Sociology: The Importance of Being…Historical

By Donna Carmichael

Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary that we all carry about with us.

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

In April of this year, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the biennial European Social Science History Conference in Belfast, and present my paper entitled Culture-led Regeneration and the Challenge of Inclusive Growth in the session called Living and Working in the Postwar City. Hosted by the International Institute of Social History at Queen’s University, the conference brought together scholars from a wide variety of disciplines who explain historical phenomena using the methods of the social sciences, and attracted over 1500 delegates from 66 different countries. I am pleased to report that my paper presentation was well-attended, with much discussion and sharing of ideas from a variety of perspectives and disciplines. An important benefit to me was the ability to network with delegates, and I made some excellent new contacts for potential collaboration in the future. I am extremely grateful to The Sociological Review for their generous support of my participation at this conference.

In my paper, I take a critical theory approach to examining the phenomenon of the ‘instrumentalization’ of culture to achieve socio-economic regeneration in deindustrialized British cities. Rather than revitalization, recent studies have indicated that culture-led regeneration strategies actually contribute to economic and spatial inequality.

The decline of the manufacturing sector in Britain resulted in social and economic devastation, with the loss of over six million jobs between 1966 and 2011. Culture-led regeneration strategies have been fervently embraced by deindustrialized cities to attract tourists, inward investment, creative class workers, and to re-brand the city. A predilection towards economic metrics and city ‘boosterism’ by the cultural and economic elites is accompanied by the facile affirmation of the value of culture, and the sentiment that those opposed to culture-related initiatives are an ‘unpatriotic bunch of philistines’. These tendencies result in few studies that incorporate dissenting voices of marginalized communities affected negatively by cultural-led regeneration. It is my hope that this research helps to give credence to the value of listening to these voices of dissent and to fuelling the resistance of residents and activists as new projects of urban regeneration emerge.

Although my paper focuses on the contemporary issue of inequality, encompassing social geography, political studies, economics, and cultural studies, you might wonder why multidisciplinary social history matters to me. Turns out that inequality isn’t a new thing…people have been inhabiting urban settings under conditions of extreme inequality for millennia, so we are not living in some kind of ‘new epoch’ of extreme economic disparity. My view is that understanding the historical context of inequality and deindustrialization isn’t about ‘learning from the past’…it is about historicizing contemporary social issues to generate new questions, especially from different academic disciplines. I will describe two papers at the conference which generated new questions for me to contemplate regarding my own research into inequality.

The paper The Changing Meanings of ‘Secularization’: Radical Christianity and the Invention of the ‘Secularization’ Teleology in Britain 1930-1966 provided an interesting historical perspective on the declining role of the Christian church in 1960’s British society. This period is particularly relevant to my research as the deindustrialization of Britain began during the early 1960’s, so a broad view of social change is an important contextual aspect for my research. This paper on secularization discussed the transition of Britain into a ‘definitively and irreversibly post-religious’ society during the 1960’s, and has prompted me to look into the confluence of the post-industrial AND the post-religious shifts, and how this may inform present-day lived experiences and perceptions of inequality.

Another paper, entitled Lost Lesbian Spaces: Memories of an Urban Community in 1970’s London was illuminating in terms of societal and community responses to acute housing shortages. Housing in Britain (especially London) is currently in the grip of rampant financialization, resulting in skyrocketing prices, unaffordable housing for lower-income groups, and the destruction of social housing. In 1970’s London, housing for lesbian mothers and young women was in desperately short supply, leading to the creation of a community of over 100 lesbian squatters inhabiting vacant substandard housing in Hackney. This was part of the wider historical phenomenon of the ‘London squatting movement’, and an estimated 30,000 people were engaged in squatting in London by the mid-1970’s, many of whom were women. This enabled ‘radical experiments in collective living and alternative urban communities’, and prompted me to contemplate the notion of potentially radical new urban living arrangements, especially gender/sexuality-based, to address the current drastic shortfall of affordable housing in the UK.

Both papers, and many others, provided fascinating historical research from different sociological perspectives, which has informed my own research into economic and spatial inequality in deindustrialized Britain, and reinforced my view that ‘history matters’.

Donna Carmichael is a PhD Student at the London School of Economics (2018). Her background includes in-depth experience in the corporate and entrepreneurial environments, along with her educational attainments which include BSc and MBA degrees. Donna’s PhD research focuses on economic and spatial inequality, with particular focus on the lived experiences of both affluent and deprived groups in mid-sized deindustrialized British cities, in these times of punishing austerity and rampant neoliberalism. Follow her on Twitter @DonnaHeritage

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