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Response to Review of Unemployment, Welfare, and Masculine Citizenship: ‘So Much Honest Poverty’ in Britain, 1870-1930

I want to thank Nicole Longprè for her careful reading of my book, Unemployment, Welfare, and Masculine Citizenship. In my response, I will address Longprè’s questions about how historians ‘come to choose the methods that they do’, the case study approach, and why I selected the Black Country as my case study.

Longprè is absolutely right that we rarely encounter extended methodological discussions in historical monographs, which I, too, think is a shame. This rich material that is a requirement of dissertations becomes the stuff of the cutting room floor, often in order to meet publishers’ word requirements. Additionally, self-reflection about method has not been a foundational aspect of the discipline of history, as it is in disciplines such as sociology, political science, and literary studies, where authors are expected to explicitly discuss how they do what they do. Many historians might say that historical method consists of locating and analyzing primary sources within the context of the existing historiography. Of course our methods are more complicated than that, and I would be happy to see methodological discussions become a more regular feature of historians’ writing.

Now to my use of a case study approach. I have always been very interested in relationships between discourses and social practices, between the ideological and the material. In the specific instance of this book, the case study was an obvious way to explore how policies as expressions of ideologies work in practice, to situate the goals of national policies within the material realities of local circumstances. No particular case is ever going to be representative of the whole, but we can learn from case studies about the gaps between centralized directives and local discretion, between social policy and social experience, and between law and practice. Focusing in on the Stourbridge and Dudley Poor Law Unions allowed me to closely investigate the interrelationships between three sets of actors: central government actors (government and bureaucrats), local authority actors (poor law guardians and local councilors), and the poor people who had to negotiate the policies and practices of the other groups in order to survive.

Finally, how did I choose the Black Country? The Black Country chose me. It was a situation of locating sources that shifted my project in unanticipated ways, of digging in the archives and finding a collection of materials that I could not put down: the Application and Report Books of the Relieving Officers of Stourbridge Poor Law Union. This detailed collection of applications for poor law assistance brought to life some of the struggles of the Black Country poor, and from there I moved on to broader county, and then national, sources. The Stourbridge and Dudley Unions were not worst case scenarios; those would be found in regions with extremely high unemployment, which would later become labeled the ‘distressed areas’, such as South Wales, Durham, and southern Scotland. Local government officials claimed that Dudley should have been counted among the distressed areas and argued the point with the central government to no avail. The region’s industries were declining during the period covered by the book (1870 to 1930), so the area provided an excellent case study for the questions I was interested in: what happened when men could no longer provide for their families or abandoned their families? How did men deal with the experience of unemployment? How did government policies about unemployment work in practice? The Black Country illuminated changes and continuities in what I found to be particularly informative ways.