Different Worlds of Experience: Doing History with Socially Excluded Groups

This roundtable brings together historians who have worked with communities and individuals who would not usually engage with the university, from migrant women and bhangra dancers to people who live in social housing, have learning difficulties or are affected by homelessness. This ‘co-production’ of historical research seeks not simply to engage with marginalised publics or to communicate research findings beyond our usual audiences. Rather it includes non-academics as active participants and partners in the research process. In doing so, it seeks to tap into non-academic forms of expertise, to develop new perspectives and approaches, and to produce an enriched and revitalised historical analysis.

Such collaborations are often challenging, practically, intellectually and sometimes emotionally. Our experiences raise a number of interesting questions:

  • How can historians find common ground with groups outside the university, particular those outside the white middle class? How can projects be designed that accommodate both community interests and academic agendas?
  • What kinds of ways of working, and other collaborators (artists, museums, charities, educational organisations) might help us create open and inclusive conversations with such audiences?
  • What can such projects teach us about ways of communicating our research findings? How might historical research be shared with publics with low levels of English and/or engagement with mainstream channels of public history?
  • What ethical questions do these projects raise? How can we ensure that their value is felt outside as well as inside the university?
  • What is the role of the individual historian/academic in a university system that excludes difference?

The conference CFP emphasis the value of ‘thinking historically’: this panel takes up that challenge and encourages us to consider historical perspectives from outside the academy as well. In the current political moment, we sorely need what E.P. Thompson called the ‘abrasion of different worlds of experience, in which ideas are brought to the test of life’.

Roundtable contributors:

Chair: Paul Ward (University of Huddersfield)

Shabina Aslam (University of Huddersfield), Jessica Hammett (University of Sussex), Karen Harvey (University of Birmingham), Laura King (University of Leeds), Josie McLellan (University of Bristol), Elizabeth Pente (University of Huddersfield)
Shabina Aslam is an experienced creative producer and theatre maker of community based projects having worked with a wide range of individuals and organisations. Shabina is currently a full-time research student of Bussing Out using oral histories to explore post-war migrant experiences on arrival to West Yorkshire. She also works freelance on Young at Arts based at Yorkshire Dance bringing a range of Arts’ to older adults around Leeds to reduce loneliness and isolation.

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Jessica Hammett recently completed her AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Sussex, entitled ‘Representations of Community in Second World War Civil Defence’. Her contribution to this roundtable will focus on a community history project on a large 1960s suburban social housing estate in Newport, South Wales (supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund). The population is over 90% White Welsh and the estate is amongst the 10% most deprived areas of Wales. The project focuses on the experience of moving to the estate when it was first built, and it gives residents the opportunity to tell their own stories and research the history of the area at local archives. Jessica is particularly interested in how social groups collaboratively produce narratives, and in order to examine this, those involved are conducting group interviews and reminiscence sessions.

Karen Harvey is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Birmingham. Her research expertise lies in the British long eighteenth century. She has undertaken several different types of public history project and in this roundtable will focus on her experiences of a participatory project with the residents and workers in a youth housing charity hostel in Sheffield which is housed in a row of late-Georgian terraces. The project raises questions about power, authority and the relevance of the past (perhaps particularly the more distant past) and of historians in contemporary ‘public history’ or ‘heritage’ projects.

Laura King is a University Academic Fellow in the History of Health, Family and the Everyday, at the University of Leeds. Her expertise is in the history of family life, gender, and the life course in twentieth-century Britain. She has been involved in a number of collaborative research and engagement projects, and will discuss in particular the ‘Thackray Birth Stories’ project as part of the roundtable. This project involved a collaboration with the Thackray Medical Museum and a local migrant women’s group, Bahar AFG, to tell diverse stories of childbirth, through digital means, for display in the museum and online.
Josie McLellan is Professor of History at the University of Bristol. She has led a number of projects involving historical co-production with marginalised groups. As part of the Know Your Bristol project, she co-researched and co-curated an exhibition with a group of women from the inner-city Single Parent Action Network. She led the Mapping LGBT+ Bristol project, a partnership with the community history group Outstories Bristol, which resulted in a digital map, app, and curriculum resources. She is currently working with Open Storytellers, a group of storytellers with learning disabilities, to research the life history of Fanny Fust, an 18th century Bristol heiress, and to create a performance based on her life.

Elizabeth Pente is a doctoral student at the University of Huddersfield.  Her research is concerned with public history and post-Second World War urban decline and regeneration in the United Kingdom, with a particular focus on the co-production of historical knowledge. She received a BSc in Archaeology and Geology from Dickinson College in 2007 and an MA in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2013. She is co-editor of Re-Imagining Contested Communities (2017), as part of the Imagine: Connecting Communities Through Research project funded by the ESRC.

Paul Ward is Professor of Modern British History at the University of Huddersfield and his research is concerned with national identities in the United Kingdom in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Recently he has been considering the co-production of historical knowledge and how communities think about their histories. He is author of four books including Britishness since 1870 (2004) and Huw T. Edwards: British Labour and Welsh Socialism (2011). He is currently co-writing and co-editing a book called Co-Producing Research: A Community Development Approach, as part of the Imagine: Connecting Communities Through Research project funded by the ESRC.