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Interview with Mark Doyle, Co-Winner of the 2017 Stansky Book Prize

Published: August 17, 2018


Mark Doyle is an Associate Professor and the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of History at Middle Tennessee State University. His book, Communal Violence in the British Empire: Disturbing the Pax (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), was co-awarded the 2017 Stansky Prize.

 

How did you become interested in this topic? 

When I wrapped up my previous book on sectarian violence in 19th-century Belfast, I was interested in seeing just how far my ideas were transferrable to other divided societies. I was also reading a lot of new work on the connections between Ireland and India under British rule, so it made sense to expand my focus to the empire at large. I was surprised by the lack of comparative work on communal/sectarian violence around the British Empire, considering the obvious similarities between, say, Hindu-Muslim violence in India and Protestant-Catholic violence in Ireland. This is something that comes up quite frequently in conversations about the British Empire and, to a certain extent, in popular understandings of British imperialism, but it was not something that had undergone systematic academic analysis.

Which archives and/or collections did you find most helpful?

Each of the archives I visited in Ireland, the UK, and India were helpful in different ways, but one collection that was particularly useful was the British Newspaper Archive maintained by the British Library. For a small subscription fee you get access to an enormous variety of British and Irish newspapers that are keyword searchable; this enabled me to look for specific words or phrases (e.g., “fanatical”) that appeared in British reports of violent episodes and to engage in some fairly detailed analysis of the discourses that people were tapping into to describe what was happening. A decade ago this sort of analysis would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, but now it’s much easier to identify patterns of language and habits of thought across time and place, which I think is quite exciting.

Did you make any particularly important archival findings? Was there a moment when you felt like you had achieved a breakthrough in your research?

There were no huge breakthroughs, but one thing that kept surprising me was when a person that I had been researching in one sphere of imperial activity popped up in an entirely different sphere. For instance, Philip Wodehouse was governor of British Guiana in 1856 during the anti-Portuguese riots there, and then in 1874 he was governor of Bombay Presidency during anti-Parsi riots in Bombay city. And the preacher responsible for sparking the riots in Guiana, John Sayers Orr, was somebody that I had encountered during my dissertation research engaging in much the same kind of behavior in Greenock, Scotland, several years earlier. These kinds of unexpected convergences demonstrate just how much of a circulatory system the empire was, and just how much events in one part of the world could influence the course of events in others. 

Does your project engage other disciplines? If so, which ones, and how?

I think most good historical work uses insights from other disciplines, whether we explicitly acknowledge it or not. I drew on postcolonial theory to understand the discursive strategies by which British observers made sense of communal violence, social-science research on mass violence (e.g., the work of Charles Tilly) to help me define my terms with precision and to know which questions I could be asking, and theoretical work on liberalism and the state to provide an interpretive framework for my data. One of the great things about being a historian is that it allows you to be methodologically promiscuous in this way.

Do you have any advice for graduate students and early career professionals as they begin research projects or embark upon the writing process?

Each project originates in its own way, but once it has begun the key thing is to find ways to build and maintain momentum. It’s relatively easy to pile up undigested data and develop long lists of books and articles to read; it’s much harder to force yourself to transform your ideas and materials into a written product. I was working on this book for about seven years, and for most of that time I left it on the backburner while I dealt with other professional and personal things of more immediate importance. At a certain point I decided that if I didn’t find a way to prioritize this project then it was never going to get done, and so I made a New Year’s resolution to write every single day for a year (including weekends, holidays, etc.). Some days I would do little more than revise a paragraph or fiddle with a footnote, but other days I would be able to devote several hours to untangling a particularly knotty passage or idea. Much of what I wrote on one day might be totally cast aside the next, but that was okay. The point was to have it in front of me for at least a few minutes every day, so that it was no longer this big, insurmountable object that I could always talk myself out of tackling. I just made it part of my everyday existence, like eating breakfast or brushing my teeth. And it worked: I didn’t finish the whole book by the end of that year, but it didn’t take much longer to see it through to the end. This is not something that would work for everybody – I know people who set aside specific hours of each weekday, or specific days of the week, for similar purposes – but the key is to find ways to keep pushing forward, regardless of how you feel on a particular day or if your environmental conditions are just right. Find a rhythm and stick to it, come what may.

What did you find to be the most challenging part of the project?

I have a fairly heavy teaching load and no regular sabbaticals, so finding the time and energy to work on this project was a challenge, particularly given its globe-spanning nature. Thanks to some external and internal funding, I was able to travel to the most important archives and to present at some international conferences, and of course I benefitted enormously from the various digitization projects and other online resources that have been developed in recent years. Scarcity of resources is still a challenge for someone in my position, but it’s not nearly the obstacle that it once was.

What was your most surprising revelation or important conclusion?

I think my most important conclusion – which is in line with other recent work on the topic – concerns the limits of British power in its colonies. What emerges from my research is a picture of an imperial state that was not nearly as competent or confident as it pretended to be. British officials were often working at cross purposes with one another, acting with insufficient information, hesitant when they should have been forceful, forceful when they should have been sensitive, and unclear about the long-term (or even short-term) consequences of their actions. The closer you look at the day-to-day operations of the British Empire, the more you understand the improvisational and error-prone nature of the entire enterprise. I think this is something certain colonized people picked up on, and this enabled them to mount effective challenges to British hegemony in the 20thcentury.

Does your project have any particular relevance to the contemporary—political, social, cultural, etc.?

Many of the places I’ve studied continue to experience ethnic/religious conflict. I think my work can not only help us understand the origins of those conflicts, but, perhaps more importantly, it throws some light on the role that the state can play in fostering, interpreting, suppressing, or exploiting those conflicts. Despite what its representatives might say, the state is rarely a neutral arbiter in these disputes, and its role needs to be very carefully scrutinized in order to bring about any kind of lasting resolution.

How do you hope your work contributes to the historiography?

I hope scholars take my arguments about the relationship between violence and the imperial state and apply them to other parts of the British Empire. There is only so much one can cover in a single monograph, so I would love to see a similar kind of analysis done for parts of the world that I haven’t explored (East Africa, the Dominions, the Middle East, etc.). While local studies are obviously important, and historians should always be attuned to the particular and the idiosyncratic, I think we could do more to understand some of the common denominators that held the British Empire together and make it a distinct unit of analysis. If this book has any originality, it is to take some things that we already know about individual cases (Ireland, India, Ceylon, the West Indies) and stitch together a larger set of arguments about what made the British Empire tick. It’s at this macro scale that I think its contribution can be greatest. 

What are you working on next? Will you be pursuing related research questions or turning to something completely different?

I’m all over the place at the moment. I’ve just finished editing a two-volume historical encyclopedia of the British Empire for ABC-CLIO, which should be out next month. I’m starting work on an article about the Fisk Jubilee Singers (an African-American choral group from Nashville) and their tours of Ireland in the 1870s – this is part of a larger interest I’ve developed in the history of Africans and Asians in Ireland prior to the 20thcentury. For the last few years I’ve also been gathering material for another empire-wide project on outbreaks of state violence during and after World War One. But the most pressing project (manuscript due in August) is a book I’m writing about the English rock band the Kinks, which has nothing really to do with the British Empire and for that reason has been a most welcome diversion. It’s about the relationship between the band and their north London neighborhood, the postwar changes undergone by the British working classes (suburbanization, slum clearance, etc.), and the way those changes found expression in the Kinks’ music. It’s wonderful to be able to pop a CD into my car on the way to work and tell myself I’m doing research.

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