Precarity, communality and #mbsreads


Simon Briercliffe

Simon Briercliffe is a Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Birmingham. He blogs at and can be followed on Twitter @sbriercliffe.

One of the things that makes MBS so unusual and productive is the central role that the PGR and ECR community play in the direction and tone of the biennial conference.

That was absolutely true in 2015: anyone who was at the opening workshop in 2015 will probably remember it as a slightly cathartic howl – from students uncertain about their prospects, from newly-minted PhDs hoping to grab a year’s contract wherever they can, from more established academics struggling against an intransigent system. Structurally speaking, little has changed, and the appearance of 10-month contracts and TEF certainly haven’t improved matters.

But at this year’s MBS conference, the tone was slightly different. The workshop, organised by a number of Birmingham PGRs including Ruth Lindley and Shahmima Akhtar, set out to turn that emotion into something constructive. If you weren’t there, Ben Mechen’s short paper that was published yesterday sums this up really well: how do we make our conditions – of precarity and uncertainty – generative? What do we do next?

Introducing #mbsreads

There are of course a million and one answers to this, none of them easy. In the spirit of at least having a go at something, though, the PGR community here at Birmingham thought it would be worth following up on one of the concrete ideas that came out of this year’s workshop: an online reading group, in which the intellectual and political challenges of the conference can be pushed forward together.

There were several important considerations in how we put this together. What books to choose? What format? What time? How to make MBS a wider conversation without appearing to try and limit or dominate the field?

Our key motivation was to represent the diversity, accessibility and flattening of hierarchies that MBS seeks to achieve. With that in mind, we’ve had to recognise that no way of running this will be perfect; but we can at least make an effort in the right direction.

I’m therefore pleased to announce that our first #mbsreads group will take place on Friday 22nd September 2017 at 1pm; our subject will be Catherine Hall’s Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867; and that the conversation will take place using the hashtag #mbsreads on Twitter, and for those not on Twitter, in the MBS blog comments.

This is very much an experiment, particularly the format, and we’re extremely keen to hear feedback on making this project even better: particularly suggestions for reading (as with the conference keynotes and plenaries, we want to use our position to particularly highlight authors who are neither white nor male); for timing (this is academic work, so we’ve set it in the work day; but there are plenty of us including yours truly who work part-time and we plan to vary the time); and for format (which was the most difficult decision we had to make – I’m still curious/nervous as to how the conversations will go. This is very much open for discussion).

We have in mind here a very open project: we as PGR students at Birmingham have kicked it off, but it’s in no way intended as a PGR reading group – we want historians of all grade and none to join in on equal terms.

Civilising Subjects

Catherine Hall’s work will be a familiar touchstone to many, and I’ve no doubt there will be a huge range of historical and historiographical conversations that we can have. The ideas of identity construction proposed here are an essential part of the historian’s toolkit: that empire, just like any set of social relations, is a power relationship defined by what is outside as well as what is inside.

I particularly like her use of John Barrell’s idea of “this/that/the Other” – that identities are constructed against other identities, but that those are constantly shifting, evolving and affecting one another. I’m also looking forward to discussing the importance of transnational history to “British Studies.” This was a major theme of MBS2017, and something that Hall outlines very effectively:

“I was a historian of Britain who assumed that Britain could be understood in itself, without reference to other histories: a legacy of the assumption that Britain provided the model for the modern world, the touchstone whereby all other national histories could be judged… I have become a historian of Britain who is convinced that, in order to understand the specificity of national formation, we have to look outside it. A focus on national histories as constructed, rather than given, on the imagined community of the nation as created, rather than simply there, on national identities as brought into being through particular discursive work, requires transnational thinking.” (p.9)


While historical discussion will form part of #mbsreads I’m sure, it’s Hall’s ‘personal is political’ thinking that is perhaps most striking here. The book’s introduction is an example of what I’ve recently heard described as “ontography”: how the author has grown and how their ideas have been formed by their own experiences.

Other examples (perhaps for future discussion) are Stuart Hall’s Familiar Stranger and Geoff Eley’s A Crooked Line. In particular, Hall’s experiences of being “inside” and being “outside” are central. The inside-ness of Baptist religiosity in Kettering was challenged by the outside-ness of a narrow-minded Baptist culture in Leeds. The inside-ness of Englishness and whiteness which, as Hall notes, “seemed irrelevant to my political project” was challenged by the outside-ness of visiting Jamaica with a Jamaican husband himself grappling with the idea of “home” (pp.4-5).

With that in mind I want to suggest that #mbsreads considers that personal/political side of historical practice as well: to think about our own inside-ness and outside-ness, and where it places us, how it directs our work. I’m particularly thoughtful about this after Ben’s post yesterday.

Some reading this will be in secure positions; some will not. Some of us are “inside” an institution, a discipline, an academic world; some of us are not. We who are living precarious lives are perhaps both inside and outside some of these things. So, in Ben’s terms, how can this be generative? What can we take from historical experiences, and how can we apply them to our own work and our own selves?

Be there or be square

To recap then, we’re launching the #mbsreads conversation at 1pm on Friday 22d September. It’s not intended as an MBS Birmingham© Production but as a way of exploring those conversations which began at MBS2017.

We’ll be reading Catherine Hall’s Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867, both on Twitter (using the hashtag #mbsreads and trying, where possible, to keep on top of all the threads) and on the MBS blog. We would love you to join us.

One thought on “Precarity, communality and #mbsreads

  1. An experiment in online bookgrouping here: as well as at #mbsreads on Twitter, some discussion might happen here too. I loved Hall’s book, in particular the intro, and my thoughts follow on from what I’ve discussed here. CH’s themes of feeling inside and outside her various different social experiences is highly relatable for precarious early career academics – but as per Ben’s post, what can that achieve?

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