Why campaigners need history

By Lucy Delap.

Why does change happen? It’s one of the most basic of questions for our discipline. Historians tend to discount the reasons most people assume underpin social change – we relentlessly remind our students that change doesn’t happen simply because new generations are born, or because time moves forward. Historians are enormously sceptical concerning easy assumptions of the direction of change, refusing teleological accounts that assume a certain destination, or whiggish optimism about progress. Instead, we seek fine-grained accounts of what motivates change, always willing to argue for continuities or reversals. Assessing change over time is our bread and butter as a profession, and we expend much energy arguing over cycles, waves, homeostasis and stability.  We sometimes break our analysis down into change or stasis at different levels of temporality, or assess short, medium and long term degrees of change. We try to hold within our view contingency and serendipity, recognising that many outcomes are possible, and very little is inevitable. These are the analytic skills that co-called futurists have turned into mini empires of consultancy, offering tools such as ‘scenario development’, strategic planning, trend analysis and so on, in order to shed light on what might happen in five, ten or twenty years’ time. Historians are rightly reluctant to offer predictions – nonetheless, we perhaps sell ourselves short in failing to recognise that our discipline has a huge amount to offer those who want to influence the future.

Histories of Change, a conference co-hosted by KCL’s History & Policy and Friends of the Earth, sets out a series of compelling case studies that focus on the factors that underlie or prevent change. Ranging across social, political, environmental and economic history, campaigners from civil society organisations will be thinking through the impact of events as catalysts for social change; the formation of unlikely or temporary coalitions; the means by which empathy or anger can be elicited amongst publics; and the varying contributions experts, campaigners, marginalised groups or bystanders can make to moments of change. Amongst our speakers, Abigail Woods, for example, traces the history of the intensification of British livestock farming, and notes the lack of any linear change in the period since World War One.  Her case study underlines the grassroots diversity of British farming, and lack of any single path to ‘agricultural modernity’. Understanding this history can allow campaigners to move away from destructive binaries, such as those that set organic or welfare-oriented farming in headlong opposition to modern or intensive methods.  Simon Sleight, in a contrasting field, examines the involvement of young people in city environments, and suggests the potential for campaigners for change to involve young people in planning and citizenship roles.

The case studies of Histories of Change do not offer the sometimes simplistic models that are predominant in disciplines such as economics, which have tended to gain the attention of the policy world.  History does not embrace simple accounts of cause and effect – but the conference does showcase the value of thinking about the complex dynamics and coalition building that underlies change – and, as David Edgerton’s case study of change in Britain during World War Two suggests, may lead to unexpected effects. Julia Urwin of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation notes that ‘successful social change will have several parents, all of whom are likely to be slightly disappointed in their progeny.’  Histories of Change helps campaigners and policy makers understand better the complex dynamics of how change happens, and invites historians to reflect explicitly on the theories of causation that underlie their work.

For an update on the conference, see here. To see it how it happened on Storify, please click here.