Alison Light’s Common People: The History of an English Family

Common People 51WUorHcevL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Our next discussion at Storying the Past is on Alison Light’s Common People: The History of an English Family (Penguin, 2014). This time our conversation will be beamed live from the Social History Society conference at Lancaster University. We will be live-tweeting the discussion which you can join via our hashtag #storypast as well as by sharing your thoughts about the book before and after the event.

In Common People Alison Light unravels the many strands of her own family history to bring ordinary lives to centre stage. We will be using Light’s Common People to spark debate on how social historians can engage wider audiences and how this might change the ways we do history as well as write it. How can we use online platforms and tools or new models of public engagement to do research with family historians rather than simply targeting them as readers? What is new in the way social historians are using family history today and what can we learn from earlier experiments in public history? What are the challenges of using family history to uncover the very recent past and how far back can we go? What are the ethics of investigating traumatic events or potentially upsetting family histories? And what happens when historians put themselves in the story?

At its best… family history is a trespasser, disregarding the boundaries between local and national, private and public, and ignoring the hedges around fields of academic study; taking us by surprise into unknown worlds. None of that makes it automatically democratic or radical in outlook. It can be profoundly conservative, upholding the idea that blood must always be thicker than the more fluid bonds of civil society where strangers work out how to live together. It has its own preferred versions of the national past and its often unspoken assumptions about who belongs there. Like all history, family history, once it is more than a list of names and family trees, is never neutral about the past. This, of course, makes it more interesting as well as politically volatile (Alison Light, Common People, from introduction)

Common People Chicago UP 9780226330945
US edition, Chicago University Press, 2015

Our discussion is scheduled to take place in the ‘New Directions in Social History’ strand, Tuesday, March 22nd 2016, 15:00 – 16:30 (GMT). We will notify any changes in the programming here and @ #storypast. Look out for an upcoming blog by Alice Violett @alicetheunique who will kick off our discussion on Common People. Email if you would like to write a blogpost on the book for Storying the Past.


For more on the Social History Society Conference, Lancaster University,

21-23 March 2016, see

You can follow the conference on twitter via #SHS40

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