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RecensionsBook Reviews

Class and Other Identities: Gender, Religion and Ethnicity in the Writing of European Labour History edited by Lex Heerma van Voss and Marcel van der Linden, New York: Berghahn Books, 2002, 250 pp., ISBN 1-57181-787-5.[Record]

  • Judy Haiven

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  • Judy Haiven
    Saint Mary’s University

Incidentally, the best way to read this book is from back to front. For starters, the annotated bibliography is invaluable because it gives the reader a taste of dozens of recent books on working men’s and women’s history, identity and ethnicity from 1990 to 2000. A second excellent morsel is the “Brief Guide to Relevant Websites” which highlights online tools for labour history researchers including historical journal listings and even labour history exhibitions and archives online. Finally the back of the book gives an inventory of the “Main West European History Periodicals 1911 to 2000” which is also a delight to read. I had no idea that, for example, the Journal of the Scottish Labour History was published for fifteen years, or that Llafur: The Journal of the Society for the Study of Welsh Labour History continues to publish into its 30th year. All this is to say that what happens at the end of the book is just as interesting as what happens at the beginning of the book. Class and Other Identities looks at a number of different debates on the confluence of social class and labour history. Some of the debates are more familiar than others. At the start, the authors try to debunk the notion that “great men make history”. They believe that in the study of history, topics such as war, imperialism and diplomacy should not be put on a pedestal. In the study of history, the authors point out: “The powerless, poor and ‘red’ did not fall within its field of vision.” (p. 11). In fact, according to van Voss and van der Linden, the shift away from the “great men make history” way of seeing the world began in the nineteenth century. The book outlines five stages which move labour history into a more sociological context. It is interesting to look at the fourth stage, exemplified by writers in the 1960s and 70s. This was the heyday for labour history for two reasons. First, business, cultural and political history began to enrich the study of social history and labour history. Added to this was a level of internationalization of the discipline, as seen by the fact that US scholars were, for the first time, starting to take an interest in the field of labour history. A second reason given in the book is that labour history was spilling over to the social sciences. Anthropologists, sociologists and geographers were trying to marry ideas from their disciplines to notions in labour history. Labour history was becoming more popular, dynamic and focused on social movements and organization. However, according to van Voss and van der Linden, the 1980s – the fifth stage – changed that situation. Labour history fell out of favour with academics. Part of the reason for this was the ascendance of the discipline of women’s studies because it tended to segregate the history of women from the history of men. Though it is pointed out that women’s history is about all of mankind, not just half of it (p. 16), many academics saw the split between men’s and women’s history as encompassing more than just a division of historical facts. There are the issues of gendered language, private and public space, paid work, domestic work versus work outside the home – these issues remain at the root of the schism. Another reason for the shift away from labour history is that other identities such as religion or ethnic minorities were involved and had to be ‘counted’. Mike Savage’s chapter, “Class and Labour History” goes beyond a Marxist perspective on labour history. Savage …