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 seventh post in this series, Harry Parker talks about his PhD research on how ordinary people surveyed themselves and the societies in which they lived during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
What are you currently researching?
I study what I rather clumsily call ‘popular autoethnography’ in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Essentially I’m interested in how ordinary people went about observing the world around them, how they learnt, thought, and wrote about their own ‘culture’, and how, in doing so, they contributed to what historians sometimes call ‘social knowledge production’.
It sounds like a broad topic, but I think the period I’m looking at is an important one for a couple of reasons. First, there’s an explosion of interest in ordinary people’s lives around this time: in novels, autobiography, journalism, social investigation, and photography. People are recording daily life in a way not really seen before. Second, the social sciences are supplying new ways of thinking about society and ‘culture’. Sociology, psychology, and anthropology are all still young disciplines at the turn of the twentieth century.
So at a broad level, my thesis attempts to connect these two developments. What happens when people take ideas and methods from the social sciences and apply them to thinking about their own lives? What if people were to take the ethnographic gaze, normally reserved for other peoples around the world, and turn it on themselves?
As it turns out, there’s lots of examples in this period of people doing just that: from the new interest in British ‘folklore’ in the later nineteenth century, through to amateur social surveys and ‘citizen-sociology’ in the interwar period, and even through to popular photography.
What led you to research this topic?
A long and tortuous series of false starts. I originally applied to the PhD with a completely different project in mind: something I can’t even properly remember that was vaguely to do with new technologies and consumer culture. On starting the PhD, I very quickly decided that I wanted to change topic, and I’m very fortunate (and grateful) that my supervisor, Peter Mandler, gave me the time, space, and encouragement to rethink.
I eventually came to the topic through a fascination, shared with most other British historians I know, with the social research organisation Mass Observation, which started up in the late 1930s. Its founders declared that they wanted to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’, and they went about this by recruiting volunteers to send in diaries, respond to questionnaires and make general observations about daily life. They wanted their ‘observers’ to treat themselves as if they were anthropological specimens. I started to wonder about how novel this idea was, and if I could place Mass Observation within a longer history of modern ways of understanding self and society. So I started to look around for other instances of this kind of ‘self anthropology’. Happily, I found some.
What’s the most interesting historical material you’ve read, listened to, or watched in the last month?
Recently I’ve been trying to get to grips with Scottish biologist-turned-sociologist-turned town planning pioneer Patrick Geddes. His work is relevant to me because he first promoted what he called the ‘regional survey method’: getting people to do social surveys of their local area as a way of generating ‘civic consciousness’. Geddes was clearly a very visual thinker, and the archival collections I’ve been looking at are full of truly baffling diagrams that he called ‘thinking machines’. Trying to decipher them has been fun, if a little time consuming.
What’s one of your favourite historical sources?
For my master’s degree, I wrote a dissertation about early industrial films made in Britain between the 1890s and the First World War. Many of them tried to depict how particular consumer products were made, from raw material to finished product – a kind of forerunner to the ‘how it’s made’ genre of video you often see today. I chose the topic mostly because I loved the films, and not because I had anything particularly insightful to say about them. But I still love them. You get a very real sense of just how new and unfamiliar the whole experience is for everyone. On the one hand, you have an audience who get to see what an actual Edwardian factory looked like from the inside, in many cases for the first time. On the other, you have the subjects of the films, the factory workers, most of whom wouldn’t have stood in front of a film camera before. There’s lots of charming moments in these films when the machine operators realise they are being filmed, and suddenly become highly self-conscious.
And what’s the best or most unusual experience in an archive?
Having a whole room to myself at the National Archives once was nice.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian?
Sadly it’s advice I’ve not been very good at following: three years goes by fast! Get into archives early, write as you go along, don’t spend months obsessing over a single sentence or footnote that you’re probably going to delete anyway.
And the worst?
There’s (rightly) lots of discussion about the (bad) state of UK higher education at the moment. Occasionally this can veer into discussions about whether it’s even a good idea to encourage people to do PhDs at all. Whatever the merits of this argument, I don’t find it massively comforting at this point in the process.
What’s your must-do Cambridge experience?
Jesus Green Lido is staying open for the winter this year. So if you fancy an outdoor swim under floodlights in sub-10 degree water, there’s no better place. Otherwise: Botanic Gardens in autumn or spring; Grantchester Meadows in summer; pubs (take your pick) all year round.