In getting together to think about the themes that link our seemingly disparate research interests, we found ourselves returning to the conversations of Seeking Legitimacy, 2016.
Papers on the day were asked to historicise authority, and prompted stimulating discussions about what power in modern Britain looked like, and where it could be found.
Our doctoral projects are very much in their infancy but these ideas are proving an enduringly useful way to think through our work.
We each, in our own ways, conceptualise governance as extending beyond the formal arm of the state; we find power within informal networks, institutional practices, casual social processes and popular discourses, and explore its operation at the level of individual lives, and the lived experience of historical actors.
We would like to use this space firstly to introduce our projects, but also to place them in conversation with one another through starting to consider how they each imagine power in modern Britain.
Mind-map Mess: an insight into the inner workings of the PGR brain.
Emma Barrett, ‘The Workings of Power: A Network Analysis of Thatcher’s Financial Revolution’
Emma’s project examines what drove financial deregulation in the 1980s and, in so doing, provides new ways of thinking about the policies and practices of Thatcherism and the City of London.
She focuses on the role of networked individuals, who often operated across different sectors, to reveal how, and in what direction, power and influence was exercised in order to explain the rationale for reform.
Emma’s focus on networks privileges people and process, and offers new ways of understanding relationships between financial services, political parties, policy, democracy and the economy.
To date, Emma’s conceptualisation of ‘political bankers, financial politicians’ has been effective in showing connectivity between actors and sectors, and also in demonstrating how both hard and soft power was exercised, including how subtle systems of ‘informal oversight’ by governing structures were performed.
This approach should help avoid limited causal explanations, which simply privilege either structure or agency, or indeed ideology versus material interests, thus providing a thicker understanding of the financial revolution.
As the project develops, Emma hopes to expand her focus from elites to include ‘everyday’ actors and perspectives.
Thomas Allen – ‘Who’s Birmingham? The Fight for Control of an Image’
From the elite financial and political networks of 1980s London, we now move to 1880s Birmingham, wherein Tom considers the connected actors comprising a network he has identified as the city’s civic elite.
When Birmingham was granted city status in 1888, it honoured the occasion with the creation of a new city crest. The crest, used alongside other imagery, secured the authority of the men and women who commissioned it, creating a new civic elite under the auspices of Liberal progressivism.
This new civic elite promoted an image of an idyllic urban Birmingham, which they pervasively deployed through new mass media channels, namely the popular press. But their authority in moulding civic space, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, excluded sections of society, raising questions of belonging in the city.
A linguistic battle for spaces within Birmingham, and control over the production of its often distorted image was thus underway. Tom explores this discursive struggle in order to reveal the hidden networks of power involved in shaping Birmingham’s image.
Chelsea-Anne Saxby – ‘Sex and the Sitcom: Constructing Love, Sex and Marriage on British Television’
Just as Tom considers newspaper discourses as a site of struggle over the representation and meaning of Birmingham, Chelsea employs a similar framework to unpick television discourses forging ‘conventional’ social relations.
Chelsea’s project uses the Sitcom as lens through which to consider how this new mass communication medium dealt with ideas about love, sex and marriage across three decades.
Employing the framework of Stuart Hall, Chelsea considers a play of shifting forces in which a range of discourses, institutions, actors and social processes are revealed as having exercised power over how intimate lives could be represented, and spoken of in modern Britain.
Much like Emma’s focus on networks, Chelsea aims to explore exactly where power lay in delineating the boundaries for ‘appropriate’ television content, and hopes this will reveal the preoccupations and concerns of specific historical moments.
In the longer term, Chelsea will consider audience reception to the Sitcom to try and gain a better understanding of the actual activity of viewing, and how Britons were negotiating their relationship to modern society’s most popular, and potentially most powerful medium.
Katie Jones – ‘Masculinity, Contraception and the Politics of the Everyday in Britain, 1967-1997’
From popular representations of intimate life, Katie moves to research its lived experience at the individual level of real historical actors.
Her project seeks to examine contraceptive practices in contemporary Britain (1967-1997), with a specific focus on men and masculinities.
Katie’s methodology will centre around oral history and, through men’s testimonies, she will work towards elucidating historical subjectivities which can allow for both the ‘psychic’ and ‘social’ motivations behind decision-making to be analysed, and the relationship between the state and the subject to be unpicked.
Through this use of personal testimony, we might better understand how power was negotiated at the level of the everyday, in intimate, sexual relationships.
Ultimately, it is Katie’s feeling that oral testimony provides alternative ways of conceiving past experience, restoring value to personal narratives which have often been deemed ‘unreliable’ and have thus been silenced; this exclusion then actively reaffirming hierarchies of knowledge.
Sean Male – ‘Children’s Homes and Immigration in Post-War Britain’
Sean’s research, like Katie’s, will place individual negotiation of wider societal narratives and governing structures at its centre.
His project is focussed on how an increase in children from immigrant backgrounds entering the care system helped shape child welfare in the post-war Britain.
It is a history of how state and NGO actors were mobilised to address this increase, and how societal anxieties over illegitimacy, delinquency, poverty, and ‘miscegenation’ drove children with immigrant parents into care.
It is about how the children’s homes system adapted to these anxieties, while being shaped by the expertise brought to bear by the state and NGOs.
And most importantly, it’s about how the legacy of empire and decolonisation was integral in the creation of child welfare, and the wider welfare state in post-war Britain.
Sean’s research is, ultimately, about how children from immigrant backgrounds negotiated the power of expertise while in care. Doctors, matrons, family court judges, social workers, nutritionists, psychiatrists, and sociologists all brought their own expertise to bear in caring for the ‘looked after child’. These children were medicalised, racially categorised, and psychoanalysed by these professionals.
This will be a story of how they shaped the system set up to care for them; how they rebelled against it, and how they consented to it. It will place them as actors in a narrative which has traditionally portrayed them as victims without power.
Their story deserves to be heard, and they deserve an explanation of why they were seen as a ‘problem’.
Foucault’s critics worried that his finding power everywhere left little room for individuals to act independently of the structures that governed them and, indeed, we have also worried about the opportunity for agency within our own often quite capacious catalogues of domination. But if power is everywhere, might resistance be everywhere too?
We hope that our broader conceptualisations of power will open up new possibilities for agency and the assertion of the self. We aim to produce histories wherein real people, living under historically specific conditions, acted to either uphold and repeat, or resist and reshape, the constructions that both gave meaning to, and bound their lives.
The need to critique power seems more pressing than ever: might historicising the dominant institutions and ideas of Britain’s past present opportunities for resistance today?
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