In recent years, historians have become increasingly interested in those at the margins of society, challenging universalist assumptions about social cohesion and historical progress and seeking to recover the experiences of those excluded from the mainstream of society by their gender, race, disability, or sexuality. This session will consider this shift from ‘the margins to the mainstream’ by focusing particularly on disability history, considering the roots of this historical trend in the era of civil rights and ‘identity politics’, and exploring its impact on historical practices.
Catherine J. Kudlick, “Disability History: Why We Need Another 'Other'”, The American Historical Review 108, no. 3 (June 1, 2003): 763–93.
Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell, ‘Conclusion: Compulsory Feral-ization’, in Cultural Locations of Disability (University of Chicago Press, 2010).
- How does today's interest in marginality differ from the 1960s/70s enthusiasm for a 'history from below'?
- What understanding of power drives identity politics and its history writing?
- Why is disability history important? What drove its emergence in the 1990s?
- How might concepts such as ‘intersectionality’ change the ways in which we write history?
- How must we, as historians, be sensitive to power dynamics and questions of ethics when writing ‘marginal’ histories?
Kimberlé Crenshaw, On Intersectionality: Essential Writings (New York: The New Press, 2017).
Lennard J. Davis, The Disability Studies Reader, 4th edn (London: Routledge, 2013)
Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York: NYU Press, 2001)
Jenny Morris, Pride Against Prejudice: A Personal Politics of Disability (Women’s Press Ltd., 1991)
Michael Rembis, Catherine Kudlick and Kim E. Nielsen, The Oxford Handbook of Disability History (Oxford: OUP, 2018)
Tom Shakespeare, Disability Rights and Wrongs Revisited (London: Routledge, 2013)
Roy Hanes, Ivan Brown, Nancy E. Hansen (eds), The Routledge History of Disability (London: Routledge, 2017)
Tom Shakespeare, Kath Gillespie-Sells and Dominic Davies, The Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1996).
It is often difficult to find primary sources that reflect the voices of marginalised people, or those who exist outside the ‘mainstream’ of a given society. Those who have little access to political or cultural power – including literacy and education – often do not leave significant traces in the historical record. Yet their history is there to be written, if you are patient and know where to look. Here are some tips to get started.
Think about individuals or groups that you have encountered in another module that can be identified as ‘other’ to the society in which they found themselves. What political, cultural or social structures contribute to their exclusion? Can you find documents (speeches, letters, newspaper articles) that explain this reasoning?
Try looking for voluntary organisations that exist to help marginalised groups, or to enable those communities to gather together and lobby for their own rights and protections. Do these organisations have archives, or a magazine? Do they write letters to those in power? Try looking at the catalogues of the MRC: search by keywords, bearing in mind that terminology changes over time and you may encounter terms that would be problematic in today’s climate (Scope, the charitable organisation for people with Cerebral Palsy, used to be called The Spastic Society, a term that would not be acceptable now).
Times of conflict often reveal the marginality of certain groups, either by exacerbating that marginality (as in the case of the Holocaust, or the Armenian genocide) or, conversely, by creating spaces for marginalised groups to find economic and social opportunities that had been denied them (such as the unprecedented inclusion of women, ethnic and disabled minorities in the workplace during WWI and WWII). Are there particular historical moments that are revealing of marginality, or that disrupt it? What sources might you find (political declarations, job advertisements, etc.) that demonstrate these changing social structures?
Make sure to ask yourself who is speaking in these sources: is it someone from the mainstream who is defining a marginalised group in terms of their ‘otherness’, or someone from a marginalised group who has the space to speak for themselves? What difference does this make to how you analyse the source? Don’t be surprised, however, if marginalised people sometimes use the language of otherness to describe themselves. Notions such as ‘pride’ in one’s alternative identity are relatively new, and it is not uncommon to find sources that show marginalised people lamenting their difference and longing to be ‘normal’. Such sources can be just as intriguing, historically speaking.
It is also important to pay attention to the gaps and the silences when thinking about marginality. Whose voices are not present in these sources? What does their absence tell us about the ways in which the past is constructed, and by whom? For more on this, you may wish to consult Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).