So, now I’m working on a PhD, which still occasionally blows my mind. I began my studies at University of Illinois Chicago in Fall of 2010, with a major field of Modern Britain. I also have minor fields in World History and Science and Technology Studies, which I’ll break down further along on this page. First, Britain:
Britain from 1837: At this particular university, the field of Modern Britain starts in 1837 with the coronation of Victoria and the end of the Hanoverian line, and extends to the present day. My focus still remains in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it’s helpful to have the context for that moment from both ends—what came before, and what happened after. My topics (at this point in my progress) are as follows:
- Politics: I never thought I would be so interested in high politics, but it certainly helps that 19th century prime ministers had larger-than-life-personalities which extended out into the general eccentricities that governed Victorian England. I have discovered over time that liberalism and conservatism were not all that much divorced from one another—individualism, free-trade moral sympathies, and vague commitments to empire were common on both sides of the political spectrum. And British parliament also has a knack for wafting in and out of faction like a stodgy kaleidoscope, changing all sorts of currents as it shifts, including those attitudes and policies which affected the treatment of the mentally ill.
- Empire: Britain is totally weird about the empire. The nineteenth century didn’t see a lot of whipped up foment until the later decades, and then just as quickly as the pomp and circumstance puffed itself up, the empire started to fade. There was this odd mix of nostalgia in contrast with shame, or at least selective memory. Post Churchill, the general consensus seems to be, let’s not talk about that, shall we? I’m interested in the topic because my chosen years of focus fall right in the heyday, which affected the story of masculinity in ways I’ll highlight below.
- 20th-century: This is a relatively new topic for me. I was interested to find that the general narrative is one of decline—regionalism, unemployment, labor unrest, immigration concerns, racial conflict—which historians often counteract with stories of artistic and cultural development, the triumph of (somewhat brief) consensus and the welfare state, and great war glory. I can see the validity of both approaches, so right now I’m just enjoying my chance to explore the historiography in preparation for exams.
- Medicine: Still learning the ins and outs of British psychiatry, starting back with the mental physicians of the mid 1800s, and climbing my way up through the turn of the 20th century and the advent of Freudian talk therapy. This stuff is the shiz. I’m interested in the rise and fall of trust in objectivity, the rise and fall of organic lesions as the supposed cause for all mental illness, and the rise and fall of “wine and an egg” as the chaser for edible medicines. Seriously, what is up with that?
- Studying the history of psychiatric medicine requires a well-honed sense of compassion, as well as a sincere sense of humor. Sometimes the patients I encounter take my breath away with their stories, or leave me sniffling in the archives. And sometimes, I have to giggle to keep my own sanity in the presence of perfectly lovely men who lost theirs. For every elderly man committed with delusions of youth or the inability to handle the loss of his wife, there is a juvenile committed for, petty theft and lovesickness (or, my personal favorite, larceny of ducks.) For every man who begs for his release from wrongful imprisonment or a visit from his family, there is a man who proposes to Queen Victoria in the same letter he asks Prince Albert if he’d like another footman. And so on.
- Public Health Movements: My interest in weird therapeutic movements has not declined. I look here at eugenics and fears of hereditary degeneration, as well as bizarre patent medicines and the corresponding advertisements. More seriously, I have done some research on the Poor Law and workhouse policies, tracing how they gave way to the eventual National Health Service.
World History: Not just for textbook side bars anymore.
- Empire: The empire through the eyes of the so called “periphery” is a much different picture from that listed above. It is raw, full of nationalist fervor, and incredibly complex. My studies here have looked at the advent of colonization in a number of its different moments, 1400 to the present, and then the corresponding moments of decolonization. Of course, my main focus has been the British Empire, but I’ve also compared French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish colonial experiences. The justifications of empire, on the part of the rulers, end up being relatively similar across the board. But the responses to colonization and decolonization, on the part of the ruled, are quite varied and fascinating.
- Slavery: The story of slavery is no longer one of victimization, but rather a vibrant story of rebellion and resistance. I have not studied North American slavery in any depth, as only 5-10% of Africans transported through the slave trade actually ended up there. Instead, I’ve read on slavery in Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and Meso-America, which is a narrative that combines the experiences of Africans and indigenous Americans, starting about 1600 in earnest.
- Ideologies of Race: A ghostly and ghastly history linked, in most cases, to moments in the history of empire and slavery.
- World Systems Theory: Immanuel Wallerstein said that the world could be divided up into spheres of influence that govern themselves either through economics or empire, and intersect like a giant Venn Diagram. John Voll stepped forward and said that these spheres of influence could also govern themselves through cultural, social, or moral constructions that tie people together in shared experience. I buy all the above.
- Globalization: I spent a brief moment reflecting on how globalization has affected the flow of money, medicine, and masculinity. It was a very conflicted moment.
- Eco-Cultural Bundle Theory: Alfred Crosby is a badass. He was the originator (arguably) of the idea that now directs histories of conquest—that colonizers don’t only bring a boat, a flag, and some horses with them, they also bring germs, seeds, and cultural constructions. He called this moment the Columbian Exchange and explained how epidemics, food imports and exports, and luxury trade commodities moved in all directions, from the Pacific, to the Atlantic, to the Indian Ocean World. Hence how sweet potatoes ended up in the highlands of China and French silk hats went to Lima, Peru.
Science and Technology Studies: Robots. No, not really.
- Post-Modern Theory: It’s not all about black turtle-necks and penetrating gazes. I’ve found post-modern theory to be most informative when it talks about how everyone holds and is held by some kind of power structure—that we all discipline, police, and construct each other’s lives, enforcing a sort of infrastructure that pushes people either in or out. It seems to me that we probably all feel this daily, but it’s more obvious to some people than it is to others, which is why some people control power, while others fight it. Heavy.
- Classification Theory: Related to the above, this theory traces the grid-work created by those enforced infrastructures. People just love to classify things. And in my work with the history of the mentally ill, this theory has given me a path into the expectations of doctors, attendants, and non-patients. Where should their patients and loved ones fit when they’re well again? How should they act? And for that matter, where do patients see themselves fitting when they don’t give a care for expectation?
- Actor-Network Theory: How do the great men of science really make those discoveries anyway? Through vast honeycombs of networks, where inanimate objects, lab workers, test subjects, and even the ordinary reader hold sway over some part of the scientific process, that’s how. I can’t help but think of the Brave Little Toaster when I think of microscopes having “agency” to act…but that’s probably not terribly professional or accurate.
- History of Science: I’m including this category here, for my own purposes, although it can definitely be a category all on its own. I like to think about how scientific facts become scientific facts—through processes of experimentation, gentlemanly behavior, and philosophical conversation. English Royal Academies of Science deserve a bit of dissection.
- History of Medicine: is different than Medical History. The latter looks at major developments and developers within the field, and I look at certain aspects of medicine as social constructions based on the expectations of people who looked for cures, even if those cures had to be created by doctors who consequently created professional authority. The two fields often don’t get along, but I’m open to moments of consensus. And I’m not out to create victims and villians, either. Remember, I don’t feel like ducking chairs at conferences.
History of Masculinity: So, you might have noticed that I mention men and masculinity a number of times in my above descriptions. This is because masculinity studies pervade a number of different fields. But I decided to give it its own category, because the history of masculinity is also a field in and of itself.
On the one hand you have governing theories and concepts that have really set the mold for how masculinity is studied:
- For instance Queer Theory, by the late 1970s, began to show historians that social attitudes…they were a’changin’. Academic consciousness and awareness, championed by Jeffery Weeks, began to move the study of homosexuality out of isolation and into relational studies of family, gender roles, sexuality generally, and eventually, heterosexuality.
- Gender Studies then changed the history of masculinity forever in 1986, when Joan Scott argued that gender is a “category of analysis” that only provides useful analyses when women and men are studied in interaction. That both can suffer from the social consequences of sex role, power struggles, and exclusions. And that studying these interactions and struggles will give historians new ways to dissect everything from politics to philosophy.
- This was a really powerful moment in the history of masculinity when scholars took a step back and realized that the quintessential alpha male, the Hegemonic Man, as coined by R. W. Connell, was really a serious downer. That male type was not only creating made up differences between men and women, but also between different categories of men—and then society, often unconsciously, maintained all those differences and categories by force.
Then on the other hand you have these theories and concepts applied directly to the history of masculinity, which, in Britain at least, quickly moved out of obsessive articulations of codes of masculinity and the decline of dueling, into more nuanced attempts to grab hold of what it subjectively/psychologically means to be a man. What sorts of images have held sway? How have the lives of men shifted in interaction with empire? Did they want to be heroes? How did they handle the reality of life as an administrator or clerk? How did women’s liberation movements at the turn of the century affect men? Were there differences between the aristocrat and the laborer? What are those differences? What on earth does it mean to be a normal or normative man? Who the hell decides that? How do those definitions shift? Why are there definitions in the first place?
As you can see, new theories and approaches allowed historians to ask tons of brand new questions. Historians are still asking all those questions, and about a thousand others, probably.
My own personal question, the one that hinges my project, is this: How did the professionalization of psychiatry at the turn of the 20th century in Britain affect the construction of the normal/normative man? And what sorts of interactions shaped that construction? Doctor and patient, doctor and attendant, patient and attendant, attendant and committing family member, commissioner of lunacy and doctor, doctor and available medicines and theories, etc.
There are about a million interactions to chart. There are class analyses to make, gendered diseases and symptoms to consider, hegemonic men to slay, racial constructions to break down, maps to draw, and consequences that reach right up to the present day to contemplate.
I am so pumped about this. And I love how everything I’ve studied from my BA forward has basically readied me for this advanced analytical moment. All the theories are finally making sense, the literature is lining up, and I could not be more excited.
History is the best.