – become less democratic? I asked the workshop at Birkbeck to think about whether there is a ‘history for below’. Indeed, the central contradiction here is that we produce histories of those who have either been silenced or marginalised or ignored, that we strive to re-create social worlds from, ‘enforced narratives’ (Carolyn Steedman, Feminism and Autobiography, p. 25), but those people in similar positions today are being increasingly denied the opportunity to study and write history at university.

We need to consider how people decide to study history, and how recent changes to the curriculum could leave a generation uninspired to take the subject further. Those who are not put off by ‘fact and date’ history may attempt to study the subject at university. That’s if they want to get into a phenomenal amount of debt. There are small reductions to fees for those with household incomes below £25,000 per annum, and a few charity-like pockets of money issued by universities, but the overall debt for any student who started university in 2012 from a working household will be huge. With fees at an average of £8,770 a year, the average student could graduate with over £50,000 of debt over the course of their degree. The immediate consequences of the fee rise can be seen in application figures. UK applicants to university were down 8.7% in 2012, and a further 6.5% for admission this year. Worryingly, last year applications from people aged over 19 years old declined by 11.8%. Continue reading

Simon Sandall, ‘History lessons from below?’

[This is the eighth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Simon Sandall is a lecturer at the University of Winchester whose recent publications focus on custom, law, community and popular politics and popular protest in early modern England. His forthcoming book will be titled ‘Custom and Popular Memory in the Forest of Dean, c. 1550-1832’.]

Now, as much as at any time in the recent past, the study of labouring people and non-elites is crucial, not only in rescuing them from the ‘condescension of posterity’, but in forging a broader understanding of the historical context in which we enter the twenty-first century. As social services are being slashed, the terms of unemployment and disability benefits rendered untenable, sections of poorer communities pejoratively stereotyped in the name of austerity, the culpability of the super rich whitewashed, and Michael Gove’s attempts to hide any historical evidence to the contrary, this context is sorely needed.

Add to this the fact that a significant proportion of the British public draw their knowledge of the past from centre-right newspapers and other media, nuanced and critical histories ‘from below’ are clearly needed to restore balance to some of the more heated debates that pervade the current political climate. While the criteria of the Research Excellence Framework look to be developing an increased focus on wider dissemination of funded research, we should be thinking carefully about the nature of these studies and their impact. Gove’s current drive emphasises a simplified, top-down, political narrative which nods towards the benefits of British influence in the world, the development of stock trading, the banking industry, together with the associated rise of capitalism and industrialisation. As historians, our duty is surely to complicate these teleologies and work to emphasise the reality of contingency and agency, to advance our understanding of those in the lower echelons of societies past. At almost every one of these historical junctures, there have been passionately defended alternatives. A closer focus on the experiences of particular communities and broader histories from below reveals, also, that at each of these key transitional moments it has generally been the poor that have suffered to advance the interests of the rich and powerful. Continue reading

David Hitchcock, ‘Why history from below matters more than ever’

[This is the seventh piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). David Hitchcock is an IAS Early Career Fellow at the University of Warwick and will be taking up a post at Canterbury Christ Church University in October. He has published on vagrancy in early modern England and blogs at Post.Hoc.]

As I write these words, Sohel Rana, the owner of an illegally constructed clothing factory and living complex in Bangladesh called the ‘Rana Plaza’, is probably sitting in a Dhaka jail. I have not the slightest clue what he’s thinking. But I hope he has time for a few regrets. Rana will be now be immortalised as the man who stood in front of a building that was literally cracking down its seams, and assured tenants and workers that it was perfectly safe to stay inside. Factory line managers in Rana’s clothing manufacturing operations on the top floors insisted that their workers continue their shifts, and clothing workers make up the bulk of the over 1,100 dead people in this particular tragedy.

As I write these words, Governor Rick Perry, the architect of modern Texas’ stunningly under-regulated industrial landscape, lambasts anyone but himself for the shameful practices at the West Texas fertilizer plant which recently exploded, levelling a town (which it was conveniently located right next to) and causing a 2.1 scale earthquake. The plant had not been inspected in twenty years. Fifteen people died, most were fire-fighters or first responders trying to control the blaze and to save others.

I’m choosing to begin this post on ‘History from Below’  with recent news stories about factory disasters on opposite ends of the world for one reason: to separate wheat from chaff. These kinds of stories should make you angry, they should make you think about why those factory workers felt they had to obey, and stayed at their posts in a factory that was literally crumbling around them, they should invite you to explore the sad history of industrial production, of ‘developing nation’ factory workers, and of brutal, naked economic exploitation in places like Bangladesh. I hope you want to understand why a place like Rana Plaza was openly permitted to exist. I hope you want to know what life was like for the approximately 1,150 people who died because they were not permitted to escape from an imploding building. Continue reading

Mark Hailwood, ‘Who is below?’

[This is the sixth piece in ‘’The Future of History from Below’’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Mark Hailwood is a historian of early modern England and one of the founders of the many-headed monster.]

The posts that have appeared so far in this symposium have suggested a number of interesting directions for the future of ‘history from below’: a future that opens up new avenues for research through explorations of material culture, of the landscape, and of global connections and comparisons, with a critical but ultimately optimistic disposition regarding the possibilities of drawing together fragmentary evidence, potentially through the use of digital databases. All of this excites and encourages me. And yet, there is one particular problem that I think we all need to address if ‘history from below’ is to have a coherent future: how to define its subjects.

I’m not so much concerned here with who should ‘qualify’ as an appropriate subject for ‘history from below’ – I’m not sure prescriptive precision here is possible or helpful, but maybe someone would like to take this up in the comments section – so much as with the labels we use to refer to those that are generally accepted to fall within its remit. Let’s start with that classic statement of the ‘history from below’ agenda found in Thompson’s preface to The Making… ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “Utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ Continue reading

Matthew Jackson, ‘Relocating history from below: places, spaces and databases’

[This is the fifth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Matthew Jackson is a doctoral student at the University of Warwick undertaking a comparative study of drinking culture in early modern Bristol and Bordeaux. He recently published an article on the contested character of female publicans.]

Three interrelated issues arose at the recent workshop at Birkbeck that stood out for me as central to the current condition and future directions of the field of ‘history from below’: studying dispersed geographical places, investigating specific physical spaces, and using large-scale online databases.

Let’s begin with the debates about comparative, transnational and global approaches to ‘history from below’, spurred by remarks at the workshop from William Farrell and Tawny Paul. The idea that global history – typically vast geographical transactions of people and commodities – can combine with social history – prioritising analytical depth over geographical breadth – poses methodological challenges for historians, and the issue was the focus of some provocative debate at the workshop. How, though, might social historians ‘from below’ consider larger comparative examinations without diluting the detail and depth of their own approaches to the subject? Continue reading