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!

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hatfulofhistory at gmail dot com

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