A Life As A Lens: Paper Abstracts

With less than a fortnight to go until the conference, we thought we’d post the paper abstracts to get you thinking about all the different themes that will (hopefully) come out in discussion:

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Keynote Information

As well as an exciting programme of papers throughout the day, we are also happy to announce a great keynote lecture. Dr Adam Smith (Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, UCL) will be speaking ‘On Actors Great and Small: Historians and their Subjects’. Adam’s research focuses on the nature of politics and political change, with a concentration on the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. In his keynote, he will be exploring some of the themes of the conference, including the difference between history and biography, the temptations of hagiography, and the ways that the histories of individuals can fit into wider narratives and analysis.

If you are interested in attending the keynote, you don’t need to register. The keynote lecture will take place at the same place as the conference: the Howard Building, Digby Stuart College, University of Roehampton, and will start at 5.30pm. It will be followed by a wine reception.

Information on how to find the Howard building and how to get to the University of Roehampton can be found here.

Programme and Registration

We have now finalised the programme for the A Life As A Lens conference. We had a large number of extremely high quality submissions, and have been able to put together a really strong, diverse and interesting set of papers. Hopefully this will make for a stimulating and engaging day. The programme is below, or you can download a PDF version here: A Life As A Lens. Abstracts for the papers will shortly be posted on the blog.

Registration for the conference is now open and can be accessed through the University of Roehampton online store. Registration is £18 (£12 for students) including tea and coffee, lunch and wine. Please get in touch with the organisers, Charlotte Lydia Riley (charlotte.riley [at] york.ac.uk) and Stefan Visnjevac (stefan.visnjevac [at] roehampton.ac.uk) if you have any questions.

A Life As A Lens: Using Individuals In Wider Historical Research

Friday 12 September 2014, University of Roehampton

9-9.30am Registration and Coffee

9.30-9.45am Opening Remarks

9.45-11.15am Panel One: Patients, Doctors and Bodies – Individuals and the History of Medicine and Health

11.15-11.30am Break

11.30-1pm Panel Two: A Cog in the Machine? Individuals and Institutions

1-1.45pm Lunch

1.45-3.15pm Panel Three: Belief, Knowledge, Self: Exploring Culture and Identity

3.15-3.30pm Coffee Break

3.30-5.00pm Panel Four: The Voice of the People? Reflections on the Popular and the Elite

5.00-730pm Keynote Lecture – Adam Smith (UCL) – and drinks reception


Panel 1: Patients, Doctors, and Bodies: Individuals and the History of Medicine and Health

Laura Neff (RHUL) – Beyond ‘Great Men’ Histories: Abdominal Surgery, Risk and Failure in Victorian Britain

Dr Harriet Palfreyman (Warwick): Speaking for the Silent? The Case of Leonard Portal Mark and the Hospital Artists

John Woolf (Goldsmiths): ‘John Bull’s Fat Man’: the life of Daniel Lambert.

Panel 2: A Cog in the Machine? Individuals and Institutions

Darren O’Byrne (Cambridge): Senior Civil Servants in the Third Reich: Narratives of Experience before 1933.

Rebecca Coll (Cambridge/IWM): How useful is oral history in understanding institutional history? The creation of IWM Duxford, 1971-1979

Dr Charlotte Riley (York): ‘Uncharismatic, if Earnest’: Rescuing Arthur Creech Jones from the Archives

Panel 3: Belief, Knowledge, Self: Exploring Culture and Identity:

Dr Laura Sangha (Exeter): The Invaluable Individual: Ralph Thoresby’s Life (1658-1725)

Will Pooley (Oxford): Who Were The Folk? Biography, Shared Culture, and the Standardization of Identity

Na Chang (Cambridge): Chinese Perception of the Foreigners in the Ming

Panel 4: The Voice of the People? Reflections on the Popular and the Elite

Dr Stefan Visnjevac (Roehampton): Preaching to the people or for the people in Fifteenth-Century Friuli

Mark Bennett (Durham): From Westminster to Wessenden: The Use and Misuse of Huddersfield views on the American Civil War

Amelia Clegg (Birkbeck): Studying Imperial Tommy and Republican Boer: Armies, Soldiers and the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).

Call For Papers

Date: Friday 12th September 2014

Venue: University of Roehampton, London

Keynote Speaker: Dr Adam Smith, UCL

In the course of their research, many historians encounter individuals from the past who help them to understand wider cultural, economic, or political issues. Working on these individual actors, whether through their personal papers, actions, or life stories, can be an extremely rewarding experience for historians. Using an individual to navigate the historical past can focus research and give shape to a larger project. However, there can be significant issues with basing research so closely around a single person or small group of individuals. Historians who ‘love too much’ might be in danger of narrowing their understanding of an event or period, and such a focus could challenge the idea of a historian as an objective writer.

This one-day conference will bring together historians working across all periods of history who focus on an individual or group of individuals in their work. Rather than papers which focus on individuals in and of themselves, the conference will explore how historians utilise individuals and the sources related to them as a lens on historical periods. We would like to invite researchers to submit papers which broadly deal with the themes outlined below. We are also willing to consider other papers with interesting interpretations on the theme.

Themes which could be considered are:

  • Identity (e.g. race, gender, class). How far can the history of one person inform us about the wider experience of a particular group?
  • The ‘ordinary life’ vs. the ‘great man’ – do histories of individuals always privilege the elite?
  • Organisations and the individuals within them.
  • The impact of fictions – legends/beliefs surrounding the individual.
  • Individuals as actors in prosopographical studies.
  • Individual thinkers and the history of ideas.
  • Comparative approaches – exploring wider questions through the varied approaches of different individuals to the same issues.

Above all, papers should focus on the issues which arise from working with individuals in order to study a historical event or concept. Rather than a narrative on the life of the individual, papers should concentrate on the challenges within this form of historical research. Do individuals truly provide a ‘lens’ through which we can view history more clearly, can they function as representatives of wider groups, or as a ‘way in’ to broader issues, events, and ideas? Or do they obscure the past by providing a personalised or subjective picture? Can historians ever be objective about an individual whom they have studied for years? Is it possible for historians to ‘love too much’?

Papers should be 20 minutes in length. We welcome submissions from PhD students and early career researchers, as well as more established academics. Proposals should be 250 words. Please include your institutional affiliation and contact details. It is hoped that suitable papers will be collected together in an edited volume. Submissions should be sent by Monday 7th April to the conference organisers at: