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Interview with Penelope Ismay

Published: February 10, 2020

Interview with Penelope Ismay, Boston College

Co-winner of the 2019 Stansky Prize for best book in post-1800 British Studies, Trust Among Strangers: Friendly Societies in Modern Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2018)

 

How did you become interested in this topic?

I came to graduate school interested in modernity; it was EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class that pointed me in the direction of friendly societies. I had been dissatisfied with the old stories of modernization because they seemed to suggest that competing individuals in pursuit of their own self-interest inadvertently produced social cooperation. I could not understand how people trusted such individuals. Reading Thompson, I came across the mention he made of friendly societies, an organization I had never heard of. I was shocked to learn later that these mutual aid societies were the largest working-class organization of the nineteenth century. Yet in his book about the making of the working class, an 800+ page book, Thompson mentions an organization with millions of working-class members only three times. Friendly societies seemed like a missing link that might help me tell a new story of social cooperation in modern societies.

Which archives and/or collections did you find most helpful?
I conducted research at the national archives in London, but then toured the country, visiting as many local archives with friendly society records as I could. Local archives gave me access to the minute books of local Odd Fellow lodges, covering many years in the institutional life of individual societies. This enabled me to follow the way members talked about the problems they encountered and the dead ends they hit before they found a solution that worked. One problem that kept coming up again and again was the problem of trust, both trust in other people and trust in institutions. How could they trust the strangers knocking on their door claiming to be Odd Fellows from some other town? And why should they be obligated to relieve such strangers even if they were legitimate Odd Fellows? By tracing their solutions, including the ones that failed, I began to see larger patterns emerge. The shape of the national system of reciprocity was a result of the process through which the members solved problems of trust over the years.

Was there a moment when you felt like you had achieved a breakthrough in your research?
 Yes! I remember it clearly. Historians had long assumed that the Odd Fellows had been part of a system of extra-local reciprocity since the eighteenth century that merely expanded in response to industrialization. But as I tried to find traces of these connections in order to flesh it out, it became apparent no such system existed. The crackdown on associational life during the French Revolution effectively eliminated any functional institutional ties between lodges. So, how the working class members of isolated Odd Fellow lodges in the early nineteenth century built an international organization that, by the end of the century, distributed tens of thousands of pounds annually in mutual aid became my story.

Does your project engage other disciplines? If so, which ones, and how?
My project engages a number of other disciplines, most notably sociology. My historical questions tend to be sociological in nature, how do modern societies work? How is cooperation achieved in a society of strangers? They are versions of questions that people have been asking for hundreds of years. The trick for me as a historian was finding versions of these questions as they emerged historically. Obviously, as Britain changed so radically over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people wondered how the whole thing would hold together. So, I tried to listen to how they talked about it, what solutions they offered, and how they justified those solutions.

Do you have any advice for graduate students and early career professionals as they begin research projects or embark upon the writing process?
The idea that you are now the historian, leading other historians through a story of your own creation, is scary enough to generate some extraordinary anxiety and some extraordinarily creative procrastination techniques. The strategy that worked for me was to observe myself in these moments and note the steps I took before I finally sat down to write. I learned to understand these steps as “my process.” In fact, I wrote them down on a sticky note and then the next time it happened I tried to accept that there would be a process that unfolded before the writing happened, but that the writing would in fact happen. Because we are all so different, I think the best thing to do is to keep asking other scholars how they approach it. Sometimes learning that everyone experiences some version of a fear can diminish it. My only other advice is to celebrate every accomplishment of research and writing, no matter how small.

Does your project have any particular relevance to the contemporary—political, social, cultural, etc.? 
It strikes me that if there is not anything new under the sun, we might do worse than to listen to some of the ideas that intelligent people in the past articulated for solving the problems we continue to face.

What are you working on next? Will you be pursuing related research questions or turning to something completely different?
I am working on a book about the different kinds of boundaries Victorians drew around self-interest. It is a new project. But it addresses questions related to those I examined in Trust Among Strangers, about how modern societies hold together. Economic self-interest used to go a long way in explaining how strangers could engage in economic exchange and cooperate socially. A number of early Victorians certainly held this belief. But after the 1850s, such a view was hard to sustain. Faced with increasingly regular financial crises, rampant political corruption, and a revolution in family relations, Victorians gave as much attention to the dangers as to the merits of self-interest. I am interested in the new ways they talked about bounding it.

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