Community history, or the histories of communities, has a long-standing presence in British historiography and in the empiricist strand of British sociology. Working class communities, defined occupationally or geographically, have been objects of study and investigation from the social surveys of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries through the self-consciously ‘scientific’ economistic or anthropological analyses of the inter-war period, to sociological studies of postwar reconstruction and the ‘affluent society’. Other representations of community and its histories can be found in the field of popular culture. From fictional soap operas, through TV series like Call the Midwife, or Lark Rise to Candleford, to the enduring success of paperback autobiographies of impoverished youth in various locations in the United Kingdom, popular narratives have constructed frequently romanticised versions of indigenous, if embattled, communities.
Since the 1960s and ‘70s, alternative approaches to community history developed to challenge such representations, inspired both by New Left ‘history from below’ (‘Community’ was the title of a key chapter in E.P. Thompson’s historiographically epochal The Making of The English Working Class), and by the ‘new technology’ of cheap tape recording and printing which facilitated the growth of oral history and of self-conscious community publishing (as in the Federation of Working Class Writers and Community Publishing). Now an aspiring community history can draw on a wide range of resources and subjects, from the activist tenant groups of down-at-heel ex-council estates, through the avowedly antiquarian studies of various groupings and the burgeoning area of family history, to the articulation of previously hidden or half-heard voices.
The Centre’s involvement in community history encompasses both critical exploration of these diverse traditions and practices, and the production of new histories of community that explore social life as lived at the interstices of the local and national states, and shaped by the provision and experience (or lack) of health and housing, education and employment. CMNH works closely with the Community University Partnership Project (CUPP), and over recent years has forged a variety of partnerships with local history groups, art production companies, charities and other not-for-profit groups which have developed their own community research projects to unearth hidden histories, challenge historical assumptions and celebrate their own heritage. Funding bodies such as The Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council look favourably upon the value added by CMNH's support for such community projects, providing project partners with guidance around academic rigour, knowledge and research expertise. In return the community projects that CMNH engages with deliver a diverse range of research questions and examples that help to shape our research agendas, as well as training and participation opportunities for our students.