‘Everyday Life’ reflections

The following are Laura Carter (co-organiser)’s reflections on the symposium. 

Why would we write the history of everyday life?

For me, this question was never going to remain confined to the unseasonably warm day last month when we met in Trinity Hall to have our symposium. This is because it is the question at the heart of my research into amateur historians and public history in Britain in the middle of the last century. So it was with this simple question in mind that I enjoyed a day of incredibly diverse research papers, and reflections on them from our commentators who were each so enviably precise in capturing the essence of each of our panels.

When we were first putting together the idea for the symposium I was particularly keen that we did not end up hosting an event fixated on Mass Observation. I thought this was a danger both because of the explicit link between our theme and M-O’s mission, and because there is a lot of exciting new work on everyday life being undertaken by researchers using M-O material, taking their lead from historians such as Ben Jones, Selina Todd, and Clare Langhamer. But my concerns proved to be unfounded – we actually received relatively few paper submissions of this ilk. And the papers we selected covered a methodological range from the extremes of quantitative and qualitative research.

Although M-O has provided us with many of the tools and languages for studying the everyday, it functioned on the day as an intellectual stimulus that opened doors, rather than as a limiting frame of reference that closed them. Joe Moran most aptly captured this atmosphere in his keynote talk. He generously walked us through his intellectual biography, exploring why he has come to write the history of everyday life in the process. Joe revealed that M-O was one of three strands that converged for him in the late 1990s, alongside the French tradition of ‘la vie quotidienne’ and the art and photography of Tom Phillips. Together they inspired him to consider postwar British history through the lens of ‘banal’ everyday subjects such as motorways, television watching, and queuing. I was particularly enthused by the introduction Joe provided for us to the work of Tom Phillips. Through the photographic project ‘20 Sites n Years’, Phillips found a way to map ‘invisible’ social change and thus ‘re-enchant’ the everyday.

Phillips’s idea of the history of everyday life as an aesthetic project stuck with me as I have reflected on the symposium over the past few weeks. I came away thinking that the history of everyday life might be most useful for its visual capabilities – a singular way of documenting the colour and creativity of lives past. It goes without saying that as we go about our everyday lives in the present, we are constantly looking for that magic and beauty that will enhance the individual human experience. So as many of the papers demonstrated, assuming that the history of everyday life is a by-phrase for the well rehearsed ‘us’ and ‘them’ of history from below is too simplistic. The visual in everyday life is a rich seam for historians, one that may in turn be useful and illuminating for accessing the politics of class and gender.

Let me provide some examples from the papers we heard. In her paper on pigeon fancying, Kate Whiston demonstrated how the quest for perfection and beautification in show pigeons punctuated urban working-class leisure cultures in late-nineteenth century Britain. Thinking about the home, Greg Salter drew our attention to how the layout and décor of domestic space is closely implicated in the self-construction of personal identities. On a similar theme but moving back into the seventeenth century, Antony Buxton’s paper used probate inventories to map the placement and uses of furniture in early-modern households. He argued that the material culture of the home could shed light on otherwise invisible temporal norms. In the final panel, Holly Dunbar provided a particularly careful reading of the gendered politics of smoking during the Irish war of independence. Holly asked us to imagine the woman’s body, how it was broken down into its constituent parts by commentators seeking to portray the everyday act of smoking as tightly bound to their femininity. During all of these papers, I was consistently struck by the importance of the visual. Although everyday experience is such a contingent, contested, and subjective category for social and cultural historians, we were shown multiple ways in which picturing the past might overcome or at least mitigate such enduring problematics.

During the morning coffee break I spoke to one of our commentators, Lucy Delap. She expressed to me some of her doubts about our premise of ‘everyday life’: was this just another way of describing the (now old?) ‘new’ social history? I was pleased that by the close of the symposium Lucy was able to say that she thought the day had proved that everyday life does do something else for us as historians. Although writing the history of everyday life might still fundamentally be about giving voices (Lucy’s term was ‘finding agency’) to the marginalized, the symposium showed that this can be done with challenging levels of innovation and creativity.


‘Everyday Life’ Symposium review

The following are the thoughts of Alex Campsie, co-organiser, on the symposium

In the 1980s historians of varying political hues and methodological backgrounds gravitated toward the concept of the ‘everyday’, seeing it as a more open-ended explanatory tool than economistic understandings of ‘class’ or social position. In subsequent decades we have seen a veritable explosion in different approaches towards not only apprehending the more ordinary aspects of life ‘as they were’- but also in unpicking their mediated, contingent nature; in exploring the non-human factors which shape our quotidian experiences; and in tracing the large-scale processes of exchange that knit together the ‘ordinary’ world around us.

On the 8th September 2014 at Trinity Hall College, University of Cambridge an inter-disciplinary group of scholars from across the U.K. gathered together in our own attempt to make sense of these historiographical trends, and to present original research into ‘everyday life’ both past and present.

In his 1997 A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History the Mexican philosopher Manuel de Landa proposed a history of the world in which the contours of human civilisation emerged gradually, ‘self-organized’ out of the ‘rhizomatic’ ebb and flow of biological matter, inorganic energy and climactic rhythms. De Landa might therefore be happy to know that a bright late summer sun and cloudless, clear blue skies helped to sculpt the cheerful dispositions and convivial atmosphere on show within the Trinity Hall Lecture Theatre- though in this case the human agency of the speakers and audience members were just as important ‘prime movers’ in making the symposium a success.

Panel 1: ‘Work and Play’

The first panel of Richard Hall (KCL/Cambridge), Jack Saunders (UCL) and Kate Whiston (Nottingham) could superficially have come from an early historiographical era. Their close studies of micro-level subcultures within post-Industrial Revolution Britain’s worlds of ‘work and play’ seemed to echo the ‘very best of British’ tradition of 1970s social history. Kate’s use of anthropological influences to comb the deeper symbolic meanings encoded within the noble working-class sport of pigeon fancying was a particularly pleasing example.

But in actual fact her subtle ‘thick description’ of a seemingly innocuous hobby, and the sympathetic examinations of both working-men’s clubs in post-war Britain (Richard) and Communist agitators at the Longbridge car plant in the 1970s (Jack) provided by her panellists, were more than just nostalgic celebrations. They offered up a highly nuanced examination of the ways in which ordinary people have sought to construct their own spaces against the sharper edges of industrialism and, as Richard (citing Chris Waters) pointed out, the destabilising forces of ‘modernity’.

However, these sites were not just a romantic retreat from capitalism. They were hybrid spaces of exchange, where both the laws of the market and the political gospel as laid down by the Kremlin (in Jack’s example)met and were re-broadcast within existing patterns of social life.

Intriguingly though, despite the mediated, constantly evolving nature of these cultural practices (as Richard potently highlighted, by showing the growing commercialisation of the working-men’s clubs), one constant was the desire to express oneself as an individual. As Stefan Collini, Donald Burrow and Peter Winch have argued, the sovereignty of the self within the civic sphere was a key facet of 18th and 19th century English political thought, and arguably its roots are deeper, stretching back to the Reformation and beyond. Our three panellists showed that this trope just as equally endured long into the 20th century– something to perhaps think more about as we hastily seek inspiration for a new political settlement to solve the seeming crisis of the British state…

Panel 2: ‘Home and family’

The next panel, comprising of Joe Day (Cambridge), Glen O’Hara (Oxford Brookes) and Greg Salter (Geffrye Museum), brought us back down to earth from these metaphysical musings, and reminded us of the hard ways in which the material world structures the free play of our identities. In particular, Glen’s paper on clean water supply in post-war British politics tapped into a rich stream (pun intended) of new research into how the provision of public commodities can be used and abused to make political claims about power, belonging and identity. Greg’s work on the contemporary home highlighted that this is equally true of even the most ‘everyday’ object. The seemingly unimportant question of who gets to sit in the biggest armchair round the television each night is itself negotiated through sets of conscious and unconscious power relations. Sensitively unpicking these complex dynamics can shed greater light into the structured nature of everyday experience.

Together, all three papers brought together a range of impressively eclectic methodological tools- statistical, linguistic, ethnographic and sociological- which we can use to ‘open up’ and re-interrogate the boundaries between public and private space, bringing to life the diverse ways in which these are contested in the ‘everyday’.

Keynote: Joe Moran on ‘Everyday Life’.

Next up was our hotly anticipated keynote speaker Joe Moran (LJMU). Joe’s unassuming, quietly passionate speech ranged compellingly from discussion of the formal, physical nature of the ‘everyday’ towards elaborating how we as writers can capture its fleeting essence, conceptually and stylistically.

Although he only alluded to this, I think it would be fair to say that at the core of his philosophy is a concept which the Romantics called the ‘sublime’, and that the social research organisation Mass-Observation termed the ‘poetic’. This is a realisation and an acceptance that our everyday existences are constantly caught between various transitory states- between the individual and the collective, between the public and the private, between the past and future, and, ultimately, between a conscious desire to ‘magically’ transcend this condition and a ‘material’ inability to do so (to paraphrase M-O founder Charles Madge).

Both Romantic poetry and the early, surrealist-inspired work of Mass-Observation sought to celebrate this sense of ‘half-longing’ (Madge again). They used literary techniques to simulate its affective impact, in turn provoking readers to look back in on themselves and to think more about the nature of their existences. To the Romantics this was form of critique against the harshness of the Industrial Revolution and its attendant social repression; to M-O it was a means of raising ‘social consciousness’ at a time when public discourse was increasingly impinged upon by authoritarian governments and plutocratic media barons.

Joe termed his style of writing ‘creative self-fiction’- a form concerned with burrowing down into the most banal spaces of everyday life and describing their messy, overlapping shapes, without seeking to uneasily mash them into a rigid argumentative template. In this way, he explained, a kaleidoscopic ‘sense of the modern’ could be depicted through an exploration of the ‘most humdrum and banal’. Importantly, we could also see how, this style of writing can help to unseat everyday routines from the pre-arranged categories imposed upon them by political structures– without necessarily re-inserting them into an equally unsatisfactory ‘alternative’ handed down from the Academy.

Panel 3: Public and private lives

It was quite fitting that we proceeded from a discussion of the inherent limits of ‘knowability’ onto a panel which in many ways eluded classification, comprising as it did of a highly diverse range of papers. First up was Anthony Buxton, who assuredly guided us, by way of Giddens on structuration, Bourdieu’s practice theory, and Rapoport on network analysis, through the way in which agricultural, climactic, season and economic ‘rhythms’  helped shape domestic practice in 17th century Thame, a market town in Oxfordshire.

Anthony’s portrayal of how everyday life was resolutely ‘tied to the land’, with all its earthy vagaries, might have seemed a world away from the subject of Charlotte Whalen’s (QMU) paper, which illustrated the role which the popular press and department stores played in helping to popularise a modernist aesthetic in 1910s America. But in both cases, we saw how patterns of exchange and transmission were crucial in shaping the ways in which people lived and thought about themselves– either through the mass market for popular commerce in 20th century American capitalism, or localised trade in pre-Industrial Revolution agrarian England.

This insistence on the ‘rhythmic’ nature of everyday life was brought home in delightful form by Kate Stobbart (Newcastle), who presented 917 phone-calls overheard during a year’s worth of travelling on the train. Snippets were ‘acted out’ by Kate in what can only be described as a profoundly hypnotic way, free from any commentary other than being loosely grouped according to content (‘Hello’, ‘Goodbyes’ etc.). ‘Massing’ the individual calls in this way was a highly effective technique. We were soon listening to a dulling cascade of recurring themes and motifs, out of which you could just about pick the heartfelt pleadings, routine affections, and intimate details that made up each individual call. This echoed Joe’s treatment of the ‘sublime’, but also led us to think about the ‘rhythmic’ nature of our own communication. How much of what we think is automatic, unconscious? Do we always really mean what we say? What patterns make up mass communication, and how do we disaggregate our individual identities from them? And just who could be listening as we pour our hearts out on the train?!

Panel 4: Emotions and Identity

As if to answer this question, the last panel was made up of three papers which each assessed the various ways in which ordinary people’s identities were and are collated from the chaotic flow of information that surrounds us in everyday life. Katherine Cook’s (York) study of differing conceptions of death in England and Barbados once more placed emphasis on exchange and interaction, but also offered a subtle reading of the material and emotional resources available to people as they attempted to make sense of life’s ‘great leveller’.

Holly Dunbar (Southampton) used debates over female smoking in the Irish press between 1912 and 1923 to provide an insightful examination of the construction of Irish ‘femininity’. As she argued, a media controversy like this can be read as much more than a simple ‘moral panic’. It acted as an instance where everyday actors were themselves able to enter the discursive fray, re-appropriating the symbolic capital deployed by the press to articulate their own, ‘complex and multiple everyday lives’.

Finally Hannah Woods (Cambridge) sought to explore the ‘somatic, cognitive’ aspects of urban life, exploring how emotions ‘coloured and shaped’ how ordinary people thought about themselves through a close reading of working-class autobiographies. Particularly fascinating was how one of her writers ‘read himself’ through the different works of philosophy he was consuming- feeling hospitable to his fellow city-dwellers as he indulged in the optimistic prose of Heine, before taking a darker turn during his self-confessed ‘Nietzsche phase’, irritation at his work-mates finding resonance in the German’s misanthropic outpourings.

All three papers offered a highly sophisticated exploration of the relationship between the abstract ‘signified’, which exists in conscious thought, and feeling, and the ‘signifier’, the cultural or social forms through which these are expressed in the material world of everyday life. Or rather they strongly denied that the link between thought and action can ever be so easily represented. They instead illustrated that it is mediated through processes of exchange, emotional dissonance, and the general, messy hubbub of everyday life.


Indeed, if the symposium had one overriding theme, it was to trouble the idea that the historian’s task is to simply ‘recover’ the lost voices of the everyday. Cultural history’s embrace of ‘everyday life’ as a means of exploring hitherto ‘hidden’ aspects of the past in the 1980s was immensely fruitful.

But at times this work strayed into merely holding up the latest micro-level curio or novelty, perceiving these as somehow inherently meaningful just because they had never been talked about before. It failed to acknowledge the wider structural forces and power dynamics which shape our existences. Moreover, it was, for a number of quite complex intellectual reasons, tinged with a philosophic idealism that presented pure, human artifice as the antithesis to the material world. Objects that men had made with their minds and their hands, such as clothes or pieces of art were viewed as the fullest expression of man’s conscious free will- and were thus privileged over the messier, more chaotic, and less easily classifiable forms of ‘culture’. Significantly, it also denied the possibility that the material world could itself influence the way we think and feel- or indeed that the processes by which we do both are in fact interrelated in a much more complex fashion than this stark division between mind and matter suggests.

Each and every one of our speakers took up these criticisms, using a range of sophisticated methodological and conceptual tools to do much more than simply celebrate the ‘everyday’ as colourful and diverse. Actor Network Theory, quantitative, climactic and economic analyses were all deployed to illustrate the much broader relationships which structure individual consciousness. These dynamics could be human just as non-human, and there were illuminating insights into how the material and the inorganic condition the realm of culture.

But equally, there was a much closer attention paid to the cognitive, emotional and discursive processes by which we attempt to make sense of the world. ‘Everyday’ culture was not merely treated as a ‘representation’ of ‘ordinary’ thought, but was shown to be entangled within the material, refracted through various media, and diffused through networks and markets.

Each paper saw the fallacy in searching for a pure, idealised ‘everyday’ amidst the seeming disorder of the world around us. By instead offering up a depiction of the mediated, structured and highly politicised nature of everyday existence, they managed to be more sympathetic to the ordinary individual. Just as Joe Moran advised, there was little attempt to shape the banal into something it was not, nor to celebrate the humdrum for its own sake. This made the instances where real human agency did shine through all the more powerful.

In short, I felt the symposium very usefully marked a transition from how we use the ‘everyday’. Initially, the concept helped to explore the various social or cultural phenomena which could not be explained by ‘class’ alone. Now, speaking of ‘everydayness’ brings into view a number of wider dynamics- the complex interrelations of thought, intention and actions; the role which large-scale networks and exchanges play in history; and the ways in which the material world structures our daily lives. Acknowledging these broader processes provides a more satisfying appreciation of human agency than uncritical, patronising ‘celebration’. These are all important aspects to ponder on, but above all I felt what shone through was a sensitivity to the human spirit and a delicacy with what are, after all, other people’s ‘everyday lives’ that should set future discussions in good stead.


A very many thanks must go to our four commentators Peter Mandler, Sian Pooley, Glen O’Hara and Lucy Delap, all of our speakers and delegates for participating, to the AHRC and to University Researcher Development Fund (History) for funding the event, and especially to all the catering and conferencing staff at Trinity Hall College for their hard work and for taking such good care of us.

Symposium Introduction

Laura Carter‘s exploration of the idea behind the conference and her overview of the chosen papers

My PhD is about popular social history in mid twentieth-century Britain, especially why ‘the history of everyday life’ was considered a useful narrative by cultural reformers from the 1920s to the 1960s. I’ve been particularly interested in a series of popular history books written in the interwar years by Charles and Marjorie Quennell, called A History of Everyday Things in England. These books are all about how the objects that have historically populated and determined everyday life might improve the aesthetics of production, people’s attitudes to work, and the wider problems of society. As historians of everyday life the Quennells were optimistic that their history writing had something useful to say to mass culture in the present.

The idea for a symposium on this theme came after conversations with my supervisor about my own thesis. I was (and still am) grappling with the idea of everyday life, trying to untangle complex and interrelated currents of class, gender, democratization, and the legacies of the Arts & Crafts movement, which drove the individuals in my own study to write, curate, and broadcast a history of everyday life for the twentieth century. So from a purely selfish perspective, we thought that a discussion about new research on everyday life would be a great way to get at some of my questions! Following a faculty-training day in February where we both presented research in progress, Alex and I realized we were both working with a very similar idea but in very different ways. I told him about my dreams of a symposium and he was also very keen to see what we could bring together.

In the event, Alex and I were really overwhelmed by the scale, variety, and quality of abstracts we received after publishing (and tweeting) the call for papers. In total we had sixty-two submissions from universities all over the UK and some from further afield. The disciplinary range evoked by the concept of everyday life, particularly struck us.  We heard from those working not only in history faculties but photography, philosophy, sociology, fine art, law, archaeology, and women’s studies, to name just a selection.

Reviewing this research, some definite patterns emerged. I think we were both interested to see that social class did not appear to be the most dominant theme. As Alex’s introduction showed, everyday life is now seen to encompass human experiences and subjectivities well beyond the economically determined. Class did of course appear, but equally as prominent in the submissions were papers that explored spaces of the everyday, particularly visual readings of domestic settings, urban locations, and the built environment. Prominent too were ideas about consumption – both in terms of luxury and poverty – the ‘things’ of everyday life whose materiality and aesthetic worth might be valued over the terms of their labour or production. The seminal events that both punctuate and complicate the ‘everydayness’ of our everyday lives – such as birth, leaving home, death and bereavement – were also particularly manifest. I hope that some of these themes can be explored in our questions and discussion, as well as broader reflections on why we continue to find everyday life so ‘good to think with’ in research.

‘Everyday Life’ since the linguistic turn

The following was the opening historiographical and introduction given by Alex Campsie on the day of the conference.


My PhD is entitled ‘The New Left, The New Times and the re-making of British socialism, 1962-1991’. It focuses on a series of debates within the British New Left, charting how changing conceptions of what constituted ‘everyday life’ in modern society informed successive re-configurations of socialist thought over the latter half of the twentieth century. My aim is not to mechanistically describe how ‘near’ or ‘far away’ from the ‘real’ social world this image lay- because the assumption that political languages reflect ‘objective’ realities in this way is highly problematic. I instead look at how socialist thinkers actively constructed the idea of the ‘everyday’ through contact with different philosophical influences, sociological data and theories of political organisation. This allows us to open up these debates, giving a non-deterministic account of modern intellectual history free from hindsight or the baggage imposed by the many ‘instant histories’ produced by involved participants. Moreover, looking at which intellectuals were discussing ‘everyday life’, and where, helps to fix the arena of debate within a specific public sphere of the intellectual Left- affording a degree of distance and historicity which, as Guy Ortolano has pointed out, is crucial to the analysis of the very recent past.

In this sense the move away from merely describing political languages towards probing their more messy and unruly processes of construction, and the shift from emphasising the free, unrestrained play of discursive forms in favour of staking out their material limits (be they institutional, intellectual, social or political), is symptomatic of a much broader shift within the past two decades of history-writing. I want to go on to talk a little about these changes- particularly examining how our treatment of the ‘everyday’ has changed in the wake of what might broadly be termed the 1980s linguistic or cultural turn. In particular I will focus on the effects of a concomitant so-called ‘practice’ or ‘material’ turn taken in the early to mid-1990s in reaction to the perceived excesses of postmodern scholarship, looking at the various directions this has provoked in histories concerned with the everyday- as I feel it is this new wave which has inspired this symposium, and also that many of its insights are reflected in the makeup of its panels. I will look at some of the major new research questions and methodological approaches that have been opened up since the early 1990s and will touch upon the epistemological and historical challenges they present us, before giving a brief, self-indulgent commentary on how I hope this symposium will address them. I will try to pay respect to the highly inter-disciplinary and transnational nature of debates about the ‘everyday’ but, and apologies for the reductiveness, will mainly concentrate on how this has affected scholarship in the English-speaking world, given that this is a symposium based in Britain.

Much has been written about the ‘cultural turn’ within history-writing and the attendant battles over postmodernism and post-structuralist theory which raged in the 1980s. One important product of this moment was that it arguably defined the idea of ‘everyday life’ as it is most popularly considered today – as an inclusive, affective and interpretive concept which encompasses aspects of the past missed by the narrowly class-based of the 1960s and 1970s ‘new social history’. An obvious illustration of this can be seen in a group of intellectuals who explicitly adopted the term as a statement of intellectual identity- the German ‘alltagsgeschichte’, or ‘history of the everyday’ movement. Reacting against the Bielefeld school of social-scienific history which sought to empirically classify the everyday according to a variety of a priori social science categories, in the hands of alltagsgeschichte progenitor Alf Lüdtke history was an interpretive tool, designed to recover the affective and experiential dimensions of ‘the “nameless” multitudes in their workaday trials and tribulations, [and] their occasional outbursts’.

In France and in particular in Italy, with its own distinct traditions of investigating the folkloric and mythic past, this corresponded to a form of ‘micro-history’ which examined the feelings, thoughts, and emotions of ordinary people at, as the name suggests, a very micro-level. These were viewed as individual and mutable aspects of the past which could never be reducible to economistic understandings of class or macro-level narratives of social development. In Britain this project was arguably more politicised as, amidst the seeming collapse of the British Left, feminist historians, cultural and social historians and proponents of cultural studies sought new explanatory categories which could integrate the differing, non-class-based experiences of minorities previously ‘hidden from history’, in the words of Sheila Rowbotham. The ‘everyday’ was a means of opening up society, and examining the symbolic and discursive ways in which ordinary people , to paraphrase Dick Hebdige, ’resisted’ their assigned socio-economic positions through modes of representation and symbolic ‘ritual’. At a time when, in sheer numerical terms, the number of British people employed in manual labour was rapidly declining, this was viewed as politically valuable– a Left politics did not have to be cut adrift by a declining socio-economic base, but could work within these worlds of discourse, using an inclusive political language to weave together a heterogeneous ‘rainbow coalition’ against Thatcherism.

The linguistic turn in the 1980s thus opened up a new, more generous conception of everyday life- defining this concept as both more socially inclusive and more capable of capturing emotion, feeling and particularity than narrow social scientific or Marxist categories. Importantly these more flexible approaches to the everyday did not completely deny the link between representation and social reality, and still retained a degree of confidence about the recoverability of historical meaning. Whereas in the U.S. the ‘new cultural history’ as developed by Hayden White, Dominic LaCapra, Robert Darnton, Lynne Hunt and others suggested that all of history could be read as a text, to be decoded for any number of symbolic meanings, in Britain there was a scepticism towards throwing ‘history’ out as merely some kind of illusory, self-referencing language game.  In fact, since then many historians sympathetic to the linguistic turn have actively fought against what they imagined to be the sloppy, ahistorical application of post-structural theory to historical questions. It is out of this moment, and subsequently over the course of the 1990s, that a number of new perspectives on the everyday were opened up in critical dialogue with the linguistic turn. These all, in one way or another, sought to demonstrate the constructed and mediated nature of historical concepts, whilst simultaneously stressing their practical, material limits. It is this new, more wide-ranging examination of the everyday, and its epistemological implications, which led Laura and myself to think a symposium of this ilk would be important.

A prime example of this kind of work is that of Patrick Joyce and James Vernon who, drawing heavily on the Foucauldian concept of ‘governmentality’, mined the ways in which the ideological tenets of the British state became embedded in popular, material form. Gas, water and other welfare provisions were utilised as symbolic reminders of the populace’s deference to the rulers, object-based transmitters of heavily value-laden forms of knowledge. This work was important because it pushed everyday life beyond a simple kind of ‘vale of soulmaking’, as it had been in some forms of cultural studies, where individual actors were gleefully free to select their symbolic identities from a range of colourful options, and reminded us of the hard limits imposed upon ordinary people by power and inequality. Nonetheless, as many pointed out, this account placed too much faith in the all-powerful ability of language to re-shape people’s understandings of the world. Historians like Selina Todd, Kate Fischer, Claire Langhamer and Deborah Cohen have since stressed the importance of region, neighbourhood and family variance, in many cases drawing on the rich personal testimonies of everyday life held within the Mass-Observation archive to give agency to these voices. They see these more localised forms as pockets of difference with their own cultural logics, troubling the efforts of apparently universalising ‘governmental’ order. Performances of public authority are thus set in dialogue with the rival practices of home and locality, in a multi-layered competition to secure meaning in everyday life.

In both political and intellectual history a closer attention to the shape and form of discourse has opened up important new insights, as language is shown, not to re-construct everyday life in its image, but to articulate narratives with their very own ‘materiality’- they are embedded with rhetorical and intellectual assumptions which need to be unpicked and historicised. Mike Savage, Jon Lawrence, William Steinmetz and Selina Todd have variously shown how the expectations held by social observers, academics and politicians shape their accounts of society, leading them to findings reflective of an image of ‘everyday life’ which is as much screened through their own practices of research as ‘out there’ in the field. This suggests the need for a step back from the historical record and for us to think more carefully about the modulated, value-laden nature of communication, and how different techniques of analysis impact upon the presentation of objective knowledge. In assessing the ‘everyday’ we need to separate out its mediation through the vernacular and official, different modes of transmission and varying forms of conceptual lens.

From another angle, the continued entrenchment of the world neo-liberal order through the stratagems of globalisation, filtered through new work in world systems theory, political science and sociology which began to stress the importance of transnational linkages, have caused many historians to pay renewed attention to the large-scale historical networks which created the modern world. They have emphasised that the everyday was constructed through and by these contingent, overlapping processes of exchange. This has been done with great panache by historians of the Atlantic World. For example, Marcy Norton has shown how the modern European experience of ‘sweetness’ was eked out through a gradual transmission of products and experiences through world trade. On a more local level we might also think of Robert Biernacki’s The Fabrication of Labor, which demonstrates how conceptions of work differed in both Germany and the United Kingdom as a result of their own distinctive workplace organisations, occupational structures, economic systems and philosophical traditions. These studies are important as they resolutely show that the most ‘micro-historical’ of events are linked up to wider historical processes. Moreover, they also suggest that ‘everyday life’ does not have an inherent or essentialist meaning to be unveiled as historical time progresses, but that this meaning is itself constructed out of the various processes which make up ‘history’.

Indeed, this is an epistemological position which is quite different from the earlier, ‘everyday life as cultural difference’ perspectives which popularised the concept in the 1980s. Rather than a form of resistance or retreat from the external world, everyday life becomes suffused with wider, shiftier, claim-making dynamics. This strand of thought has been particularly successful in Science and Technology Studies where, for example, Elizabeth Shove has shown how new kitchen objects ‘scripted’ the rhythms of everyday household life in postwar Britain. Material objects and networks of exchange themselves deliver meaning to otherwise empty receptors. In the hands of Bruno Latour this re-thinking of the relationship between language, agency and meaning is taken even further, to suggest a ‘subject-less’ social order based around networks of practices, objects and institutions- one freed from illusions about the importance of the sovereign, humanist self which he argues have plagued Enlightenment-centred political and historiographical thought. We see therefore, that the role of everyday life has grown in prominence and has changed quite significantly since the 1980s. Having once been a site where ‘hidden’ voices lurked to be discovered, it is now the instance at which voices are themselves articulated in first form. Having previously been an escape from grand narratives, it is now where the grandest narratives of all come home to roost, are transformed and are re-broadcast. Above all, the idea that something can unproblematically be called ‘everyday’ has been challenged, and instead using the word itself makes a claim about the mediated nature of historical experience. This wealth of new approaches deserves sustained reflection, and I hope that this symposium will be able to provide this.

But I hope also that this symposium will begin to engage with this grander epistemological claim concerning the everyday and the individual subject. Because I feel that, if the last decade and more of scholarship has taught us that everyday life is a site of construction, and that the idea of selfhood is contingent, that this also places more, and not less, importance on a humanist ideal of the self. This does not mean a naïve faith in the power of ‘everydayness’ to change the course of history, but instead implies seeing the everyday as a site charged with potential, where ‘everyday’ people make choices and decisions which help create their sense of selves, and articulate ‘whole alternative futures’ for them to live out, to quote the Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger. As much as everyday life is ‘scripted’ by the material world, it is also a place where people creatively engage with the objects around them to find meaning and comfort, as the work of the anthropologist Danny Miller and our very own keynote speaker Joe Moran have shown. And if it is the space where people express their identities then it is politically important and worthy of respect. Timothy Shenk recently argued that a ‘new’ New Left has grown up since the 2007 economic crash around the radical U.S. journals Dissent and Jacobin magazine, the ideas of the economist Thomas Piketty, and the energies of ‘fourth-wave’ feminism, a ‘new’ New Left with a potent deconstruction of the mind-addling, artificial fallacies and large-scale structural contradictions wielded by post-crash capitalist society. I think that if this account is to prove successful it must provide a countervailing understanding of the more specific processes which feed in to the creation of selfhood and identity- something which the historical study of ‘the everyday’ can help to achieve.

Call For Papers


 Photo from Mass-Observation ‘Worktown’ collection taken in Bolton c.1937-8 (with thanks to the Worktown Archive).

Two decades ago, Raphael Samuel composed his fierce critique of academic history. He suggested that we should spend less time pondering upon national myths – so-called ‘invented traditions’ – and instead pay more attention to ‘the perceptions of the past which find expression in the discriminations of everyday life’. He set about reconstructing the minutiae of ordinary experience ‘from below’, believing that this constituted the most insightful -and democratic- means of practicing history. Samuel’s words proved remarkably influential, and have found particular expression in recent historiographical trends. Whether interested in how daily habits and social practice have shaped self-narratives and consciousness, or in the rhetorical and intellectual utility of this concept, historians have been increasingly tuning into the ‘everyday’.


This one-day symposium hopes to bring together historians and scholars from related disciplines such as sociology, archaeology, and politics that use the idea of ‘everyday life’ in their work. The theme is not confined to any particular period or sub-discipline- instead the aim is to hear a wide range of such research and ultimately incite a lively discussion about methodological and theoretical aspects of writing about and with ‘everyday life’.


We invite interested parties to submit a short abstract of no more than 500 words to amc98@cam.ac.uk and lc449@cam.ac.uk by 4th July 2014


Papers will be limited to 20 minutes, with successful applicants to be contacted by 11th July. A small fund for contributing to travel costs is available for external speakers, please let us know in your email if you require funding.


Professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University and leading historian of the everyday Joe Moran will be giving a keynote speech, with comment to be provided by senior figures within the Faculty of History at Cambridge.

We look forward to hearing from you,

Laura Carter (lc449@cam.ac.uk) and Alex Campsie (amc98@cam.ac.uk)