The Spaces Between – Boundary Spanning 20 years ago

My biography always begins “Jess Steele bridges policy and practice to develop new intellectual territory, ventures and programmes…”

Collaborating Across Sectors

I have always been interested in boundary-spanning – cross-sectoral, cross-community, inter-generational work; match-making between public, private and third sectors; travelling and translating between official and informal worlds.

The danger of spinning plates for a living is that you move too fast to embed what went before. Sometimes I’ve spent an evening designing a database or drafting a report only to find a previous version when I go to save. As part of setting up Jericho Road Solutions I promised myself I would try to consolidate some of what I already knew.

This essay from September 1993 was an early exploration of these spaces in between and the creative approaches that can span them. It was written for my MSc in Social Anthropology at the exact time I was writing Turning the Tide: the history of everyday Deptford (published Nov 1993). This was the academic work with an undercurrent of passion, while TTT was the popular offering which snuck theory in between the stories.

The essay reappeared recently in my mum’s preparations for moving house. I have scanned the whole essay – partly so we can delight in the dot matrix printing – and typed below just the section on ‘community history as the mediator between anthropology and history’. I like this section – it throws me back those two decades to a big desk in an 1810 cottage on the A2 where the computer (an Amstrad 9512 – no web, no email, no mobile, no social media, but a damn good contacts database) was just one of the tools of my work – along with hundreds of books, the old GPO-style phone, glorious amounts of stationery, a fluffy black kitten, a rusty old Datsun, and the meagre but essential funds supplied by six burglaries which, irregularly but frequently, swapped my stuff for insurance cash. Ah, nostalgia for New Cross!!!

* * * * *

A Historian among the Anthropologists: Excavating the Field

Section 5. The place of community history as median of history and anthropology.

Where does local history fit into the anthropology-history continuum? Its subject is the small-scale community and its practitioners must face, even if they cannot answer, the nebulous and elusive character of ‘community’ with its minimum of 94 distinct definitions! They must read the social science literature which proclaims the death of community but unless they can continue to believe in the notion (even if only to the extent that it means something important in the minds of their ‘informants’ ) they will give up the project.

Community studies, historical or otherwise, must also recognise the boundary problems Leach identified in Political Systems of Highland Burma. However, as long as we have no delusions of containment or uniformity we need not be disabled by them. Local history has to take account of mobility, migration and fluid populations, all of whom have a right to be considered as part of the contemporary community, all of whom have a history which belongs to the locality though it originates far away and may end elsewhere. In a modern inner city context there will be questions about housing policies which brought people to the area or decanted them away.

Community history takes not one aspect or sub-theme of historical process but many, in an effort to understand how they have related to each other to produce the present form of the locality. Local history emphasises diachrony, focusing on both change and continuity over time. At appropriate moments of its story, it provides vignettes of specific institutions, events and characters.

The ultimate goal of community or local history depends on whether it is popular or academic. In general popular local history tends to be more impressionistic, to tell more stories and includes more incidental detail. Less explicitly theoretical, it will employ a different kind of language and make no presumption of a common body of specialist knowledge. Its aims will probably include the development of community pride and a historical understanding which can help people to participate in the changes occurring around them in the present. Academic studies of the history of local areas are more often a way to provide a microscopic example or refutation of a broader hypothesis within national or international historical debates. They tend to cover shorter time-spans in more detail and they show their interest in the area with more subtlety.

The overall method of study will be broadly similar to that outlined above for both anthropology and history. With the help of a chronology (which must often be constructed from scratch) and a map, one looks first for the ‘obvious’ features. What are the main topographic features? How have these been utilised? What kinds of people have lived in this area at different times? Why have they come? Why have they left? What has been the relationship with other areas? Intertwined with the growing knowledge this research brings is the emergence of an appropriately localised ‘historical imagination’ with its own consistency in making connections between various aspects of the locality’s past. Comparisons with other places are often crucial to academic local history and also play a role in the popular version. People are very mobile, they have plenty of information about other places and they need to know why their own area is important. The community historian also makes inferences from known facts about national or regional histories in the light of known aspects of the local.

Technically the method of the local historian lies mid-way between that of the field-worker and that of the historian. I would argue that community history can only be properly written after (and possibly during) intensive participant observation. Even if the period under study does not extend into the time of living memory, local history has to include some ‘history on the ground’. Topographical features provide a background continuity on which historical development is overlain.

The technique involves a mixture of direct and indirect experience of the subject, of interviews and archival research. Although there may be only a limited range of documentary source materials, Macfarlane has shown the enormous amount of information such sources (parish registers, wills and deeds, diaries, council minutes) can provide with intensive research. This is a great advantage but, even after 20 years of innovation and improvement in computer technology, Macfarlane’s assertion of the impossibility of fully utilising these sources still holds true. Their biases remain as much of a problem as their enormous potential. It is necessary then to be very selective and critical of documentary sources. Historians are used to this.

It is impossible to interview a ‘representative’ section of any urban community and the results of those interviews which are undertaken must be treated with the same vigour demanded by written sources. Community history has to find the stories which were never written. It seeks out everyday life in the nostalgic and methodologically troublesome memories of the elderly’ the frustration or self-congratulation of the activist; the bureaucratic exculpation of generations of power-holders; the first impressions of newly-arrived refugees; the racist scape-goating of the dispossessed, and a hundred other special perspectives which make up the patterns of community life. Anthropologists are used to this.

Local historians are usually involved in the creation of data. They record interviews, take photographs, draft maps, tabulate census figures. Their work often has an impact on the contemporary development of their subject in a way quite common for anthropologists but very rare with national history. Borofsky describes how he worked with a group of Pukapukan teachers to produce an English-Pukapukan dictionary. During the process, and he describes similar pones for previous anthropologists on Pukapuka, traditions were both invented and revived. Preservation is also a transformation.

In some ways community historians are not like historians or anthropologists. Community historians, especially in the inner city context, are also community workers and not only through popularising history. We find ourselves involved in campaigning to save buildings or modify development plans, fundraising for museums or to produce newspapers or exhibitions which record the present as it slides into the past, running projects with children which emphasise local pride and give them a stake in neighbourhood resources. Collingwood’s view that progress depends on historical thought becomes very clear to the local historian. We cannot help but feel concerned that those who are planning our community’s future have no understanding of its past or about-to-be-bulldozed present.

I will be accused of over-involvement and romanticism. So be it. My towers are made of concrete not ivory and that makes a difference. Living on a four-lane highway which is also the Roman road from Dover to London, one can mimic the ethnographer’s smugness and say one knows the world outside in a ‘concrete’ fashion. After years of historical research there is no desire to ignore the processes by which that world was formed. When the field is also home and the sounds of police sirens permeate the write-up, the distancing tactic is avoided and the dichotomy of Self and Other is resolved.

The full essay is here: A Historian Among the Anthropologists

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