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"Telling the Subaltern to Speak: Mass Observation and the formation of social history in post-war Britain

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James Vernon

University of Manchester

"Telling the Subaltern to Speak: Social Investigation and Formation of Social History in Twentieth Century Britain."

In recent years we have heard a great deal of the present discontents and agonised futures of social history at the hands of various linguistic, cultural and postmodern turns. We have heard much less about the formation of the social historical project in Britain. While recognising that there are other histories to be told about different traditions with different problematics, this paper will consider one strand of British social historys past, namely the attempt to reclaim the experiences of those subjects long since hidden from history so that they may be allowed to speak for themselves. Overwhelmingly, in their focus on its Thompsonian and anglo-marxist genealogies, it has been this strand of social history that has been at the centre of recent debates. Yet, rather than rehearsing the now familiar arguments about the epistemological inadequacies of this tradition of British social history, this paper will explore the historical processes by which it acquired its particular epistemological sedimentation. In particular, it will address the way in which the quest to recover the experience of subaltern groups so that they may speak for themselves became coupled with, and ultimately subordinated to, narratives of class.

To do so I shall begin by exploring the creation of a new breed of professional social investigators in the first half of the twentieth century. Their attempts to render the social domain knowable so that it could become the object of government, I shall suggest, was caught between two highly gendered discursive systems: the one endeavouring to open the working classes to view as objects of a scientific gaze, the other addressing them as subjects so that they may render themselves transparent to the expert. However, it was the similarities between these different ways of formulating the science of social investigation that was most striking. Ultimately, both viewed the working class as an alien object to be rendered governable, and, in doing so, demonstrated the untranslatability of narratives of class.

While there continued to be marked continuities in the discourse of the social sciences after the Second World War, not least in the elaboration of the new academic discipline of Sociology, the paper will highlight the way in which the post-war state sought to encourage the working classes to speak for themselves as the subjects of a new social democracy through a range of pedagogic practices and educational reforms. The attendant sense of class dislocation experienced both by those effectively educated out of the working class as well as those seeking to recapture the history of a traditional working class irrevocably altered by the social and cultural transformations of the 1950s and 1960s, provided fruitful ground for the social historical project elaborated by Thompsons The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Thompsons text became endowed with a foundational status precisely because it provided a (gendered) narrative of class around which both middle class historians and the new generation of state-sponsored working class historians could rally. Having assembled this narrative of class, British social history then naturalised and endowed it with explanatory weight so that the experience of those hidden from history could only be rendered meaningful through it. Despite having long identified itself as an oppositional voice, speaking to the nation from its margins, British social history can then be seen as in some senses a product of post-war social democracy.

The recognition of such a history provides one basis for understanding the current malaise of the social historical project in Britain and the possibilities for its future reconstruction.