What happens when historians and campaigners spend a day together discussing how change happens?

June 9, 2015 1 By Duncan Green

Part of the feedback on last month’s post calling for a ‘lessons of history’ programme was, inevitably, that someone is already doing it. So last week I headed off to Kings College, London for a mind expanding conference on ‘Why Change Happens: What we Can Learn from the Past’. The organizers were the History and Policy network and Friends of the Earth, as part of its excellent ‘Big Ideas’ project (why haven’t the development NGOs got anything similar?) About 70 people, a mix of historians and campaigners. Great idea.

The agenda (12 UK-focussed historical case studies on everything from resistance to the industrialization of farming post World War 2 to municipal activism in Victorian Britain to why England (though not Scotland and Ireland) hasn’t had a famine since the 16th Century) was great, as was the format (panels, followed by table discussions, no Q&A).

A lot of the stuff I talk about on this blog seems completely obvious and standard for historians, for example the interaction london great smogbetween social activism and ‘critical junctures’: Despite a century of civil activism by smoke abatement societies, it took the Great Smog of December 1952, which killed my grandmother along with 4-12,000 others, before the UK government passed the 1956 Clean Air Act.

Ditto, the crucial importance of narratives and the ‘terms of debate’ in driving change and the interaction between agency (activists, leaders) and the underlying political, economic and demographic tides that shape the possibilities of change: only when the franchise was extended in the mid 19th Century could reform-minded municipal politicians get elected with a mandate to raise enough taxes to sort out appalling living conditions in Victorian cities.

For me, there was no great revelation, but a series of smaller ‘lightbulb moments’, including:

What if there is no historical precedent? Climate change campaigners often stress that we are in uncharted territory, so there is not much we can learn from history. But if you go back you will find similar examples of unprecedented changes in history – use of gas in warfare? Geneva conventions? So actually there are plenty of precedents for unprecedented changes. Cool, eh?

historic-photo-police-detaining-womanAsset-based approaches to activism: Several presentations on different aspects of the women’s movement made similar points. Especially before they got the vote, women were active in other channels – often in spheres traditionally seen as appropriate for women, such as nutrition and health (arguable, sometimes as ‘trojan horses’ for more radical change that was viewed as outside the proper sphere of influence for women). That focus on agency rather than exclusion reminds me of asset-based approaches to livelihoods that look at what people have/do, rather than what they lack.

There are at least three different kinds of shock, requiring different approaches from campaigners:

a) Big, in your face events that drive change, such as wars and famines

b) Unforeseeable spikes that emerge without any obvious cause – a feature of complex adaptive systems (e.g. the Arab Spring)

c) Shocks that don’t lead to the expected changes, eg Global Financial Crisis

Competition for policy windows: when a new government or other window of opportunity opens up, it can be crucial to anti-gay-paris-300000-catholics-muslims-jews-conservatives-march-against-marriage-lawsget to the front of the queue. In France, Francois Hollande came to power committed to legalizing both assisted dying and equal marriage. He went with equal marriage first, was shocked by the Catholic backlash, and backed off further social reforms.

But the conference wasn’t an unmitigated joy. I rapidly realized that a fair number of historians must have been in the archives/pub when academics got their class on how to communicate. Reading out papers in weird, stumbling, sing-song voices (doing it from your ipad just makes it harder, it seems); powerpoint karaoke (reading out overlong quotes on their slides, as if the audience is somehow unable to read). Heavy going.

The challenges of interdisciplinarity go a lot deeper than bad presentation – whole worlds of new, and unintelligible jargon; different ideas of what’s important (historians, like anthropologists, revel in detail); the struggle to understand the needs and priorities of another discipline (campaigners). Conclusion: we can’t just turn on the history tap and draw down lots of ideas – we’ll need to invest time and effort in getting to know each other, learn each others’ language etc. So good news that the organizers plan to continue to work together on this.

Most speakers insisted on numerous caveats and nuances and seemed to thoroughly disapprove of anything resembling an actual ‘lesson’. Indeed, they seem to love debunking any vaguely popular narrative (eg that World War Two had positive impacts on nutrition and inequality). That might explain the sense of being marginal that led to the setting up of History and Policy in the first place – nothing like saying ‘there are no general lessons, everything is context and time-specific, and only historians can talk with authority about anything in the past’ for ending up in a disciplinary ghetto. Conclusion: need to be clear that history is about looking for repeated patterns, not unearthing detailed blueprints – it should open up our imaginations and expand our sense of possible directions, not close them down.

Friends of the Earth talisman Jonathan Porritt wound up the day with a sharply worded question: ‘do you feel emboldened, empowered by these diffuse, eclectic historical excursions?’ My answer is ‘not yet, but yes, if we keep working at it’. Watch this space.