This is ordinary: unexceptional historical subjects (and authors)

Ordinary sounds boring, let’s be honest. It sounds average and tepid. Most historians are seeking the extra-ordinary, even if these extras pertain to be located in ordinary lives. Historical research is inherently driven by originality, it wants to break down or uphold concepts with novel and often controversial ways of considering the subject.

In the last couple of months I’ve started thinking about the ‘average’ people I’m writing about and the way in which I hope to illustrate their lives through original research. Originality is introducing some dangers to my presentation of these ordinary lives by reinforcing a feeling that historical research and writing is exceptional.

At the European Social Sciences and History Conference I met, talked with and tweeted some fascinating researchers. In a lot of the talks, it struck me that the historians present were committed to ‘reinserting’ everyday lives into grand narratives of the past. Oral history especially, proudly remembers its roots as a discipline founded on ‘uncovering’ the voices of the common people – previously negligible blips in the grand scheme of history. This is a powerful raison d’être that I think is still enormously valuable.

But I started to wonder: is there a certain level of expectation that ordinary people, have extraordinary things to say? Especially when it comes to oral history, is there an expectation of the exceptional from unexceptional people?

I say this because I am guilty of ‘exceptionalising’ my work and it’s irritating me. Friends ask me how my research is going, I want to hook them, I want to show them that I’m doing a good job and that my history can speak to them. So I reply emphatically, ‘… during the Blitz she worked on the Free French newspaper!!’ or ‘he was born in 1919, the year the First World War ended!!’ These examples are true, but they are also all I choose to tell of often protracted, somewhat arduous interviews, in which small nuggets of interesting evidence are discovered amidst bland, ordinary stories.

I want the bland, ordinary stories, but I’m not confident enough to explain this to people – I have to excite and tickle. I know that a writer’s trick of the trade is to capture the audience; and that it is the task of the historian to economically and selectively apply evidence to massive swathes of history. That story about a teenage girl fearless of air raids in blitzed London, only scared because the intense darkness of the blackout beckoned dangers to a girl walking home alone at night beyond any bomb – that’s bang for my buck.

What worries me is that not only could this lead to the depiction of everyday histories as mystical, but that sometimes it is also making me feel exceptional. I found that person, I met that person, I heard that person, I relate their lives to others. But I am not exceptional. Anyone could have met Maureen. I suppose what I’m saying is that there is a trait of humility that I fear losing in this sea of often stupefying experiences.

Coincidentally at the tail end of the conference I read Matt Houlbrook’s blog ‘What do we talk about when we talk about doing history?’ I was reminded that doing history isn’t all about the archives, the creativity, the eureka moments; but that the slow burn of teaching and student participation – an activity frequently undermined by other academics – contributes significantly to a holistic (yes ‘everyday’) research experience. Humility is not a word I hear used to describe historians or any other academics for that matter, but humility – knowing that life goes on and so would the ‘doing history’ – seems a useful perspective for me at the moment.

I’ve posted before about my pop-psychology fatigue: about being fed up with its self-aggrandizing rhetoric. The mindfulness zeitgeist, strikes me as being part and parcel also of rendering the unexceptional, exceptional. Being mindful these days doesn’t seem to mean coming to accept the self as part of the wider world, but minding about oneself, beginning to elevate and celebrate the self. Back to the exceptional. Of course one day I want someone to read my work and think it’s good, but for now I’d like to concentrate on not losing sight of the people I research; authentically everyday lives beyond their authentically exceptional experiences. And how to write them without losing sight of my place in the research process.



2 thoughts on “This is ordinary: unexceptional historical subjects (and authors)

  1. Thank you for a wonderfully thought-provoking discussion which articulates brilliantly the challenges so many historians face in writing about ‘ordinary’ lives. Is our desire to capture the mundane in tension with the expectation to be original? You remind me of Carolyn Steedman’s observation in ‘Landscape for a Good Woman’ that every story – to be a story – must answer the question ‘So what?’ What gets left out when we try to turn the unremarkable into a meaningful story – and whose story does it become?

    • Really appreciate your comment, thanks! Even after posting the blog I’ve been wondering how to move on with a thesis plan in which I try to keep the mole hills, mole hills; and represent the mountains likewise. I’m lucky to be using my own oral history interviews because I think somehow the filter that the participant puts on their representation of the experience, is at least, their ‘own’!

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