Thursday, 25 May 2017

Professor Beverley Clack on the philosophy of religion


I’m a Philosopher of Religion. I’ve always been interested in how people make or find meaning in life, and one of the most significant ways in which people make meaningful lives is through adopting forms of religious belief or practice.

That is not to say that religion is always a Good Thing: the final chapter of the book I wrote with my brother Brian Clack in 2008 on the Philosophy of Religion considering the relationship between Religion and Terrorism, and sadly this connection has not diminished in the years that followed its publication.



But perhaps this connection should not surprise us: after all, religion is a human phenomenon, and thus it reflects the kaleidoscope of positions open to human beings. We might note that societies committed to atheism have not been averse to dealing cruelly with their citizens. I am interested in the way in which religion can add something creative and positive to life, and in an age where human experience is increasingly being shaped by information technologies and the possibility of Artificial Intelligence, it is not a bad thing to think about the ways in which human beings might create meaningful lives from reflection on their place in the cosmos.

I’m particularly interested in how psychoanalysis has helped us explore the strangeness of the connections human beings make as they seek to make sense of their place in the world. My most recent book was on Freud, and I explored his ideas explicitly against the backdrop of psychotherapeutic practice. 




My next book is on failure. I’ve become fascinated by how a dominant cultural narrative of what makes for a successful life has meant we are more miserable and anxious than ever. To be a success - so the story goes - demands attaining status, money and possessions. By exploring the shadow side of success - failure - it is possible to arrive at a different way of thinking about the meaning of life. I’m particularly interested in the way in which death has increasingly been constructed as a form of failure, when in fact it tells us something significant about the role loss and vulnerability play in determining human existence. We are not godlike creatures, separate from each other and the world. We need each other, and reflecting on loss and failure shows just how dependent we are. Instead of greeting the fact that loss and death are fundamental aspects of life with shame, we might instead allow these realities to shape better ways of living that ground us in an appreciation of this mutable world. And my book closes with suggestions about how we might do this!

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Dr Mark Cain on the human mind


I’m a philosopher interested in the human mind: what exactly are minds, how do they work and how do they develop? These questions have been at the core of my academic life since I started studying for an MPhil way back in the early 1990s. Back in those days I was rather sniffy about the relevance of science to what I thought of as distinctly philosophical questions. However, under the influence of philosophers such as Jerry Fodor and Daniel Dennett I went ‘naturalistic’ coming to see philosophy as being continuous with science. Hence, I became an enthusiast for cognitive science, the interdisciplinary study of the mind that unites philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and Artificial Intelligence. Several years later this interest manifested itself in the publication of my book The Philosophy of Cognitive Science (published in 2015 by Polity) in which I wrestle with some of the biggest questions about the mind from an empirically informed perspective. 




Being a naturalistic philosopher of mind has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, I do seem to be interested in questions which most intelligent and curious non-philosophers can relate to and see as important and interesting. I’m reminded of this whenever I go to my local book store and look in the popular science section that is stuffed with books about the mind and brain popularising, the kind of research that I reflect upon on a daily basis. As a philosopher I can’t overemphasise what a relief it is not to be regarded as some kind of crank engaged in a pointless endeavour. On the minus side, I have to remain on top of a rapidly expanding literature that straddles several demanding disciplines. This sometimes makes me feel ignorant and overwhelmed but I’ve found that running miles and miles every week along trails in the Chiltern Hills helps keep me positive. 



I’m currently writing a book for Routledge entitled Innateness and the Cognitive Mind. Here I will address the question of which aspects of the mature human mind are learned and which are innate, arguing that much more is innate than is often thought. If the trail running helps keep my anxiety levels down this book should be completed by the end of the year.


Details of my published books can be found here.

Dr Marika Leino on Renaissance plaquettes


What can you tell us about your research?
I started my career at Christie’s auction house in London, in the European Sculpture and Works of Art Department, and quickly learned that research could mean many different things. Sometimes it was a means of establishing authorship (or a route to the realisation that it was impossible to place a sculpture within the oeuvre of a particular artist, or even a school); at times an interesting ‘human interest angle’ was needed to give early modern sculpture a relevance to contemporary buyers; but more and more I came to an understanding that for me research allowed for a way of exploring how works of art, and Renaissance sculptures in particular, were appreciated in their original social and cultural contexts.

It is precisely from this perspective that my book, Fashion, Devotion and Contemplation: The Status and Functions of Italian Renaissance Plaquettes (Peter Lang, 2013), explored the many functions ofa category of objects labelled in the 19th century as ‘plaquettes’ - small, seemingly uniform, mainly bronze reliefs – concluding that they were in fact produced as a multitude of different object types – hat badges, sword pommels, sides of caskets and also collectors’ pieces to be held in the hand, discussed with cultured friends, and admired for their artistry and design. Very quickly, however, these original contexts were lost, the reliefs were divorced from their intended uses, and stored in cabinets of curiosity, and later museums, as a homonymous category, the plaquette. This disparity between initial function and later display has continued to fascinate me.



A selection of plaquettes from the V & A, London.


I am currently perplexed by inscriptions, which are hidden underneath the bases of a group of Italian fifteenth-century portrait busts. These inscriptions are written in Roman letters, carefully carved into the marble, stating the name of the sitter, the sculptor and the age of the sitter or the date of the work, and on occasion the profession of the sitter and the location. The busts were made for wealthy Florentine men, by foremost sculptors of their period; Mino da Fiesole, Benedetto da Maiano and Antonio Rossellino, between 1453 and 1468. My aim is to investigate the possible reasons for these concealed words, which can only been seen by lifting the busts off their bases, not an inconsiderable feat, as I was lucky to discover when the V&A bust of Giovanni Chellini, by Antonio Rossellino, was taken down for me – it took three men to lift it off its support and a hydraulic lift to place it back again! An analysis of the motivation for these clandestine inscriptions will be conducted through an examination of the busts themselves, by researching links between the sitters, as well as those between the sculptors, who all lived and worked in and around Florence and Rome. Many of the men portrayed were interested in ideas relating to humanism and antiquity, and so a key area of investigation will be the relationship between the inscriptions on the busts and contemporary notions of memory and posterity.





 Antonio Rossellino, Bust of Giovanni Chellini, marble, 1456, V&A, London.

How does your research influence your teaching?

Apart from the obvious links in subject matter – I teach straight art-historical courses which relate to my research on Renaissance sculpture and painting – I am increasingly interested in conveying to students the importance of thinking about original intended display and reception alongside current museum and gallery presentation. To this end, I, along with my colleagues Christiana Payne and Elizabeth Darling, developed a second year undergraduate module, Curatorial Practice, aimed at increasing curatorial awareness in our undergraduate students. This module not only allows us to consider the fascinating journeys objects have made from their original intended contexts to becoming ‘art’ in museums - altarpieces which are no longer worshipped in the churches they were made for; portraits which have lost their identity; fountain figures which have been dry for years – but has also give us, staff and students alike, the opportunity to consider how our research can shape the way in which works of art are appreciated and understood now. 

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Dr David Maguire discusses his research on the culture of male incarceration


What can you tell us about your research?

I am interested in the classed, gendered and criminal journeys of (young) men from deindustrialised regions and impoverished neighbourhoods in the UK. More specifically my research explores how boys and young men construct masculinity across various sites of exclusion, such as deprived housing estates, under resourced and ‘failing’ schools, residential children’s or ‘care’ homes and prisons. A major concern of this research is to explore if and how constructing or ‘doing’ masculinity across these sites leads many to contribute to their own economic exclusion, imprisonment and continued disadvantage. The most important aspect of my work is to uncover how these sites of exclusion play an active role in reinforcing and recreating the same masculinities they exclude, abandon and incarcerate.

Why did you choose this research?
I came to academic research and teaching relatively late. Before this I spent almost two decades working in heavily deprived areas or housing estates, with marginalised groups and those described as ‘hard to reach’. During this time I worked in schools and exclusion centres, with homeless populations, those involved in gang or serious youth violence, with male prisoners in both young offender institutions (YOI) and adult prisons.

During this period I was constantly struck by how for many of the young men it was ‘doing masculinity’ across impoverished spaces that led incrementally to more extreme exclusion, with every shift culminating in costly and more marginalised masculine performances. I understood then the significance of class, gender and place and wanted to explore this more.      

What makes your research different?
Many criminologists agree gender is the best predictor of crime and that men are by a huge margin the sex responsible for violent, sexual and other serious offences. It follows that in most industrialised societies, prison populations remain relatively static at over 90% male. Data from a range of sources for England and Wales shows that 90% of the male prison population is predominantly made up of undereducated, underemployed, young men from the poorest neighborhoods. Despite men featuring so heavily in crime and prison statistics there is relatively little qualitative scholarship exploring the links between masculinity and crime and even less focusing on ‘doing masculinity’ in UK prisons. Most of the important research on prison and prisoners tends of focus on ‘lifer’ or long-term prisoners. With a focus on gender and the interplay between masculinity, education, and crime among short-term ‘revolving door’ prisoners, this research adds to addressing a deficit in knowledge. Importantly through this work I reveal some of the process behind the substantial overrepresentation of poor and undereducated men as prisoners


How do you feel about being part of the team developing the new criminology course here at Oxford Brookes and will your input be informed by your research and work experiences?

I am very excited to be in at the start of this new criminology course. As a subject area criminology is growing at an incredible rate and is increasingly being seen as a pathway to rewarding careers across criminal justice agencies and in other sectors. The enthusiasm for this course in the department, coupled with the openness to draw from existing modules and expert knowledge across the faculty, sets a solid foundation to develop what will be an intellectually engaging and highly regarded criminology pathway.

The most exciting feature for me in terms of the lecturing role is the encouragement and expectation that my teaching will be both research led and informed by my extensive practical experiences. My research interests (gender/masculinity, boys ‘underachievement’, resistance to and rejection from changing workplaces, crime and imprisonment) straddle key contemporary criminological issues. I am equally enthused by the opportunity to draw on and share the extensive academic and practical knowledge from departmental colleagues.   Our associated networks will play a significant role in relating real world issues to core criminological themes and perspectives, which will offer a great experience for our students.  

Friday, 21 April 2017

Yale visit shows anxiety and concern about Britain’s role in the world

On Tuesday 11 and Wednesday 12 April, I spent two days at Yale University in Connecticut. As one of the world’ best universities, and a key centre of research and teaching in the United States, it was an excellent vantage point from which to take the temperature of American Higher Education – and especially, as a British historian myself, in terms of US views of both British history and contemporary British politics. Invited by Yale’s Centre for International Security Studies to speak to both faculty and students, it was a fascinating visit that helped me to both sharpen my research questions and to see how others perceive the UK’s modern history.



As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, and now enters yet another election campaign, clearly many Americans were very interested to hear and talk about the situation the UK finds itself in. What I found most obvious was a puzzlement that Britain should chose to leave the EU, but perhaps more deeply an uncertainty as to where Britain stands – diplomatically, politically, even culturally and ideologically.

On the first day of my  visit, I helped take an undergraduate class, comprised not just of History students but drawing participants from subjects as diverse as Political Science and Computing, entitled ‘War at Sea in the Age of Sail’. Together with Dr Evan Wilson, who once taught with me here at Oxford Brookes as an Associate Lecturer, we looked with the students at different visions of Britain’s foreign policy in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: a so-called ‘blue water’ policy, or a European engagement. Nothing could seem more apposite in terms of present-day choices, and the students wanted to ask about the parallels with British diplomacy right now: to talk about trade, national self-image, and foreign relations, especially over Gibraltar, a running crisis at the time.

I then gave a paper to the ISS Brady-Johnson Colloquium in Grand Strategy and International History, entitled ‘Is the Sea Still Swinging into View? Contemporary British History and the Maritime Turn’. In this I attempt to show how the uncertainties stalking modern British politics have been transmuted into the way in which we think about Britain’s seagoing past: how modern concerns over networked economies, regional and continental trade blocs, gender and identity politics, and concepts of moveable, mutable space have fed back into the ways in which we perceive Britons’ engagement with the wider world. The questions were sharp, wide-ranging, and hard to field, mainly focusing on the way in which the British imagination lost touch with the oceanic emphasis that would have seemed second nature to most Georgian or Victorian Britons: again, the parallels with today’s debates about British as a ‘global’ or ‘European’ power were not hard to see.

On the Wednesday, I gave a lecture on Britain’s Brexit vote, trying to draw out the wider cultural, geographical, political and demographic issues that helped to bring about Britain’s ‘Leave’ vote. Here I argued that this decision was not primarily economic, but cultural – a protest against rapid change in and of itself, and (in England at least) a revolt of small towns and ‘provinces’ against London and other big cities. The audience were particularly interested in the parallels with the election of President Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election, as well as the emergence of so-called ‘populist’ movements across the developed world.

Overall, what was so noticeable about the reactions in my teaching session, and at my two talks, was the lack of clarity about Britain’s modern role in the world: is it a free-trading, ocean-going, globalised power, or a more ‘normal’ mid-ranking regional nation-state? And how do Britons now see their national past in the light of those dilemmas and choices? As a country that – as part of an Atlantic archipelago – looks inevitably outwards, or as a country with deep ties and interests in the heart of its own continent? It is no wonder that US students and lecturers are unclear, because Britain is very divided and uncertain about those issues too.


Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs regularly, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past, and writes about current public affairs for a number of publications, including The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog, The Staggers.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Meet Dr Tom Crook, Lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

Will you be voting on 4 May?
The local elections are almost upon us, which in Oxfordshire at least—elections are not taking place everywhere in England—means that upwards of 60 seats on the county council are up for grabs on 4 May. Democracy, so central to “our way of life,” is once more about to be practised at the ballot box. Excited?
The answer is probably not—and that’s assuming you even know these elections are taking place. If past trends are anything to go by, turnout is likely to be between 25 and 35% in most divisions. The last time Oxfordshire county council elections were held in 2013 not one division recorded a turnout above 50%. A handful even dipped below 20%.
Oxfordshire is not alone. The fact is that the majority of those eligible to vote in local elections simply don’t bother. For sure, the situation is better when it comes to UK general elections. Even so, over the long-term, electoral participation has steadily declined. The best turnout was secured in the 1950 general election, when some 84% of those eligible to do so voted. And the figure didn’t dip below 70% until 2001, when only 59% voted. Since then things have improved, though we’re still nowhere near to hitting pre-2001 levels. In 2010, turnout was 65%. In 2015, it was 66%.
Why this should be the case is doubtless complex, and has been much debated, especially by political scientists. All can agree, however, that it is partly—and for some, mostly—a product of growing apathy, cynicism and indifference, or what some call “democratic disenchantment.”
It’s just these kind of anti-political sentiments and actions (or inactions) that form a crucial part of my new research project on public life in modern Britain, which besides looking at cynicism and apathy will also examine the political (or for some, anti-political) function of secrecy and economic self-interest. It’s a project, in short, about the corruption of public life, its decay and quiet subversion. And it’s a project that I look forward to developing in my upcoming period of sabbatical leave, which begins in September and is generously funded by the School of History, Philosophy and Culture.
To be sure, apathy, cynicism, indifference: these might seem like the dregs of our political culture, the lumpen stuff we should really put to one side—they’re like the anti-matter of our political universe. It’s no surprise that political historians have been more interested in people who care about politics and the aspirations and ideals that motivate politicians and those that vote for them. And yet, when it comes to understanding what democracy is, and how it is lived and experienced, apathy and cynicism surely deserve consideration alongside activism, engagement and idealism. The statistics quoted above certainly suggest as much.
In any case, they’re no less fascinating and no less historical than the wholesome stuff of active citizenship. Non-voting is a case in point. It will come as little surprise, perhaps, that the problem was first studied in the 1930s, shortly after mass suffrage had finally been fully secured in 1928. It was then that the non-voter was first upheld as a threat to democracy. Yet, as I want to argue, it was also at this point that non-voting began to pose a kind of conceptual challenge to British democracy and all those concerned with its health. The issue of compulsory voting, for instance, was first discussed in parliament in the 1930s, prompting the question of whether such a policy was good for democracy, by ensuring full participation, or bad for democracy, because it violated the right to abstain and do nothing.
Above all, there was the vexed question of why non-voting took place: was it simply that people weren’t interested in politics at all, or rather that they felt alienated from party politics in particular, though not politics per se? Consider the following, written by Tom Harrisson, from Mass Observation’s (unpublished) study of the “non-voter” in Bolton conducted in 1938, one of the first studies of its kind in Britain (the Americans conducted the first in the 1920s): “In this country the non-voter has received little attention either from politicians or political theorists, but it seems of prime importance at the present time for all democracies to discover why so many of their citizens neglect their electoral opportunities.”
He went on to explain that there were “two main schools of thought” on the matter. The first considered “the non-voter either too ignorant or apathetic to go to the polls once a year.” The second advanced “the directly contrary opinion that the non-voters are the elite of the electorate – the sensitive and high-principled who are disgusted with the modern political battlefield.”
Little has changed since and the causes of non-voting are still not clear today. For all the contemporary studies which point to apathy and ignorance, just as many point to the kind of “disgust” invoked by Harrison—and these are very different things indeed.

So, if elections are happening where you live, will you be voting on 4 May? If not, if you stay at home, you might at least ask yourself why.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Meet Dr James Cooper, Lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

What can you tell us about your research?

My research focuses on contemporary American history in a broader context.  In particular, it examines the transfer of political ideas and policies between the United Kingdom and the United States and how an issue in one country affects policy making elsewhere.  In short, my research revolves around the interaction between domestic politics, foreign policy and policymaking.  It has resulted in two books.  The first focused on Anglo-American policy transfer between the Reagan administration and the Thatcher government, debunking common myths about the similarities between Reaganism and Thatcherism (Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan:  A Very Political Special Relationship, Palgrave, 2012).  The second examined the role of U.S. presidents in the Northern Ireland conflict and is a significant contribution to the emerging scholarship about American influence on the Anglo-Irish process and Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ (The Politics of Diplomacy:  U.S. Presidents and the Northern Ireland Conflict, 1967-98, Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

Why did you not just choose to study the History of one country?


I do not believe that events and issues can be studied simply through the history of one country.  The politics and policy making of countries do not occur in isolation from developments elsewhere and the writing of history should reflect this.    Therefore, despite my primary focus being the history of the United States, my research considers America in a global context. 

What are the highlights of doing your research?


My research has allowed me to visit plenty of interesting places and meet fascinating people.  I conduct research in a variety of American, British and Irish archives, including numerous presidential libraries.  My favourite presidential library is probably the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (partially because it has the best canteen), although I would recommend that anyone with an interest in American history should try to visit any presidential library if they can!  I was fortunate to be able to conduct over thirty interviews with key protagonists – including: Mr Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; Lord (Geoffrey) Howe, former UK Foreign Secretary; Lord (Charles) Powell, leading adviser to Margaret Thatcher; Mr Edwin Meese, a leading figure in the Reagan administration; and, Lord (Neil) Kinnock, former Labour Party leader – and I am regularly able to consult the most recently available archival material.  Researching in archives often leads to all sorts of surprises.  I have read documents that detail the Reagan administration’s excitement about a visit by Michael Jackson to the White House and Bill Clinton’s offer to babysit Leo Blair, youngest son of Tony and Cherie, after his presidency ended in 2001.     

Do you compare history to current affairs?


The subject matter of my research certainly lends itself to comparisons with current events in both Britain and the United States.  I have blogged on ‘Cultural Thinking’ about the regularly asserted comparison between the Reagan-Thatcher relationship with the emergence and relationship of Donald Trump and Theresa May.  In addition to making anecdotal comparisons in my teaching between history and the present, I have contributed to American and British news coverage about the politics in both countries. 
 

What do people think about your research?

 

My research had led to very exciting opportunities.  For instance, in 2012-13 I was the Fulbright-Robertson Visiting Professor of British History at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri (where I also curated an exhibit, based on my research on Reagan and Thatcher, at the college’s National Winston Churchill Museum).  In November 2014 I was interviewed about the Reagan-Thatcher relationship on the BBC News Channel.  I was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo in May 2016.    My books have been positively reviewed by my peers and I am a regular contributor to academic journals, collections of essays and conferences.  Many people find it interesting that what I study is considered to be ‘History’ given that it happened in living memory – including my own!  

Meet Dr Marius Turda, Reader in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

What can you tell us about your research?

I’ve researched the history of eugenics for more than a decade, particularly in East-Central Europe and published a number of books on the topic. I have also researched the history of East-Central Europe more broadly, focusing on nationalism, fascism and biopolitics. I’m really interested at the moment in a global history of race and racism. This emerged from a 3rd year module that I taught last year when I was emboldened by my students to delve deeper into the labyrinthine meanings of race.

Why did you choose race and racism?

I have always been interested in the history of race, particularly in terms of its complicated relationship with philosophy, culture, science and politics. Historians must attend to specific historical traditions, but at the same time suggest the need for a new cultural and moral framework suitable for dealing with questions of collective, minority and individual identity in an increasingly polarised and divided world. In my teaching, I try to dispel the fears and insecurities our students may have when talking about race and racism in our society and in their communities. Tellingly, race as we now know it, in the twenty-first century, has not changed significantly by comparison to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, when it first emerged as a tool to interpret human difference. It is becoming clear that, despite historians deconstructing racism, racial narratives have proved to be enduring.

What is the contemporary relevance of your research?
I am known nationally and internationally as a specialist in the field of racial studies and eugenics in East-Central Europe, a field I spearheaded through my publications, research networks and student supervision. More recently I began looking at broader geographical areas. In this work, I re-conceptualise the history of nation and race by exploring the plurality of global racial heritages that are forgotten or misplaced. In my current book on race, to be published this year by Bloomsbury, I suggest that a more nuanced historical and critical perspective on race is needed in order to understand its growing appeal to contemporary sensibilities. After all, Brexit has highlighted the broader crisis of national and collective identity which Britain and Europe at large are experiencing at the moment. In its current personification, racism is expressed in a political vocabulary that utilises strategies of coping with an identity, which allegedly is under threat. In this respect, we need to understand the appeal of race within its historical context, as many of the images used by politicians today are often recycled historical narratives, so popular in 1920s and 1930s, and, indeed, in the nineteenth century.


Meet Dr Katherine Watson, Lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

What is your research about?

I research the history of crime and forensic medicine in Britain, especially England and Wales, since about 1700, with a particular focus on the period up to the First World War. I’m especially interested in the role played by doctors in solving crimes and how that changed over time, given the increasing presence of lawyers and police in the criminal justice system. Because these links are most visible in cases of violent crime, I tend to spend a lot of time reading first-person accounts of murder and other grisly goings-on. This might sound rather grim, but really it’s not!

Why did you choose the history of forensic medicine?

It was a lucky accident, really. My original intention was to become a chemist, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that although the scientific information I’d gained from my undergraduate degree might be interesting, it wouldn’t make for a rewarding research career. But it led me to the history of chemistry and from there I began to explore the history of toxicology – a science that has always been closely associated with poisoning crimes. From there it became obvious that doctors, rather than chemists, were always there or thereabouts when there’d been a murder – somebody had to examine the victim and provide a report for the courts, and usually it was a local practitioner. This led me to explore notions of expertise, a subject of broad interest to historians, criminologists and lawyers. And the forensic focus of my research means that my training as a scientist remains useful.

What makes your research different?

I’m a little unusual in having scientific training and in that my interest in forensic medicine has led me to combine several different aspects of social and legal history: the workings of the criminal justice system, laws and how they’re applied, the development of policing, the expertise of the medical profession, and the motives and methods of accused criminals. This connects to broader social problems like domestic violence and poverty, in many cases. Most or all of these issues are instantly related and brought vividly to light the moment a violent crime is committed, and it is important to realise that this was no less the case in the eighteenth century than today. Of course it wasn’t quite the same then, but it was more similar than most people assume. My research aims to show how we got to where we are now when it comes to crime investigation – students always find that fascinating.

What are the highlights of doing your research?

There are lots! The sense of stepping in to the shoes of a person who lived decades or centuries ago brings the past alive for me, particularly when I can see on the page in front of me their signature, or an ink blotch, or a prosecuting barrister’s trial notes (usually involving lots of underlining and a few shorthand comments using blue pencil), or the occasional doodle. I’m particularly drawn to a weird fanged dog that a Welsh judge drew in his trial notebook in 1814; I hope he did it between trials, which were conducted pretty speedily by modern standards. The point here is about evidence in court: who presented it, what they said and what the jury and judge made of it! The insights that people’s comments, questions, decisions and actions provide to attitudes and beliefs about family, medicine, law, the police, criminality, violence and justice are windows into the past but still speak to today’s concerns.

What will your research show?

Nowadays when a crime occurs our first thought is to call the police, and they immediately call in a forensic team: a pathologist to examine the victim and a separate forensic scientific expert (often more than one) to photograph and examine the crime scene. My research shows how and when these patterns became established during the course of the nineteenth century. The development of forensic practices that we now take for granted was closely linked to the expansion of policing and an increasingly lawyer-dominated courtroom practice, and I see this beginning in the first half of the eighteenth century.


Meet Dr Elizabeth Darling, Reader in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture


What is your research about?

I work on the history of modernist architecture and design in inter-war England. I’ve long been interested in moving away from the standard narratives about this, which have tended to focus on individual practitioners, and which tend to lament the tardiness of the English modern movement and to equate it solely with the work of √©migr√© practitioners. Instead, my work has shown how from the early 1920s onwards, there was much debate in England about how the country might be re-formed and the new types of architecture that might help facilitate this. I’ve looked at the networks of people who shared these ideas and the coming together of clients and architects which enabled transformative environments to be created not just in the domestic sphere, but also in arenas such as housing and education. I’m also really interested in the ways these ideas were promoted – through media as diverse as architecture periodicals, radio talks, film and books –and how this created what I call ‘narratives of modernity’ that embedded these ideas more widely, creating a progressive consensus that manifested itself after 1945 in the architectural forms of the Welfare State.
Another key area of interest, and one that often intersects with my work on modernism, is the ways in which women have contributed to the formation of the built environment. This has been a key preoccupation in architectural history for the past 20 or so years, and I’ve been at the forefront of an impulse that has favoured expanding our understanding of what constitutes the design process rather than pursuing a quest for ‘great women architects.’ So I’m really interested in women who’ve written about, for example, new forms of domesticity, campaigned from better housing, or been the clients of radical projects and who’ve played a formative role in their creation.

Why did you choose these subjects ?

As an undergraduate and then a Masters student, I had developed 2 main interests – modernist architecture (especially in the UK) and in re-thinking art and architectural history in the light of the feminist approaches which had really started to take hold when I was doing my BA in Art History. I can pinpoint exactly when I found a subject that enabled me to move these interests into a sustained research career. I was looking at an article on a key modernist project – Kensal House – which was completed in 1936 and noticed that the attribution of the project was rather an unusual one 







For a start it listed a number of individual architects (rather than one only, or the name of a practice, which would have been more typical) and then, at the end, was the name of a woman (the architects were all men) who was described as a ‘housing consultant.’ I was already really interested in Kensal House because, as an early example of modernist social housing, it was always featured in histories of English modernism but no one ever went into detail about it. In particular, it was the attribution line that intrigued me. Why were all these people listed? Who, I wondered, was Elizabeth Denby, and what was a housing consultant? No one had bothered to ask such simple questions before. I did, and it led me to a study of a fascinating individual in Denby who played a major role in developing modernism in England but who was not an architect, and who, despite being very well-known and much admired in her day, had been ‘disappeared’ from history. I wanted to put her back, but in a way that changed the nature of that history. 





In this respect I had a lot of help from Denby herself. She left very few personal papers so I had to re-create the environments from which she emerged and in which she practised - the networks of people with and from whom she developed her ideas about housing and design – in so doing it became apparent that to think about architecture as the work of one single individual was utterly simplistic. The sort of projects with which Denby was involved, like Kensal House, were formed by – among other things- a client’s (the Gas,Light and Coke Company) need to promote its goods and services and itself as a modern enlightened corporation; an evolving politics of housing which now emphasised slum clearance and inner-urban regeneration; a network that linked Denby to a local employer in an area in which she’d worked as a housing campaigner in the 1920s (north Kensington) and her ability to steer a project to embody her own philosophy of housing. The latter she promoted both through buildings like Kensal House but also in her influential book, Europe Rehoused, which was published in 1938.

What makes your research different?

In many ways all my writing since then has sought to simulate this  idea of architecture as an ongoing process of being made – whether I’ve been writing about Denby or inter-war modernism more generally (like in my 2007 book Re-forming Britain). I’ve been concerned to show how networks of people and ideas and circumstances intersect to make our built environment and then how those environments continue to evolve through their use, and their mediation in the press and so forth. Most recently, I’ve taken these ideas to a slightly earlier period and place – early 20th–century Edinburgh – to explore how a range of women reformers transformed the everyday lives and environments of the women and children who lived in the slums of the city’s Old Town. It’s been fascinating to document the way women doctors, kindergarten teachers and housing reformers worked together to effect change and how their contribution to reform has been sidelined by the much-better known (and really rather over-rated) Patrick Geddes. 



My next project takes me back to the inter-war period: From Networks to Receivers – Material and Spatial Cultures of Broadcasting in inter-war England will be a history of the design of BBC Broadcasting House (1932) and the wireless sets through which its programmes were heard. I am privileged to have been the recipient of one of the University’s Research Excellence Awards, which will support the writing of book manuscript.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Meet Professor David Nash, Lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

One of the abiding research questions I ask myself, despite frequent diversions, is how and why has religion survived into the twenty-first century. The twentieth-century endlessly noted its apparent decline and was even swaggering enough to predict its total disappearance. When this not only did not happen, but we actually saw an upsurge in interest in religion, this left many historians scratching their heads and searching for alternative explanations.

My research has been seeking to provide an answer to this conundrum by thinking about how religion has a specific ‘use’ for people in the circumstances of their modern life. This means the religious and the secular are not so much beliefs as tools that people pick up to make sense of situations, events and happenings. In my last book (Christian Ideals in British Culture: Stories of Belief in the twentieth century. Palgrave Publishing) I explored how Christianity in Britain used stories of pilgrimage, remembrance, sickness and death, the ‘just’ war and salvation to make sense of existence and people’s place in this. These stories were so strong that secular versions of them could also be found. This meant that previous ideas of religion being replaced by the secular was not borne out by this evidence. People at large in the twentieth century primarily wanted explanations and comfort instead of thinking deeply about the theology behind them as many historians presumed. For people in search of meaning ideas helped and this was irrespective of whether they were religious or not. If this could be true throughout the century then the idea of religion waning in favour of the secular forever was not only untrue – it was actually probably irrelevant!

To complete this idea the current book I’m working on (loosely entitled ‘Secular Stories in the twentieth century) is the other half of the circle of my argument, and I am delighted to be the recipient of a Brookes Research Excellence Award to enable me to write several chapters of this during the spring of 2018. Through this book I am now looking at secular stories and how both the secular and the religious have used these in similar ways to make sense of the world and civilisation. These stories include the individual turning their back on religion, the power of science as explanation, stories of material progress and welfare, the quest for freedom of expression, human sexual freedoms and morality and lastly the disestablishment of religion within the state. As in my first book both the religious and secular have grasped hold of and made use of these stories and such actions have left an imprint upon twentieth century cultural history. Again they do not follow any pattern related to the secular triumphing over the religious. Indeed a central point of this second book is that religion did not sit idly by let these narratives be identified as secular. In a more organic process they came to be used by the religious to find accommodation with a secular world.

The long term aim of this project is to get us away from increasingly fruitless discussions of when religion declined, discussions that often fragment into pieces when you look closely at some evidence. Instead recognising the strength of religious and secular stories can help us produce an alternative history of people interacting with religion rather than being seen as passive shoppers and consumers for pre-packaged belief systems.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

A Very Short History of Dowsing

I just published the chapter, 'The Divining Rod. Origins, Explanations and Uses in the Thirteenth to Eighteenth Centuries', in: Kallestrup, Louise / Toivo, Raisa (eds.): Contesting Orthodoxy in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave 2017, p. 127-144.

The divining rod is a special variety of the magic wand which is itself just one of the innumerable versions of the staff as a symbol of power. The first sources that say clearly that the divining rod was used to find hidden or lost objects date back to the early 15th century. The divining rod gained popularity or rather notoriety in the 16th century when it was used – against the explicit criticism of Georg Agricola (1494-1555), the father of scientific mining, - in the rising mining industry of Germany. 



During the early modern period, the divining rod turned into an all-purpose tool for divination: Dowsers claimed that they could find forgotten boundary stones, suitable sites for building, game in the exploited hunting grounds of the nobility, unoccupied spots in the churchyard, or even mistakes in history books. If you searched for hidden springs or mineral veins you did not even have to leave your study anymore: It was sufficient to hold the divining rod over a map. It would point out the spot where you had to dig. In 1692, the master dowser Jacques Aymar even managed to find a murderer who had escaped the law enforcement officers of Lyon. Even though the magical charlatanry of dowsing never went unchallenged the divining rod survived into the 21st century.

Whereas the early theoreticians of the divining rod had claimed that there was some mysterious connection between the rod and the materials you searched for, from the 17th century onwards the person of the diviner became more important.  It was said that only especially sensitive persons were able to dowse. The 20th century witnessed a relative ‘democratization’ of the use of the divining rod: It was now claimed that you did not need any special kind of talent in order to work successfully as a dowser. All it took was a little concentration and one of the many, relatively cheap training manuals. Dowsing for supposedly healthy food – never mind what your doctor might say - seems to be the latest trend.

The key to the success of the divining rod or its more modern equivalent, the pendulum, is its very simplicity. The divining rod is the dilettante’s dream: It is cheap and can be handled by practically everyone, it requires hardly any training and no expert knowledge. Thus, the divining rod is the very opposite of a scientific instrument.

Professor Johannes Dillinger, Professor in History, among whose many research interests are the history of  Witchcraft, Magic, and Folk Religion.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Meet Professor Christiana Payne, Lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture.


I’ve been interested in landscape painting for a long time. I very much enjoy walking in the country, visiting mountains or coastal areas, looking at clouds, sunsets and sunrises, and seeing how the seasons change. So it seems natural to me to take an interest in those artists from the past (and present) who have recorded their impressions of these places and effects.

My most recent project has been on trees in British art from 1760 to 1870.  The idea came to me from a combination of looking and reading. I saw an exhibition (in Edinburgh) of watercolours by the eighteenth-century artist Paul Sandby, including some amazing pictures of beech trees, and at about the same time (on a holiday in Suffolk) I read a book by the nature writer, Roger Deakin, entitled Wildwood: A Journey through Trees.  I realized that here was a new topic, which, surprisingly, had never been treated systematically before. Moreover, it had definite popular appeal.

I knew that some of my favourite artists had devoted a lot of attention to drawing and painting trees – Samuel Palmer, John Constable and Edward Lear. What I didn’t realize when I started was there were some beautiful illustrated books on trees published in my chosen period – and lots of drawing manuals. Evidently, amateurs and artists were drawing trees like mad at this time, getting to know the attributes of the different species and trying to express their ‘character’ as if they were human subjects.



 John Constable, Elm Trees in Old Hall Park, East Bergholt (1817).  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 



The research has given me a new view of British landscape painting – one in which drawing is as important as painting.  It has taken me to see watercolours and drawings in public collections, especially the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I’ve enjoyed looking at old books in the Bodleian Library. And I’ve also travelled to see actual trees – the very ancient ones, that were depicted in the eighteenth century and still survive today, such as the Tortworth Chestnut in Gloucestershire, the Ankerwycke Yew, near the spot where Magna Carta was signed, and the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire. In some cases they look exactly like the ‘portraits’ that were made of them in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.

There is something mystical about these huge old trees, and in the eighteenth century people wrote openly of ‘worshipping’ them. They believed that their forefathers – the Druids - had worshipped God in groves, before the building of cathedrals whose architecture mimicked the forms of the forest.  They recorded the many popular superstitions that gave magical power to trees.

I find that my work gets favourable reactions, because so many people love trees. I had my own favourite trees as a child – an old horse chestnut on which I had a rope swing, and a group of beeches whose roots were intertwined. I once found some money amongst the roots of these beech trees – which then became know in my family as the ‘leprechaun trees’. Now that I live in Oxford I very much enjoy getting to know individual trees in the street, in the local park, and even on the Brookes campus – there is a magnificent oak between the Tonge and Gibbs buildings that I visit regularly.








Samuel Palmer, In a Shoreham Garden (c. 1830) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London  



Attitudes to trees have been affected by social and political change. Eighteenth-century paintings show humble cottages nestling in the shelter of ancient oaks; by the mid-nineteenth century they depict middle-class visitors picnicking in the woods. Views of landed estates make way for pictures that celebrate public woodland, open to all. Different species rose and fell in popular estimation: oaks acquired special status because they provided the main material for wooden ships, but in the mid-nineteenth century the beech woods were especially loved as places to escape the summer heat of the cities.

Trees purify the air, they hold on to soil to prevent flooding, they provide havens for wildlife. And much recent research shows that they are vital to human wellbeing. So there is a direct link between the perception of trees in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the issues that face us today.

I’m delighted to have been awarded a Research Excellence Award by the University – this will enable me to focus on sharing the results of my research with a wider audience.  I am curating an exhibition at the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford, and will also be working with the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum on activities and resources for visitors.