The Challenges of Writing ‘Vernacular’ Histories

By Rebecca Goldsmith (@rebeccagold123)

The desire to recover ‘lost voices’ in the archives is by no means a new impulse. It has underpinned entire fields and ‘turns’ in the historical discipline. Nevertheless, there is something new in the recent attempts made by scholars in modern British history to recover the ‘vernacular’. Historians spanning Jon Lawrence, Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and David Cowan have turned to the unpublished field notes of twentieth-century social-science, attempting to ‘re-use’ the archived testimony of individuals interviewed within past research encounters to answer new questions.[1] These field notes offer a unique means of accessing the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people in the past. My own research into the popular political culture surrounding the 1945 general election uses this material to present a vernacular, grassroots account of Britain’s social democracy.

The appeal of this approach is borne out in the articulate nature of the testimony contained in archived sociological material. Compared to the opinion polls and surveys otherwise used to access popular opinions in the past, these notes offer insight into the reflexive capacity of ordinary people to construct meaning out of their own lives.[2] However, analysing social-science field notes in practice raises significant problems. The scope for ‘re-using’ this material hangs on our ability to move beyond the original agenda of the researchers themselves. Yet even the vernacular ‘speech’ we access in the archive, at best, consists of the summarised, selective transcriptions made by researchers.[3] While advocates of this re-use have been alive to this issue, problematising the search for any ‘pure vernacular voice’ and seeking to ‘read against the grain’, their use of this material has depended on a shared set of concerns with the social scientists.[4] This is captured in Lawrence’s work, as his use of post-war social surveys to rethink working-class identities relies on the fact his interest in class was shared by the sociologists and subsequently framed the interview dialogue.[5]

Where, then, does this leave the researcher? How much scope do these field notes really afford for ‘re-use’?

Despite these challenges, there are further strategies available for drawing (admittedly speculative) insights from these field notes. Firstly, historians analysing this mediated vernacular testimony must recognise their positionality to the material at hand: why have we selected this source base? How do our research interests align with the original researchers, and how far are we reproducing their framing of popular testimony within pre-established academic concerns? It is consequently important to listen, as Will Pooley has suggested, to the ‘silences’ in these archived field notes:[6] what questions aren’t being asked? What topics of discussion are rejected or met with ‘silence’ by those on the other side of the research encounter? These questions encourage a more ‘expansive sense of popular agency’ and afford a re-interpretation of testimony characterised by apparent disinterest or ignorance.[7] In my own research into 1945, the refusal of answers and restricted, repeated responses of ‘don’t know’ in Mass-Observation political questionnaires have previously been interpreted as signals of popular ‘apathy’.[8] However, it is possible to reinterpret these as deliberate interventions in, and conscious rejections of, the framing of the interview encounter, whether signalling a belief in the inappropriate timing of the election or speaking to the perceived inaccessibility of contemporary political culture.

While these field notes cannot be regarded as containing ‘lost voices’, and the insights drawn from them can only ever be speculative, by thinking critically about our relationship to the material and expanding our scope to include ‘silences’, archived sociological material can continue to help tell new stories about the past.


[1] J Lawrence, Me, Me, Me? The Search for Community in Post-war England Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); F Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Class, Politics and the Decline of Deference in England 1968-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018); D Cowan, ‘The ‘Progress of a Slogan’: Youth, Culture and the Shaping of Everyday Political Languages in Late 1940s Britain’, Twentieth Century British History 29:3 (2018), pp.435-458.

[2] See J Hinton, ‘Self Reflections in the Mass’, History Workshop Journal 75:1 (2013), p.253; J Lawrence, ‘The Voice of the People? Re-reading the Field-notes of Classic Post-war Social Science Studies’, in M Hailwood et al (eds.), The Voice of the People: An Online Symposium (2015: https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/voices-of-the-people/ – accessed 6 February 2021).

[3] Lawrence, ‘The Voice of the People’.

[4] Lawrence, Me, Me, Me? p.6; M Savage, ‘Revisiting Classic Qualitative Studies’, Forum Qualitative Social Research 6:1 (2005); J Lawrence, ‘Social-Science Encounters and the Negotiation of Difference in early 1960s England’, History Workshop Journal 77:1 (2014), pp.215-239.

[5] Lawrence, Me, Me, Me?; For the predominance of ‘class’ in post-war social surveys see F Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Class, Politics and the Decline of Deference in England 1968-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p.14.

[6] W Pooley, ‘Silences of the People’, M Hailwood et al (eds.), The Voice of the People: An Online Symposium (2015: https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/voices-of-the-people/ – accessed 6 February 2021).

[7] Pooley, ‘Silences of the People’.

[8] See the interpretation of Mass-Observation at 1945 by S Fielding, P Thompson, N Tiratsoo, “England arise!” The Labour Party and Popular Politics in 1940s Britain, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).

Image: A copy of The Affluent Worker: Political Attitudes and Behaviour (1968), one of the outputs from John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood’s research interviews with Luton workers in the early 1960s. The field notes from this study are drawn upon by Lawrence in his recent work Me, Me, Me? The Search for Community in Post-war England (2019).

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