Why do we need to rethink modern British studies?

Matt Houlbrook

Matt Houlbrook

We came together as the new research centre Modern British Studies at Birmingham in February 2014. Our aim was to create an environment in which we could talk to, and learn from, each other – to begin a conversation about the ways in which we might think about 19th and 20th century Britain. Then, as now, it felt like we had a critical mass of MA students, postgraduate and early career researchers, and more established scholars, that created exciting opportunities to work together. Rather than simply pursue our own research interests and careers, we wanted to follow the example set by Birmingham’s important Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and think about how we might also work collaboratively and in public. Thinking and working together makes us more than the sum of our parts.

We have thought and worked together for the past nine months. The protracted and often difficult discussions around our first working paper, written and published collaboratively in February, have forced each of us to think carefully about the categories and chronologies within which histories of modern Britain have been framed. Those discussions have also prompted many of us to question assumptions we had previously taken for granted. Our regular reading group, experience of teaching the new MA in Modern British Studies, and our involvement in the diverse forms of history-making taking place in the city we work in and from have given our work focus and energy.

Exploring new ways of thinking about modern British society, culture, politics, and the economy, and new kinds of historical practices, has increasingly brought us into conversation with scholars beyond Birmingham. We have been stimulated by the ways in which historians have engaged with our ideas online, at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and at the North American Conference on British Studies in Minneapolis. While Modern British Studies at Birmingham set out our intellectual agenda in a collaborative working paper, the interpretive frameworks set out here are not meant to be prescriptive or programmatic. How could they be, when we have argued about them so fiercely among ourselves? The working paper has given us a focus for our conversations about what modern British studies is, and should be, at the start of the 21st century. We hope that it might also start a more wide-ranging conversation among those working on the histories of modern Britain.

This is why we have just announced the call for papers for our first conference, Rethinking Modern British Studies, to be held at the University of Birmingham on 2-3 July 2015. Modern British Studies at Birmingham grew out of the community of scholars taking shape here. It also reflected our growing sense of the problems caused by the disciplinary, analytic, and theoretical fragmentation of the field, and the freighted politics of writing history in the contemporary world we inhabit. In different ways, these issues frame Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s strident polemic The History Manifesto and James Vernon’s ambitious exploration of the ‘condition of modernity’ in his recent Distant Strangers. Intellectually and politically, it seems that the time is right to rethink modern British studies.

We hope that the Rethinking Modern British Studies conference will provide a focus for historians within and without the academy, and who work across diverse disciplines and fields, to come together and explore what it means to do British studies today. It represents an opportunity for us to expand the exchanges that have enriched our working lives over the past few months, and to learn from others working in the field – to share ideas, to explore problems and ways forward, and, as Antoinette Burton reminds us, to argue productively about the ‘objects and methods of history, and the kinds of historical narratives we need to make sense of the modern British past.’ We welcome panel proposals from scholars across disciplines and career stages, and look forward to continuing our conversations about modern Britain.


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