Research That Sticks: ‘Accident Neurosis’ and Its Sequelae

51crZuKsdtL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve spent the past few days flicking through Dagmar Herzog’s excellent Cold War Freud, and there is one section that particularly sticks out for me. It deals with the period between the 1960s and 1980s, on the relationship between psychiatric studies of Holocaust survivors and later research on Vietnam veterans (the latter would lead to the codification of post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – in DSM-III in 1980).

Herzog’s argument is that the focus on Vietnam and PTSD by historians has overlooked the role that the research on Holocaust survivors played in shaping later medical theories of trauma, especially PTSD. Moreover, Herzog draws attention to the effect that the Holocaust research had on psychiatrists in the 1970s and 1980s, who were then treating refugees, many of whom, the psychiatrists claimed, were suffering from PTSD-like symptoms as a consequence of their exposure to rape, genocide and torture. According to Herzog, one group of psychiatrists, led by J. David Kinzie, in an effort to deduce whether a Western concept like PTSD could be applied to non-Western populations, began experimenting with their application of the diagnosis, and, in so doing, revisited and were influenced by earlier work on ‘concentration camp syndrome’ and related disorders.[1]

Herzog’s point about the retroactive reading of the Holocaust literature is somewhat under-determined (and buried in her end-notes). But what particularly interests me is both the effect of the Holocaust research on what came afterwards, and of the re-reading that Kinzie’s team undertook in the late 1980s to understand the traumatic experiences that they were now documenting in refugees, a re-reading that was inspired by the codification of PTSD in 1980: for it remains my hypothesis, necessarily tentative, that the history of trauma could be profitably rethought as doubled or folded – that is, that psychiatric research on trauma both shaped the research that followed, just as this later research folded back, shaped or inflected what came before. For this reason, I am interested in how certain medical studies endure, in how they stick – how they have an effect on later medical knowledge, and/or how they are re-animated, as in Kinzie’s case, by physicians looking back to comprehend what’s in front of them.

How this maps onto my own research on the history of trauma can be illustrated with reference to the work of neurologistpractneurol-2011-August-11-4-247-F1.large Henry Miller (b. 1913; d. 1976. Pictured right). He remained one of the most influential and heavily-cited contributor to debates over traumatic sequelae in postwar Britain, shaping much of the research that was published from the mid-1960s onwards. This legacy, I want to show, stems both from the effect of Miller on later studies (colouring, conditioning, shaping them); but also from the effect of these later studies on Miller’s earlier work, as it was read anew, re-animated and re-signified by the research that followed the mid-1960s. In brief, I think of Miller’s lectures as folded or sticky events, as simultaneously cause and consequence of a new way of studying traumatic sequelae.

Miller ’s influence stemmed from two lectures he gave to the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1961, which were later published in the British Medical Journal two months later.[2] Their focus was the disorder ‘accident neurosis’ – a label that Miller applied to a collection of symptoms that followed a traumatic accident but which bore an inconstant relationship to the severity of that accident. The typical case of accident neurosis was a working-class, 40-something man, who was involved in a minor accident (either on the road or at work) that resulted in modest, trivial physical injuries, typically to the head; the patient nevertheless presented with long-lasting psychiatric or concussional symptoms – headaches, dizziness, depression, anxiety, intolerance to noise, inability to focus, loss of appetite, etc. Because there was no consistent relationship between the severity of an injury and the consequent psychiatric symptoms – indeed, the more severe accidents rarely resulted in long-lasting emotional problems – Miller concluded that the neurotic sequelae of accidents stemmed from the systems of compensation and insurance that had grown alongside the Welfare State: that is, patients, whether deliberately or unconsciously, exaggerated or magnified their otherwise trivial symptoms so as to secure a larger compensation settlement.

What was novel about Miller is that, in his ‘accident neurosis’ lectures, he reported on follow-up studies with 50 former patients of his whom he had re-examined after they had left the medico-legal process. Furthermore, Miller’s lectures made deliberate use of statistics to avoid what he identified as the limitations of earlier research, for his complaint was that there had been few substantive studies published of ‘accident neurosis’, with most taking the form of ‘occasional contributions, often more conspicuous as expressions of opinion than for their factual content.’[3] These statistics substantiated Miller’s hypothesis that neurotic sequelae bore no relation to the severity of the trauma: for example, of the 50 patients whom Miller had followed-up with post-settlement, only two had psychiatric problems disabling them from work (three had psychiatric disorders but still worked). Indeed, 41 out of 45 of those who had been employed prior to their accident had returned to work by the time of Miller’s follow-up, with 45 out of the 50 symptom-free (they could only ‘muster […] a few trivial residual symptoms’, Miller noted, like nervousness in traffic).[4]

Granted, Miller placed greater stress on deliberate malingering than his contemporaries did. Otherwise, however, his ‘accident neurosis’ research sat comfortably within the medical consensus over neurotics and their claims for compensation. Indeed, immediately following their publication, Miller’s lectures were praised in an editorial in The Times, and welcomed, albeit more cautiously, by an editorial in The Lancet.

Yet, in the decade after 1965, the consensus began to shift. Neurologists and psychiatrists began to hold that concussive sequelae were causally related to brain damage, even if the patient’s psychology may elaborate the symptoms. Miller’s lectures were therefore seen as passé. That they nevertheless held considerable sway within the legal profession (it was claimed that they were regularly cited in court) was much to the chagrin of doctors. This incited many of the medical studies published in the 1970s, which attempted to expose the logical inconsistencies in Miller’s lectures (Miller, for example, had argued that sports injuries were less likely to cause neurotic sequelae than traffic accidents, but this was regarded as an unfair comparison: the latter typically occurred at higher velocity). But Miller’s undimmed popularity with the legal profession also encouraged a change of strategy, for critics complained that it was Miller’s statistics that were the most frequently referenced aspects of his accident neurosis study. Consequently, many physicians began to argue that Miller’s lectures could only be countered by undertaking fresh follow-up studies, by obtaining new statistical data on head injuries.

What was happening, in effect, was that Miller’s research was beginning to alter how physicians studied ‘accident neurosis’. To study or publish on the disorder, you now required a decent set of statistics on patients whom you had followed up with. Yet the lectures were to have one further consequence, for the greater use of statistical studies encouraged comparisons, re-readings and critique of Miller’s earlier findings. However paradoxically, Miller had instigated a change in how the post-concussional syndrome was studied, but that change then led, as a consequence, to repeated re-investigation of Miller’s methodology and conclusions. Research published post-Miller had thus not only to produce statistical data from following-up with patients, but it had also to reflect carefully on how these had been produced, to prevent them from perpetuating what were regarded as the earlier biases of Miller: Miller had reconfigured the study of traumatic sequelae, but, in so doing, had invited further reading of his work.

This is best demonstrated with reference to neurologist Reginald Kelly, the work of whom was published in the 1970s and was, of all the contributors to the medical debate, the most critical of Miller. One of Kelly’s first publications on ‘accident neurosis’, published in 1972, was explicit in wishing to replicate and through this test Miller’s statistical study, but with a broader range of follow-up patients (i.e., not just those referred from the insurance-company, but referrals from GPs and elsewhere). Kelly derived the bulk of them (112) from referrals from other physicians, and a smaller group (40) from insurers. Of them, he noted, the 112 referrals had an average recovery-time of three months, versus 14 months in Miller’s sample and 19 months in Kelly’s insurance sample. Moreover, although he admitted that neurologists did not see all cases of head injury, Kelly argued that his sample showed neurotic symptoms, as defined by Miller, as more common in the referred patients than the medico-legal claimants (75% of the former, against 65% from the latter). Kelly also claimed that his statistics demonstrated that most neurotic symptoms allayed with proper treatment and before settlement (78 out of the 84 patients, against only 6 out of the 26 medico-legal claimants).[5]

Furthermore, whilst Kelly had no complaint with the use of statistics per se, he contended that Miller’s figures presented a skewed picture of neurosis, writing that if the stats ‘contradict what has been clinically obvious’, then the ‘source of the figures and the prejudices of the statistician’ should be questioned. He claimed, for example, that Miller’s sample were comprised of patients referred to him by insurance-companies, and therefore represented those whom the insurers thought that they could challenge (the ‘genuine’ suffers would have had their cases settled long ago, as would those who had already recovered pre-settlement). Moreover, Kelly pointed out that an insurance-case could drag on for many months, with the most severely injured were less likely to be pestered by insurance-officials in any event: in other words, Miller had been studying the most hardened neuroses.

The research that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s continued along the route established by Kelly, with recurrent comparisons and re-readings made of Miller’s methodology, both critical and complimentary. For the present purposes, the above discussion captures sufficiently well what I identify as a trend within the medical study of trauma, in which individual pieces of research do not fit comfortably within chronological or linear accounts of historical development. Rather, as Herzog’s discussion of the Holocaust studies hints at, research on trauma is sticky, folded. It effects change, but how that research is later understood will also be effected by that change. My point, in other words, is that the history of trauma encourages an approach premised less on linear models of time and causality, than on one that acknowledges the contingent, doubled nature of temporality.



[1] As Herzog explains: ‘Over time, as Kinzie’s team worked to refine their psychotherapeutic approach to traumatized refugees, they increasingly familiarized themselves with and built on the writings of individuals who had worked with Holocaust survivors, including Leo Eitinger, William Niederland, and Hilel Klein –  as well as Robert Jay Lifton. Through detailed reports on individual cases and elaborations of their own treatment approaches […]  they advanced the view that “posttraumatic stress disorder” specifically as it had been formulated in DSM-III was indeed the best descriptor and that medical professionals everywhere needed to learn to recognize its signs.’ Dagmar Herzog, Cold War Freud: Psychoanalysis in an Age of Catastrophe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 261, en 91.

[2] See See Henry Miller, ‘Accident Neurosis: Lecture I’, British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 5230 (1961), pp. 919-925.; Henry Miller, ‘Accident Neurosis: Lecture II’, British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 5231 (1961), pp. 992-998.

[3] Miller, ‘Accident Neurosis: Lecture I’, p. 920

[4] Ibid., p. 925.

[5] R. Kelly, ‘The Post-Traumatic Syndrome’, Pahlavi Medical Journal, vol. 3 (1972), pp. 532-533.


So, Just What is the Point of the History of Medicine?

ing0ea9e4f5ccabaafef2ce05512e9a0599I remember reading Roger Cooter’s Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine around the start of my PhD. And I thought it was a strange book — not, I should stress, because there is anything untoward about its writing-style (in fact, the opposite: it reads brilliantly). Neither is there anything objectionable about its structure: though eight of the book’s ten chapters have been published before, Cooter has provided a neat little preamble to each, allowing him, now at the end of his career, to expose the intellectual/epistemic conditions that previously informed each essay (as he explains here). I thought this was very nicely done. Indeed, I thought that Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine expertly consolidates a number of issues on the purpose of the history of medicine in wider academia, and Cooter does well to imbue his argument with vigour and force. But I found Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine strange because of how I responded to it, for precisely what I admired about the book I also puzzled over. And as my reading has deepened over the past couple of years, and my range of influences grown, I’ve become more critical of Cooter — specifically, what he identifies as the purpose of the history of medicine.

I have to admit something at the outset, though. Even on a third reading, it is hard not to be seduced by Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine. Cooter forcefully impresses upon the reader the importance of and need for academic history. Yet his position goes beyond a simple call for more and more research (or research for it’s own sake). Rather, he advocates for a particular focus to academic history, for the discipline, according to Cooter, faces unparalleled threats from neoliberalism and the growing rise of neuroscience. The former imposes not only greater levels of scrutiny and exposure to ‘audit culture’ within higher education, Cooter claims, but also insists on ‘never-ending growth and “economic progress”’. In so doing, it denigrates the study of the past (for why examine history if it has nothing to offer the ‘present-centric economist thinking about the future’?)[1]

Cooter’s criticism of neoliberalism is coupled with warnings of the threat posed by the turn to neuroscience in various disciplines, and which is regarded by Cooter as both an extension of, and coinciding with, neoliberal dogma. This, in part, helps to explain Cooter’s objection to the growing role of neuro-disciplines in the present century. But his aversion to neuroscience is also animated by what he identifies as the threat it poses to academic history. Cooter chides the arrogance of the ‘neuro enthusiasts’, their absolutism and tendency to absorb academic history into their own neuroscientific paradigms. History, in such accounts, is only seen as useful when seeking to further neuroscientific insight; it has no role in explaining how the neurosciences came to dominate in the 21st century nor otherwise challenge their existing orthodoxy.[2] This pivots to the third of Cooter’s concerns — that many academics blindly acquiesce in the rise of neuro (e.g., through the study of affect or the emotions).[3] This, he argues, amounts to a presentification of the past, an overloading of it with our present-day penchant for neuroscientific explanation.

Cooter contends that a two-fold strategy is needed to extricate history from the ghetto it now finds itself in. Firstly, the humanities have to be sundered from the hard sciences if they are to offer necessary but critical interrogation of the latter. Wishy-washy interdisciplinarity (e.g., the medical humanities) will not do.[4] Instead, medical historians must vigorously agitate against the ‘reductive’ forces of the natural sciences and the narrative of unbroken progress that they are wedded to.[5] With recourse to the study of the past, medical historians must take up the mantle of social critique — ‘critical history’ — to challenge the current dominance of biomedicine in the 21st century.

Yet Cooter also argues that historians, at the same time as they place a check on the neurosciences, must also reflect on the values that inform their own discipline. In other words, they must engage in rigorous self-policing — the turning, that is, of the critical gaze (normally reserved for the object of study) back onto the historian and her methodologies, concepts, frameworks, etc.[6] The historian’s ignorance of her own position, Cooter warns, leaves the discipline vulnerable to being side-lined or de-funded altogether in the face of wider influences — without a firm location within history, the historian is in danger of misunderstanding her role and the relevance of her discipline.[7] And without a critical understanding of historical epistemology (‘the constructedness of [historical] thought’), historians are in danger of losing themselves in engaging with the more powerful neuro-disciplines, of becoming swallowed up by the ‘new biological regime of truth’.[8] Hence why the ten chapters that compose Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine are prefaced with commentaries on the context on which they were produced: they are part of Cooter’s attempt to demonstrate how self-critique should look, how we should reflect upon (and thereby check) the various forces operating on our writings. Indeed, in language that is notably more open-ended, Cooter suggests that a greater engagement with one’s own position in history, and the impact of this vis-a-vis on history-writing, may bring with it a greater degree of ‘honesty and credibility’ to a form of research that still (within some quarters) seeks to perpetuate the ruse that history can be written ‘objectively’ and value-free.[9]

This call for self-reflection is to be lauded; in my opinion, it remains one of the most memorable points made in Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine. Historians do need to better reflect on the forces operating upon their research. They do need to jettison the notion that they can access the past unmediated by present-day concerns, values, technologies, etc (as I’ve already argued here). And on the subject of neoliberalism’s threat to academic history, I am also in deep agreement with Cooter. Whilst some of his rhetoric may be overblown — explained, perhaps, by his wish to provoke and startle historians out of their established ways of writing — his fundamental point about neoliberalism’s threat is sound.

But where I depart from Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine is in both the solution Cooter proposes and the purpose he assigns to the history of medicine. There are a number of inconsistencies in Cooter’s position. For example, it is unclear, as one reviewer has noted, how history can be both alive to contemporary threats whilst eschewing the use of present-day systems-of-value to study the past.[10] Equally, I am at a loss to understand how, according to Cooter, reducing human subjectivity to neuroscience is bad, but reducing everything to historical explanation, as advocated also by Cooter, is better (are not both equally reductive?).[11]

More worryingly, Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine is cut through with three unresolved contradictions. The first concerns historians, and their aversion to ‘theory’. Cooter insists on the need for historians to self-reflect on their position and the cultures that they are embedded in. He warns that the future of history-writing is in ‘the hands of historians themselves’, that ‘prayers for survival simply will not suffice’ and that ‘the time for procrastination and pious hope is past’[12]. Elsewhere, however, Cooter has written of the sluggishness with which social historians of medicine took to developments in Foucauldian scholarship (and, even then, implied that this was more a case of cherry-picking than critical engagement).[13] His comments on historians in general are more caustic, lampooning them for not ‘getting an ethical grip on themselves’ and for casually taking more and more ‘turns’ in history without deeper thinking of what this actually entails.[14] To be clear, I agree with Cooter — historians do neglect critical theory, and are frequently late to the party in engaging with new theoretical developments. But it remains a mystery how or why historical scholars will turn to self-critique, having eschewed all engagement with critical theory thus far.

In a similar vein, further questions are posed by Cooter’s animosity towards academics and their inability to mobilise against threats to their profession (at least within the British context). For instance, he complains about the willingness of historians to engage in competition over income-generation, and chides British academics for not being better unionised (in contrast to continental Europe). Cooter does concede that the ‘neoliberal forest […] has been difficult to penetrate’ by even those who wanted to, their efforts limited by a lack of time and opportunity.[15] But combined with his repeated complaints against the acquiescence of academics to the neuro-turn the result is another quandary — if academics have thus far failed to resist the effects of neoliberalism (or, for that matter, see it as much of a problem), then how and why will they want to do so now?

Fundamentally, I think, there is something unsatisfying about Cooter’s call for self-critique. It is animated by a belief that historians have to reflect on the systems-of-value that they bring to the study of the past, that, unless they are careful, historians might confirm rather than challenge existing power-relations. Yet Cooter also acknowledges that objectivity is not possible in historical research, and that ‘objectivity’ is itself a political category. What he proposes, however, is a system where historians should work tirelessly to expunge all present-day values from their research, as if, even though research is never objective, we should have a go anyway, that the past is some virginal territory which historians must not contaminate. Cooter’s logic is puzzling — if objectivity is not possible, and is itself a social construct, then why bother with it at all? Why persist with existential hand-wringing over presentism when we will never, ever be able to read the past without present-day values? Why expend energy spinning around in a never-ending cycle of self-critique?

But I think my beef with Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine stems from the role that Cooter assigns to historians in policing new instantiations of biomedical power. In my opinion, it comes across as a reactionary — that is, it reads like an attempt to lock others out of debate, to colonise an object of research so as to bolster the ontological foundations of academic history.

And we’ve heard it before, for there is now a typical narrative-structure employed in many historical studies (indeed, I have found it handy to utilise myself). It proceeds by arguing that there is a particular object that is regarded by non-historians as timeless or culturally-universal and/or entirely new to human thought and with no even half-related precedent. The historian then intervenes to demonstrate that said object is not transhistorical, universal and/or novel but is instead shaped by socio-historical forces. This is history in a reactive mode, directed towards a perceived challenge — useful for justifying academic research and the historian’s place in wider debate, but limited by its perception of other disciplinary paradigms as threatening. Thus, though Cooter suggests that the response of academic history to the neuro-disciplines should be one of attempting to critique, and thereby disrupt, the latter’s centrality in academia, this sounds like history in the reactive mode again, now directed to a new threat that ostensibly requires taming.  My point is that it’s a very narrow way of conceiving the historian’s role. And although I think Cooter is on to something with his talk of self-critique,  Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine feels like a missed opportunity to reflect on the narratives and arguments that we use in history to bolster our discipline. Cooter falls into auto-pilot, only furthers the idea that all contemporary developments are opportunities for historians to historicise. And it is this lack of imagination – more than anything else, I think – that will sideline academic history yet further.



[1] Roger Cooter with Claudia Stein, Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 33 and 4.
[2] Ibid., pp. 9-10.
[3] Roger Cooter, ‘Neural Veils and the Will to Historical Critique: Why Historians of Science Need to Take the Neuro-Turn Seriously’, Isis, vol. 105, no. 1 (2014), p. 147.; Cooter, Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine, p. 206.
[4] Cooter claims that interdisciplinarity often places humanities scholars under the thumb of scientists and is usually advanced by penny-pinching bureaucrats in HE. See Cooter, Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine, pp. 37-39. Relate this to his criticisms of neoliberalism and ‘audit culture’ above.
[5] Ibid., pp. 10-11.
[6] By way of background reading, consider Cooter’s comments on the loss of political relevancy amongst social historians of medicine in Roger Cooter, ‘After Death/After-‘Life’: The Social History of Medicine in Post-Postmodernity’, Social History of Medicine, vol. 20, no. 3 (2007), pp. 441-464.; and Roger Cooter, ‘Re-Presenting the Future of Medicine’s Past: Towards a Politics of Survival’, Medical History, vol. 55, no. 3 (2011), pp. 289-294. On the explicit influences on Cooter’s thought, see the respective arguments by Scott and Butler on the need for, and inventiveness of, self-critique in Joan W. Scott, ‘History-Writing as Critique’ in Keith Jenkins, Sue Morgan and Alan Munslow (eds), Manifestos for History (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 19-38.; and Judith Butler, ‘Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 4 (2009), pp. 773-795.
[7] Cooter, ‘After Death/After-‘Life’, p. 442.
[8] Cooter, Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine, 12-13 and p. 16.
[9] Ibid., p. 7.; Cooter, ‘Neural Veils and the Will to Historical Critique’, p. 154.
[10] See Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, ‘A Craving for Critical History’, History and Theory, vol. 53, no. 3 (2014), p. 432. We might also ask whether self-critique is easier to achieve in retrospect, when looking back on your work from a distance. Self-critiquing in situ, and then making that explicit in such a way as to satisfy a peer-review process, might be more of a challenge.
[11] As argued in Jonathan Toms, ‘So What? A Reply to Roger Cooter’s ‘After Death/After-“Life”: The Social History of Medicine in Post-Postmodernity’, Social History of Medicine, vol. 22, no. 3 (2009), p. 615.
[12] Cooter, ‘Re-Presenting the Future of Medicine’s Past’, p. 294.; Cooter, Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine, p. 40.
[13] Cooter, ‘After Death/After-‘Life’’, pp. 449-450.
[14] Cooter, Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine, pp. 207-208. Also see the comments on historians’ ‘resistance’ to their own self-interrogation in ibid., pp. 11-12.
[15] Cooter, ‘Re-Presenting the Future of Medicine’s Past’, p. 290.

Nonlinear Histories of Feminism

My interest in feminism is fairly limited. But I still enjoy engaging with feminist scholarship — it’s self-reflexive, usually intrepid and normally quite accessible. Furthermore, feminist scholarship has a creativeness to it, an intellectual restlessness. And when these features are turned to towards the feminist movement’s recent past, it animates a set of themes of interest to historians, such as chronology, causality and time. It is these issues that I want to probe in this post, using recent debates on the history of feminism as a conduit for thinking about historical narrative.

Traditionally, the history of feminism has been written with reference to waves — first-wave, second-wave, etc. Yet this narrative has been subject to several criticisms, most recently by Victoria Browne.9781137413154 In Feminism, Time, and Nonlinear History, she argues that there is a Whiggish, ‘progressive’ model of time inherent to the traditional history of feminism, where it is assumed that each wave supersedes, and thereby improves upon, the previous one. Amongst other things, Browne suggests that this approach limits the radical potential of certain sections of the feminism movement — schisms are created between feminists of different generations, whilst any attempt to re-animate, or learn from, past waves is perceived as backwards or anachronistic. Feminism, Time, and Nonlinear History therefore advocates for a less restrictive understanding of time, one that acknowledges nonlinearity and respects the different ways in which events are experienced, understood, become resonant. Browne contends that feminists need to develop a more nuanced approach to history, dispensing with notions of linearity and continuity in favour of repetition, reinvention or re-appropriation.

There is promise in Browne’s work (a full review of which an be found here). I am especially taken with her discussion on the need to rethink the linearity of time and accept that temporality can move in multiple directions. Her comments connect with a similar argument made by Claire Colebrook, who has also critiqued the Whiggish narrative of feminism. Yet Colebrook stresses a different way of reading history to Browne, one that is reliant on a Deleuzean theory of time (c.f., Browne’s criticisms of Deleuze).

What Colebrook calls ‘stratigraphic time’ refers to the potential for each event to be both of its time and thoroughly untimely: an event, she argues, can follow others events in a chronological sequence, but can also reconfigure that sequence in new ways. Think of the archetypical artist, to take one hypothetical example. Let’s say her work is largely unappreciated and ignored during her lifetime. But let’s also say that the occasion of her death imbibes her earlier work with fresh significance and meaning. Her death is thus an event in time, which followed others events in a chronological sequence; but it also possessed a potential to retroactively animate earlier events, the artist’s life and artwork.

Moreover, consider the examples used by Colebrook. She argues that the creation of new philosophical concepts like subjectivity were products of their time, but allowed the re-reading of earlier philosophical texts with this new knowledge in mind (e.g., Plato could now be read by someone interested in subject-positions). Likewise, capitalism is/was a product of its time and followed feudalism in a chronological sequence. Yet capitalism was also able to fold time back upon itself, for it was only after its emergence that we could reinterpret earlier feudal societies in terms of the concepts capitalism prized (e.g., the exchange of labour) or created (e.g., the modern family).

By relying on this reading of stratigraphic time, Colebrook is able to argue for a different role for the past in the feminist movement’s present. The past need not simply be disconnected or studied in isolation from the present. Feminism can be both historicist and counter-historicist — it can contextualise texts but also read them anew, from new perspectives and with recourse to different values. In so doing, the past can be affirmative, productive even: we can read earlier texts ‘not according to the time within which [they] occurred to a time [they] might enable.’ The past can animate new futures.

Now, I have little to say on Browne/Colebrook’s contribution to feminist debate: I am not a card-carrying member of the movement, and, were they written down, my feminist credentials could not fill the back of a postage-stamp. But there’s an obvious spillover between the history of feminism and the writing of history more broadly. My attraction to Browne and Colebrook is that they both challenge the idea of time as linear, singular and infinite. But, more significantly, they decouple temporality from causality — e.g., just because third-wave follows second-wave feminism chronologically does not mean that the former cannot operate on the latter, cannot imbibe it with new meanings, new values. The implications of this debate on history-writing are wide-ranging (imagine composing a historical narrative that privileged the retroactive movement of causality, of the way in which time folds continuously back upon itself). It’s for this reason that I remain an avid reader of feminist philosophy: it has a heuristic value, an ability to produce new ways of knowing, thinking, becoming. If we let it, feminist debates over history can fold back upon, and radically transform, how we write history.

Historical Research and Data Protection

I have spent the past few days re-familiarising myself with the Data Protection Act (DPA) – partly because of forthcoming blog-posts I want to write, partly because of recent debates over confidentiality and historical research (for example, see here or here). My research relies quite heavily on archival sources relating to living (or assumed to be living) subjects, and this places particular legal responsibilities on how I secure and disseminate my research, in accordance with the DPA.

I want this week to therefore post a summary, mediated by my own experience, of how the DPA affects historical research. Though I am not in any way an expert on information law, I have reviewed several thousand sensitive patient-files, medico-legal reports and court records throughout my PhD, and offer the following overview in the hope that it might act as a useful starting-point for historians wishing to learn more about the DPA.


A Brief Introduction.

The DPA came into effect in 2000, and regulates the use of ‘personal data’ (that is, information related to a living subject, which may be used to identify that subject, and which is being processed or recorded in an accessible, organised way and/or with a view to its later systemisation). The Act defines ‘sensitive’ personal data as that relating to a living subject’s race/ethnicity, religion, political views, physical/mental health, criminal record or any pending or concluded criminal allegations. Sensitive data is to be handled more strictly than others forms of personal data, and there are further restrictions on who can collect it. Consent is usually required if an organisation or individual wishes to collect or hold personal data or sensitive personal data.

The DPA is relevant to any historian ‘processing’ – that is, obtaining, recording or holding – personal data on a living subject or a subject assumed to still be alive. In retaining personal data on a living subject, researchers become its ‘controller’, meaning that they are responsible for that data and have to ensure that they comply with the terms of the DPA. Failure to do so may involve investigation and/or sanction from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) or legal action from the data-subject.

Historians are likely to process or obtain personal data in two ways:

  1. In an archival setting (any notes/photographs/photocopies you take/make may contain personal data); and
  2. In an oral history interview (your recording of the interview will almost always be classed as personal data, as will any consent-form that you ask the interviewee to sign; if you have a list of interviewee’s names/contact-details then this is personal data; written transcripts that are derived from the recording will contain personal data unless they are anonymised).

In my experience, the DPA affects the research-process at three stages – when negotiating access to the archive, when in the field and when in the later retention/dissemination of research-materials.


The DPA and Archival Access.

The DPA is governed by eight foundational principles. I paraphrase them as follows:

  1. That data is processed fairly and lawfully;
  2. That data shall be processed/retained only for specific, lawful purposes;
  3. That data should be processed/retained in a way that is adequate for the data-controller’s purposes (i.e., not excessive);
  4. That all data held should, as far as possible, be accurate;
  5. That data should not be retained for longer than is necessary;
  6. That subjects have certain rights with respect to their data (e.g., a right to claim compensation if the data-guardian breaks the DPA);
  7. That data should be appropriately secured;
  8. That data should not be transferred outside of the European Economic Area unless the host country or jurisdiction ensures adequate protections.

None of these principles offer much succour to the historian interested in the recent past (e.g., Principle 5 would pose all sorts of issues for storing materials in archives long-term). But consider the following qualifications to the DPA.

Firstly, note that the Act only applies to living subjects: the DPA does not apply to subjects who have already died, so long as this can be proven. The Act does not stipulate what happens if the subject’s death is unknown. But there is a provision (specifically, section 51(4)) that allows the Information Commissioner to liaise with various trade associations to establish best practice. This is precisely what the Commissioner did with various archival bodies over a decade ago, and who agreed on using the 100-year rule when in doubt. Thus, if a subject is over 100-years old, then it is assumed that they are no longer living, and the DPA does not apply. (What happens when the subject’s age cannot be calculated is explained here). If you are using personal data relating to a subject born before 1916, therefore, then the DPA will not impact on your research.

I have heard some contemporary historians bemoan how the DPA stymies access to twentieth-century records. Certainly, the Act does impose some limitations, but it is incorrect to assume that it denies all researchers access to personal data on living subjects. Note this – even if you are working with living subjects, the DPA need not necessarily apply. There is a second exemption from the Act, and it’s a fairly big one.

Section 33 offers qualified exemption for the purposes of historical or statistical research, provided that two conditions are met. These are:

  1. That the data are not processed to support measures or decisions with respect to particular individuals; and
  2. That the data are not processed in such a way that substantial damage or substantial distress is, or is likely to be, caused to any data subject.

I would suggest that these conditions are easy to achieve for practising historians, so long as care is taken in how research is disseminated (historians, furthermore, are unlikely to be taking decisions on living subjects). So long as both of these conditions are met, Section 33 grants exemption from certain aspects of the DPA, specifically:

(2) For the purposes of the second data protection principle, the further processing of personal data only for research purposes in compliance with the relevant conditions is not to be regarded as incompatible with the purposes for which they were obtained.

A very roundabout, obtuse way of saying that Principle 2 need not always apply to researchers, that data can be re-used in a way that it was never originally intended for. Note the circumspect use of language, however – this exemption does not completely invalidate Principle 2, only that re-processing data is ‘not to be regarded as incompatible’ with it.

(3) Personal data which are processed only for research purposes in compliance with the relevant conditions may, notwithstanding the fifth data protection principle, be kept indefinitely.

A much clearer point. You know how Principle 5 states that data must be held for no longer than necessary? Well, that doesn’t apply to historical research. Archives can keep personal data on living subjects for as long as they like; oral historians can do the same.

(4) Personal data which are processed only for research purposes are exempt from section 7 if —

(a) they are processed in compliance with the relevant conditions; and

(b) the results of the research or any resulting statistics are not made available in a form which identifies data subjects or any of them.

The ‘relevant conditions’ are those that I identified earlier (that data is not processed to make decisions about living subjects, that data is not processed in such a way that causes distress). Researchers are exempt from section 7 – which relates to the security of data – provided that they subscribe to the (a) ‘relevant conditions’ and ensure that (b) it is not possible to identify data-subjects from the re-processing of the data.

(5) For the purposes of subsections (2) to (4) personal data are not to be treated as processed otherwise than for research purposes merely because the data are disclosed —

(a) to any person, for research purposes only;

(b) to the data subject or a person acting on his behalf;

(c) at the request, or with the consent, of the data subject or a person acting on his behalf; or

(d) in circumstances in which the person making the disclosure has reasonable grounds for believing that the disclosure falls within paragraph (a), (b) or (c).

This sub-section qualifies the preceding points, and states that personal data is not to be treated as ‘for research purposes’ simply because it has been disclosed for reasons a, b, c or d. In other words, just because data has been distributed to a bona fide researcher by whoever controls the data, does not automatically mean that that data is covered by Section 33.


Now, Section 33 does not guarantee access to particular collections of personal data. Discretion in granting access still remains with the data-guardian (e.g., the archivist(s)), who must be satisfied that the disclosure of data is (i) not going to be used to make judgements about a living subject and (ii) is not going to be used to cause them harm or distress.

In my experience, most archives are willing to grant access to personal data provided that the researcher accepts these undertakings. In other words, just because an archive holds personal data on living subjects does not mean that you are automatically barred from access. Section 33 allows data-holders to exercise their discretion, provided that you can convince them of your scholarly intentions.


The DPA in the Field.

Adherence to the DPA is an ongoing process, and research in situ – either in an archive or when conducting oral history interviews – raises certain challenges. I can think of two.

Firstly, be mindful of Section 33 (4). Principle 7, which relates to security, does not apply if you make it impossible to identify the subject when re-processing the data. But this is perhaps easier said than done. For example, if you record an oral history interview, and the interviewee divulges identifying information (which they will), then the recording is now outside the terms of Section 33(4) and therefore in need of appropriate safeguarding. (Indeed, I would suggest that anonymity is never fully possible to achieve in interviews anyway, as those with privileged insight – such as family members – will always be able to identify the data-subject if given access to a recording or transcript.)

It is a little easier to anonymise personal data in an archival setting, as you can choose not to record a subject’s identifying features in your written notes. But how many historians take notes nowadays? I often take pictures for reasons of speed, not bothering to conceal personal data from my images (sometimes it’s just not possible, or there is too much data, etc.) These photographs thus contain data that, just like the oral history recording, cannot be exempt from the DPA and so must be appropriately secured under Principle 7.

Furthermore, even if you can anonymise your notes, you might not actually want to. For instance, you may need to record personal data for constructing an identifier-key (discussed here), if a collection is incompletely or imperfectly catalogued (oral historians will require an identifier-key anyway, to connect their recordings with the pseudonymous transcripts later derive from them).

Unless you are a scrupulous note-taker, and eschew the use of photography, I suspect that you will have recorded some personal data whilst working in an archive. This is not a problem under the DPA; it just means that you are now the controller of that data, and need to have a system in place to adequately secure it. Oral historians will record lots of personal data, and their need to secure it is just as paramount.



There are some final issues of compliance needed after having obtained (via interviews) or processed (via archives) personal data. You have obligations under the DPA in terms of how you disseminate this research and how you retain it.

With respect to dissemination, I would advise not to put any personal data into the public domain (via presentations, publications, exhibitions, etc). There are exceptions countenanced by the DPA (e.g., an interviewee may allow you to). But you are on much safer ground if you anonymise all of the personal data that you put into the public domain. This is for two reasons. Firstly, remember that Section 33 of the DPA grants an exemption to historical researchers to access personal data, so long as, in so doing, they do not cause distress/damage to the data-subject. Yet this is ill-defined by the Act, and many data-guardians therefore encourage a cautious approach to dissemination. Best practice is to anonymise everything you disseminate; it just works out safer this way.

There is a second reason why I encourage researchers to anonymise data they place into the public domain, for Section 33 of the DPA does not excuse researchers from Principle 6. Data-subjects may therefore request that they see all personal data that you hold on them. Now, this is unlikely to happen to oral historians (as I assume there would be some relationship of trust between interviewer and interviewee). But for archival research, there is a risk that data-subjects could identify themselves from your publications, exhibitions, etc. In that situation, they are entitled to request what information you hold about them, even if you have simply taken that information from somewhere else. Be very, very mindful, therefore, of how you disseminate your research.

(The ICO’s website offers some helpful guidance on how to anonymise personal data to prevent it being used to identify data-subjects. Again, I would suggest that it is never possible to fully anonymise what you place into the public domain, as those with privileged knowledge will always be able to guess who data-subjects are. Nevertheless, you should aim to make it as difficult as possible to work out whom any personal data you hold belongs to.)

There are other challenges associated with data retention and security, too. Remember that section 33 (3) of the DPA obviates the need to destroy personal data immediately upon the conclusion of your research. However, if you have not anonymised the personal data you hold, then you need to keep it secure, in-keeping with Principle 7. (I suspect that you will not want/be able to anonymise all of the personal data you hold, as you may want to return to it later in your career or whatever).

The main issue with long-term retention of personal data is security. Written or hard-copies of personal data should be handled with commonsense (i.e., not leaving your notes lying around for others to read). I have known of one archive to request that notes are transferred by the researcher in a locked briefcase, but this is fairly exceptional.

If the data is held electronically (oral history recordings or photographs/notes), then best practice is to encrypt or password-protect the individual files (.mp4 or .jpeg), or the media on which they are stored (i.e., the hard-drive of your computer). This is the most effective way of limiting the fall-out of having data stolen, lost or accessed inappropriately. Also remember that you will need to encrypt any back-ups/copies you make of the personal data, and protect the data if it is transmitted at some stage in the future (e.g., if you migrate your data to a new computer). The ICO has some useful advice on encryption (and it’s fairly easy to activate on either Windows or Mac). If you wish to make hard-copies of any electronically-held personal data, then commonsense rules apply.

Furthermore, you should limit access to the personal data you hold as far as possible, preferably just to yourself (or to one researcher if you work as part of a team). You can share personal data with other researchers, but they must handle it appropriately (they become responsible under the DPA, just as you are). I would strongly discourage this practice, however, and would personally refuse if another academic requested that I show them the personal data on which my research is based (they can go and visit the archive where I processed it from if they’re that bothered).

A final comment on storage-clouds, either services like DropBox or internal university networks. Note Principle 8. This need not apply if the data-subject consents that you can transfer their personal data. However, if the subject refuses consent (or consent is not sought), then you should still be alright. Although most data-storage clouds are based in the US,  the EU has recently struck a deal with American authorities to ensure that firms based there are compliant with legislation like the DPA. You should therefore not be in violation of Principle 8 if you decide to use a cloud-based service based in the US, at least for the foreseeable future.  However, I would still be careful in what you upload to cloud-based services – pick a strong password, etc., or someone may gain access to the personal data you hold. I would also recommend that you encrypt anything that you upload to a cloud platform. I’d do the same with any personal data that I store on an internal university network, and I’d think carefully before relying on one (you need to be confident that no-one else will have access to the files you upload).

Guide to Further Reading.

You can consult the DPA here (or as a PDF here).

Oral historians are spoilt for choice when it comes to issues of data protection and ethics, especially from the Oral History Society (e.g., see here).

The UK Data Archive also has some useful guidance on anonymisation and the DPA.

Many archives offer advice to researchers, too, on compliance with the DPA. In particular, see the advice from the National Archives of Scotland (here) and the Modern Records Centre (here). The National Archives have also produced a very detailed guide for archivists and other data-guardians, which I recommend that historians peruse as it’s very comprehensive.

Conceptualising Time and (Re)Thinking History.

Two newspaper articles have caught my eye recently as they, somewhat obtusely, pivot around themes central to how we study the past; they illustrate what are, I think, deep and profound challenges to writing history in the way that we currently do.

Firstly, the Financial Times. A few weekends ago, it carried a feature on so-called ‘millennials’, the generation born between c.1980 and 2000, who are characterised by both a lack of brand loyalty and an unwillingness to plan long-term. The article pondered the economic consequences of millennials’ spending, and expressed concern that they would rather, say, blow their savings on a holiday than hoard it for retirement.

Elsewhere, Wednesday’s Guardian carried a long, densely-packed article on the haunting past, of how various cultures appropriate past grievances or atrocities for present-day ends. Its author, journalist David Rieff, is of the view that we are now overburdened by memory, that both western and non-western societies alike need to move on and learn to forget. He asks:

What if collective historical memory, as it is actually employed by communities and nations, has led far too often to war rather than peace, to rancour and resentment rather than reconciliation, and the determination to exact revenge for injuries both real and imagined, rather than to commit to the hard work of forgiveness?


My interest is not whether millennials actually exist as a homogenous social group. Nor do I have a strong opinion on whether we should let the past be the past. Instead, I think it is more profitable to reflect on the temporal relationship that these phenomena express, and what this means for academic history.

I would suggest that millennials are a product of what François Hartog identifies as the new regime of presentism, of a culture that privileges the here and now over the past or future — millennials live entirely in the moment, we are told, with no concern for their past (brand loyalty) or future (retirement).[1] They are imbricated in, shaped by, a culture of instantaneity (online shopping, dating, etc.) and financial short-termism (after all, what is the purpose of low interest-rates if not to encourage spending over saving?).[2]

Hartog’s regime of the present finds expression in Rieff’s article, too, in his references to what scholars dub ‘retrospective justice’ (i.e., attempts, in the present, to right the perceived wrongs of the past).[3] Reiff alludes to various conflicts, from the middle-east to Bosnia, where collective memory and national identity have been mobilised to commit all nature of atrocities. We could extend his discussion further: the UK is awash with allegations of child sexual abuse against former politicians, children’s entertainers and celebrities. A number of inquiries and investigations are being pursued, and they have been motivated, I would suggest, by a similar use of  memory as in the conflicts discussed by Rieff; they, too, have created a new, present-day framework for viewing the past, one that emerged following the death of Jimmy Savile in 2011, and which is animated by the believed superiority of present-day knowledge, or of knowing what we know now.[4] These inquiries are also facilitated by the new centrality of trauma to medical thought and are further bound up with, and enabled by, what Hartog identifies as the rise of ‘victim culture’ in the twentieth century. Instances of retrospective justice, in other words, are a product of present-day concerns and values, and have colonised the past in their image.

That our age privileges the present, and violates the past-present distinction, is of significance to academic history, for it challenges our comonsense understanding of time, the backbone of historical research. Generally speaking, time acts as a medium or plane through which historians can locate events, and is often conceived, rather simplistically, as objective, neutral, chronological, universal, singular and unending. Furthermore, historians install a firm demarcation between the past and the present in their writings, and stress the linearity of time. Hence why any attempt to impose present-day values onto the past is anathema: historians insist that the past is and should remain detached from the present.

There seems little appetite for moving away from this model of time. Indeed, my worry is that historians will simply capture, and thereby mollify, new temporal challenges within pre-existing narratives, that the discipline has nothing novel or insightful to say about what is changing in front of us. Disconcertingly, historians often assume that time just exists, and eschew any attempt to conceptualise it more thoroughly. Witness the way in which ‘big history’ and ‘deep history’, recent attempts to study the past across long durations, posit time as central to their methodology but then fail to conceive of it as anything other than a neutral, objective medium for stratifying events.

The recent debates over the emotional dynamics of historical research are another case in point. Incorporating themes such as distance, fantasy, presence, affect and materiality, these debates have found their fullest articulation in historical research influenced by queer studies, feminism, trauma theory and psychoanalysis.[5] Its adherents are all in broad agreement that researching and writing about the past implicates the historian’s psychology, facilitating emotional investments between scholar and the object of her study that transcend temporal distance.[6] But though at first glance such histories suggest a willingness to experiment with a new past-present relationship, they follow traditional accounts in relying on the distinction between a temporally demarcated then and now. For ‘affective history’, past-present connections can be formed through an emotional bond, but this can only ever be a bridge between — not a dismantling of — the separate domains of past and present. The historian’s belief in the linearity of time remains unshaken.

Why historians privilege this linear model of time over any other is unclear. It stymies any attempt to engage imaginatively with the new past-present relationship, and seems quaint when considered from the perspective of a physicist or anthropologist (whose disciplines long ago discarded the belief in universal, objective, linear time). Indeed, there is something naive in relying on a temporal model that assumes an ‘objective’ plane in which all events can be located, and made all the more so given the energy devoted by historians to rescuing those disempowered by class, race, gender and other distinctions. I would also ask whether historians (plus journalists like Rieff), in claiming that time is objective, neutral and irreversible, eschew moral engagement with the past and excuse themselves from historical acts of injustice (imagine telling a proven victim of abuse or sufferer of PTSD that their experiences are in the past, no longer of validity or importance).[7]

So, how should historians respond to this new present-centric culture? Outright denial would risk estrangement and instead offer further evidence of historians’ disdain of anything that smacks of ‘theory’. Hartog’s response, meanwhile, is insipid and reactionary, articulating a wish that historians vigorously (but fruitlessly) police the new culture of the present whilst preaching the importance of the past-present divide. My own view is that history needs to reflect the temporal order around it — that is, historians need to be more self-critical of their understanding of time, more open (indeed, experimental) with the concepts that they adopt. They need to respond to the new cult of the present, not by entrenching old concepts but by working to create new methodologies. I don’t know what form the eventual solution(s) will take, but I don’t think it’ll emerge until we look more critically at what we’ve got.


[1] François Hartog, Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time, trans. by Saskia Brown (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
[2] A culture of instantaneity that I am bound up in, too (why is blogging so popular, if not for its immediacy, its unmediated dissemination of ideas?)
[3] On retrospective justice, see Berber Bevernage, History, Memory, and State-Sponsored Violence: Time and Justice (London and New York: Routledge, 2012).
[4] As allegations were made against Ted Heath in the summer of last year, an article in one broadsheet explained: ‘So what should we read into new police investigations [into Heath]? Probably not too much at this stage. As we know now, historically the police failed to take this type of allegation seriously and ignored or possibly covered up child abuse claims made against prominent individuals such as Cyril Smith and Jimmy Savile.’ The italics are my own. See Oliver Wright, ‘The Allegations Multiply, But Why Now? And Where Did They All Come From?’, The Independent, 5 August 2015, p. 5.
[5] On recent histories that engage with affect, fantasy and distance, see Joan Wallach Scott, The Fantasy of Feminist History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).; Laura Doan, Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experiences of Modern War (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013).; Eelco Runia, ‘Presence’, History and Theory, vol. 45, no. 1 (2006), pp. 1-29.; and Mark Salber Phillips, ‘Distance and Historical Representation’, History Workshop Journal, iss. 57 (2004), pp. 123-141.
[6] On this, see Barbara Taylor, ‘Historical Subjectivity’ in Sally Alexander and Barbara Taylor (eds), History and Psyche: Culture, Psychoanalysis, and the Past (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 195-210.
[7] To be clear, Reiff does not advocate this position, nor come close to it. My point is that, in less sympathetic hands, this is where an argument like his could lead.