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BA, MA, PhD,
School of History, Philosophy and Culture
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
+44 (0)1865 484246
Headington Campus, Tonge Block, T532
I’m an historian of modern Britain, with a particular interest in matters of statecraft, politics and governance, including “systems”: there’s more on this below. I studied politics and modern history as an undergraduate at the University of Manchester, where I remained for my postgraduate work, completing first an MA in Cultural History and then a doctorate, which was awarded in 2005. I began work at Oxford Brookes the same year, and was appointed Senior Lecturer in 2010.
I have published five books, including, most recently, a monograph with the University of California Press, entitled Governing Systems: Modernity and the Making of Public Health in England, 1830–1910; and my articles, sole and co-authored, have appeared in the European Review of History, Social History, Journal of Victorian Culture, Body and Society, History, Past & Present, Historical Research, Urban History, and Historical Journal, among other places.
I currently act as Postgraduate Research Tutor for the School, and as Chair of the University’s Research Degrees Committee. I also hold external examiner appointments at the universities of Portsmouth and Hertfordshire.
I currently lead one second-year module. Politics, Society and Culture in Modern Britain, c. 1815-1997—which I also convene with my colleague Dr Glen O’Hara—is designed to introduce students to some of the ways Britain became a recognizably modern society, albeit in often peculiar ways. Beginning with considerations of class, gender and empire, it goes on to examine the political make-up of modern Britain, and institutions such as public schools, the Boy Scouts and trade unions.
I also lead one third-year specialist module, entitled Evil in European Thought and Culture, c. 1750-1950. Offered as an Advanced Study Module in the History of Ideas, the module introduces students to some of the ways key European thinkers (Voltaire, Nietzsche, Arendt) and writers (Dostoyevsky, Conrad) grappled with extremes of human behaviour and suffering during the period c. 1750-c. 1950.
With my colleague Dr Viviane Quirke, I offer a specialist MA module on the history of health-related risks since roughly 1800, in particular those of an environmental, technological and medical sort. The aim is encourage students to reflect on the novelty of the present age, and to explore questions about when and how understanding and managing risks became such a key feature of modern societies. Key topics include climate change and technological catastrophes, and the risks that have accompanied the rise of new technologies, particularly synthetic chemicals, drugs, artificial foodstuffs, and the nuclear industry.
I am very happy to supervise doctoral research on all aspects of Victorian and Edwardian governance, especially those concerned with public health and welfare, and logistics and technology (considerations of time, space and speed). I’m also keen to supervise projects that relate to my current research projects on the history of secrecy, corruption and public life in modern Britain, and the history and historiography of systems (see below).
My current and completed research students as Director of Studies—doctoral and post-doctoral—are as follows:
My last major research project came to fruition in 2016, in the form of my first monograph, Governing Systems: Modernity and the Making of Public Health in England, 1830–1910, published as part of the Berkeley Series in British Studies by University of California Press. Briefly put, the book was an attempt to rewrite the history of the modernity of modern public health in terms of the contested formation and functioning of multiple, interlocking systems, human and material, administrative and technological. It was an attempt to displace the state as the principal agent of modern power by combining the insights of both the cultural and the material turns—if also to move beyond them by a novel focus on systems (though wisely or otherwise, I left my debts to systems theory out of the book). A number of reviews have now appeared; and the most extensive—including a response from me—can be found here: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/2166
My current research interests lie in two areas, both of which, or so I like to think, can be found in embryonic form in Governing Systems. One of these is new ways of writing the political history of modern Britain, and rethinking where it is we might locate “the political”, which for me extends much beyond what we think of as “party-politics”. This is something I’m currently working on in the form of a new—and most likely quite short and essayistic—history of political corruption, from roughly 1830 up to the present: or more precisely, the persistence, if also reworking, of corruption as a recurrent feature of public life. The basic argument is that “corruption”—the very word, in all of its varied applications, as much as the murky practices that sustain it and arouse suspicion—allows us to rethink some of the central antagonisms that animate the exercise of modern power, in this case between competing visions of the (general) public good and (particular) class-based economic interests.
The second is more obviously indebted to my first book and concerns developing what, for the moment, I’m styling as an “ecological” (or more simply, systems-based) approach to writing the history of health and welfare in modern Britain during the long nineteenth century. The aim is to offer a fresh and more holistic history of this much-studied field by abandoning hitherto crucial organizing concepts, notably “the state.” Instead, it will foreground the systemic qualities of what happened, and in particular the growth of ever-more dense and complex interrelations between human and environmental life-cycles on the one hand, and bureaucratic, political and technological forms of mediation and abstraction on the other. Partly building on recent work on the history and sociology of risk, the basic argument is that this growth of systemic complexity and interpenetration was the cause and effect of a remarkable structural paradox, whereby growing human mastery and control (over nature, technology and our own welfare) was accompanied by growing indeterminacy and a radical loss of control (again, over nature, technology and our own welfare). What we call “the welfare state” is perhaps the best known product of this paradox; but it can also be seen in attempts to regulate pollution and eradicate danger from the workplace and home.
The humble ballot paper is a defining technology of elections throughout the world. This article interrogates its contested past by demonstrating – over a long period and in the context of three contrasting countries – how and why it emerged in the early modern period and how it was then used, abused and regulated in the context of the expanded, and eventually mass, electoral arenas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ironically, by the time that the ballot paper was firmly established, its monopoly was already being challenged by mechanical and then electronic media, which may eventually condemn it to extinction.
Building on Mary Poovey’s reflections, this article outlines a two-fold genealogy of habit in the context of the philosophy and practice of liberalism. One aspect relates to the word ‘habit’, which by the 19th century had come to mean the repetitive actions of the body and mind, thus shedding its former association with dress and collective customs. The second relates to how ‘habit’ functioned as a means of mediating the tensions of liberalism, three in particular: between the self and the social; between an individual’s past, present and future actions; and between the role of the state and the role of self-government.
I am a member of the British Association for Victorian Studies; the Urban History Group; the Voluntary Action History Society; the Historical Association; the Economic History Society; and the Social History Society.
Public engagement and conferences
Over the years I’ve given scores of talks at schools, libraries, museums and branches of the Historical Association on subjects close to my research interests. I’m very happy to consider any and all invitations, so please do get in touch! I’ve also organized a number of conferences—some of which resulted in the edited collections noted above—and I’m currently organizing a two-day symposium (with Ian Cawood of Newman University, Birmingham) on the history of corruption and public service in modern Britain, which will take place at Brookes in January 2019. See here for more information: /hss/events/corruption/
A more recent public engagement project derives from an event I created with colleagues Bev Clack and Russell Anderson for the Think Human Festival at Oxford Brookes in May, 2018: a performance piece that invited the audience to consider the contrasting lives of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Adolf Eichmann, which mixed narrative sections and dramatic monologues. We’re now working on how we can develop the piece further and engage audiences in schools and the local community. See here for the original advert: /hss/events/thinking-evil-in-dark-times/
I also try to speak at a handful of conferences, seminar series and public workshops and events every year: below are some of the papers I’ve given since the start of 2018:
(28/6/2018) “The Public in Public Health, c. 1830–1940: Democracy, Strategy, Epidemiology.” Keynote lecture given to the “Publics and their Health: Historical Perspectives, Future Directions,” 28-29 June 2018, Institute of Historical Research, London.
(22/3/2018) “The politics of performance measurement: Searching for standards in Victorian public health and education.” Presented to the History of Medicine Seminar Series, University of Winchester.
(21/2/2018) “ ‘Damn the lot of them!’ Despising MPs in modern Britain.” Presented to the Bloxham branch of the Oxfordshire Historical Association.
(25/1/2018) “Notes on cynicism and populism.” Presented to the “Populism 2.0” workshop, organized by the GPES Centre and International and Political History Group, Oxford Brookes University.