Selina Todd, ‘History from below: modern British scholarship’

[This is the fifteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Selina Todd is a Lecturer in Modern British History and Fellow of St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford. Her research and publications focus on working-class and women’s history in modern Britain. Here she brings our conversation about ‘history from below’ through to the twentieth century, providing a survey of the recent historiography on modern Britain, and identifying some of the major challenges and future directions for ‘history from below’ in that field.]

Fifty years on from E.P. Thompson’s call to rescue working people from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’, and myriad ‘turns’ later, history from below is flourishing in modern British scholarship. An emphasis on ‘ordinary people’ has replaced an earlier stress on the working class, and studies of collective protest are less numerous than those on everyday life. [1] But there is no sign that scholars consider Thompson’s original project ‘cliched’ or ‘tired’.

This post reflects on how history ‘from below’ has developed, the state it is in, and suggests some possible future directions. As the first section will show, we have reasons to be hopeful. But in the second section I argue that we need to historicise the material circumstances in which our scholarship is produced in order to fight for our future. In the final section I propose that we could use more studies of class, which might help us to restate the centrality of history ‘from below’ to understandings of modern Britain.

The recent history of history from below:

In the early 1990s, the future of history ‘from below’ was in doubt.[2] But the field has survived. Recent work has used the insights of poststructuralist and gender theory to further develop older tools of the historians’ craft: close reading of the text, appreciation of historical specificity and broad contextual analysis. These studies cover community, welfare, work, consumption and – most recently – emotion.[3]

The most significant and wide-ranging change in histories from below is the displacement of class by gender.[4] This development owes much to gender theory, but is also influenced by the work of earlier socialist and feminist historians. These scholars built on Thompson’s approach in studies of domestic life, welfare and youth.[5] A number of pioneering scholars subsequently drew on this work to demonstrate the experiential importance of gender in everyday life.[6]

Much of the work produced since then has examined the relationship between representation and experience. Histories of work, leisure and crime have analyzed how certain activities and emotions become understood in gendered terms, and how gender shapes the experience of activities and emotions.[7] Studies of masculinity have included illuminating accounts of working-class fatherhood.[8]

The analytical frame offered by gender can be used to interrogate the construction and reproduction of other identities.[9] Studies of age and life cycle have highlighted childhood and youth as formative life stages, but also that young and older people have acted as agents of change.[10] Race and religion have received less attention from historians and offer an exciting opportunity for future scholars.[11] Race relations were historically contingent (and not always antagonistic), shaped by local as well as global labour markets and by neighbourhood networks as well as state regulation.[12]

Histories from below have also questioned the accepted milestones of modern British history. Oral histories highlight that working-class people’s experience of the 1920s was very different from that of the 1930s.[13] Genealogical histories show that many people in the past (and the present) understand time generationally, rather than through decades or changes of government.[14] It is helpful to consider whether the people we study share historians’ interpretation of the industrial revolution, the political reforms of the 19th century and the two world wars of the 20th century.[15]

The myriad contributions outlined above have been informed by historians’ increasingly imaginative use of sources. Historians have questioned whether official data provides a coherent ‘discourse’, arguing that ordinary people could articulate their own experiences ‘between the cracks’ of disparate ‘official’ narratives.[16] Historians have also increasingly made creative use of personal testimonies.[17] Some scholars point out that personal testimonies provide partial but illuminating accounts that help to create  rounded picture of their subjects – an approach adopted by historians of crime, who have innovatively linked quantitative data, from censuses or poor relief files, to press reports and police interviews with their subjects.[18]  Yet another approach eschews claims of typicality, arguing that the study of the self is important in its own right.[19] All this work demonstrates that these sources offer no fewer insights into our subjects’ lives than sources ‘from above’, and sometimes considerably more so.[20]

These methodologies owe much to earlier feminist writing. The autobiographical writings of Steedman and others reflected on the relationship between memory, the past and the present, and on the disparities between official accounts of ‘how it was’, and the perspectives of women, children and working-class people.[21] The form and the content of personal testimonies are worthy of study. The relationship between the respondent and the recipient of their testimony can illuminate power relations in the society from which a source is drawn.[22] Attention to text has illuminated the significance of reading and writing in an increasingly literate society.[23]

Over the past decade histories from below have been transformed by a new preoccupation with selfhood.[24] Scholars have examined how far selfhood is constructed through social relations, and whether it is shaped by public events – including changes in the law, or a war – as well as by private life.[25] They suggest that we should interrogate anew the relationships between public and private, self and ‘other’, representation and experience.[26] But we are still to consider how exactly public life and private consciousness interact and create ‘experience’. I will return to this in the final section of this post.

The state we’re in:

We urgently need to review how we do history in order to ensure that the innovation and experimentation that has sustained history from below survives the harsh times in which we work. [27] A strength of history from below has been scholars’ receptive attitude to new theoretical developments, without uncritically riding the latest zeitgeist. Historians have consciously chosen to work in collaborative and co-operative ways, rather than engaging in competitive careerism. Their writing tends not to set up straw dolls for denigration, but rather to applaud examples of excellent practice. There is general eagerness to promote collegiality and collaboration.[28]

Such diversity can strengthen our project. A conscious avowal of belonging to a field of mutually respecting scholars has strengthened our claim to representation in history departments. Diversity of approach has allowed scholars to weave history from below into studies of political as well as social and into economic as well as cultural history – demonstrating that there is no reason not to consider the experience of ordinary people.[29] Pedersen’s review of some recent festchrifts of ‘leading’ social historians pointed out that women were a distinct absence – and voiced unease at the canonization of the lone scholar that characterizes these volumes but not the historical project in which many of us are engaged.[30] Many pioneering researchers are women who have placed at least as much importance on encouraging other scholars as they have on publishing their own research.[31]

However, the higher education marketplace imposes demands often incompatible with research collaboration and non-hierarchical ways of working.[32] The content of what we write is also under threat. If it has become normal to write histories with women in them, it remains just as normal to exclude them almost entirely.[33] That is at least as true of working-class people.[34] Women’s history and working-class history are categorized by libraries and bookshops as ‘social history’ whatever their content. As a ‘subfield’ we have a tenuous status which can be threatened if universities or publishers reduce their history offerings.[35]

Yet as knowledge transfer and knowledge impact become important financial activities, the subjects and readers of our work will become more important. Not withstanding that the REF criteria clearly preference money-making activities, and we can at least try to impose our own agenda as we hoop-jump. In seeking to overcome the silences of the archive, and to engage with those of whom we write, scholars have experimented with different forms of writing about, or presenting, history from below.[36] Some contribute to policy debates.[37] Still more combine archival work with fictitious or semi-fictitious reconstructions of the people they are studying. This also brings ‘history from below’ to a broader audience through theatre, popular books and websites.[38]

But we have some important theoretical and methodological questions to address. Pedersen asserts that ‘we could really use…a set of competing, strong, partial, integrative frameworks for [modern British history]’.[39] Without such frameworks, we are in no place to mount arguments against what government, university managers, many students and some of our colleagues define as ‘history’.

Future directions:

In my forthcoming book, The People: a History of the British Working Class since 1900, I argue that class constitutes one such narrative.[40] The 19th century witnessed the emergence of a language of class which provides us with a thoughtful analysis of how power operated. In the twentieth century class became part of everyday life. This was also the working-class century. The first third of the twentieth century can be characterized as one of ‘service’ – the working class were expected to serve their betters. The Second World War changed this – the working class were redefined as ‘the people’. In the postwar years, class became an important cultural identity, and being working-class assumed a particular fashionability. The last quarter of the century witnessed a major attack on the working class, both as a collective and at a personal level. Political commitment to, and expressions of class declined, but it remains a useful category for analyzing the experience and articulation of inequality among ordinary people.

My understanding of class is shaped by what I have read in recent scholarship. Despite increasing attention to gender, the self and to a lesser extent race and age, class remains central to history from below. Sometimes this is made explicit, as in many labour histories (we would benefit from more dialogue between labour and social historians).[41] While most social and cultural histories do not focus primarily on class, it remains the most common form of description in histories of everyday life.

Given that class clearly still frames so much historical work, we need to interrogate it. In using class solely as description, we run the risk of normalizing class as an inevitable part of modern British life requiring no explanation, while presenting gender and race as dynamic, fluid identities in need of analysis and explication. We also run the risk of presenting middle-class experience as ‘normal’, since much recent work focuses on this group.[42] Historians make very interesting claims for why we should examine the middle class. Many imply that middle-class people shared that important experience of relative powerlessness which has distinguished the more ‘traditional’ constituency of histories from below: the working class.[43] But we need to scrutinize how this happens.

We need to examine how people’s lives were shaped by their economic power or lack of it. Vernon has suggested we need to pay closer attention to the ‘economic’, but this appears to mean treating the market or the economy as either an intellectual construction or as high political institutions: in neither case do people make much of an appearance, either as constituents of the market or challenges to its power.[44] Rather than seek out a new theorist, we should revisit the insights of Thompson and the feminist historians of the 1980s.[45] We could do with more work that explores the connections between these different groups of powerful people, while scrutinising their actions and ‘achievements’ from the perspective of history from below.[46]

If we are to understand ‘experience’ as an historical category for analysis, then we also need to consider the connections between public and private life. How do public and private selves relate to each other; how does selfhood connect with collective action? Recent work suggests that many working-class fathers were affectionate and involved fathers. But how do we fit this picture with understandings of male workers as intent on preserving white, male privilege?[47]

Without looking at the connections between personal and public life – including personal and public language – we will face the accusation levelled at Thompson: that he unjustifiably prioritized certain forms of evidence, and certain aspects of the past, as being particularly valuable. By focusing on personal testimonies and on individual subjectivity, are we suggesting that private (or semi-private) expressions of emotion –  are more ‘authentic’ than the collective expression of aspiration held in trade union records or memories of rent strikes? The meaning of ‘privacy’ has changed over time, and we should not assume that people always believed their innermost thoughts were the most ‘authentic’ portrayal of themselves.[48]

We need to sustain spaces and networks where we can not simply offer mutual support but criticism, and to engage in debate (both within and outside the academy) over some important questions: how people end up being ‘below’; whether the constituencies of which we write share much beyond our categorization of them as ‘ordinary’; how power works in personal and public life; and how experience inspires action.[49] Finding answers to these questions is an urgent project, not only for the future of history from below, but for the future of those ‘ordinary people’ of whom we write.

[1] L. Tabili, “Having lived close beside them all the time”: Negotiating national identities through personal networks’, Journal of Social History Vol. 39, no. 2 (2005); I. Gazeley and Langhamer, ‘The Meanings of Happiness in Mass Observation’s Bolton’, History Workshop Journal vol. 75, no. 1 (2013). Other recent works emphasizing ‘ordinariness’ include D. Cohen, Family Secrets (Oxford, 2013); A. Davies, City of Gangs: Glasgow and the Rise of the British Gangster (London, 2013); E.A. Foyster et al (eds), A History of Everyday Life in Scotland (Edinburgh, 2009); C. Langhamer, ‘Adultery in Post-war England’, History Workshop Journal, vol. 26, no. 1 (2006); Langhamer, ‘The meanings of Home in Post-war Britain’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 40, no. 2 (2005); S. O’Connell, Credit and community in the UK since 1880 (Oxford, 2009).

[2] G.S. Jones, Languages of Class (Cambridge, 1982); J. Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988); P. Joyce, Visions of the people (Cambridge, 1991); J. Vernon, Politics and the people (Cambridge, 1993).

[3] M. Houlbrook, Queer London (Chicago, 2005); L. Jackson, Women police: gender, welfare and surveillance in the twentieth century (Manchester, 2006); Savage, Identities and social change.

[4] Analysis of papers presented at this year’s Social History Conference support this. .

[5] For example P. Thompson, The Edwardians (London, 1977); P. Thane, ‘Women and the Poor Law in Victorian and Edwardian England’, History Workshop Journal Vol. 6, no. 1 (1978); R. Samuel, Village Life and Labour (London, 1982); L. Davidoff and C. Hall, Family Fortunes: men and women of the English middle class 1780-1850 (London, 1987); C. Steedman, The Radical Soldier’s Tale (London, 1988).

[6] A. Davies, Leisure, gender and poverty (Buckingham, 1992); J. White, The Worst Street in North London (London, 1986).

[7] D. Valenze, ‘The art of women and the business of men: women’s work and the dairy industry c. 1740-1840’, Past and Present, no. 130 (1991); K. Cowman and L. Jackson, Women and work culture : Britain c.1850-1950 (Aldershot, 2002); S. Todd, Young women, work, and family in England 1918-1950 (Oxford, 2005); N. Verdon, Rural women workers in nineteenth-century England: gender, work and wages (Woodbridge, 2002); C. Langhamer, Women’s Leisure in England, c.1918-c.1960 (Manchester, 2000); S. O’Connell, The car and British society: class, gender and motoring 1896-1930 (Manchester, 1998); J. Giles, Women, identity and private life in Britain, 1900-1950 (Oxford, 2004); L. Jackson and A. Bartie, ‘Children of the city: juvenile justice, property, and place in England and Scotland, 1945-60’, Economic History Review, vol. 64, no. 1 (2011); Langhamer, ‘Adultery’; M. Roper, The secret battle: emotional survival in the Great War (Manchester, 2009); A. Davies, ‘Youth, violence and courtship in late-Victorian Birmingham’ History of the Family, vol. 11, no. 2 (2006).

[8] L. Abrams, ‘There was nobody like my Daddy: Fathers, the family and the marginalization of men in modern Scotland’, Scottish Historical Review, Vol 78, no 206 (1999); J. Humphries, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (Cambridge, 2011); J.M. Strange, ‘Fatherhood, providing and attachment in late Victorian and Edwardian working-class families’, Historical Journal, vol 55, no 4 (2012).

[9] L. Tabili, ‘Dislodging the Center/Complicating the Dialectic: What Gender and Race Have Done to the Study of Labor’, International Labor and Working-Class History, Vol. 63 (2003), pp. 14-20.

[10] Davies, Leisure, gender and poverty;; S. Todd, Young women, work, and family in England, 1918-1950 (Oxford, 2005); P. Thane, Old Age in English History: past experiences, present issues (Oxford, 2000); S. Alexander, ‘Becoming a woman in 1920s and 1930s London’, in ead. Becoming a woman and other essays (London, 1992); Alexander, ‘“Do Grandmas Have Husbands?” Generational memory and Twentieth-Century Women’s Lives’, Oral History Review, Vol. 36, no. 2 (2009), pp. 159-76; C. de Bellaigue, Eduating women: schooling and identity in England and France, 1800-1867 (Oxford, 2007); A. Davin, Growing Up Poor (London, 2000).

[11] Although see C. Brown, The death of Christian Britain: understanding secularization 1800-2000 (London, 2001).

[12] J. Bailkin, ‘Leaving Home: The Politics of Deporation in Postwar Britain’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 47, no. 4 (2008); Bailkin, ‘The Post-Colonial Family? West African Children, Private Fostering and the British State’, Journal of Modern History, Vol. 81, no. 1 (2009); L. Tabili, We ask for British justice: workers and racial difference in late imperial Britain (Ithaca, 1994).

[13] A. Hughes, Gender and political identities in Scotland, 1919-1939 (Edinburgh, 2010).

[14] T. Evans, ‘Secrets and Lies: the Radical Potential of Family History’, History Workshop Journal, no. 71 (2011); D. Cohen, Family Secrets (London, 2012).

[15] Question posed by P. Levine, ‘Decline and Vitality: The Contradictions and Complexities of Twentieth-century Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol 21, no 3 (2010). The question of how far the world wars are pivotal was provocatively raised in Langhamer, Women’s Leisure in England. See also P. Thane, ‘Girton graduates: earning and learning, 1920s-1980s’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 13, no. 3 (2004); P. Ayers, ‘Work, culture and gender: the making of masculinities in postwar Liverpool’, Labour History review, vol. 69 (2004). See E. Griffin, ‘Sex, illegitimacy and social change in industrializing Britain’, Social History, Vol. 38, no. 2 (2013).

[16] The phrase is Carolyn Steedman’s. See L. King, ‘Hidden Fathers? The significance of fatherhood in mid-twentieth-century Britain’, Contemporary British History, Vol. 26, no. 1 (2012) and J. Bailkin, ‘Color Problems: Work, Pathology and Perception in Modern Britain’, International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 68 (2005); Jackson, ‘Coffee Clubs’; S. Todd, ‘Affluence, Class and Crown Street: Reinvestigating the Post-War Working Class’, Contemporary British History, Vol. 22, no. 4 (2008).

[17] A. Davies, Leisure, gender and poverty (Buckingham, 1992); Davies and S. Fielding (eds), Workers Worlds (Manchester, 1992); Langhamer, Women’s Leisure in England (Manchester, 2000); E. Roberts, A Woman’s Place (Oxford, 1986); Roberts, Women and Families (Oxford, 1992); S. Moss, ‘Cultures of women’s drinking and the English public house, 1914-39’, DPhil, University of Oxford (2008); J. White, Worst Street in North London (London, 1986); S. Spencer, Gender, work and education in Britain in the 1950s (Basingstoke, 2005); Langhamer, ‘Adultery’; Jones, ‘Nostalgia’; Todd, Young women; C. de Bellaigue, Educating women; M. Roper, ‘Splitting in unsent letters: writing as a social practice and a psychological activity’, Social History vol. 26, no. 3 (2011).

[18] A. Davies, City of Gangs; B. Godfrey, Serious Offenders (Oxford, 2010); see also Smyth, ‘Seems decent’ which uses record linkage to examine the impact of welfare on working-class life.

[19] Roper, ‘Splitting in unsent letters’; C. Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman (London, 1986).

[20] E. Griffin, ‘A Conundrum resolved? Rethinking courtship, marriage and population growth in eighteenth-century England’, Past and Present, no. 215 (2012).

[21] Steedman, Landscape; A. Kuhn, Family Secrets (London, 2002); L. Heron (Ed.), Truth, Dare or Promise (London, 1986); A. Oakley, Taking it like a woman (London, 1984); C. Heilbrun, Writing a Woman’s Life (New York, 1988).

[22] Roper, ‘Splitting’; Jones, ‘Nostalgia’; Langhamer, ‘Capital Punishment’; Gazeley and Langhamer, ‘Happiness’; Savage, Identities and Social Change.

[23] H. Rogers, ‘Oh, what beautiful books! Captivated reading in an early Victorian prison’, Victorian Studies, vol 55, no. 1 (2012); J.M. Strange, Death, grief and poverty in Britain, 1870-1914 (Cambridge, 2005); de Bellaigue, Educating women.

[24] M. Roper, ‘Slipping out of view: Subjectivity and emotion in gender history’, History Workshop Journal vol. 59 (2005).

[25] C. Langhamer, ‘“The Live Dynamic Whole of Feeling and Behaviour”: Capital Punishment and the Politics of Emotion, 1945-1957’, Journal of British Studies vol. 51, no. 2 (2012);  L. Robinson, ‘Soldiers’ Stories of the Falklands War: recomposing Trauma in Memoir’, Contemporary British History, Vol. 25, no. 4 (2011); L. Noakes, ‘Experiencing War as the “Enemy Other”. Italian Scottish Experience in World War II’, Contemporary British History Vol. 26, no. 2 (2012); J. Hinton, Nine Wartime Lives (Oxford, 2010); P. Thane, ‘Family Life and “normality” in postwar British culture’, in R. Bessel and D. Schumann, Life after Death. Approaches to a Cultural and Social History of Europe during the 1940s and 1950s (Cambridge, 2003).

[26] Jones, The working class in mid-twentieth-century England; Gazeley and Langhamer, ‘Happiness’; L. Schwarz, A Serious Endeavour (London, 2010); A. Light, Mrs Woolf and the Servants (London, 2008).

[27] I echo here Susan Pedersen’s call in ‘Money, Space and Time’, TCBH.

[28] For example the annual Social History conference, which attracted more than 200 participants in 2013: (consulted 3 June 2013); Women in Britain in the 1950s ESRC seminar series, (consulted 5 May, 2013).

[29] Gleadle, ‘The imagined communities of women’s history: current debates and emerging themes, a rhizomatic approach’, Women’s History Review (2013), p. 12.

[30] S. Pedersen, ‘Festschriftiness’, London Review of Books, Vol. 33, no 19 (2011), pp. 31-32.

[31] As was evident at the Symposium in Honour of Pat Thane, University of Greenwich, 2010, which at Thane’s request did not directly pay homage to her work but showcased the work of scholars who she had supervised or mentored.

[32] N. Kirk, ‘Challenge, Crisis, Renewal? Themes in Labour History 1960-2010’, Labour History Review, vol. 75, no 2 (2010).

[33] Gleadle, ‘Imagined communities’.

[34] Kirk, ‘Challenge’.

[35] Including genealogists – see Evans, ‘Secrets and Lies’. Alison Light’s forthcoming Common People addresses the role of the geneaologist vis a vis academic historians.

[36] Steedman, Landscape; R. Colls, ‘When we lived in communities: working-class culture and its critics’ in Colls and R. Rodger (eds), Cities of Ideas (Aldershot, 2004).

[37] S. O’Connell, ‘An alternative to the moneylenders? Credit unions and their discontents’, History and Policy (2005); P. Thane, ‘History and policy’, History Workshop Journal, Vol 67, no 1 (2009).

[38] Light, Mrs Woolf and the Servants; Peel, Miss Cutler and the case of the resurrected horse (Chicago, 2012); A. Davies and J.M. Strange, ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread: Academics, Public Engagement and Popular History’, Journal of Victorian Culture Vol. 15, no. 2 (2010); L. King, ‘Fatherhood and Childbirth in Britain: a public engagement project’,; N. Puwar (dir), Coventry Ritz BBC documentary, (consulted 5 June, 2013); H. Young and S. Todd,; S. Todd, ‘Class conflict and the myth of cultural “inclusion” in modern Manchester’, in J. Wolff and M. Savage (eds), Culture in Manchester. Institutions and urban change since 1850 (Manchester, 2013).

[39] Pedersen in ‘Money, Space and Time’, TCBH.

[40] S. Todd, The People (London, 2014).

[41] M. Chase, Chartism: a new history (Manchester, 2007); H. Barron, The 1926 miners’ lockout: meanings of community in the Durham coalfield (Oxford, 2009).

[42] Cohen, Family Secrets; A. Miles and M. Savage, ‘The Strange Survival Story of the English Gentleman, 1945-2010’, Cultural and Social History, Vol. 9, no. 4 (2012); Langhamer, ‘Home’; Hinton, Nine Wartime Lives.

[43] Cohen, Family Secrets; Langhamer, ‘Adultery’; M. Savage, ‘Affluence and Social Change in the Making of Technocratic Middle-Class Identities: Britain 1939-55’, Contemporary British History Vol. 22, no. 4 (2008); J. Giles, The Parlour and the suburb: domestic identities, class, femininity and modernity (Oxford, 2004); Gleadle, Borderline Citizens; V. Taylor and F. Trentmann, ‘Liquid Politics: Water and the politics of everyday life in the modern city’, Past and Present, no. 211 (2011).

[44] J. Vernon, ‘The Local, the Imperial and the Global: Repositioning Twentieth-Century Britain and the Brief Life of Social Democracy’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 21, no 3 (2010).

[45] E.P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, in Thompson, Customs in Common (London, 1991).

[46] A recent study that takes such an approach is J. Smyth and D. Robertson, ‘Local elites and social control: building council houses in Stirling between the wars’, Urban History, Vol. 40, no. 2 (2013).

[47] S. O. Rose, Limited livelihoods: gender and class in nineteenth-century England (Berkeley, 1992); A. Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: gender and the making of the British working class (Berkeley, 1995).

[48] Cohen, Family Secrets.

[49] As occurred at a recent workshop at the University of Hertfordshire; see K. Navickas, ‘Protest History or the History of Protest?’, History Workshop Journal, no. 73 (2012).

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