Class and Gender in Post-war Social Science

Speakers: Helen McCarthy, Lise Butler, Jon Lawrence

Chair: Deborah Cohen

An increasing number of historians have turned their attention to the role that the social sciences played in shaping social identities in post-war Britain. They have explored the ways in which the expanding social-democratic state made use of professional ‘expertise’ to govern in an age of complexity, and how social-scientific knowledge helped British people to make sense of their changing relationships with family, community and the state, as well as their personal and social identities. Exemplifying this new direction in the historiography of the postwar, these three papers explore different kinds of social-science ‘encounter’ and raise important interpretive and methodological questions: Jon Lawrence asks how historians can repurpose the rich social research of the period to shed new light on the ‘structures of feeling’ which governed the politics of everyday life. Helen McCarthy poses similar questions to feminist historians, revisiting through the lens of social science the ideologically fraught issue of how to access women’s ‘authentic’ desires. Finally Lise Butler offers a fresh and arresting perspective on the intellectual history of the left by demonstrating the centrality, and ideological effects, of particular social-scientific formations of gender, family and community. These three papers will take new perspectives to post-war social science, asking how it shaped the culture and politics of post-war Britain, and how the historian can mediate social scientific accounts to access, examine and interpret experience.

Paper 1 Abstract: Jon Lawrence (Cambridge)

Reconstructing the politics of everyday life, 1945-1985

This paper asks whether we can hope to reconstruct vernacular ‘structures of feeling’ from interrogating the surviving field-notes of post-war social-science surveys. It compares the research methods of ten post-war community studies, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of different field-work practices for generating rich examples of vernacular speech. What can we learn about vernacular understandings of the social from the way in which people spoke about family, neighbours, community and nation?  Do ethnographic methods necessarily elicit richer, apparently more spontaneous responses than questionnaires or formal, semi-structured interviews? Can these sources be used to give an historical voice to people who would otherwise only be the objects of historical change, and if so how should we view the status of that voice?  Social-science encounters are inevitably artificial phenomena, and they usually represent culturally loaded cross-class exchanges.  In the circumstances, can one really hope to study anything more than how people inter-acted with the social science professional (and can one draw significant conclusions about social identity from the way in which people identify with different types of researcher: young/old; male/female; senior/junior etc.)? In short, can one get beyond these questions of method to say something substantive about people’s everyday lives, and, crucially, what those lives meant to them.  I argue that we can, and I will use the bulk of the paper to identify some of the main conclusions that I would draw about popular ‘structures of feeling’ from my current project restudying the original field-notes and interview transcripts from social science projects spanning the period from the late 1930s to the mid-2000s.  In this paper I will focus specifically on the period 1945-1985, and on the changng balance between individualistic and communitarian impulses in popular culture.

Paper 2 Abstract: Helen McCarthy (QMUL)

Women’s work, social science and the politics of feminist history

From its origins in the 1960s, the feminist historical project was committed to giving women in the past a ‘voice’ – allowing them to speak for themselves and to cut through the ideological undergrowth of what other, more powerful, historical actors have said through the ages about women’s thoughts, feelings or ‘true’ desires. But in methodological terms, this has not been easy. The most articulate testimonies preserved in the archives frequently illuminate the lives of only the privileged or elite, prompting many feminist historians to look to oral history as a means of reconstructing women’s ‘authentic’ experiences. Others, under the influence of the ‘cultural turn’ questioned the intellectual viability of this aspiration, focusing instead on representations, discourses and ‘performances’ of gender. Permeating the debate over women’s/gender history remains a basic ideological tension: what if the ‘structures of feeling’ uncovered by feminist historians in the past seem to point away from a viable feminist politics in the present? How do we explain an apparent accommodation to patriarchal structures and conservative gender ideologies in women’s testimonies? What do we do when women don’t say what we want or expect them to say?

This paper revisits the politics of doing women’s/gender history by considering the place of post-war social science in elucidating women’s needs, preferences and desires regarding paid work. A period traditionally characterised for its conservative gender politics, the 1950s and 60s witnessed a dramatic growth in married women’s employment outside the home and generated a wealth of sociological studies focused on the emerging phenomenon of the ‘dual role’. The question of why married women did or did not work was central to this literature, but how useful is it for historians as evidence of women’s ‘authentic’ desires? Developing Jon Lawrence’s discussion of the power relations of the social-science encounter, the paper will argue that at work in these texts was a dynamic and mutually-constitutive process whereby women’s self-narrations and the interpretive devices of the social scientist together helped to shape women’s orientations to paid work in the post-war period.

Paper 3 Abstract: Lise Butler (Oxford)

Family, gender and left-wing social science

In recent years historians have taken a more critical eye to the social research and social science of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The methods of social scientists and social researchers professed to offer an objective, universal and comprehensive portrait of the social, but the ostensibly neutral approaches of the social sciences also promoted specific cultural and political values, and can be read as sites of rich intellectual, ideological and political debate.

Jon Lawrence and Helen McCarthy’s papers address how the ideas and methods of social researchers structured the ways in which individuals understood their identities and their social and professional possibilities. Drawing on my recently completed doctoral research, which examines the impact of social psychology, sociology, and anthropology on post-war left-wing political thought through a study of the ideas and networks of the policy-maker and sociologist Michael Young, this paper will assess the impact of family-centric social science in a variety of institutional contexts in post-war Britain, including the Institute of Community Studies, the London School of Economics Department of Social Policy, and the Consumers’ Association. It will show how the work of post-war social researchers was rooted in pre-war and wartime social policy debates about the economic dependence of women, anthropological notions of female centric-community, and an idealized conception of women as non-workers.

This paper calls for a contextualization of the history of social science within a broader intellectual history. It highlights the significance of organicist, family-centric and communitarian values to the intellectual foundations of post-war social research. And it gestures at the centrality of gendered norms to left-leaning conceptions of community and class at a moment of increasing affluence, modernization and social and economic transformation.


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