Covid-19 Oral Histories

Anita Klingler[1] and Lauren Hall-Lew[2]

The Lothian Diary Project launched in May 2020 to investigate “how the COVID-19 lockdown is changing the lives of people in Edinburgh and the Lothians.”[3] Led by sociolinguists, in collaboration with historians, data scientists, psychotherapists, public health researchers, and political scientists, the University of Edinburgh (UofE) project collected audio/video self-recordings and online surveys submitted remotely by people in lockdown. By July 2021, the project had collected nearly 200 unique contributions, with over 80 of the recordings publicly shareable.

Although not designed as a classic oral history project, these recordings and their transcripts were contributed to the City of Edinburgh’s Museums and Galleries division as an “oral history archive.” Many of those files are also available through the UofE’s open access DataShare service, and on YouTube. The entire project is available to interested researchers, with valid ethical permissions, via the UofE’s DataVault archive. In this post, we will describe how the data were collected, what sort of recordings the archive contains, and why it might be of interest to historians.

The project’s methods of data collection were purposely designed for lockdown and social distancing measures. The guiding question for the audio/video recordings was: “How has your life changed during lockdown?” Interested participants were instructed to record themselves using their own electronic device, and then to upload the file to an online survey that linked to the project’s account. Interview questions were posted in a list on the project website as suggested prompts, but participants did not need to adhere to them and indeed many did not. The focus on self-recordings, as opposed to virtual/remote interviews, was intentional, stemming from the Principal Investigator’s (PI) previous linguistic work on the stylistic variation found in self-recordings. In a sense, lockdown restrictions provided an opportunity to further this line of the research.

The team have now published several outputs, ranging from discussions of COVID-19 research methods (Hall-Lew, et al., 2022) to a report for Scottish Parliament (Liu, et al., 2021). The most recent output explores how different segments of Edinburgh’s community experienced dramatically different shifts in time and place as a result of the first COVID-19 lockdown (Cowie, et al., 2022).

While the data collection methods differ from most oral history projects, the methodological differences and the interdisciplinary approach have resulted in a unique collection of audio/visual recordings representing life at a particularly interesting point in history. The recordings vary in how retrospective they are. Recordings in May 2020 reflect on the weeks immediately prior, but also the speaker’s experience of lockdown at the time of the recording. These are often marked by raw commentary on immediate circumstances, and they reflect how people made sense of the period of the pandemic and the lockdowns, as they were still happening, in the moment. Recordings made later, especially towards July 2021, are much more reflective about the whole lockdown and COVID-19 experience up to that date, although they are nonetheless still produced in the context of the unfolding crisis. (For example, there is more of a focus on vaccines.) The range of styles that comprise the recordings potentially allows for a range of different insights and conclusions. At the same time, the centrality of the COVID-19 lockdown ‘moment’ uniting all the recordings together raises issues that will be familiar to oral historians.

A topic that has traditionally occupied oral historians is what their sources can tell them, and what they cannot. Though this question should of course occupy all historians, regardless of the types of sources they use, oral history in its early days in particular came in for severe criticism of the ‘unreliability’ of memory and the limitations of oral history as evidence. As the field developed, it became clear that oral history’s particular value lay not so much in recovering the facts, reconstructing history ‘as it really happened’, but rather in allowing historians to understand how contemporaries made sense of events, how they understood them, and how they composed their own life stories into a narrative that made sense to them.[4]

This last element is a key feature of the Lothian Diaries. Since the recordings were not interviews, each individual had more freedom to choose what to talk about, and how. In terms of the ‘what’, not everyone chose to use the prompts suggested on our website, meaning that the content is not necessarily directly comparable across all recordings. However, what it does give us is an insight into what mattered most to people, what they felt was important to talk about, or what they most felt comfortable talking about. In terms of the ‘how’, sometimes the recordings seemed to be less self-conscious speech than what you might find in an interview. For example, the speaker might record their stream of consciousness while out on their daily walk, commenting on the natural environment around them, as they experience it. In other cases, the recording is marked by quite formal linguistic features, such as reading a written text out loud, or sign-posting moments throughout the recording with moral ‘takeaways’ or advice for future generations of listeners who might not have lived through COVID-19. Indeed, the framing of the project as an oral history (literally, “a video time capsule,” in one of the project’s advertisements), seems to have motivated many of the speakers to participate, in the first place. The serious, life-or-death realities of COVID-19 further add to a sombre and emotional mood across many of the contributions. However, it is also important to note that, because these were self-recordings, information about the recording context is limited. For audio-only recordings, for example, we lack facial expressions and body language, and the audio-quality itself varies quite a bit.

One concern about treating this collection as an oral history archive is the collection’s representativeness. Creating an audio/video diary and answering a survey takes time, and the sample is over-represented by people who had that time (e.g., the majority did not have caring responsibilities). The fact that participants self-selected also means that the demographics of the sample are not an exact match to the population. For example, it is widely known that women respond to research calls more often than men. The Lothian Diary Project used recruitment measures directly targeted at men, to try to mitigate this effect, but the overall sample is still only 38% male (or “masculine-dominant”). The “speaker sample is also unbalanced due to over-representing those groups that already distinguish Edinburgh from the rest of Scotland. For example, there are more participants with post-secondary education (54%) than in the population as a whole (41%), and more speakers aged between 25 and 44 (42%) than in the city population (34%)” (Hall-Lew, et al., 2022: 6).

We tried to counteract these expected results by establishing partnerships with a dozen local charities, who we compensated financially in exchange for their recruitment efforts. This included charities working with the chronically homeless, those with learning disabilities, and other vulnerable adults. Due in part to our personal connections, the sample does have an overrepresentation of people of colour (16%, twice the Edinburgh population) and immigrants (24%, versus 16% of Edinburgh), and nearly 20% of the sample identifies as LGBTQIA+. Furthermore, the length of a recording varies widely: some last only a minute or two, whereas a few are longer than an hour. Thus, while these recordings constitute a rich resource, we must also ask ourselves who or what we are missing in our archive. In the tradition of reading (or listening to) our sources ‘against the grain’, historians will need to pay close attention to voices and experiences which are only ‘present’ by absence and silence within these oral histories.

What makes oral history resources like the Lothian Diaries arguably a unique source type is of course the fact that it does not consist of inanimate papers, files, or objects, but of living human beings. This has always brought particular methodological and ethical implications for researchers. For example, informed consent had to be obtained from contributors and confidentiality was guaranteed, with participants being able to choose as much or as little anonymity as they wished. However, special care also needs to be taken in the process of interpreting such sources. As examples from the literature make clear, there is always a danger of the historian misrepresenting what a narrator intended, much to the narrator’s potential anger and disappointment. A solution has been offered in the shape of ‘sharing authority’ over the ultimate narrative and interpretive outcome of the oral history between historian and narrator, by consulting the narrator’s opinion on the historian’s interpretation and allowing for differences to be acknowledged in the final written output.[5] This is something the Lothian Diary Project cannot currently offer to undertake, given the self-recorded nature of its contributions. We as researchers were not able to establish a personal relationship with the contributors, unlike in a traditional oral history interviewer-interviewee situation. Nevertheless, several of the contributors expressed an interest to record themselves again at a future date, and the research team is keen to apply for funding to enable this longitudinal project. Such an extension of the project will also allow for more research into how people will make sense of the pandemic years and experiences of lockdown when looking back on them from a further temporal distance, something which the immediacy of the current Lothian Diary Project recordings reveals less about.

As the contributors to the CSMCH’s roundtable event on “Pandemics Past and Present” (co-hosted with the Edinburgh Centre for Global History and History of Science, Medicine and Technology in November 2020) urged at the time, historians ought to participate more often and more confidently in the analysis and interpretation of pandemic times. With the COVID-19 pandemic tentatively beginning to recede into history, we hope that the Lothian Diary Project can provide historians with a valuable and varied primary source archive for research on local experiences of this period, grounded in the Edinburgh and Lothians community.


Borland, Katherine, ‘“That’s not what I said”: Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative Research’, in S. Berger Gluck and D. Patai (eds), Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (New York and London, 1991), 63-75.

Cowie, Claire, Lauren Hall-Lew, Zuzana Elliott, Anita Klingler, Nina Markl, and Stephen Joseph McNulty. 2022. “Imagining the city in lockdown: Place in the COVID-19 self-recordings of the Lothian Diary Project.” Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence: Language & Computation 5, 945643.

Frisch, Michael, A Shared Authority. Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (New York, 1990).

Hall-Lew, Lauren, Claire Cowie, Catherine Lai, Nina Markl, Stephen Joseph McNulty, Shan-Jan Sarah Liu, Clare Llewellyn, Beatrice Alex, Zuzana Elliott, and Anita Klingler. 2022. “The Lothian Diary Project: Sociolinguistic Methods during the COVID-19 Lockdown.” Linguistics Vanguard 8(3): 321-330.

Liu, Shan-Jan Sarah, Lauren Hall-Lew, Stephen McNulty, Nina Markl, Catherine Lai, Beatrice Alex, Clare Llewellyn, & Karri Gillespie-Smith. 2021. “Lockdown in the Lothians: Insights from the Lothian Diary Project.” Executive Summary and Parliamentary Briefing. Sent to Members of Scottish Parliament on 6 October.

Thomson, Alistair, Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend (Melbourne, 1994).

[1] Department of History, University of Sheffield.

[2] Linguistics and English Language, University of Edinburgh.


[4] For the concept of ‘composure’, see Alistair Thomson, Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend (Melbourne, 1994).

[5] See for example the case detailed in Katherine Borland, ‘“That’s not what I said”: Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative Research’, in S. Berger Gluck and D. Patai (eds), Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (New York and London, 1991), 63-75. See also Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority. Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (New York, 1990).

Matthew Kerry on “Crisis and the Left”

Matthew Kerry on ‘Crisis and the Left’

In the final roundtable of this pandemic-hit academic year, the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History welcomed four speakers to discuss the topic of ‘Crisis and the Left’. Jamie Allinson (Edinburgh), who chaired the discussion, proposed 2011 as a moment of inflection and invited the speakers to reflect on the accumulation of protest moments and movements that over the past decade. He asked: how did we get here? And how do we respond the crises that have rocked the world?

The breadth of expertise amongst the speakers pushed the conversation in different directions. Sarah Jaffe, a journalist and author of the recent Work won’t love you back, focused her attention the USA and underlined the wide variety of conflicts and campaign that have exploded over recent years. She questioned 2011 as a starting point. Instead, she pointed to the economic crisis of 2007-8 – a crisis that has not stopped. Others have since ‘stacked’ on top, which together have forced a return to a politics of class in the United States, for all of these movements respond to a crisis of capitalism. While the different campaigns pursued by social movements across the USA may appear disparate, they share overlapping, intersecting interests, issue and problems.

Rima Majed (American University of Beirut) then transported us to the Middle East, birthplace of 2011 as a transnational moment of collective action and witness to a ‘social explosion’ of conflicts over the past decade. She agreed with Jaffe that class was back thanks to an emphasis on inequality and social justice, although she painted a less positive picture of the current situation. Counter-revolutionary forces – under many guises – have co-opted radical discourse and emptied it of meaning, while the left remains in crisis. In a parallel point, she argued for the need for an updated revolutionary theory for the present moment. The Arab world presents opportunities and challenges for doing so, from the crisis of unions and a labour market defined by precarity, through the professionalisation of activism in the shape of NGOs to the rise of individualism and the problem of sectarianism. The vision of an alternative order is there; the challenge is to theorise and achieve it.

While Majed reflected on what a revolutionary theory might look like in the present day, Rory Scothorne (Edinburgh) tackled a slightly different matter: what has happened to the social question? He turned our attention back further, to the 1970s and a moment of crisis of working-class politics. While for some this crisis led to a rethinking of the left, in Scotland a solution was sought through a turn to Scottish nationalism. Social revolution was side-lined in favour of cultural questions, which constituted a survival mechanism for they sought more politically limited goals. Scothorne posed a resultant question: if political and cultural issues surfaced when the social question stalled, can the reverse also be true? We may be about to find out. A more assertive English nationalism and a Westminster government willing to flex its muscles pose a challenge and it is unclear what will happen next.

Taking us back across the Atlantic, Alejandro Velasco (NYU Gallatin) tried to combine these questions with a particular focus on Latin America. Perhaps we are experiencing a crisis of liberalism as opposed to a crisis of capitalism, he suggested, pointing to the erosion of civil and political rights under the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro. Such a crisis predates 2007/8; rather it encourages to look back to the Iraq War. Multiplying protest movements, even if weakly linked, are evidence of an exhausted political neoliberalism. The current moment can be seen as one of threat or opportunity. Despite the predictions of a resurgent right, the left is returning in Latin America even if the situation is not the same as two decades ago. If revolution means cultivating visions of alternative horizons and possible futures, then it is alive and well in local contexts in Latin America.

The wide-range of contexts and limited time available meant that the concepts of crisis, the “left” and revolution were not sharply drawn, nor was there much time left for questions. Underlying the discussion there was, however, a strong emphasis on paying close attention to regional and local developments. While Scothorne expressed optimism in the ability of localised left-wing experiments to root – and thereby exercise a degree of control over – capital, Majed was sceptical that profound systemic change could arise in the Middle East on a national or regional level. Perhaps such doubts and differences, and alternating between casting the present moment in optimistic and pessimistic terms, are themselves indicative of a present moment of crisis.

Hugo Zetterberg on Anne Eller’s The French Revolution and the Laplaine Riot: Petitioning and direct action in Dominica

On 9 March 2021, the CSMCH organised a seminar dedicated to a discussion of a chapter in a forthcoming book by Anne Eller (Yale University). Comments were offered by Dr Christienna Fryar (Goldsmith’s, University of London) and Professor Diana Paton (University of Edinburgh). Entitled “The French Revolution and the Laplaine Riot: Petitioning and direct action in Dominica”, Professor Eller’s pre-circulated paper used official archives and newspapers to recreate a story of resistance and protest against powerful planters and a colonial administration that taxed heavily while offering no public services and meted out severe punishments for non-payment.

Taking a microhistory approach, the paper began with the story of the Collard family, whose house was to be seized for non-payment in 1893 but, due to the support of the family’s neighbours, the authorities were unable to proceed without reinforcements, which led to clashes between the protesting villagers and the representatives of the colonial state – and eventually the state murder of four individuals. The paper then continued to outline the dire situation that faced Dominica’s mainly French-speaking peasants following the abolition of slavery when the island’s declining planter economy was unable to compete with nearby British and French colonial territories. This served as the background to a detailed account of petitioning that preceded and succeeded the riots at the beginning of the chapter.

At the seminar, Professor Eller outlined her motivations behind the book and the chapter, which included the recent US occupation of Iraq but was also driven by a desire to show how formally disenfranchised people in a colonial society tried to access the policy-making process and make their voices heard. Dominica in particular is an understudied territory as US scholarship of the region tends to focus on Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Dr Fryar commended Professor Eller for her scholarly attention to the topic, noting that the timeframe in particular makes the study stand out since many works on the region’s British colonies end with the abolition of slavery. Another interesting aspect is the inclusion of inter-Caribbean links (by showing migration and informal trade patterns between Dominica and neighbouring islands and territories) which is uncommon as there has been little interaction between scholarship on Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean islands. One of Dr Fryar’s questions concerned the source material – namely the extent to which using sources unsympathetic to the peasants influenced or limited the study. Professor Eller responded that critical fabulation could be a possible remedy to fill certain gaps.

Professor Paton echoed Dr Fryar’s sentiment and noted that the vignette story which featured state murder and protest against unjust taxation is the type of story that is often forgotten in the British Empire context – especially by those who wish to paint the Empire as progressive and emancipatory. Professor Paton also focused on the source material in her questions but also asked about the significant out-migration of men (notably to French Guyana and its mining industry) and the impact it had on Dominica’s women.

The Q&A session saw a number of questions being asked, including about Dominica’s geography in general and its topography in particular. While being inhospitable and unsuitable for agriculture, the existence of Dominica’s mountainous inland offered refuge for Dominicans who did not wish to work in the planter economy – until the British colonial state began to extract and increase taxes.

Emily Brownell on “Fish in Crisis”

The final event of the fall season for the centre was a roundtable put together by the CSMCH’s own fellow Dr. Betty Banks. This was a wide-ranging and engaging roundtable on “Fish in Crisis”. As Banks noted at the outset, when the general public considers the crisis of fish, they likely consider it to be a crisis of what fish they should eat, within a larger discussion of fish stocks, climate breakdown, and our depleting oceans. But as this panel made abundantly clear, there are many crises that we might consider, both historical, enduring, and in the present moment. And, as always, considering crises we must always be asking: whose crisis?

The first speaker, Arianne Sedef Urus started us off in the early modern Atlantic World where she is researching the role of Newfoundland as a key fishery as well as strategic place of rivalry between Britain and France.  As Urus notes, in the early modern period, the crisis was not one of fish but rather one of relations between imperial powers. Both Britain and France saw Newfoundland waters as not just an abundant fishery, but as a rite of passage for young men destined for imperial navies. It was this desire – to constantly replenish stocks of skilled, sea-faring young men that in part led to an agreement between the two countries by the beginning of the 18th century that, along the “treaty shore” of Newfoundland (otherwise a possession of Britain at the time), access to fisheries and areas on shore for processing would be a matter of usufruct rights rather than property rights. These areas and access to them were decided on a first come first served basis, each season. By mid-century, various British fishermen began challenging this rule and attempting to establish more permanent residency in the region. But the governor of Newfoundland at the time felt those who settled permanently in Newfoundland to be uncivilized and also feared losing the region as a “nursery for seamen” and a way to constantly replenish stocks in the imperial navy. Thus, the 18th century crisis of fish in Newfoundland was not one of fish populations but rather a question of European rivalry, possession of a frontier testing grounds for masculinity and imperial fears of ‘going native’.

Jennifer Johnson Lee’s presentation turned us to contemporary Uganda and the crisis of fish and fishing along the shores of Lake Victoria, as English speakers know it (also known as Lake Nyanza). The largest lake in Africa and the world’s largest freshwater fishery, Johnson discussed how the crisis of Lake Victoria has become synonymous with the massive, imposing figure of the Nile perch. An invasive species first introduced in the 1950s by a British game warden, the Nile perch has since reworked the ecology of the lake by feasting on the diverse number of cichlids, indigenous to the lake. Seen as “trash” fish, the decline in cichlid populations was not seen as alarming to many development experts until it began threatening the Nile perch. Since 1994, there has been a string of stories and pronouncements in the international and Ugandan media that Lake Victoria is dead or dying. In this narrative of crisis, the death of the Nile perch imperils the Ugandan economy (it is a crucial export good that generates foreign exchange), European access to cheap fish, and renders life along the edges of the lake more vulnerable to poverty, crime, and immoral economies. But Johnson warns of the “myopia of only thinking with the Nile perch”. Johnson argues that there is an alternate ontology of Lake Victoria that needs to be considered. In this other parallel world, Lake Victoria is not even a lake but a sea, and the economies built around it are not based on the export of Nile perch, but the ongoing fishing of cichlids that are ubiquitously eaten and sold in local markets. Johnson opened her talk by invoking the question: which fish is in crisis, whose crisis is this, and what worlds are being made (or unmade) by this crisis. And as her talk made very clear, the effects generated by crisis narratives can reveal and obscure other worlds that always existed alongside more visible narratives.

Next, Troy Vettese, gave us a whirlwind tour of the history of neoliberal environmental thought. Or, more specifically, where fish in particular have fit into both classical and neoliberal thought since the 1920s. Neoliberals main contribution to environmental thought has been the policy of cap and trade. Essentially, cap and trade is the practice of creating a market for industries to buy the right to pollute. In the 1990s, this becomes the answer to a much older question of how to deal with environmental externalities: the external costs not factored into the costs of production that are carried by environments and communities. For much of the 20th century, externalities were calculated by the state as taxes on corporations. Neoliberals economists, however, were not comfortable with the idea that these externalities (or, “market failures”) were best estimated by the state. In the genealogy of cap and trade, Vettese argues that it emerges not under President Bush (the senior) but is first tested out by fishery economists in Canada in the 1980s, who are part of what Vettese calls the Vancouver School of Neoliberalism.  These economists create the notion of a “right to pollute” and it is first tested out in the abalone market. Key to this was the imperative that fishing markets had to maximize yield by controlling the amount of effort going into fishing, which had the effect of consolidating the fishing industry into the biggest ventures. For Vettese’s economists, the question is not who’s crisis but rather, what crisis? As long as fish make it to market, shortages do not matter.

The final speaker, Ruth Brennan, presented her work on fishing and access to fishing rights in island communities off the coast of Ireland. The Irish government, unlike other EU countries, had set out a policy objective of managing fisheries as a public resource. This was an attempt to do the opposite of Vettese’s economists and keep fishing opportunities diffuse and out of the hands of solely large fishing corporations.  Through an animated short film and a poem, Brennan shows how this attempt at equality amongst fishing vessels through the use of quotas fails to confront the challenges faced by small operators. The poem in particular was quite moving, gathering together quotations from interviews with young folks in Ireland about the seeming impossibility making a livelihood where they grew up, particularly through fishing. Ultimately, Brennan suggests that a policy of “equality” failed to understand the struggles faced by small fishing operators and “equity” would be a better framework. Echoing Johnson, Brennan suggests that it is crucial for policy frameworks to be able to allow different worlds to become visible.

Historian Jeffrey Bolster in The Mortal Sea notes that oceans have eluded historicity in certain ways because we can’t see down into their depths.  This opacity has allowed a sense of oceans as unchanging to prevail. Though, Bolster notes, this has never been the case for fishermen who have sounded the alarm in various ways about  “changes in the sea”.  This strikes a chord with the theme running many of these presentations: the problem of visibility, particularly visibility within capitalism. What gets seen determines what the crisis is, and the crisis then determines what we see. And, as Vettese mentioned in discussions after the presentations, fishing is now moving into deeper and deeper parts of the ocean with the promise that as long as there are stocks there is no crisis. In this sleight of hand, another form of invisibility prevails as one fish becomes another magically on the market, with consumers often none the wiser.

Anna Lively on ‘Tales of Shrimp and Debt’

On 24 November 2020, CSMCH hosted a discussion centred on Betty Banks’ ‘Tales of Shrimp and Debt’, which raised fascinating questions about international connections, socialist internationalism, and about how to write to global history. Banks (IASH-CSMCH Fellow) began the event by placing her paper on soviet fishing in Mozambique in the context of her wider book manuscript, which looks at political, social, cultural and economic relations between the Soviet Union and Mozambique during the Cold War era. This binational case study is used as a framework to consider global interconnections and realities more broadly. During the panel discussion, Banks conveyed the opportunities and challenges in writing this kind of ambitious, multi-layered history: how do you maintain a narrative arc while moving between different regions and concepts? How do you find balance in a binational study when the archival material is fundamentally imbalanced and tells us different stories in different places?

Banks’ paper, which was pre-circulated before the discussion, is a highly original piece and looks at the Soviet Union’s role in the fishing industry in Mozambique. From 1982, the Soviet fishing company Sovrybflot held all licenses for fishing deep-water shrimp off the Mozambican coast, which was paid for on the basis of credit. The global popularity of shrimp in the 1980s meant this was a highly profitable arrangement, allowing Soviet export enterprises to make an average of $5500 per ton from prawns on the world market. Crucially, this helped the Soviet Union to shore up their supplies of hard currency and dollars, as the internal rouble was purposefully unconvertible. As Banks emphasises, ‘fishing has always been about more than just fish’ and her paper touches on a diverse range of themes, including global consumption patterns, decolonisation, technology and trade.

Responding to Banks’ paper and introduction, Nadin Heé (Freie Universität Berlin) made a number of important points on globalization and scale. Globalization is a hugely contested and loaded term, with a vast literature. Heé encouraged Banks to think further about what this term adds to the paper and to be more specific on her position within the wider field, including consideration of whether it was an actors’ term. The classic question of universality and particularity might, Heé suggested, provide a useful analytical framework and help address the question of scales. She also made comparisons to her own research on the fishing industry in East Asia and emphasised the importance of looking at disconnections and ruptures, as well connections and similarities.

In the paper, Banks includes two intriguing illustrations of deep-water shrimp: the Heterocarpus woodmasoni and the Haliporoides triarthrus vniroi, the latter of which only lives in the waters between Durban in South Africa and Beira in Mozambique. Heé recommended greater historicization of these pictures, asking where the Soviet Union obtained their knowledge of fish from. Environmental history approaches and materiality, as well as knowledge transfer and exchange, were also discussed.

Justyna Turkowska (Edinburgh) then picked up on three key themes in her comment: socialist globalization, globalization on a micro level and binational history. If ‘globalization is never fully global’, then we need to consider which countries are influenced by particular financial flows and why. Responding to Banks’ comments in her introduction, Turkowska reiterated the problems of separating out ‘socialist’ and ‘normal’ globalization and asked what ‘socialist’ globalization means in an economic and analytical sense. She examined the balance between the macro and the micro in the paper, encouraging more focus on the local level and on the shrimp as actors. How did the fishing industry affect everyday life in Mozambique and who was responsible for the daily processes? A more localised approach, she suggested, might help in moving the analysis beyond a centre-periphery model and end up revealing more about the global. In addition, Turkowska indicated potential problems with studying globalization through a binational lens, particularly given implicit hierarchies and subjugations. Material culture and everyday practices could be used to address the general absence of Mozambican voices in the narrative.

The following discussion was dynamic and broad in scope. Like Banks’ paper, it spanned from the small scale (such as how prawns were processed) to big questions on global trade, internationalism and national specificities. Ismay Milford (Edinburgh) asked whether the quest for dollars was widely recognised in the historiography of soviet internationalism, suggesting the potential importance of Banks’ intervention. Banks agreed that the conversion point was central to the chapter, although indicated that ideology and solidarity were also genuine motivations behind Soviet-Mozambican connections. The topic of this paper has huge comparative potential, and audience members proposed multiple possible lines of enquiry, such as comparisons with other forms of resource extraction and with artisanal fishing.

The discussion also touched on how we write and structure history, particularly when trying to weave together different strands, voices and scales. Emile Chabal (Edinburgh) suggested the paper could be restructured as a stand-alone piece by starting from small and zooming outwards. It could move from the shrimp itself to the fishing industry, then to credit agreements and end with the global consumption of shrimp. This could also be done in reverse, said Julie Gibbings (Edinburgh). You could begin with a prawn cocktail in 1980s Manhattan, an archetypal capitalist centre, and then follow the shrimp back to the Soviet fishing industry in Mozambique. Essentially, it could become a global history of the prawn cocktail!

Overall, the panel was highly thought-provoking and encouraged the audience to think creatively about methodology, frameworks and global connections. Gibbings ended the session by linking this paper to the CSMCH theme of crisis, suggesting how long durée processes, like debt and internationalism, often underwrite moments of crisis. The relationship between the global and local is often critical at times of crisis, when international events have tangible and material impacts on everyday realities.

Anna Lively is an AHRC-funded PhD student in History at the University of Edinburgh. Her main research interests lie in Russian and Soviet history, Irish history, transnational history and the history of revolutions. Her PhD project looks at revolutionary connections between Russia and Ireland from 1905 to 1923. She is a CSMCH steering committee member.


Jessica Campbell on ‘Pandemics, Past and Present’

The theme for the CSMCH’s seminar series this year is ‘crisis’. It would be remiss, then, not to address the current global crisis we face and history’s place within it. The coronavirus pandemic that has consumed 2020 has affected us all. Lockdowns, restrictions, face coverings, social and physical distancing, limits on travel, a never-ending news-stream of government announcements have all been part of a fundamental shift in the way we live, communicate and exist. Yet, whilst this ‘unprecedented’ event has forced us to get used to a ‘new normal’, what we are experiencing is not necessarily new. From the Black Death to the Plague of 1665, from the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century to the HIV/AIDs crisis of the late-twentieth, pandemics have been a recurrent and familiar feature of human history. ‘Pandemics Past and Present’, an event co-hosted with the Edinburgh Centre for Global History and History of Science, Medicine and Technology, on November 10th 2020, brought this fact into sharp relief. It also raised key questions not only about the history of pandemics, but the purpose of social scientific and historical research, and their relationship to present-day needs and concerns.

The event opened with some framing questions from the moderator, Lukas Engelmann: ‘What kind of histories do you think we need now and why do you think that is important?  Is it a turning point? What does Covid-19 mean for us as social scientists? How can history contribute to solving this crisis?’. The responses from our panellists were fascinating, insightful and thought provoking. Richard McKay argued that in this current moment we need a balance of two different types of history: the kind of history that explores the past for its own sake without concern for the present, and a kind of applied history that aims to embed historical understanding in the present; in essence, a rigorous applied history that combines curiosity with utility. Notably, McKay pointed out that there is a real need in the current for  histories that are explicitly concerned with truth claims and authenticity. Emphasising the value history could offer us in this current moment, McKay pointed out that amongst the two-hundred experts named as contributing to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ Covid-19 response, not one single historian is listed. There are plenty of physicians, scientific researchers, psychologists, sociologists, economists, statisticians – there is even an astro-physicist! But no historians. Surely historians should have a seat at the table? Indeed, by not having a historian amongst the SAGE experts, McKay argued, there is no one to illuminate the past pandemic responses we have inherited, no one to draw distinctions, and no one to highlight potential dangers. Historical insights, he points out, need to be seriously considered.

Mark Honigsbaum, concurred: why are there no historians? What historians would bring to the discussion, he argued, was historical imagination. Whilst historians can’t experiment or test data like scientific experts, they can use data from the past and historical sources to reconstruct thought processes, medical paradigms, responses, and the experience of disease, thus bringing to the table something that no other research discipline could bring. Advocating for more longue duree histories that consider long term patterns, responses and the extent of change, he notes that historians need to be engaging with the big questions.  In turn, he notes, this would help policy makers and advisers to understand the implications of past decisions, responses and management of public health in the shaping of their present-day initiatives. It would also help historians to understand more about the relationship between disease and history itself.

That’s not to say historical references have been absent from discussion about the current pandemic. In the never-ending media coverage of the ‘fake news’ generation, journalists are making constant comparisons between Covid and past epidemics, particularly the influenza outbreak of 1918. As Adia Benton pointed out, ‘how could one not talk about cholera, AIDs and other past epidemics?’ as we  grapple with managing covid-19. Benton encouraged a dynamic discussion about disease narratives. As an anthropologist, who often sits in rooms of historians, she had been pondering whether we were trying to manage the current pandemic as a narrative calculus or as a reckoning, thus prompting the question: how to we manage disease narratives?  Benton pointed to the importance of exploring issues such as the embodied experience of being sick, the enduring legacies of that sickness, the practices of the public health response and what that looks like. Arguing against narrative calculus and the reification of modelling, she asked: ‘whose story is actually being told?’.

Christos Lynteris’ reflections were especially thought-provoking. Discussing the concept of the ‘pandemic imaginary’, he argued that historians need to ‘u-think pandemics’, to stop thinking of Covid-19 or any other past epidemic as a mystery of nature, something that needs to be known, but as something that needs to be interpreted. What if, he asked, it turns out that pandemics are, in fact, meaningless? Narratives of pandemics as global catastrophes in this sense aren’t necessarily all that helpful: what is actually happening on the ground? Is the pandemic really going to prompt significant change?

‘Pandemics Past and Present’ thus offered a fruitful space in which to reconsider and re-examine  those age-old existential questions the historian has always been forced to confront: what is the purpose of history? What is the role of the historian? What kind of histories should we be writing? On reflection, perhaps the ‘covid crisis’ of 2020  is not so much a reckoning for today’s historians, but an opportunity; one that offers the chance to not only reflect upon what past might have to offer the present – particularly in times of crisis – but to actively apply those reflections and, with all that history has to offer, demand a place at the table.

Bio: Jessica Campbell is an ESRC funded PhD student in Economic and Social History. Her primary research interests lie in the social history of medicine. Her doctoral project, ‘The Healing Arts? An Examination of Creativity, Madness and Experience in British Asylum Culture c.1840-1960’ seeks to explore the themes of creativity and patient expression through a historical enquiry into the nature of alternative psychiatric therapies in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain.

Jeremy Dell on “The Banished Sufi”

Jeremy began this fascinating discussion of his working paper with a juxtaposition and with a question. He outlined the contemporary importance of Amadu Bamba, how the only known image of him is omnipresent in Senegal, as street art in Dakar and on the side of buses. He contrasted this with the absence of contemporary presence in the cultural visual space of Amadu’s brother, Shaykh Sidi Mukhtar Mbakke. This absence was in stark contrast to the ubiquity of Mbakke in the archives of the colonial administration. This raised the question foreshadowed in Jeremy’s introduction, why has the legacy of Mbakke been so different to that of his brother? Both men suffered exile at the hands of the French and both were key figures in the foundation of the Murid Sufi sect. While Mbakke did not have the spiritual presence of his elder brother, and was not the singular founder, he was an early disciple, a major economic player in his own right and had a parallel experience of exile. Based on exciting new discoveries from the colonial era archives in Segou (Mali), where Mbakke was exiled, Jeremy’s paper illuminates much about the life and times of an underappreciated and somewhat forgotten Murid founder.

Abdourahmane Seck (Université Gaston Berger de Saint-Louis, Sénégal), gave insightful comments and suggested that Mbakke offered a window into the long processes through which contemporary Senegal has emerged. He not only drew out the parallels between Mbakke and the first disciple of the Prophet Abu Bakr but also those, more recent, with Mamadou Dia. This latter comparison suggests the intriguing potential for an exploration of paths not taken, and places the relationship between Mbakke and his more famous elder brother on the same level as the contentious and complex relationship between Senghor and Dia. The alliance between the two on the eve of independence against Modibo Keita shaped the emergence of the Senegalese Republic in its current form and their subsequent disagreement over which direction to take the country led to a decisive evolution along the path laid out by Senghor, while Dia found himself in a form of internal exile. This conjures the image of the exile as a somewhat forlorn figure, who must forever lament the victory of their political rival from a distance. For Mbakke this experience of exile is an imperfect analogy as he was exiled by the French administration, but he shares the indignity with Dia of having his historical importance occluded by proximity to a transcendental and era defining figure.

Paul Nugent (Edinburgh) continued this discussion of exile in his thoughtful comments by pointing to the strong tradition of hijra in West Africa and suggested perhaps tweaking the framing of the overall paper to take advantage of this particular perspective. Hijra in its strict sense refers to going into exile for Islamic religious purposes, so that you may live under Islam away from interfering and inimical state authority, but has significantly broadened in contemporary political usage. Malian President Touré’s escape from the 2013 coup d’état after which he sought refuge in Senegal has been interpreted through this lens. From this perspective we could think of a contemporary principle descended from ideas of hijra that ‘when the government is inimical then you must leave.’ The French colonial administration in Senegal was certainly inimical to Mbakke.

This was followed by much discussion over potential frames within which this fascinating story of Mbakke’s exile could be understood, particularly over the utility and definition of exile. There were also several suggested answers to Jeremy’s initial question of why Mbakke’s story has been lost: the fame of his brother, internal factional disputes and even a suggestion that whilst Mbakke is absent from contemporary visual culture he is not from other media. In any case we look forward eagerly to reading the final version of this exciting look at an underappreciated figure from Senegalese history. Whilst the image of Mbakke may not grace walls and buses in Dakar the way that images of his elder brother do, Jeremy has already restored to him something of the academic attention which such an impactful figure deserves.

Simon Balto on Blackface Criminals

In his paper on blackface crime, discussed at the CSMCH on October 13, 2020, Simon Balto (University of Iowa) draws attention to ‘a limit of the archive.’ There are no records that definitively account for the number of white Americans ‘who donned blackface while committing crime in an effort to frame black people for their sins.’ But it clearly happened, acknowledged by Frederick Douglass in the 1880s, Ida B. Wells in 1900, The Nation in the 1920s, and in the 1932 Asa Wright case with which Balto begins his article. Balto also provides a wealth of examples from regional and local newspapers across the United States. Unsurprisingly, black newspapers and organizations were most concerned by this phenomenon, which they recognized as a specific, widespread, racialized problem, rather than simply isolated novel cases.

Despite this rich evidence base, Balto writes that the figures on blackface criminals are literally countless – there is no way to know how many people did this, and we only know of the ones who were caught. But Balto does draw some conclusions. Firstly, that white criminals donning blackface drew from a longer history of minstrelsy and performance, and that in doing so they both reflected and contributed to the rising myth of ‘black criminality.’ Balto later clarified that blackface criminals probably did not consciously engage with the fact that they were contributing to the conceptualization of black criminality, and that for most, the appeal was simply that they would not be convicted of the crime if witnesses described a black person. As such, blackface crime followed the ‘enormous expansion and deeper reach of minstrelsy into everyday American life’ in the late nineteenth century, with commercially packaged materials making blacking up easy and cheap. Balto’s examples vary in gender and class identities; though, as Mark Newman (University of Edinburgh) noted in his response, there seems to be a predominance of individual rather than group acts. This distinguishes the blackface criminal from related Ku Klux Klan activity after the Civil War, in which groups of Klansmen would sometimes adopt black appearances in their night-time raids on African American communities.

In her response to the paper, Kate Dossett (University of Leeds) highlighted several questions about identity and the allure of blackness as performance, noting that within entertainment minstrelsy, the concept of actually being mistaken for black was horrifying. Balto writes that ‘going into blackface to commit a crime was, of course, a form of disguise,’ drawn from ‘the larger well of ideas about crime and race then reshaping American society.’ But was ‘the whole point for them to escape detection’? Were blackface criminals simply focused on appearing black to elude capture? Both Dossett and Newman questioned this point, as apprehending police or white citizens were more likely to shoot and therefore kill a suspected black criminal than a white one, indicated by Balto’s sources. In her exploration of identity and performance, Dossett therefore posited that for some, the performance of blackness may have added intrigue and excitement to an otherwise mundane crime. She also raised scholarship on racial ‘passing,’ a literature that Balto admitted he was not familiar with but which could offer fascinating frameworks for understanding the actions of blackface criminals and their perception of an audience. In particular, Dossett highlighted Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke, 2015), which traces methods to criminalize and dehumanize the black, indigenous, and mixed-race body throughout colonial North American and US history, and their continuation through modern but equally racialized forms of surveillance.

For Newman, Balto’s paper raised key questions of chronology, and he probed Balto’s suggestion that these crimes stretched from the 1880s to ‘the Civil Rights Era.’ Newman suggested such an approach required further definition and explanation, and perhaps a clearer engagement with work on the chronology of the African American freedom struggle. Balto clarified that incidents of blackface criminality continued into the 1960s, but that they were much rarer after the 1930s, noting that civil rights campaigners in the 1950s and 1960s worked to eliminate the last vestiges of blackface entertainment. He therefore intuited that blackface crimes declined in the period as kits and materials became less readily available and the practice as a whole declined. Here we can see the cultural value of Balto’s work, even if the data itself is inconclusive. The practice of minstrelsy, so entrenched in US entertainment customs, did eventually fade (although not completely). But if it can be demonstrated that the phenomenon bled into practices other than entertainment, as Balto’s article suggests, we may increase our understanding of minstrelsy’s inherent grip on the American consciousness, as a method of both codifying whiteness and condemning blackness, rationalizing violence and segregation.

As Newman suggested, and in line with scholarship on minstrelsy as performance, we may be able to deduce a clearer profile for the blackface criminal. After all, blackface performers were often working-class Irishmen or from other European immigrant groups whose own whiteness had not yet been assured. It may be that, like minstrel performers, blackface criminals sought to authenticate and demonstrate their whiteness, separating their ‘black’ criminal selves from the whiteness they desperately sought, performing a black criminality that they hoped would elevate their own image and the disputed whiteness of their communities.

Balto’s complex history of whiteness, criminalized blackness, and the specific act of blackface criminality raised powerful questions for those lucky enough to read his paper. Dossett’s and Newman’s responses added important context around the performative nature of the act, the wider literature of racial ‘passing,’ and discussion of the article’s and therefore the practice’s chronology. The event inspired fascinating questions about our historical and contemporary understanding of race as a constructed and performed identity, and the continued consequences of social and political systems built upon the antiblack relations of slavery and segregation.

Bio: Dr Megan Hunt is Teaching Fellow in Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Edinburgh. She is working on her first monograph, Southern by the Grace of God: Religion, Race, and Civil Rights in Hollywood’s South, having previously published on Selma, Mississippi Burning, and The Help. She has also researched and published on the place of African American history in UK schools, with her most recent co-authored article for the Journal of American Studies available via open access here. Megan also sits on the steering committee of Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) and is a co-founder of The Precarity Project.

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz: The Concept of Crisis

Blog: The Concept of Crisis

In its first seminar of the year, the CSMCH hosted a panel event on the concept of crisis. Moderated by Frédéric Volpi, speakers Janet Roitman (New School), Jeremy Adelman (Princeton), David Sepkoski (Illinois), Keren Weitzberg (UCL), and AbdouMaliq Simone (Sheffield) explored the historical uses and meanings of ‘Crisis’.

With the backdrop of the current global pandemic, the panel members started proceedings by responding to the question: When politicians, intellectuals, and others name a set of events or a problem a “crisis” (e.g. climate crisis, financial crisis, or our current health crisis),  they are evoking a powerful set of meanings and calls to action. What can we say about what crisis means and what political work it does? Jeremy Adelman began the discussion with a reflection on the different meanings and purposes of the concept. He argued that historically the concept of crisis has had two meanings: one derived from medicine (relating to the moment before death), the other originating in political economy (especially within the Marxist tradition). In his view, both concepts have two, but entangled meanings: crisis as the end of something, and crisis as giving rise to a change between systems. Janet Roitman argued that there is a lot at stake in naming a crisis, since a crisis implies a deviation from our norms. It thus both confirms what our norms are and seeks to stabilize those norms. In the crisis of covid-19, it has confirmed our norms toward public health. This pandemic is an opportunity to reaffirm the positive values on strong public welfare.

David C. Sepkoski, a historian of science, argued that the idea of crisis as disruption in natural and human history is a relatively new way of thinking in the modern western world. Before the 1960s, large-scale natural crisis were viewed as neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. Rather, following natural history, we understood large-scale natural change as the rule. After Charles Darwin, the history of life was defined one of winner and losers. After the 1960s, however, scientists, especially paleobiologists, challenged Darwin’s notion of evolution. The history of nature was more complex than just a history of winners and losers, and we begin to see ideas of ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’. However, Sepkoski emphasised how in our present political discusses of crisis, we still express the fears and anxieties entailed in Darwin´s conception of winners and losers in evolution.

Drawing on his research working in urban environments in the global south, AbdouMaliq Simone commented on the experiences of those living in different states of permanent crisis, be it racial, economic, urban or other. In this sense, crisis is an ontology. For example, the experience of black life is itelf a crisis, because being black meant that you could be murdered at any time just because of your skin colour. Crisis thus subtends everyday lives. For the urban poor, one day there is money and the next day there isn´t. Crisis, thus, has multiple and unmanageable definitions. Finally, Keren Weitzberg highlighted that we need to be careful when we define crisis. She pointed out how the idea of crisis often relates to generational divisions. The climate crisis or the victory of different populist parties across the Western World have often been understood as a generational crisis between the young and the old.  Moreover, historical and regional context is central to crisis, since it defines norms and values. As an historian of Africa, she pointed to how some regions are defined as in near constant crisis, and that this is also a way of defining and regulating international norms and ideas of development. She ended by asking for a reconsideration of the concept of crisis from the Global South.

After the interventions of all the panellists, questions were opened to the floor. Moderated by Frédéric Volpi, three questions were asked regarding crisis as a creating something potentially positive; moments when crises open a critical and conjunctural change; and how we know when crisis ends. For the first question, Sepkoski emphasised that the idea of crisis having a positive outcome was a western idea from the twentieth century, not before. However, Roitman argued that originally the idea of crisis had a Christian meaning of redemption within theology, which was a positive outcome from the Christian perspective. AbdouMaliq, on the contrary, was more sceptical on the ‘positive outcomes’ of crisis, as he said that the nature of a crisis differs a lot depending on whether we are looking at the north or the Global south, not least in this current covid-19 crisis. For the second question, Weitzberg pointed to Africa as an example of how different the idea of crisis can be from one continent to another. In her view, the crisis of covid-19 had flipped the standard narrative of the Western media in its portrayal of normality in Africa (economic decline, structural problems, lack of health system, recurrent pandemics)  to a ‘crisis’ in the north. In that sense, she was surprised how little had been said in the media about Africa during this pandemic considering that a) Africa has handled it better than Europe and b) they have significant historical experiences in facing epidemics.  This is, then, perhaps an opportunity to reconsider the concept of crisis.  Finally, in regard to the last question on when crisis ends, there wasn´t any agreement. One example many of the panellists used was the economic crisis of 2008. For example, Adelman argued that since 2008 we have experienced a sense of constant crisis: everything is at risk. Roitman argued that Covid-19 is a only crisis for the human species (not the entire planet). The 2008 economic crisis, however, was politically defined as such, but structurally speaking, there was very little change in the economic system.

In sum, the different panellists all offered interesting insights and challenging reflections on the different meanings of crisis, the political stakes involved in naming a crisis, and how we can think critically with the concept of crisis today.

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of the European Left, political theory, political violence and historical memory. His thesis focuses on the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics in a transformed world (since 1977). He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 8 with Anita Klingler

Our eighth CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

For the final episode in this series, I spoke to Anita Klingler, who recently submitted her thesis on public discourses of violence in Britain and Germany in the interwar years. Amongst other things, we talked about the relationship between discourses of violence and actual violence, what it means to write about violence, and whether Europe is once again heading towards a “violent” future.

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

This episode brings to an end our first series of Showcase podcasts. We hope to return later in the year with new guests and new ideas.

For now, I’d like to thank the guests who agreed to subject themselves to my haphazard questioning. A special mention, too, for PhD student Mathew Nicolson, who selflessly dedicated himself to producing and editing every Showcase podcast episode for nothing. We are all in his debt.

— Emile