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Paul Thompson and the Problem of Communities in London

Daniel Miller 2008

Although I have never been a historian or a sociologist of any description, when I was becoming an academic, I was certainly aware of a growing movement that related these two disciplines. I knew of Paul Thompson’s work alongside things such as History Workshop. I remember the development of the journal Oral History, partly because my wife Rickie Burman contributed some papers to that journal. For me it was all part of a kind of radical tradition associated with life stories, and oral history recordings.

The nature of that impact was not actually the method itself, nor the radical politics in a more specific kind, but more the kind of ethos. It was the morality rather than the method that I imbibed. What was different compared to much of the abstract, dry and rather cold social science I knew, was its humanity. This was an approach that seemed to pay respect to people, to be full of empathy and concern. It was sensitive, it exposed suffering and oppressions, struggles and successes, and seemed to be about bringing out everything that was worthwhile about an individual. There was something noble and rather beautiful about it. I still think that.

It was also astonishing successful. Thinking about this conference made me appreciate how much what started as a particular agenda really just became mainstream. Life histories now a taken for granted element in the way local history operates, museums operate and an integral aspect of many schemes for the elderly and others. Its simply part of movements and processes designed to help people gain a self-respect for their place in a world. Not only that but all this happened over the decades of globalisation when in every other way the increasing consciousness of the scale of the modern world threatened to diminish that same self respect and create alienation. It has been a counter culture in a literal sense, something that from the 70’s to now went in the opposite direction of many other cultural trends.

That surely is the legacy one would want to retain. But my argument today is that it is best retained by being quite open and self-aware about its consequences as a tradition. I have always operated within a theoretical tradition loosely called dialectical, which means amongst other things, that one recognises that every good thing we bring out into the world itself, must have its negative implications if taken too narrowly or becomes in some sense of other what we used to call fetishised. The example of this I am concerned with today is the concept of community. Reflecting back on the growth and development of life histories and oral history, one of its children as it were, has been the development of community studies, as in the institute of community studies. It is easy to see why. The same concern with peoples welfare as individuals extends to the ideal of people in groups. Community is in and of itself a good thing, a key to a persons sense of belonging in the world and the extended basis of those persons that share mutual concerns and provide the safety net for personal welfare. As a result, no one just studies communities, they inevitably in some way or other also seek to preserve and promote them.

This is partly because we recognise that the study itself, a community history, an exhibition about a community is in and of itself a good thing, a means by which academic studies can perhaps unusually be of some help. That is give support and meaning, provide a sense of identity, and so forth. Of course we also recognise that communities can also feel claustrophobic, overly normative, and constraining, but we see the alternative as isolation, ennui, lack of morality and direction. We are all heirs to Durkheim to some degree or other.

The problem emerges when our desire to see people in communities becomes our failure to acknowledge changes in the world, and to be prepared to deal with situations where community is absent. Where for all that we wish it were otherwise, an approach to people in communities prevents rather than preserves our intention to remain concerned with the welfare of the people who once made up these communities.

Let me spell out this logic. If we suggest that we study community because we value ultimately, not the community per. se. but the welfare of the people who live within it, then it would follow that our commitment should be to those people irrespective of whether they live in communities or not. One might then go further. People who don’t live in communities might seem to us somewhat bereft, lacking in that support, in those qualities we see in community. So this logic would imply that while we should study communities, we should show even more concern, pay even more attention, to those who don’t live in communities and no longer have that support. This would not be contrary to this legacy from the work of Paul Thompson and others, but an essential complement to that legacy. What I want to do is present a method for attempting to do just that.

Not coming from history or sociology but from anthropology, I have my own set of reasons for following this logic. Anthropologists were traditionally associated with the study of what were called small scale communities. Typically we operated in something we called a fieldsite, often a tribal population or a village. This was in some ways a relatively easy thing to do, since in these circumstances one could participate in a considerable amount of public interaction that made this cohere in something we thought of as society.

The problem arose when most people started to live in industrial cities that looked very different from the traditional field site. The response to this which I find particularly prominent in the US, though is present here also, is to find some simply substitute from the tribe or fieldsite that may the rupture not quite so much of a problem. Most often this revolved around the idea of identity, and the categories of peoples who became the topic of the research. So anthropologists along with other cultural studies started instead to work on the middle class, on women, on gay populations, on diasporic groups, the disabled, a school, or basically any group one could still hope to define as a population. One of the reasons for this was of course also that one needed to define populations in order to get a grant. My unwillingness to do this as I am about to describe, is probably the reason I havnt managed to get a grant in my own name since the 1970’s. Most of the work I am about to describe is ungranted and based on what I suppose could be called leisure time.

My concern came really from the personal experience of being a Londoner. I was born in London, I have mostly lived in London and I have always been fascinated with the way London has changed. Its going to take me some time I admit to even thinking about a post Ken Livingstone London since I think this regime has had a huge influence upon the way I think. All I knew at first was that I wanted to study people without labelling them, and without categorising them in advance. A somewhat utopian idea, but at least one could try. I wanted a more inductive approach that said that being say Indian might be amongst the most important but might also be amongst the least important thing one might know about someone. Similarly being a woman, young, working class, gay or whatever. What if someone felt that being gay told you nothing whatsovever about them except their sexual orientation. Or someone felt that they had no affinity to class and that their cultural preferences were happily eclectic. As we know from the work of others here, neighbourhoods are themselves relatively rare, hardly anyone even knows the names of their neigbours let along has much by way of meaningful interaction with them. So we have to at least contemplate the possibility of people who live in such a manner that neither, neighbourhood, nor community, not category matter very much. They might support Millwall but watch them on TV. They work but never meet work colleagues after work, they are secular. They never go to meetings, maybe not even pubs. Perhaps not even family or identity matter very much. Who knows? I wanted to know.

It was already clear from demographers that immigrant populations had dispersed more rapidly and widely than in most other cities, and property relations had become complex. My own street is typical of this mix of incomes and origins. So I decided that instead of looking for defined populations I would just pick random streets and try and find out who lived there. My only criteria was that the street in question should have a range of housing, which most streets have. Once this arbitrary street is selected I would then try and persuade as many people as possible to work with me in my research.

I work in a subject called material culture studies, so all my projects are to do with people relationship to objects. To date I have completed two of these street based studies, and last summer and this I am working on a third. The method, at least so far has included working jointly with a young woman, in two cases PhD students, currently an ex-PhD student now employed in another university. This I fully acknowledge can sound a little dubious. But it works. By carrying out fieldwork together, it means that when we knock on doors, people will allow us in, who I suspect would never agree to let me in if I were alone. But being together it provides some security for a young female, who might easily get into someones home, but might potentially have a problem getting out of that strangers home.

These are extensive studies, the first one took a year, the second took 18 months, and the current one we are in our second summer season. The reason will be obvious. It is not that easy getting people who you have no way of knowing in advance to let you in to their properties. Our most successful attempt was the second fieldwork in which we ended up with a hundred individuals or households on that street or the streets connected with it, and ultimately only 8 refusals, which I would think is about as close to a full sample as anyone will achieve in a place such as London today. Partly this was time. While these people didn’t on the whole know each other, they started to notice the two of us, walking day after day up and down the street. So we became quite familiar, even more so than the local corner shop, and in some cases people stopped us, and asked if we could include them, having heard about what we were doing.

Each study has had is own target.The first which resulted in books such as a theory of shopping, was about shopping. But as anyone who has read that book will know, I used shopping as a means for studying the process of love in families. My reasoning was that housewives who dominated shopping, were not hedonistic and materialistic individuals but actually people who spent their time provisioning the home on behalf of the people they loved, and love could be better studied through this technology than through asking people directly about the subject. Most days I spent shopping with people going from home to shops and back again, my student Alison Clarke worked more on informal provisioning. She didn’t do badly. She is currently a Professor in Vienna.

The shopping study was undertaken in North London, so for the second one I picked a street in South London. This time I turned from people acquiring objects to people divesting themselves of objects, in a study of how people deal with loss such as death and divorce. The argument was that we cannot control the event when we lose a person we love, but as anthropologists know from the study of many other societies, we can control our gradual separation from the objects we associated with the person we love. I applied this to many forms of loss as determined by the informants. It might be death, or divorce, often children’s response to the divorce of their parents and so forth. The third study which I am carrying out at the present time, is back in north London and is about people’s relationship to denim, that is blue jeans. I have just published a paper in the journal Social Anthropology called a manifesto for the study of denim. I don’t have time to try and persuade to the cause. But suffice to say I think denim is a kind of secret key to understanding all sorts of things going on the modern world, and our response to things like commerce, globalisation and many other pressures. If you are interested look up something called the global denim project which already has 15 research projects dedicated to this particular cause.

So all three of these street projects have particular topics in mind. But my concern today is not those topics but the implications of the method. And for that I will focus on the second of these studies and a book that should be out with Polity Press in a couple of weeks time, called The Comfort of Things. In this book I select thirty people from that south London street, and in each case I give what I call a portrait of that person or household. In one sense this parallels the emphasis upon individuals and narrative found in oral history. But there are key differences. Firstly the unit may be a household, but more importantly I don’t take my primary evidence from what people say about themselves. Working in material culture, I concentrate on the expressive evidence of possessions, of the things they have in the house, and use these to construct an interpretation of persons and relationships. In my work generally I tend to regard language with a bit of suspicion as a medium of self expression, possibly not a popular view here.

This was the study where after 18 months we had a hundred participants and only 8 refusals. As expected in speak eloquently to the diversity of modern London. Only 23% of these people were actually born in London. But there is no evident ethnic community, no group more in evident than any other. If you asked me what a typical household was I was say perhaps a gay Estonian partnered with an Argentinean. But what does it mean to say Argentinian. The person in question may find that people are constantly trying to introduce him to other Argentianians, but responds by saying If I wanted to meet other Argentinians I would have stayed in fucking Argentina. A PhD student of mine is studying a Serbian Diaspora, where again the main thing they have in common is a desire for various reasons to escape from being identified as Serbian. There can be patterns to this, in general in London I find the Jamaicans I meet do know other Jamaicans. But most of my Trinidadian friends who I know from working for now twenty years in Trinidad, may know hardly any other Trinis.

This can matter, we had a relatively high proportion of gay participants at 13. But having worked closely with many of them, and knowing much about their lives, through this study of their possessions, I am convinced these people have nothing at all in common, irrespective of whether they want to be associated with anything you could call a gay community. Simiarly with many categories. Who are migrants. I ask my informants and they say they don’t know. They might return home, it depends who they fall in love with. I just finished another book on Slovak au pairs, a couple have fallen in love with Moroccans, as happens in London, they will stay in London basically because they don’t feel comfortable going back to either Slovakia or Morocco. I have friends who don’t feel they are Londoners, but simply celebrate the fact that London isn’t Finland which is where they grew up.

One of my favourites was a couple from Brazil and France, deciding where to live next. They considered outer London but it was too expensive, then Portsmouth, too boring. Finally they have decided to move to Tallin in Estonia. Great party scene, not too expensive,. Imagined by them for all the world like some outer outer London suburb. London for an increasingly number of people has become a refuge from identity. I have friends who if you say why do you live in London they reply well the key thing is that it isn’t Denmark where I come from. They were not in the slightest bit interested in being Londoners either, London was ideal because it had become nowhere in particular.

Its not that I am against generalisation, as a social scientist I am often seeking these, but I try not to start with them. So, for example, when I did the work on shopping I tried to reject gender, only to find that gender was even more important than is usually thought. With respect to shopping gender turns out to be remarkably conservative. But at least since I didn’t start from there, and I tried to resist thinking of people in terms of gender, I felt confirmed in its salience. Similarly I don’t want to dismiss the possibility of community. There are Pentecostals in the street who coalesce around the church, and some who are not particularly Pentecostal who coalesce around the pub. My second portrait in this book is of a family that get involved in absolutely everything. They are school governors, know loads of people in the area, help in youth groups etc. There is a tremendous sense of generational transmission, their children and grandchildren are also the ones who serve community, get involved with neighbours and so forth.

But there is another extreme, represented by the first of these portraits. This was a person who had been brought up by highly authoritarian parents, lived only ever in hostels until he was the last person left there, and it was the caretaker who finally took him to were he lives now. He worked as a clerk until retired, and then had no work thereafter. This is someone who knows no one today, indeed has never really had a friend as far as I can tell at any stage in the last several decades. Today no longer in a hostel, he is shopping and cooking for himself, the first time in his life, and he hates it. In his 70’s he is basically waiting to die, and as far as I can tell he has never really lived. Since he does not access any kind of welfare resource or community, he tried for a bit but found gatherings of the elderly too depressing, I really cant see how he would ever have formed part of a study research dependent upon any other method. The only way you would find him is knocking on his door cold. He is extreme but in general terms, in seems that in contemporary London if you don’t start with community, expect it, want it, find your informants through it, then community often plays a rather insignificant part in people lives.

Most people are of course in between the two first portraits. They may associate with people with common interests such as wrestling, they may have close work colleagues, they may have on line communities. In general I was rather shocked at the way English people in particular seem quite able to separate radically from families, let alone communities, even when both live in London, such that these rarely and barely impinge. When young they often live in shared houses, as post university just starting into jobs. They may cook together, but may communicate as much on Facebook as face to face. There are also nuclear families, withdrawn into very absorbed parenting, where other families are mostly a measure against which they determine the progress of their own child.

The temptation is to write about this situation as one of loss, the loss of community, the loss of identity, a nostalgia for extended family, kinship, neighbourhood and community, and there are dozens and dozens of publications that do just that. My stance in this book is exactly the opposite. What I want to know is not what these people have lost but what they have gained. Not what they were but what they have become. I have lived in communities in India the Pacific and the Caribbean, and seen the downside of this intensive life, and what so many of these people think they are escaping from. I see just as much a sense of fulfilment and richness of life, as anomie r alienation.

So my concern is not with the culture they have lost but the one they are building today. A completely new form of culture that seems viable and successful. They almost every single one of them, have systematic, logical forms of cosmology by which they understand and order the world that are to my mind just as interesting as studying trobriand islanders or trindadians in Trinidad. My main concern is to show how these are reflected in the objects they associate with as well as the persons, their relationships to cooking to collecting, to pets, to aesthetic orders, and many other things in which they are relatively wealthy. It turns out this project lies very close to the theme of this conference, it is study of individual and household creativity, an aesthetic of order by which they make the world meaningful. I also found an emphasis upon a few close relationships, which may be friends, may be just lovers, but intense and intimate and powerful forms of love that again seem to flourish in the relative freedom from constraints found in such a situation.

Here then lies the rub. I would argue that the study of community continues the kind of ethos that was expressed from the very beginning by the kind of oral history work that Paul Thompson fostered. It was one of care and respect and sensitive concern for people. But my point is that in order to preserve this concern for people sometimes the best way forward is not to follow a route of community studies, but the exact opposite. To find a way to locate people and study them as they are, irrespective of whether they bear any relationship to anything we might call a community.

This still leaves plenty of ethical dilemmas. I spent a long time before publishing the comfort of things consulting, with Paul and many others about what to do with this kind of material. I felt for example one could not show participants the final writing, since a report that only said about people what they wanted said about them, seemed to me a travesty of some kind of truth, of the very point of research. This study included murderers and troubled people of various kinds. I don’t think the person I described in my first portrait would gain much by being shown this description of an entirely failed life. But lives do fail, and what kind of writing would it be that pretended the only world that existed was the one we transform into the accepted face that we typically turn to the world. Instead I turned instead to anonymisation, which was what I originally promised to informants, not just changing names but all sorts of details that might lead to identification. The problem then is with another kind of truth, do all these changes make it a work of fiction. I don’t think so, because I concentrate on changing those details that are not particularly pertinent to the points that emerge from these portraits.

These concerns with ethics have become I think one of the main legacies of the political conditions which gave rise to oral history, community studies and these other children of the 70s and 80’s. When first developed the crucible was a particular tension in a particular ideology. I look back at all those arguments with Althusserian Marxists of the kind that dominated my department when I first got my job, the colleagues who wouldn’t speak to me because I wasn’t sufficiently Althusserian, as opposed to EP Thompson and other kinds of Marxist tradition. I admit I don’t mind that some of the narrowness of that politics has dissipated. I don’t mind that I can now study blue jeans without it just being reduced to some lazy term called capitalism.

But this returns me to my initial starting point, as an outsider, what I gained from this kind of historical and sociological work with which I still associate Paul Thompson and is just as evident in the work he does today, was the ethical sensibility and a concern with individuals, including individual informants, and with some sense of welfare. It doesn’t necessarily answer questions as to what to do, maybe in my work I have got it all horribly wrong. But it means that I cant go about this kind of work without constantly thinking about such issues, I can’t retreat back to that cold, rather insensitive form of social science that was there is the pre-Marxist positivism, and is now back again in the kind of audit culture that often claims to actually be the proper ethics of our day, the coldness of what you might call ethics committee culture. Whatever the arguments about community, individuals, loss and gain, I am grateful to the legacy which means that at least I am knowing that people who inherit this tradition from Paul Thompson and others, undertake their work with some kind of respect.


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