COVID-19 and the future of our discipline

Statement of the Social History Society (Britain)

The Social History Society has released an official statement on the impact of COVID-19 on the working lives of historians, and the implications for the future of our discipline.


The practice of social and cultural history has always depended on the contributions of scholars across all career stages. From the undergraduate essay to the book-length studies of established scholars, historical research can make us reflect on our own practice and think differently about our own research areas.

Our discipline thrives on a strong community of historians. This community includes people working inside and outside the academy, from those who make a living out of it, those who are learning the craft, to those who practice it in their spare time. We are proud to belong to such a community and to foster collaboration and innovation through the Social History Society.

We are gravely concerned about the future of our discipline and write today to express such concern to you: our valued members, colleagues, and friends.

COVID-19 has caused much disruption to our practice. It has forced many of us to leave books and materials in offices, libraries and archives; to abandon some projects; to try and reshape others; and to adjust to home working without the networks that we rely on to shape our ideas, read our drafts, and think alongside.

Our undergraduates are completing assessments with fewer resources available to them and face an uncertain future. Amidst this uncertainty, budgets (especially for part time and fixed term staff) are already being cut. In this climate, our postgraduates are trying to complete theses with books locked away, with archives closed, without their support networks and, for some, without the prospect of teaching to return to.

We are immensely proud of the way our community has responded to this crisis. Whether using social media to facilitate reading groups, sharing research notes and copies of digitised sources, or getting to grips with new software, we are all learning how to be historians in this strange world. Yet we know that acts of generosity and kindness, however welcome and necessary they are, cannot sustain us against the cumulative impact of further cuts to staffing budgets, fewer jobs being advertised, and a drop-in student numbers.

This is a time of illness, grief, and profound economic and social change. However, the future of our discipline is far from frivolous. It is entangled with people’s livelihoods, identities, and futures. The questions COVID-19 raises about our future must be asked, no matter how impossible they are to answer right now.

As historians, we know context is everything. We know that we must analyse the short term in relation to longer term trends. We therefore maintain that while COVID-19 is a short-term crisis of unprecedented magnitude, it is serving to highlight longer-term problems in our academic structures and our scholastic cultures. These include the profound and unequal effects of precarity on our discipline, and the implications for our ability to produce the work we believe is important for its historical intervention.

  1. There are increasingly more trained historians than historical jobs in Higher Educational Institutions, the arts and heritage sectors, the voluntary sector and elsewhere. This disparity between supply and demand forces many talented and hard-working scholars out of the discipline, often early in their careers. While they are much missed in their own right, we also mourn the loss of their ideas and the unique contributions. The extensive dismissal of Early Career Researchers would have an irrevocable impact on our understanding of the past.
  2. The people and projects that manage to survive precarity are profoundly shaped by it. Regardless of intellect or imagination, the ability to carry out historical research requires access to the financial resources that precarity removes. Research shows that this has exacerbated ingrained inequalities, serving to close off our discipline to those not white, middle-class or educated in high tariff universities.
  3. We are additionally concerned about where cultural and social projects sit in the eyes of our funders, given the difficulty in quantifying their impact compared to research with quantitative data. Indeed, much cultural and social history is qualitative in nature, describing and explaining changes and continuities in earlier societies. It complicates our understanding of the past and warns against simplistic comparisons with the future. How does this research survive in a world in which there is less money, more calls to account for funding, and a bias towards quantification?

The Social History Society will continue to monitor the landscape of social and cultural history. We will continue to push for its recognition as a vital discipline that helps us to understand the complex nature of human society, with a historical specificity that is sadly lacking from much commentary. And we will continue to advocate for our members, working to ensure that their work is recognised and that their livelihoods and means of existence are treated with the importance that they deserve. This is a political issue and it is one that we can, and should, intervene on.

Posted: 
07/05/2020