Call for Papers: Modern British Studies Beyond Boundaries, 3-5 July 2019

Boundaries and borders are vexed subjects. As we write this, we don’t even know what, precisely, the geo-political borders of the United Kingdom will be by July 2019. There could be, then, no more timely moment for questioning the boundaries that have shaped the field of Modern British Studies, and to embark on a project of imagining a scholarly practice that might remake or even transcend them.

The Modern British Studies Centre at the University of Birmingham invites proposals for our conference, Modern British Studies Beyond Boundaries. This conference is the third in a series of bi-annual gatherings assessing the state of our field and pushing forward conversations about the methodological stakes and the political engagement of our work.

Modern British Studies Beyond Boundaries seeks to showcase work and provoke dialogue about the boundaries – whether geographical, epistemological, pedagogical, or something else entirely – that have defined the project of British Studies. We want to ask: how can a critical British Studies question, reshape, or perhaps demolish those boundaries, and with what results? For example:

  • How should British Studies be taught in the present day? What does inclusive pedagogy consist of in our discipline? How might we challenge the boundaries between ‘learner’ and ‘teacher’ or between ‘expert’ and ‘subject’?
  • How are scholars now working beyond national boundaries, conceptualizing Britain as, for instance, an imperial state spread across the globe?
  • How can we put local or national studies of decolonization into the same frame as metropolitan-centric histories of the end of empire? Likewise, how can British Studies situate Britain effectively in comparative and European contexts?
  • What does British Studies look like from a regional or local perspective? What would it mean to take seriously not only Scotland but Scunthorpe as a unit of analysis? What happens when British Studies centres Dublin or Delhi instead of London?
  • In what ways does the category of ‘modernity’ create its own set of boundaries, and how are scholars of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries usefully working with or against this and other sorts of periodization?
  • How have social boundaries of race, class, gender, embodiment, and so on, been constituted within British Studies? How can methodologies that question these categories be applied? Could the insights of transgender history speak productively to the practices of transnational or transimperial history, for instance? Or how might disability studies inform British histories of embodiment?

We welcome proposals from everyone with a stake in Modern British Studies, particularly scholars working in other geographical areas or national traditions, as well as early career scholars, including postgraduates, and people working outside of the academy. Building on our conferences in 2015 and 2017, this conference provides a forum to showcase diverse work, explore new methodologies, and prompt engaged conversations among those working across disciplines on Britain since the eighteenth century.

Confirmed keynote speakers include: Caroline Bressey (University College London), Enda Delaney (University of Edinburgh), and Sharon Marcus (Columbia University). There will also be a plenary session focused on teaching.

We accept proposals for full panels or single papers, though with a preference for full panels where possible. Panel proposals should be for ninety-minute sessions. They may be in the format of the traditional three-paper panel with commenter, or may take a different format. All sessions should be formed with attention to diversity of perspectives in terms of geography, chronology, career stage, background, and discipline or method. The conference organisers will not accept proposals that do not meet these criteria in some way. To assist in forming sessions, we will host a page on our website for calls for fellow panellists, or use the hashtag #mbs2019 on Twitter. You may also submit a proposal for a single paper and, where possible, we will seek to create productive sessions using these submissions.

Session proposals should include:

  • Title of the session
  • Brief description of the session (c. 300 words)
  • Full contact details for all participants
  • Details of participant contributions (e.g., title and c. 300 word paper abstracts)

Paper proposals should include:

  • Title of the paper
  • Brief summary of the paper
  • Full contact details for the author

Email proposals by 28 February 2019 to modernbritishstudies at

Following the practice of the 2015 and 2017 conferences, we will open with a set of conversations relevant specifically to postgraduates and early-career researchers. The programme for this portion will be publicised through our blog and attendance at both is encouraged.

The registration fee covers a portion of the cost of running the conference and providing lunches, tea breaks, and receptions. We will continue to offer 100 free registrations for postgraduate students, early-career researchers on short-term contracts, and the unwaged.

Photograph from Margaret Stanton Collection, Modern Records Centre, Warwick.


Stories about Individual Lives – or Intimate Histories?


George Morris and David Cowan

George Morris is a first year PhD student at the University of Cambridge. His PhD looks at questions of intimacy, masculinity and sexuality in nineteenth-century Britain.

David Cowan is a second year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, researching the memory of the inter-war years in Britain between the 1940s and the 1980s.


At the recent ‘Ways of Knowing’ conference hosted by MBS, it was notable that many of the papers were concerned with the stories of individuals. This way of writing history can be used for different ends; the historian can use individuals as ciphers for broader changes, as windows onto the operation of culture and power ‘close-up’, as cases of historical agents who shaped the society around them, or simply as the opportunity to tell a good story.[1] It is a method that has yet to be fully taken advantage of by historians of modern Britain.

We propose calling these studies ‘intimate histories’, a term that, unlike ‘microhistory’, captures both the emotional investment entailed and the depth and attention to detail of these micro-level analyses. This term also hints at the political stakes involved in this work. There are a number of important studies of intimate relationships in modern Britain.[2] Here, following Rachel Moss, we are more interested in intimacy as a practice; in being ‘intimate with our subjects,’ the material conditions in which we write, and our ‘own pasts and presents’. In this way of writing about the past, history can become an intimate enterprise, and intimacy can be a useful approach to our work; it concerns both what we know, and how we know it.

Emotional attachments to subjects form often and easily in the production of histories of individual lives. This was perhaps made most clear at the conference in the discussion of the ‘Writing Lives’ project, where Jess Brandwood and Tracey Hughes expressed a feeling of real connection to the people whose stories they had studied, and a sense of recognition, similarity and sympathy.

These forms of attachment are much less likely (though never absent) in other forms of historical research. When we think in terms of broader historical processes, individual lives can all too often feature only as anecdote or example, without the depth found in histories that take the individual as their main focus. But the history of an individual life might be useful not just for what it tells us about the story of modern Britain, but also how it challenges it, disrupting our assumptions about processes of social change. And while it is reasonable to question how far histories of individual lives throw light on broader historical processes, it is also reasonable to criticise broader studies for often neglecting the apparently small details that our emotional attachments draw us towards.

Sometimes emotional attachments seem to offer the opportunity of a ‘way of knowing’. A detailed personal archive or an autobiography that appears to be particularly frank and open, a particular style of writing or facial expression in a photograph, all invite us to believe that we really know the person we’re discussing, in the way that we know our families or our friends. During the panel on ‘Learning in Britain’, Lewis Ryder mentioned that he felt he recognised the voice of John Hilditch even when he was writing under a pseudonym. It’s unclear what he can do with that feeling of recognition; after all, the apparatus of academic writing makes little room for this ‘way of knowing’.

Along with files of unused thoughts and sources, every historian carries round a mental catalogue of confident feelings without a source to draw upon directly – the archival gap you’re certain solves your problems, the way you’re certain the subject felt about something even though they never recorded it, the subtle tone you’re certain you can detect in a letter. We can feel as confident in these feelings as we are about our citable findings. Both, after all, come from a position of careful research. We can feel that we know not just what the subject did but what they would have done, how they would have responded, what they were probably doing in those periods where the sources run dry, how they would feel if they knew that we were spending so much time thinking about them. We should be reflective about judgements like these, and not dismiss them out-of-hand. Emotional attachments can, if considered carefully, become a useful tool.

There is, of course, a risk that our identification with the people whose pasts we study produces a distorted perspective; that our feelings of sympathy or similarity iron out differences, contexts and historical specificity. But we are used to being aware of our biases and subject positions, to being reflexive about them and to accepting them as a necessary part of the production of historical knowledge – the emotional attachment we bring to our work is another influence that should be understood and worked with, rather than seen as a problem to be ignored.

Our emotional lives and mental health also shape how we produce history, whether it be our feelings shaping how we work, research and write, or a mental illness that can bring it all to a halt. And as Laura Sefton argued in her paper and in a recent blog, there are material and structural factors at play. On the opening day of ‘Ways of Knowing’ Laura, Ben Mechen and Michael Lambert, offered important commentaries on the constraints that precarity and market logic impose on PGRs and ECRs. In light of their papers, a renewed interest in individual lives might be seen as a product of the material, as well as intellectual, conditions in which we write history.

Intimate histories seem to offer a way of narrowing our research: a rational response to dried-up funding pots, tightened deadlines and the pressures of the job market. Of course, in practice, approaching the history of modern Britain through individual lives isn’t the straightforward exercise it would appear. As Lewis pointed out, historians producing intimate histories more often face the frustration of leaving out rich material than finding enough for a thesis. And even the richest archives contain silences that can never be filled. Martha Robinson Rhodes shared her frustrations about what she could not know about an archived oral history project, particularly the paths of enquiry that were ignored by the original researchers. Important information about the identity of the researchers themselves was missing.

Faced with inevitable silences, and the desire to ‘know’ our subjects, projects dealing with individuals invariably expand their bounds, growing exponentially like a rhizome as trace references are followed up and anecdotes are corroborated or complicated. Sean Male’s paper was a case in point. Starting with a reference in a file at Kew, Sean’s research spiralled out through a web of references in newspapers, digitised books and additional archives. In this light, working on intimate histories helps subvert conditions of marketisation. Following these chains of references might be essential to make sense of an individual life, but indulging the pleasure of making new connections also challenges the logic that research needs to amount to ‘outputs’ with a quantifiable impact.

The internet offers another way of using individual lives to challenge the drive towards competition. In what amounts to an astonishing act of scholarly generosity, ‘Writing Lives’ makes available a vast corpus of information on working-class life writing, including transcripts of hard-to-access memoirs and associated details about their authors. PGRs and ECRs, faced with the pressure to compete in the solitary process of job applications, have a model of scholarly collaboration in ‘Writing Lives’. This act of democratisation, one suspects, is one which many of the authors of the autobiographies would have supported.

The methods employed by the ‘Writing Lives’ project, such as scouring census records, suggest another resonance with the resurgence of interest in individual lives: family history. Historians such as Carolyn Steedman, Frank Mort, and Graham Dawson have long used details from their own family as entry points into broader histories, placing their own subjectivity centre-stage.[3] It is only more recently that writers like Tanya Evans and Alison Light have started to employ the methods of family historians—aided, no doubt, by digitisation.[4] But as Sean pointed out, the rich insights gained from digitisation also pose ethical dilemmas for historians. Feats of historical reconstruction that would have been impossibly laborious a decade ago are now possible relatively quickly—but our subjects might never have anticipated, or welcomed, the possibility that future historians would be able to reassemble their lives in this way. Historians have never been better equipped to produce deep studies of the lives of individuals, but this makes it imperative to retain the reflexivity of earlier work.

We also need to be careful not to forget that precarity doesn’t just constrain historians working in universities. The costs of a subscription to online census records—not to mention countless trips to local archives, nationally and internationally—mount up for family historians, too. As the discussion of ‘publics’ and ‘public history’ highlighted, historians are fortunate that many local history archives continue to provide subsidised or free access to these services. At the same time, like all council services, local history archives are facing cutbacks. Many are employing shortened hours, reduced service and—in at least one case—proposing to charge researchers to access materials (a policy which, thanks to public pressure, was dropped). Historians must defend the services and institutions on which we rely from continued cuts. It is in this sense that intimate histories might count as ‘working with the trouble’. Without continued advocacy on behalf of embattled local services, we run the risk that the toolkits of family history—which have the potential to generate such thoughtful, reflective histories of individual lives—are parcelled off.

Both our emotional attachment to the individuals, and the material, precarious conditions in which we work shape intimate histories. Distinct from histories of social change or grand narratives, but also unlike traditionally conceived biography, this mode of thinking about and writing history has the potential to be particularly enlightening, as the ‘Ways of Knowing’ papers demonstrated. Further reflection on these themes could prove to be a productive way of thinking about modern British history, and we are grateful to MBS for giving us a space in which to begin these thoughts.


[1] Carolyn Steedman, An Everyday Life of the English Working Class: Work, Self and Sociability in the Early Nineteenth Century (2013); Seth Koven, The Match Girl and the Heiress (2014); Matt Houlbrook, Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (2016).

[2] Marcus Collins, Modern Love: An Intimate History of Men and Women in Twentieth-Century Britain (2003); Claire Langhamer, The English in love: the intimate story of an emotional revolution (2013).

[3] Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman (1986); Frank Mort, ‘Social and Symbolic Fathers and Sons in Postwar Britain’, Journal of British Studies, 38:3 (1999); Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (1994).

[4] Tanya Evans, ‘Secrets and Lies: the Radical Potential of Family History’, History Workshop Journal, 71 (2011); Alison Light, Common People: The History of an English Family (2014).

Call for Participants: Multiple-gender-attraction and bisexuality in 1970s and 1980s Britain: an oral history project


Martha Robinson Rhodes

I am conducting oral history research for a PhD at the University of Birmingham, analysing multiple-gender-attraction and bisexuality in 1970s and 1980s Britain. I would like to conduct face-to-face interviews with you if you have memories of this time, and you fulfil one or more of the following criteria:

  • Identify as bisexual or pansexual
  • Identified as bisexual or pansexual in the past
  • Have had relationships with people of multiple genders
  • Have been attracted to people of multiple genders

In collecting oral testimonies, I want to understand your feelings about what it meant to be attracted to more than one gender. I am also interested in finding out more about the following topics:

  • How did people identify in ways beyond ‘gay’ and ‘straight’?
  • How was bisexuality or attraction to more than one gender part of (or excluded from) the gay liberation movement at this time?
  • How do people reflect back on their past identities and experiences?

By taking part in this project, you will allow for individual perspectives on these subjects to be recognised and made visible in the historical record. Complete confidentiality is guaranteed for all participants, if desired.

For more information and if you are interested in taking part in this project, please email Martha Robinson Rhodes on to arrange an informal conversation prior to interview. Download the call for participants here.

Call for Papers: Ways of Knowing in (and about) Modern Britain

Westmere House, University of Birmingham

5th-6th July, 2018

 We invite postgraduates and early career researchers (within 5 years of completion) to Birmingham for a two-day conference exploring ways of knowing in and about modern Britain.

Following on from our PGR/ECR workshop, ‘Seeking Legitimacy’, in 2016, we want to continue thinking about the interplay between value and authority in Modern Britain. While Seeking Legitimacy used expertise to critique exclusionary narratives of modern Britain, Ways of Knowing will disentangle knowledge from expertise. In so doing, we aim to broaden our historical narratives, bring sub-disciplines into conversation with one another,  and ask questions about the ontological limits of our discipline. How can, for example, a discipline built on the importance of factual information, on rational lines of reasoning, and on a masculine-secular model, capture ways of knowing that have no archival grounding, or that may be personal, from memory, or superstitious? While we question the limits of our discipline, we are also interested in pushing at its boundaries by exploring the political relationship between ourselves, our practice and our historical subjects.

Day 1: Telling Stories about Modern Britain

On the first day, delegates are invited to participate in conference-wide workshops, led by outside speakers, that seek to explore the ways we produce and share knowledge about the past. Across three sessions, we will ask who tells historical stories, who benefits from them, and who is missing, in order to think collectively about:

  • The ways funding and employment structures shape and constrain the stories we research, and our ability to share them
  • The limits of conventional historical narratives, the stories they allow us to tell, and those they don’t
  • The audiences we seek to engage, and those we might neglect


Day 2: Ways of Knowing in and about Modern Britain

On the second day, we invite ten-minute-long papers that reflect upon competing forms of knowing in delegates’ work and practice. What, where and when are the sites and spaces in modern Britain wherein different types of knowledge meet, and how do they interact? How are types of knowledge, and ways of knowing, in and about the past, claimed, constructed and contested by our historical subjects, and by us, as postgraduate and early career researchers? What value is ascribed to different types of knowledge, and how are some ways of knowing privileged over others?

We aim for a broad historical scope, and welcome papers from any period or discipline within modern British studies. Topics for consideration include, but are by no means limited to:

  • Sites and spaces of knowing
  • Expertise
  • Identity and embodiment
  • Knowledge acquisition
  • Secrets, rumours and myth
  • Belief
  • The archival record
  • Memory
  • Ignorance, prejudice and misinformation


Please submit an abstract of 250 words, along with a short biography, to by 20th April, 2018. There are no registration fees for this event, and some travel bursaries will be available.



Details can be found:

One-day workshop, Friday 1 June 2018
University of Birmingham

This workshop aims to provide a forum for the first systematic reflection on histories of masculinity in modern Britain since the publication, nearly thirty years ago, of Michael Roper and John Tosh’s landmark collection, Manful Assertions (Routledge, 1991). We invite expressions of interest from scholars working on questions of masculinity in any field and any discipline. Our aim is to use this workshop as a starting point for a new collection of essays to be published by Manchester University Press (subject to review).

Image result for manful assertions

In the period since Manful Assertions was published the history of masculinity has continued to grow as a field. Scholars working in this area have made significant contributions to our appreciation of gender as a necessary and productive category of analysis in the study of the British past. In so doing, they have broken new ground in both isolating the time-and place-specific nature of ideas and experiences of masculinity, and demonstrating how interrogating the dynamics of gender and power can transform our understanding of state and society, politics and culture, economy and environment in modern Britain.[i]

Yet there has been little attempt to take stock and consider the implications of both changing forms of historical knowledge and our present social and political conjuncture for key categories, chronologies, and debates in the history of masculinity.

Despite the development of new areas of inquiry and methodologies in the study of the historical formation of masculinities (often associated with histories of the emotions and/or sexualities, and the new cultural history), established frameworks remain intact. These include, most notably, ideas around “domestication” and the private sphere, a focus on the transformative flashpoints of war, and the tired, if culturally pervasive, trope of “masculinity in crisis”. A handful of edited collections have drawn together contributors to reflect on particular themes — notably around masculinity in relation to religion, empire, or war. As yet, however, there has been no explicit consideration of the practice, preoccupations, and politics of histories of masculinity in modern Britain in toto.

Three decades on from Manful Assertions, and with the guiding questions, theoretical foundations and archival resources of research in modern British history having undergone significant transformation, this is an important intellectual moment at which to consider the state of the field.[ii]

It is also an important political moment at which to think through the practice and politics of writing histories of masculinity. Initial work in this area built on the interventions of women’s history and gender history, as well as the political commitments of feminism and the pro-feminist men’s movement, and responded to the growing cultural purchase in the 1980s of the “new man” and associated models of behaviour and identity. It was an historical project that addressed itself directly to the circumstances, conditions and questions of its own conjuncture. But it was also one that implicitly, perhaps, organised itself around a linear or progressive narrative of change over time: the slow undoing of patriarchy and the fragmentation of a dominant code of masculinity. Our choice of the plural “masculinities” in the workshop’s title, to denote the existence of various codes and expressions of masculinity across time and place, reflects a key outcome of the first phase of research in the field.

But the Weinstein scandal and #MeToo campaign, the masculinist rhetoric and posturing of the Alt-Right and pro-Brexit movements, and the endurance of sexism within and beyond the university all indicate that white, hetero-patriarchy has in fact, over the last thirty years, become a more rather than less pervasive and insistent force in public life. This is evident in popular culture and old and new media, but also in patterns of violence in everyday behaviour and language. A history of masculinity written from the vantage point of the present must therefore take patriarchy’s renewal as both a challenge to the politics of its intervention and as the central problematic of its investigation. In doing so, it must also reassert the power of history, and especially women’s, feminist, queer and imperial history, to question and unsettle and denaturalize forms of hegemony and hierarchy in contemporary public life.

With these intellectual and political starting points in mind, we seek contributions that address specific problems, processes and episodes in the modern history of masculinity but at the same time think through the analytic categories and concepts around which our work is structured, and that establish conversations between different fields and approaches. In this context, two questions animate this project: how should we write histories of British masculinity, and why write these histories now?

Themes for consideration include, but are not limited to:

  • Scales and spaces around which ideas and experiences of masculinity take shape. These include, but are not limited to: local, regional, national, imperial and global; private and public; individuals, families, friendships, partnerships; age, generation, life-cycle; states, institutions, markets, communities, associations.
  • Identity and difference as categories to understand the historical formation of masculinities. Keywords might include intersectionality and relationality as historical problems and ethical imperatives; masculinity and vectors of gender, class, “race” and ethnicity, religion, sexuality, place, “ability”; masculinity and whiteness; histories of queer and/or trans men; masculinity in the age of non-binarism.
  • Frameworks and narratives, old and new, for understanding shifting patterns of masculinity in relation to the wider formation of British modernities and historiographical knowledge. What do we do with analytic categories like patriarchy and power; “the domestication of the male” and “the flight from commitment”; “Oxbridge men” and “temperate heroes”; the “crises” of masculinity, the “New Man”, “fragile” and “toxic” masculinities; long and short twentieth centuries; war, interwar, postwar; masculinities and emergent narratives of decolonization, decline/declinism, neoliberalization, secularization, “revolt on the right”, emotional revolution, Anthropocene?
  • Masculinity in politics and the politics of masculinity: language and rhetoric; political and economic power; masculinity after feminism; radicalisms of left and right; masculinity as crisis.
  • Sources of the self and the ways in which masculinity is lived and felt. Key motifs might include the tension between cultural norms and individual subjectivities, representation and experience; constituting masculinity through or against work, leisure, markets, media, the state, private life, bodies; hegemonic assertions and points of refusal; style and performance; unity and fragmentation; emotional economies; self and other.
  • The history of masculinity as a project that has ethical and political stakes; commitments and energies; unsettling versus reifying; necessity versus distraction; masculinities at work and in the discipline; researching and teaching; public engagement; masculinity and academic capital: experiences of benefit and harm, strategies of resistance and devaluation.

Our aim is to use this call for papers as a prompt — a starting point for an edited collection based on real collaboration and discussion that, we believe, can best meet the complexity and urgency of these questions and issues. We would therefore like potential contributors to present their ideas for draft chapters at a one-day workshop at the University of Birmingham on 1st June 2018. If this something you’d like to be involved in, please send a paper proposal (c.300 words) along with a short biography to us on the email addresses below by 4th February 2018.

We especially urge contributions from those working on intersections of masculinity and “race” or ethnicity, regional and non-metropolitan masculinities, and transmasculinities. We also warmly encourage submissions from postgraduate and early-career researchers and are seeking funding that will allow us to reimburse PGR/ECR travel to/from the event.



Katie Jones is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Katie’s research focuses on gender, sexualities, emotion and public health in twentieth century Britain and her thesis is provisionally entitled “Masculinities, Contraception and Sexual Health in Late Twentieth Century Britain, 1967-1997.”

Matt Houlbrook is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Birmingham. Matt’s research focuses on the cultural history of modern Britain, with particular interests in histories of gender, sexuality, and selfhood. He is the author of Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-57 (University of Chicago Press, 2005) and Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Ben Mechen is Teaching Fellow in Modern British and European History at University College, London. Ben’s research examines sexual liberalism and new models of the sexual self in late-twentieth century Britain. He is currently working on his first book, Responsible Pleasures: Sex after the Sexual Revolution.


[i] Recent interventions include Roper, Michael, ‘Between Manliness and Masculinity: The “War Generation” and the Psychology of Fear in Britain, 1914–1950’, Journal of British Studies, 44:2, 2005, 343-362; Smith, Helen, Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957, (London: Palgrave, 2015); Delap, Lucy and Sue Morgan (eds) Men, Masculinities and Religious Change in Twentieth Century Britain, (Palgrave, 2013); Griffin, Ben, The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain: Masculinity, Political Culture and the Struggle for Women’s Rights, (Cambridge University Press, 2012); Fletcher, Christopher, Sean Brady, Rachel Moss and Lucy Riall (eds), The Palgrave Handbook ofMasculinity and Political Culture in Europe, (Palgrave, 2017).
[ii] For a recent reflection on the state of the field see Tosh, John, ‘The History of Masculinity: An Outdated Concept?’, in Arnold, John H. and Sean Brady (eds), What is Masculinity? Historical Dynamics from Antiquity to the Contemporary World, (Palgrave, 2011). See also Harvey, Karen and Alex Shephard, ‘What Have Historians Done with Masculinity? Reflections on Five Centuries of British History, circa 1500-1950’, Journal of British Studies, 44:2, 2005, 274-280.