Seeking Legitimacy: Conference Report by Daisy Payling

On 20-21st June, I had an opportunity to return to Birmingham where I completed my PhD research, to attend the Seeking Legitimacy workshop on authority and expertise in modern Britain. The workshop was aimed at postgraduates and researchers in the first few years of their careers and picked up on one of the themes highlighted in the Modern British Studies at Birmingham working papers; that of the changing nature of the public sphere and the shifting hierarchies of value, authority and expertise that have shaped social, cultural and political participation in modern Britain.


University of Birmingham, taken by Fiona Cosson

Ideas of the public sphere, experts and the ‘public’ are of particular interest to those of us working on the ‘Placing the Public in Public Health’ project, which among other topics looks at histories of health promotion, lay epidemiology, and notions of ‘common sense’ around health. I was excited to see how other researchers were framing relationships between people and authority and expertise in their work, and appreciated the chance to present and receive feedback on my recent work on complaints made against the Government Social Survey department’s health surveys in the 1940s.

The first day of the conference focussed on public engagement and researchers’ roles as experts in society; a somewhat contentious issue in the recent debate over the EU Referendum. Talks from local archivists, arts organisations and community engagement specialists on the public’s use and creation of histories focussed on the sustainability of projects, building and maintaining relationships, and the importance of knowing who your public are. This tied into some of the themes raised at Jane Seymour’s London Health Histories symposium the week before which explored public participation and crowdsourcing in digital archives like London’s Pulse.

The second day saw papers from individual researchers who discussed themes of legitimacy, expertise and authority through a wide range of topics. The first panel of the day saw self-reflective papers from speakers who placed themselves in their work; exploring the role personal grooming plays in complicating discussions with the public about the history of hair removal, and negotiating the academic job market when your research is on the history of pornography. It also examined the legitimacy of using unusual sources or methods; with papers reclaiming elite oral history and material objects as useful sources. Later papers explored how notions of legitimacy and expertise were developed in financial and health services, and contested in the BBC. Others analysed gendered codes of authority, and showed how grassroots experience could convey authority that went beyond that of professional expertise. Many of the papers discussed negotiations between public and private, how power operated in everyday spaces, and the ways in which larger themes of citizenship and privacy could be articulated in small moments.

In all it was stimulating workshop made more so by careful planning for discussion time by organisers Laura Sefton, Shahmima Akhtar and Ruth Lindley. I had a great time talking about ideas and methods, catching up with old friends and meeting new ones.