Are labour historians still doing labour history?

Today I have been having a discussion with several friends on social media over the question that an academic posited to me – is labour history dead? As part of that discussion, most of us have argued that labour history isn’t dead, but it has evolved since its heyday in the 1970s and has benefitted from interaction with other historical sub-disciplines, such as women’s history, transnational history, migration history, cultural history and oral history. The scope for what is considered ‘labour history’ has widened over the last few decades and could now be considered ‘people’s history’, as the Welsh labour history Llafur recognised when they changed their masthead in 2002.

As what is described as ‘labour history’ often crosses over with other historical sub-disciplines, I was intrigued to see what was being published in journals that were explicitly categorised as ‘labour history’ journals. I found five history journals in from across the Anglophone world with the word ‘labour’ in the title and decided to browse the articles that they had published since the beginning of 2014. The journals were Labour History Review (UK), Labor History (US), Labour History (Australia), Labour/Le Travail (Canada) and International Labor and Working Class History (US/UK), which gave a good cross-section of the field in different parts of the world. I avoided other journals that could have potentially crossed over, such as Past & Present, History Workshop Journal, International Review of Social History, Socialist History Journal and Radical History Review, because while they (explicitly or implicitly) shared a popular history ‘from below’ approach, they were not specifically ‘labour history’ journals.

By examining the titles and abstracts of original research-based articles from the five journals, I made a list of the broad categories of the content of each article published in 2014-15. The number of articles in each journal issue and the frequency of publication fluctuated. For example, I examined eight issues of Labor History, while only two issues of International Labor and Working Class History were available for perusal at the time that I was doing my ‘research’. Also Labour History had up to eleven articles in one issue, while one issue of Labour History Review had as little as four. I tried to categorise the articles by the issues that they dealt with and not by region, which would have thrown up a bias towards UK or US history. Articles often straddled multiple categories and the numbers do not equate one article with one category only.

So here are the topics dealt with the most by articles published recently in specifically labour history journals:

Trade Unions 17
Strike 17
Industrial Relations 13
Race 12
Sport 10
Military 10
Colonialism 10
Transnationalism 10
Protest 8
Migration 7
British/Australian Labour Party 7
Deindustrialisation 6
International organisations 5
Ethnic communities 5
Environmental issues 5


In the table above, industrial relations broadly refers to the arbitration between workers, employers and the government, as well as specific pieces of IR legislation. Transnationalism refers to a number of things including the movement of ideas and people across borders, the building of solidarity networks across borders and supra-national labour organisations. Most of the other categories are self-explanatory (I hope).

These were the top fifteen categories, and overall I listed 45 different categories. This is skewed by the fact that there were several special issues, with Labour History having a special issue of ANZACs and labour during the First World War, Labour History Review having an issue dedicated to the strike wave of 1911, Labor History having an issue of transnational labour history and International Labor and Working Class History dedicating a special issue to African labour history.

With these qualifications, the results are bit surprising. Most people had agreed that the field of labour history had widened considerably over the last few decades and the traditional focus of the sub-discipline on straight, white working class men and their organisations (primarily the trade unions and the Labour Party) had been superseded by, for example, studies of women, ethnic minorities, and people from the colonial sphere/Global South. But I could find only three articles dealing with women. A high number of articles were still dealing with the long established topics of trade unionism, strikes, and industrial relations. Perhaps weighted by the special issue on African labour history, there were a number of articles dealing with issues of race and colonialism, as well as migration. I was surprised by the number of articles that dealt with the issue of sport and its relation to the working class and labour organisations.

While scholars are still dealing with these topics, it almost inevitable that they are looking at these topics in different ways and through the lens of the multitude of sub-disciplines that have grown since the 1970s and the ‘cultural turn’. The history of trade unionism written in 2015 is not going to be the same as if its was written in 1975. But scholars are still dealing with the same topics.

What does this mean for the field of labour history? Possibly not much. People are writing about the same things, but probably in different ways than before. But maybe it indicates that labour history is maintaining its definition in these specialised journals, while those ‘doing’ labour history are also publishing elsewhere, combining the traditions of labour history with the techniques of other sub-disciplines.

This is not an exhaustive study of the state of labour history, but a cursory glance. I’d be interested in crunching more numbers, but maybe someone with more quantitative skills might help me out (hint hint). And possibly there needs to be a content analysis too. For another time!


  1. Okay, so I crunched the figures for Llafur this afternoon and came across some interesting observations regarding the themes present in the larger labour history journals. There are similarities but there are clear differences too which might be worth thinking about as to how people first ‘access’ the field as students. Fortunately I have access to the entire run of Llafur – either through my own holdings or through the online contents lists – so have been able to go right back to the beginning. I had to extend and add some categories to take into account certain things that we talk about which don’t seem to have seeped into the broader journals as such.

    Of the big three or four categories that mark tradition labour history – trade unions, strikes and protests, industrial relations, and parties – Llafur appears to have been quite consistent. In volumes 1-3 of the journal (covering the years 1972-1983), there were 3 articles clearly about trade unions, 5 discussing strikes and 2 on protest, 5 on political parties, and 9 on industrial relations. Not surprisingly there was only 1 article that we could comfortably call a gender history piece and 1 each on race and ethnic communities. All as might be expected, right?

    Push forward through the 1980s and things start to change markedly. Only 1 article overtly declared itself about industrial relations with 3 each on strikes and protests. Political parties remained the same. But gender rises substantially to 6 pieces and race to 3. This picture is maintained in the 1990s too. At that time there was more of a balance between industrial relations and trade unions, the but total number (6 articles) remained the same.

    In the noughties and teens of the present century, the picture looks quite different. Of the major topics only work on political parties seems to have remained consistent with roughly five articles per decade. However, since 2000 only 3 pieces have been published that identify themselves as being about trade unions, just 5 about industrial relations, and only 2 about strikes. This is in contrast to 11 about sport, health, leisure and education, and 10 about gender and women’s history. One topic that seems to have completely fallen out of the Llafur canon now include religion – there hasn’t been an article on that theme in the new millennium. Explicit work on the trade unions might well be heading down that path too, although I have some hope there.

    The stand out area – and this may simply be reflection of the nature of the journal – is the prominence of biography. This fell away considerably from the 1980s to the noughties (13 articles across that period) but is now back with some vigour (14 articles in the past six years). This can’t be a positive trend for labour history, or am I being too curmudgeon?

    It is interesting to note, as you do above Evan, that Llafur became a people’s history society in 2002 and so the journal is no longer explicitly about ‘labour’, be that work, trades unionism, industrial relations or whatever. As yet that hasn’t had much of an impact on the character of the journal or the nature of the work submitted. The reasons why this may be the case are worth thinking about as we carry this discussion forward but my own view is that it reflects the appeal of labour history journals to groups that are relatively consistent. After all the journal’s name still translates as ‘labour’! My aim – taking into account the articles I’ve published on transnationalism, on sport and the Irish diaspora in Wales, on the relationship between sporting activity and the political forces of labour, and on my forthcoming article for Llafur on sexuality and class – is always to try and square the circle. To shine the light generated by the new areas back onto the old ones. Sometimes that is successful, other times less so, but the point is to try. That way, though, at least the meaning and purpose of labour history is retained.

    I think!

  2. Hi Evan, Thanks for the comments – it is an interesting exploration. This debate has been going on for a long time in the discipline and I think the two salient points for me are:
    Firstly, that it’s very difficult to get a job in specifically ‘labour history’ now. Because it’s historically been taught in schools that are now mostly ‘management schools’, academics who still do labour history are either very senior, productive and so allowed some latitude for their ‘quirky’ interests or ‘closet’ labour historians who feel pressure to work on something ‘relevant’ for their performance management masters and perhaps beaver away at labour history in their ‘spare time’. New labour history PhD graduates trying to find work would really struggle. This is pretty devastating for quantity of output and doesn’t bode well for the regeneration of the field. I can’t remember the last time we had a student who was interested in something historical because we don’t really teach it that much either.
    Secondly, labour history is in many ways intrinsically linked to the fortunes of labour itself. While not totally limited to this, we tend to like an inspiring story or at least a big ‘event’ around which to build our analysis and there are slim pickings to work with these days, as strike statistics slump further and further. Hence, the diversions to other areas have produced some great cross-fertilisation but, as you say, work on the stuff of the movement etc is pretty much on the down low. That said, industrial relations journals carry some great history pieces on occasion.
    Anyway, must get back to working on my article on mostly male blue-collar workers 🙂

  3. In the categorisations there was no mention of the co-operative movement. Is this a surprising omission? Was it that there were no articles on it in any of the journals? Or that they were not given a category? In what way is the subject and movement invisible? There have certainly been a small number of articles in Llafur in recent years and the occasional one in preceding decades.

  4. Alun, I did not come across any articles in the journals that I surveyed on the history of the co-operative movement. I checked on Google Scholar and saw that the latest article on the history of the co-operative movement was in Business History journal.

  5. In Oz, Nikki Balnave and Greg Patmore do work on co-ops. However, in Evan’s analysis they may have categorised as something else, because often they were part of union activities in localities outside cities?

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