I wanted to pull together some thoughts about my first Social History Society conference here. Obviously this only reflects my experience – there were lots of fantastic sessions I sadly didn’t get a chance to attend. I’m also, naturally, going to focus on the stuff that’s of interest to me; there was lots of other great content – take a look at #SHS2019 for a snapshot.
The first pretty obvious thing to say is that there is a lot of voluntary action history across historical fields that doesn’t identify as such. I think we probably all know this already, but I think it bears restating, because it gives us a really great opportunity to broaden our learning and teaching. There’s really no excuse to say we don’t know anything about certain groups’ experiences in relation to voluntary and community spheres when there is so much to draw on from critical race studies, gender studies, criminology and other disciplines. This Histphil blog by Tyrone McKinley Freeman covers this in more detail. There are lots of reasons people position themselves in fields other than voluntary action history or studies, which is a challenge for those of us with this niche obsession, but it also gives us a chance to learn more from different perspectives.
The theme that occurred to me me over and over again (I mean, it’s something I’m interested in anyway, so arguably I was actively searching for it but…) was the varying distance – sometimes great, sometimes not – between voluntary organisations and the constituents they claim to represent. Oisin Wall talked about how the Prisoners Reform Organisation (PRO) in Ireland was able to change discourses on prisoner rights over their 10-ish year existence, in part through the presentation and construct of one prisoner as a ‘passive victim’ of the system. While Karl Crawley did work with the PRO, he also resited some of their efforts and was active in shaping his own identity. Oisin’s written a blog on the case here and PRO’s success in bringing prisoners’ mental health into the public discourse. Nicole Gipson referred to the shelter ‘industry’ in Washington D.C. (part city-run, part private) and professionalisation of nonprofits in the context of historic failures to address homelessness, and policies that actively fuelled it and marginalised those most in need. She explored the experience of Yetta Adams, a black disabled woman, who died in 1993 after being turned away from a shelter, directly outside the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The talk referenced ideas of embodiment, and how Yetta differed from typical constructs of homeless people. Lucy Wray discussed A.R.Hogg’s early 20th century photography of the urban poor in Belfast, some of which was commissioned by Belfast City Mission for philanthropic purposes. She compared this to some of the Dr Barnardo’s photos (among others), which came under fire at the time (1877) when it was suggested that some were staged, faked or given inaccurate captions. Lucy talked about agency in terms of the photographer and his control (or lack thereof) over how his work was used, but there’s also clearly a question about the agency of the people pictured, and what say they have, if any, in their construction of victimhood. There are obvious contemporary parallels with the recent Red Nose Day controversy, and Jon Dean has written one of my favourite papers on images of homelessness which interrogates a similar theme in terms of resulting public perceptions. Kieran Connell and Christine Grandy, in their panel, also talked about issues of agency and presentation of Black people on screen in the 1960s, ‘70s and 80s. This came up at another event the other week on the Handsworth Self Portrait project, so I think there’s a lot to draw on in photography and visual arts theory.
A related, more institutional theme which I’m happy to say came out (maybe because I asked questions about it…) was relationships and tension between ‘grass roots’ organisations and ‘mainstream’ ones. This included reflections from Anne Stokes on how differences in aims and ambitions of the Black Panther movement compared to other parts of the Black civil rights movement have been exaggerated, and the relative lack of commemoration of the more radically perceived organisations, despite their engagement in delivering food programmes and other vital social services. Rebecca Tipton and Annabelle Wilkins talked about, among other things, the tension between established agencies dealing with Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, the cultural capital they gained from being seen to support these people, and the community-led organisations where a lot of support, particularly in terms of language and translation, occurred. It wasn’t simple though as the Vietnamese community was not homogenous, with different languages spoken and different political views and affiliations affecting which organisations people were prepared to access. Their blog on ‘translating asylum’ is here. It also came up in terms of the archive itself, with Kennetta Perry’s reflection on how formal institutions won’t often have deposits from, for instance, black working class families, but that communities and community movements engage in their own archival practices from a grass roots perspective.
My own paper looked at historical narratives of independence, as a value often envoked to support voluntary action or position it as under threat, but also as an enacted process. I had the pleasure of presenting alongside Kate Bradley talking about technological developments in the advice sector, and Ruth Davidson on maternal welfare, family policy and the maternity rights movement. All of these papers, and the discussion after, touched on issues of agency, advocacy and relations with the state – my favourite subjects. We finished up with a discussion on voluntary sector archives, one of our Chair Georgina Brewis’ favourite subjects – reflecting on the sometimes patchy and haphazard nature of voluntary sector records, some difficulties accessing case and government material, and also the great finds in unexpected places, often through membership organisations or consultations.
There were lots of PhD students presenting which was really nice, and it felt like a supportive environment. It was good to be in an academic space I don’t always spend time in too, as a historian in a social policy department. Thank you to all the organisers and presenters, and to all the staff and volunteers at University of Lincoln. Special thanks also to the patrons of the Smugglers pub, where I learnt about the uphill/downhill class stratification of Lincoln, checking local telecommunications towers for IRA bombs in the 1980s, and got invited to a man’s 70th birthday party. See you in December, buddy.