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The Australian National University

Reconstructing the Politics of Everyday Life, 1945–1990

Date and time

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 - 16:15 - 17:30


McDonald Room, Menzies Library

Reconstructing the Politics of Everyday Life, 1945–1990

This paper turns to the surviving field-notes of English community studies from the mid-1940s to the late 1980s to ask how people understood the social and cultural changes of the post-war era as they were happening. It explores the methodological issues involved in returning to such material, including ethical issues as well as questions about selective survival, missing context, inter-subjectivity, subaltern voices etc. It argues that the recent interest in these materials by historians and social scientists is well-justified. Social-science field-notes can give us unparalleled access to the world-views of men and women who would otherwise have left little or no written record. They offer insights into the underlying attitudes and values of ordinary people and how these have changed. Crucially, it becomes possible to write a new type of social history: one in which ordinary people’s thoughts and feelings at the time take centre-stage – where they become the experts on their own lives. Almost every social history of modern Britain relies either on the views of outside experts from the time, or on retrospective accounts based on people’s memories. There is nothing wrong with either approach, but they cannot take us into the contemporary thought-world of ordinary people. This paper will focus on perhaps the most striking feature of that thought-world: the extent to which ordinary people acted as the historians and social scientists of their own lives. We are all programmed to impose meaning upon chaos. Yes, we are also creatures of custom and habit, but it is vernacular attempts to impose meaning on life that take us to the heart of the politics of the everyday.

Jon Lawrence is Reader in Modern British History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Emmanuel College. He is writing a history of everyday life in post-war Britain using the surviving field-notes of major social science surveys. His past publications include Speaking for the People (1998) and Electing our Masters (2009), and a wide range of essays, including articles in English Historical Review, Journal of Modern History, Past & Present and History Workshop Journal.

Image: Wallsend street scene, 1975. Photograph by Peter Loud

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