Deborah Cohen: Response to Working Paper No. 1

For our second response, we asked Deborah Cohen from Northwestern University to share her thoughts on MBS Working Paper No. 1.

Deborah Cohen, Northwestern University

Deborah Cohen, Northwestern University

I see a great many advantages to the research agenda Modern British Studies at Birmingham is setting out in its first Working Paper, have a few suggestions about how that agenda might be further sharpened, and want to offer one main reservation.

Let me start with the reservation.  On the whole, I think that the heterogeneity of the modern British field has been a good thing, not a weakness.  The fact that the field has entertained a wide variety of approaches and subjects has inevitably resulted in some fragmentation, which I’d define as a proliferation of work not always in conversation when it ought to be.  But it has also meant that the modern British field has been very dynamic, open to new sorts of questions and methodologically catholic.

The historiographic action has been fairly well balanced between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a marked contrast with both the Russian and the German fields. The fact that there hasn’t been a rank-ordered set of questions propelling the modern British field – indeed, that there hasn’t been a consensus about what counted as the important questions – has helped to encourage experimentation, and thus to nurture fresh research.  For me, as a new PhD nearly twenty years ago, trained both in German and in British history, it was this quality of the modern British field that most appealed to me, and is something I continue to appreciate.

Creating overarching interpretative frameworks is of course an important exercise, and their lack for twentieth-century Britain by contrast to the plethora for the nineteenth century (most recently, James Belich’s Replenishing the Earth) has been much commented upon.  I take the ‘cultures of democracy’ initiative, then, not as an exclusive research agenda, but rather, as a project intended to spark and concentrate debate, even to encourage competing explanatory schemas.

I emphasize this last point not just because I think narrowing Birmingham’s interpretative horizons even to such a capacious subject as ‘cultures of democracy’ would be a loss.  As a strategy for postgraduate training, too, I would be concerned about organizing themes that short-circuit what seems to me a key requirement for graduate students:  figuring out how their own arguments contribute to larger intellectual debates both inside and outside the national field.

Now, that said, a few impressions about ‘cultures of democracy’ as a project.  As sketched out in the first working paper, ‘cultures of democracy’ as a focus should help to bridge whatever boundaries still remain between cultural, social, political, economic and intellectual historians, distinctions that have, to my mind, largely eroded in the practice (if not in self-identification) over the last twenty years.

The project’s attention to hierarchies of value and its plan to span the conceptual divide between the Victorians and the moderns will both prove very useful.  The focus on the ordinary and the individual in the Birmingham working paper is appealing, not least because it fits with the zeitgeist, as the success this summer of both Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood demonstrate, and thus offers an excellent avenue for public engagement.   And the larger question that frames this focus – ‘How were the private realms of personhood and public worlds of politics and social interaction related?’ (p. 5) – opens up rich and still relatively unmined territory.

Two further thoughts, then, as the project develops:

1. Targeted national comparisons

Since so many of the questions that the Working Paper asks about Britain’s cultures of democracy – about the position of the individual in emergent mass democracies and cultures, about globalization and shifting patterns of rule – are inherently comparative subjects, I’d underscore the call on p. 4 to “consider both the exceptionalism and commonalities of modern Britain.”

Attention to Britain’s imperial history and to transnational exchange are key, but so, too, will be broad reading in the Americanist and Continental Europeanist secondary literatures, if not outright comparative research.

To what extent, for instance, does Ross McKibbin’s formulation about late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain (‘a high degree of social cohesion but not social integration’) still hold and if so, how does it distinguish Britain from the United States, France or Germany?

What about the ‘recurrence of conservative pluralism over three centuries’ that David Feldman has identified as a British strategy for managing ethnic and religious minorities and immigrants?

Comparison is no panacea, but it is an efficient way of locating starting-points and sharpening one’s interpretative frameworks as the work proceeds.  Some of the analytical spade-work of ‘cultures of democracy’, I imagine, will be figuring out the British manifestations of phenomena that made roughly contemporaneous appearances across the industrialized world.

2. Generalizing from the individual

Working Paper No. 1 poses a stimulating set of questions about the ways that the private realms of personhood translated (or didn’t) into the public worlds of politics and social interaction.

This focus has the potential to upend (among other things) how we explain the relationship between policy-making and the private realms of individuals and families, indicating that our answers thus far have sometimes reflected what is readily visible – and thus easier to study – rather than cause-and-effect.

Still, figuring out the cumulative consequences of actions that appear, at least at first, stubbornly individual is a difficult task.  The standard of proof is elusive.  How many individual accounts do we need in order to discern ‘how everyday actions…create new subjectivities as well as new forms of social action’?

Do histories that start with the individual and move to the social necessarily require more inference than the other way around?  Charting the often quiet revolutions in attitudes and expectations that happen on democracy’s ground floor is going to be a big undertaking, but one well worth pursuing.  I look forward to working with the Modern British Studies group as the project moves forward.



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