On the importance of local history
This summer holiday I have read 156 copies of my local paper on microfilm. Amidst the tedium of adverts for a brand new Asda, celebrations of newly-weds and asbestos scandals, the local Gazette has given me an invaluable insight into the relationship between local and national politics in the 1980s. Having recently embarked on my dissertation research, it has become clear to me that local studies are imperative in challenging dominant historiographical paradigms.
With regards to my own research on 1980s Britain, Daisy Payling’s study of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ has proved a useful model for analysing national political trends through a local lens . Moving beyond a focus on London, Payling’s work explores the tensions and interactions between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ left at a local level, concluding that the ‘old left’ ultimately trumped the concerns of the identity politics of the ‘new’ in South Yorkshire. South Yorkshire’s political trajectory thus complicates narratives at a national level, which suggest a new Thatcherite constituency based on the idea of ‘ordinary working people’ replaced traditional notions of class . Work such as Payling’s uses the local to subvert the centrality of national politics, and Thatcher herself, to histories of 1980s British politics.
Local political histories are not only of importance to modern British political history, but to American political history. In light of Trump’s recent ascendancy on the back of a populist conservatism, Michael Kazin’s discussion of paradigms of grassroots politics on the right, stretching as far back as the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) at the turn of the century, sheds important light on the centrality of the local to the rise of the right in American politics . Placing the ‘alt-right’ and ‘Trumpism’ in a longer historical trajectory which is not only national, but local strengthens our understanding of the complicated ascendancy of the right in American politics, creating an impression of plurality within existing national frameworks. For example, the anti-busing campaigns seen in places such as Boston between 1974 and 1976, when Mayor Ken White made a secret agreement with campaign leader Louise Day Hicks, arguably represented the culmination of grassroots mobilization against ‘liberal elites’ since the hayday of the KKK in the 1920s.
The local not only provides a useful insight into trends at a national level, but similarly complements the ‘global turn’. Michael Göbel’s Anti-Imperial Metropolis explores the impact of different immigrant communities in suburbs, and even specific streets, in early 20th-century Paris. The local becomes a lens through which the transnational movements of Pan-Asianism, Pan-Africanism, and anti-colonial networks forged by thinkers and activists, can be understood. When so much can be lost in the global history of networks, the re-introduction of the local provides a useful framework for grounding potentially expansive and overwhelming scholarship.
Local histories also provide greater scope for the use of oral histories, which add texture and nuance to grander narratives. LGBT+ histories are often based on the exploration of existing, locally-based social networks. A useful example is Daring Hearts, produced by the ‘Brighton Ourhistory Project’ in 1992. Collecting life stories of lesbians and gay men in 1950s and 1960s Brighton, this study uses a spatially-bounded framework to develop a rich and textured history of the often hidden lives of LGBT+ people. Such work has been important in attempting to overcome the invisibility of LGBT+ voices in more conventional source material.
Local histories can not only be subversive, challenging dominant paradigms and frameworks, but provide a rich texture which more expansive frameworks of analysis often omit. As demonstrated by the recent uproar over the introduction of charges to access documents by Northampton records office, historians and politicians must fight hard to protect access to the gold-mine of local histories. Local, national and global frameworks of historical analysis are not mutually exclusive, but closely inter-related, highlighting the importance of protecting local history for the discipline of history as a whole.