MBS 2017: Themes and Schemes

This blog explains some of the ideas set out within our British Studies in a Broken World call for papers. We want the MBS conference to provide a forum for sharing the diverse research taking place on Modern Britain in its widest context. As our previous conference – Rethinking Modern British Studies  – demonstrated the field is too interesting, plural and diverse to be reduced to tightly conceived thematic concerns. We are hopeful that our 2017 conference will once again demonstrate this to be the case. However, we have also proposed a few areas where we might come into conversation for plenary discussion sessions.


Before outlining these we want to reiterate our committment to supporting new research and new researchers. Following the precedent established in 2015, we will reserve 100 free places for PGR students, and ECRs on temporary or fractional contracts.

Last time round, the success of the conference depends on providing a forum that was collaborative and open to emerging scholars. We wish to recreate this once more. In keeping with such a plan, we encourage panels which represent colleagues from all career stages and hope that potential contributors will make use of our blog to find panels and panellists. As with 2015, the conference will be opened by a PGR session, building on the interests and ideas of our PGR community, details of which will follow over the next few weeks.

Framed around the critical reflection on modern British history published as a collaborative working paper on ‘Cultures of Democracy’ by members of the Centre for Modern British Studies, out previous event – MBS 2015 – drew together around three hundred historians from across the world to explore an apparent fragmentation of the discipline, the uneven relationship between historical sub-disciplines, and the ways in which scholars working on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries might be brought into conversation.

Some of the excitement about this event was captured on our blog but it also spilt into further events outside Birmingham and there was to those that notices, a cacophony of social media noise during that event itself.


We hope that the 2017 conference builds upon our previous conference in three ways.

First, there is an evident demand (expressed at the first conference and on subsequent reflections on social media) for a regular forum for intellectual exchange between scholars working on modern Britain from across fields and disciplines.

Second, we hope to broaden out the often challenging discussions that took place in 2015. Responding to ongoing conversations among scholars in the field.

Third, the intersecting crises prompted by the referendum on European Union membership have made the public status of the historian and the nature of British history more pressing issues than ever.

At the same time, we also insist on thinking critically about the wider implications of historically-minded work and the place of history and historians to intellectual and public life. We will address these concerns through three plenary sessions to stimulate further discussion.

  1. Fluid Presents, Turbulent Pasts: What does it mean to study the British past in a moment when Britain itself is in flux? The consequences of the European Union Referendum encourage us to think about where Britain is, where it was and what it has been. The results and the subsequent fall-out from the Referendum suggest the pressing need to pay even greater attention histories of inequality, power, regional difference, as well as the global economy, and encourage us to be precise about how such categories manifested in culture and society and the consequences. What implications do recent events have for historical categories and chronologies that have been taken for granted? 


    The marked disagreement between voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland and England and Wales suggests the potential for serious challenges to the status of the Union and the existence of the United Kingdom. In this sense, the conference will foreground what might be the growing significance of four-nations’ approaches to the modern history of Britain. While Britain’s historical relationship with Europe was debated in the run up to the Referendum, this was done in a crude manner, and remains an subject lightly explored in particular within the late twentieth century historiography of Britain. This is particularly marked when compared to the deluge of work framed around discussion of the Atlantic relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. Have historians working around the nation-state been complicit in isolating Britain from Europe?

    The ways in which debates around the EU referendum have been framed through an engagement with Britain’s imperial past mean that it is equally apparent that scholars must keep thinking about race, empire and decolonization as well as seeking to understand how the nation relates to the global and transnational. One plenary session will address the freighted question of what it means to do British studies at a moment when the idea of Britain itself is being called into question, and exploring what historical practices and modes of analysis — whether global, comparative, colonial, post-colonial, transnational, four-nations, local, or urban — we might usefully deploy to help contextualize the present. What kinds of histories should be stimulated from the conjuncture in which we work?

  2. Crossing Disciplines, Creating Studies: The conference also invites speakers to interrogate the notion of ‘studies’ within Modern British Studies and the relationship between history and other adjacent disciplines. How might we bring British history into closer conversation with related disciplines in the humanities and social sciences? As the work of many scholars

    Channelling our work into different historical silos carries intellectual and political costs. As satisfying as it is to celebrate the strengths of our particular field, in remaining within those confines we evade the challenges posed by engaging with scholars working in different ways on different topics. To facilitate this conversation, we have invited  scholars working outside of history departments on aspects of economics, culture, society, and politics in modern Britain.

  3. Public Histories, Engaged Historians: Building on these themes, the conference might provide a focus for ongoing yet increasingly important discussions on the value of historical research in the public sphere. David Armitage and Jo Guldi’s recent The History Manifesto may have been divisive in approach and uneven in argumentation and content, but it did increase the tempo of a debate about the authority of historians and historically-minded scholarship in public debate.


    In the context of the suspicion of ‘expertise’ in political and media discourse and the continued reforms directed towards the Higher Education sector, our interests as historians intersect with a more general interest in the roles of the University as civic institutions. A plenary session will bring together a variety of voices to reflect on historians’ relationship with the public.

    We suggest these areas as points where we might all come into conversation, but we do not suggest that they structure all submissions – how could they? We look forward to hosting you all this summer, please get in touch if you have any queries or comments

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