By Grace Whorrall-Campbell, interviewed by Cherish Watton (@CherishWatton), Series Editor
Historian Highlight is a new series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students researching in unprecedented times. In the second post in the series, Grace Whorrall-Campbell explains her research into the history of emotion and psychology in the mid-twentieth-century workplace.
What are you currently researching?
My PhD explores the role of emotion and the psychological sciences in the mid-century workplace. Around the outbreak of the Second World War, concerns about efficiency and the mental strain of overwork on the Home Front joined worries about the psychological impact of combat. Psychologists and psychiatrists became newly influential as industry and the military looked for new ways to understand and manage the feelings of their workforce. However, this was not a wholesale psychological revolution. Older ways of thinking about emotion and the self persisted – managers, civil servants and workers sometimes vociferously resisted psychological influence.
What led you to research this topic?
I initially became interested in the interaction between emotion and work during my MPhil. During that year I completed a dissertation on how shop assistants and waitresses in twentieth-century Britain were encouraged to manage their emotions as part of good customer service.
Histories of emotion often focus on the home and the family. I think this reflects an assumption that work is less of an emotionally intense or complex space, than say, the emotions that arise within families or relationships. It’s true that many of us would not feel comfortable showing our feelings at work in the same way that we would at home. But the workplace has its own fascinating set of emotional rules and expectations, and this is what drew me to this project.
There is also a common stereotype about British culture’s ‘stiff upper lip’, particularly with regards to the period I’m researching. The 1940s and 1950s are often seen as a period of emotional repression, and the 1960s as a period of emotional release. There is some truth in this, but what I have found in my research is a much more complicated relationship with what kinds of emotions are acceptable, where, and for whom. In the Army, for instance, there was surprisingly frank discussions about how the stresses of combat could lead to mental breakdown.
What’s the most interesting historical material you’ve read, listened to, or watched in the last month?
I don’t have a particular recommendation, but I have been really enjoying exploring BFI Player. They have an eclectic range of films from across the twentieth and twenty-first century that you can watch for free. They have everything on there from Night Mail, the iconic documentary featuring Auden’s poetry, to home movies of beach holidays and public information films. It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole and get totally distracted though!
What’s one of your favourite historical sources?
One of my favourite finds in the archive is the psychological tests candidates took as part of the recruitment process for the War Office. Soldiers hoping to get a commission as an officer had to undergo a three-day selection procedure, where they took a variety of psychological tests. One of the tests involved a Word Association game, and another asked candidates to make up a story for a series of images. It is fascinating to think about what these men must have felt completing these tasks, knowing they were being assessed the whole time. It is also fun to play along and think about what I would write about for the word ‘beer’ – apparently, writing ‘Drinking a glass of cool beer’ demonstrated an inhibited personality!
And what’s the best or most unusual experience in an archives?
For my MPhil research, I went to the Marks & Spencer company archive in Leeds. They have a display for visitors that covers the history of the company. There was so much fantastic material culture there, but my highlight – aside from the Percy Pig visitor trail – was a life-size plastic model of their famous melt-in-the-middle chocolate pud! They were very proud of it, but I have to say it did not look particularly appetising recreated in brown plastic.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian?
I will always be grateful to Lucy Delap, my supervisor, for encouraging me to get into the archives as soon as possible. Of course, none of us knew that the pandemic would close all archives halfway through my first year, but getting in there early meant I at least had some material to start writing about during lockdown number one. I can’t wait to get back into the archives once they reopen – I’ll never complain about a chilly reading room ever again!
And the worst?
One thing that I used to hear as an undergraduate from other students, was that some topics weren’t ‘proper’ history. I definitely felt that my interest in the history of emotion and culture were not as important as political or economic history. Thankfully I don’t hear that at all now! I think once you get to the level of a PhD, everyone’s research is quite specialised and niche. It’s the variety that makes an academic community so vibrant.
What’s your must-do Cambridge experience?
This is a pretty obvious one, but I think punting has to be a must-do Cambridge experience. It might be slightly overrated, and it’s definitely harder than it looks, but when else do you get to feel like you’re in a Merchant Ivory film?
Image taken by the author