When I decided to explore the transnational nature of the welfare state for my project, the transnational elements I expected to be tracking were the ideas spreading across borders and the networks that facilitated them. However, this is a lot easier said than done. After a lot of research I realised that tracing when and where ideas move from A to B can sometimes prove to be nearly impossible due to the fact that the transfer of these ideas is not always well documented. It can be easy to see a common theme across borders and propose a transnational link (e.g. the fact that so many European countries started implementing social reforms on such a large scale post-1945) but finding solid evidence to support this link is much harder.
After struggling with this for a while, I came to the conclusion that tracing the movement of ideas is challenging because by their very nature they are fairly elusive and are not often written about as often as people. Therefore, I thought that perhaps the best way to explore the movement of ideas for my project was through examining the ‘border crossings’ (as Patricia Clavin described it) where actors engage and influence one another. This is the reason why I have chosen to focus on one particular episode for my project, with David Lloyd George’s 1908 visit to Germany, as this narrow focus is personally the most effective method I have encountered so far.
However, with such a narrow focus on one episode, it seems inevitable that I will end up using microhistory in my project. On the one hand, this is really exciting as I have always loved the powerful narrative and immediacy of microhistory. But on the other hand, this is fairly daunting. Microhistory sometimes gets called out for becoming too lost in its own narrative and losing sight of the bigger historical picture. This is something I definitely do not want to happen with my project. Therefore, I think the biggest challenge I will face in the next few weeks is thinking about how to appropriately bridge microhistory with the macro picture.

Ideas through a transnational and microhistorical lens
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3 thoughts on “Ideas through a transnational and microhistorical lens

  • April 4, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    As I was reading your blog post, it reminded me of some of the work that I’ve come across for my other module. Its a cinema history module but we look a lot at social reform. Perhaps one way in which you can bridge the micro and macro in this regard is to examine exchanges that occurred on Lloyd George’s trip to Germany in 1908 and see if these ideas turn up in the discourse around social reform in the years that follow. One organisation that you might consider looking at, if you haven’t already, is the collective of social researchers that were based at Toynbee Hall. Most of the big names in social reform in the early-mid twentieth century had something to do with Toynbee Hall, such as William Beveridge, Seebohm Rowntree, Charles Booth etc. They carried out a variety of social surveys on poverty, with their main agenda being influencing welfare reform. I think they also wrote reports on parliamentary debates and acts that were relevant to these interests. Their work is slightly problematic in terms of bias as most of the researchers were upper-middle class, so they approach the working class from quite an anthropological perspective, treating them like scientific subjects. However, this could be useful as it does mean that they represent a strong aspect of the educated leftist view of welfare reform in Britain during this period. This may not be helpful with the new direction of your project, yet it could be interesting to look at this group as they were active during the period you are looking at and they might be able to provide some evidence for the impact in Britain of Lloyd George’s German visit.

  • April 5, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    I’m really interested to see how your project will shape up, and I share your concerns about microhistory to a degree. I found, especially with the article that we read earlier in the semester about the Chinese peasant farmer, that there is a risk of losing the analytical thread for the sake of narrative. Of course, it’s easy to feel torn about that – perhaps at the end of the day, history is just a good story and we need to find a way to tell that story in an engaging and lively way for the sake of attracting the most interest. (Of course, perhaps that’s not what this project is being marked on, so, at a risk of repeating myself, try to balance analysis and narrative.)

    I don’t know a lot about this specific topic, so I’m not sure that I can be much help in deciding what the best way to bridge the micro-historical event with the macro-historical structures is. Are there any other specific connections – further border crossings, other smaller examples of European leaders acting on each other in the creation of welfare states – that you might be able to explore as well as Lloyd George’s visit to Germany in 1908?

    I sympathize with your struggle to find evidence supporting a conclusion that, at first glance, seems fairly obvious – one of the things that I’m working on with my own project is the idea that yes, obviously the Red Cross failed in their humanitarian goal because concentration camps continued to exist, but was that necessarily a failure of the Red Cross, or more indicative of a failure of the entire international systems at the time? Sometimes it can be easy to pick out networks and ideas, but tracking the exact movement and directionality of those ideas can be the bigger issue. Best of luck with your project!

  • April 5, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    I think that was a helpful comment: but whether you look at a group of individuals or a single case – I think it is fine to use a relatively small and manageable empirical focus – using a few interesting primary sources around this visit, for example, but then grappling directly and in an engaged way with the broader argument can work wonderfully. Many of the best things written out there are nice specific cases, used to make a broader point – though they will often make reference somewhere, at least in passing, to other cases that they think also fit a particular mold. In some sense, this distinguishes us from other social scientists who are reluctant to argue from single or small numbers of anecdotes. As long as you concede where your example is singular and why you think it is, as opposed to representative of a broader pattern – and use the work of other historians to back you up for other cases, then this can work well.

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