This post is one of a series exploring how the same source might be approached in different ways by different types of researcher, so we can better understand each other and work together more easily. There’s an introduction to this, and the associated posts like this one, here.
I suspect that all of the blog posts that we’ve asked authors to contribute to this set of linked posts will prove to be tricky. They’ll involve critical reflection about how they ‘do’ history or in some way use the past. They might make authors think about potentially unspoken assumptions or ingrained habits. This could include things that are obvious to ‘our group’ and aren’t necessarily articulated, but which others from ‘outside’ might not see as natural. This has certainly been my experience, thinking about how academic historians practice their craft – and I should say at the outset that I can only speak for my experiences, which I don’t presume to be universal for all academics.
I’ve already started, then, with something that I think academic historians do well: the caveats! We don’t add them to limit or lessen what we’re doing, or to avoid being ‘caught out’ somehow, but as a recognition that there are other ways of approaching any given topic. That’s quite important, I think. It’s an implicit awareness of the particular approaches that we adopt. It’s also a recognition that there are two things at play: the past (as in, the stuff that happened) and history (as in, our interpretation of the past).
This awareness of our approach is both inward-looking and outward-looking. Looking out, we might differentiate ourselves from other types of historian: the family historian, the local historian and so on. I’ll be clear here that I don’t subscribe to rather out-dated views of who can do ‘proper’ history – or even what ‘proper’ history is (read, in times past, ‘academic history = proper history’). Something I’m keen to do, and we try to put into practice on the project, is break down these unhelpful boundaries. The research that I’ve seen done outside the academic sphere has generally been excellent.
Looking in, and thinking about how we position ourselves in relation to other academic historians, the silos are also present. There are different ‘flavours’ of approach which sit under a general banner of ‘academic history.’ Social or cultural history, business history, economic history, women’s history, oral history, transport or mobility history … and plenty more. Whilst we will probably share the same overarching conventions as a discipline, our interpretive approaches will differ, along with the focus of our attention and our methodologies.
For clarity, then, I see myself primarily as a social and cultural historian, focusing on (amongst other things) histories of railways, transport, mobility and accidents. I’m also geographically bounded – mainly Britain, though with broader interests (tending to be Anglophone, sadly, as my languages are terrible). And I’m chronologically focused on the later 19th century and 20th century.
I’m writing here in the first person. For a great many academics – by no means all – that’s uncommon. Partly, in this case, it’s a product of what I’m doing (overt reflection); partly it’s a product of who I’m writing for (I want to reach audiences beyond other academics). If I were writing this for publication in an academic journal, say, I might be expected to offer a rather different tone. Where the personal fits in academic history is important, but not always addressed. (Oral historians and historians of emotions and subjectivities are far and away doing the most useful critical thinking on this, by the way. Recognising how we as individual researchers interact with, respond to and shape our sources is significant.)
If I can return to broader brush strokes, then, what is it that makes academic history, ‘academic’? I posed this question on Twitter recently, as I wanted to see how far my ideas might be reflected more widely. I was reassured (I think!) to see common themes coming up (thanks to all who replied!). Yes, Twitter can be an echo chamber, so take it for what it’s worth, but I’d agree with the suggestions.
At a more theoretical level, some people noted that we’d be expected to be interpretive, including recognising that those interpretations change over time. History changes. We will be producing new work, using sources and methods or offering analysis that others haven’t done before. On those sources, we’d handle them carefully and honestly, and referencing them so that others can follow the links. And we’ll be engaging with other historians’ work, acknowledging and responding to what’s come before us. All of this will be done critically, too – and ideally constructively (though I accept that doesn’t always happen, sadly).
Another particularly interesting comment noted that we should be open to criticism. Absolutely. This reflects the idea of history as an ongoing process – of discussion, negotiation and renegotiation. It can be a debate, and we need to be prepared to see old things (even our old things!) in new ways. One of the things about academic research is that we are expected to publish it in academic places – which really means places subject to peer review. That always involves criticism, which whilst sometimes tough to go through, generally does produce stronger work at the end of it.
A follow up to that comment noted that recognising expertise outside our own areas is important. A big ‘yes’ to that from me – if there’s one thing the project has confirmed for me, it’s just how many different expertises there are out there, often well beyond your ‘traditional’ academic historian. Working with others is therefore important – ideally as co-producers. I’ll say, though, that this poses some challenges in the academic world, in terms of how widely practiced it is and the institutional barriers that can make this difficult. At the same time, we are expected (rightly so) to take our research beyond the Higher Education/ academic community – engagement and outreach are recognised as important and increasingly over the last 20 years an integral part of academic work.
We have some big advantages when it comes to doing research, too: chiefly access to resources, if we’re employed within a university setting. (Not all academic history which is produced by historians who are paid to research and teach history in a university, of course; but I think it’s fair to say the majority probably is.) We have access to costly resources, including digitised primary material and secondary sources. That access varies from institution to institution, of course – in the UK the Russell Group universities are rather better resourced than the post-92 institutions, for example. But even so, we tend to have better access to resources than many outside the university sector. There might also be some sort of cachet which opens up doors – academic affiliation can be useful in terms of accessing people and material, as it can be seen to imply some degree of ‘worthy’ work being done.
So if those are some thoughts about what ‘academic history’ might look like and how it might work, how might this academic historian look at E Beaumont’s accident?
The practical things I think can largely be inferred from the above – for example, I’d try the databases and resources I’ve got access to through the University of Portsmouth. These sources tend to be less focused on state documentation that charted individuals in the post-1837 era of civil registration – so, no standard/ institutional access to births, marriages, deaths or census material. I think it’s fair to say that ‘standard’ academic practice (if that’s not an oxymoron!) doesn’t typically draw upon these sources – though they can of course be very fruitful. Instead I’d typically go to records produced by the railway industry, the state or the press. I’d also tap up personal connections for discussion, as appropriate.
More methodologically, my approach would be very much to draw out the general from the specific. How far can we typify from Beaumont’s accident? What does it tell us about railway staff accidents, the relationships between workers, unions, companies, the state and the public? How does it fit with safety in other workplaces? Where does it fit with the ways occupational safety and health have been examined by historians? What did the accident mean to those involved – and do these meanings change over time? Why/ why not? These questions are analytical and interpretive, going beyond a narrative approach.
Crucially, I’d want to answer the big question: so what? Why does it matter?
This isn’t to say these things aren’t done by other historians outside the academic world, or that they wouldn’t be interested in those questions. In my experience, they absolutely are. I have been trained to think and work in particular ways – sometimes that’s beneficial, but sometimes it’s limiting. Getting beyond these limits is vital for all historians, not just academics – but difficult to do without understanding each other. Hopefully by carrying out the sorts of reflection seen in the blog posts associated with E Beaumont’s accident we can start moving outside our limits.
 You’ll notice … an absence of references here. I’m going to play a wildcard here and claim that as this is a more reflective piece, references would be distracting – though of course it is perfectly possible to include citations in reflective work. But here this is rather more personal opinion, at the end of the day.
 Thanks to my friend and colleague Katy Gibbons for having looked over this piece!