Tag Archives: Structuration Theory

Why study everyday life in the recent past?

(Or, in the convoluted phraseology of social theory: structure, practice, and ideology)

As the investigations have begun with Dec20 project (which has the same aims and objectives as LIP, and adopts the same methodologies, the previous Dec20 post will be used as an example of why studying everyday life in the recent past might be a worthwhile pursuit. If more localised projects develop within LIP, information will be likewise tailored to their needs. 

Public interest in the recent past: photos, Memoirs, and oral history

Dec20 aims to collaborate with local households and communities to discover more about everyday life in Derby during the early 20th century. Many in and from Derby show an interest in local history – whether by sharing memories (e.g. Derby Telegraph’s Bygones website and forum); photographs (e.g. Old Derby Photos, Pictures of Derby, and Derby Photos); or investigating and sharing information on family and social history (e.g. ‘Granddad’s War‘).[i] These sources all make a valuable contribution, both in exploring the recent past, and in developing and sustaining a sense of community.

Written and visual sources

Though useful (and often fascinating), this information is only partial; other historical evidence also needs to be consulted to gain a broader understanding of day-to-day life in the early 20th century. For anyone interested in this topic, a good place to start is the Local Studies Library, which houses a vast archive of written, photographic, and cartographical evidence, as well as numerous books written by local historians (e.g. Maxwell Craven’s Illustrated History of Derby). And having investigated these archives, countless popular and academic general histories of the recent past have been written, which might be used to place local histories within their wider context.

the limits of the evidence

Considering this range of sources, it might be assumed that everything there is to know about the recent past is already known. But on endeavouring to analyse this evidence, it’s limits soon become clear. The evidence either consists of disparate and idiosyncratic memories and photographs – both of which have received little systematic investigation; or of photographs and documents (including maps) that primarily relate to public contexts and events, and thus, whilst informing the writing of general histories, rarely relate to (or relates) everyday or domestic life. The census return and similar records (such as those created through the public health and educational system) of course do provide very particular information; but again, such material is not often examined in the light of other sources – though some notable exceptions exist.[ii] These exceptions demonstrate the value of examining in conjunction the breadth of evidence, in order to build a picture of life in the past.

Don’t we know everything there is to know with all this evidence?

Despite the benefits of comprehensive studies, with regard to many of the activities and attitudes surrounding everyday life there is still a dearth of evidence, when it comes to particular topics – especially ‘hidden histories’ (the stories of those excluded from the record, or that are excluded by the subjects, due to being taken for granted – and obvious to everyone, or sometimes ‘shameful’, according to contemporaneous views, that may be subject to transformation in and by subsequent generations). The mundane tasks that are rarely recorded are of interest, as in being a frequent part of life through routine, they often act to reinforce and influence both outlooks (including communal and gender identities, and political affiliation) and social interactions (including the development of relationships within and outside the home). The very notion that much of what we do, say, and think is too commonplace to be shared (assumed – at the time, and often in retrospect – to be of little relevance, interest, or importance), and to be so familiar to those we encounter that it need not be repeated, whether verbally or in writing, often ensures its absence in the historical record. However substantial, archives of written, photographic, and oral records will therefore never be sufficiently complete to answer with absolute certainty the questions that might be raised. The following post will consider how archaeology might, in conjunction with this evidence, tell us more.

Why do the Experiences of the ‘ordinary’ person in the past matter?

Of course, histories of ‘big’ people and ‘the nation’ are important – the actions of those who rule hold the capacity to affect the lives of many. But (even if only interested in those in power), without studying the everyday lives of the ‘ordinary’ people under their control, it is not possible to judge the effects and extents of their influence. But beyond this, to see history only as the province of the powerful is to neglect the notions of agency, and unintended consequence (see diagram and Case Study below). The myriad of different conditions, and the different people that inhabit them, ensure that, even with a rigid framework to inform thoughts and behaviour (the regulations and ideologies of those in power, alongside economic constraints and opportunities), there will be a range of outcomes, when compared to the anticipated ideals of social conformity that drive the implementation of laws and other forms of social control. That is to say, people may react in different ways when faced with a set of rules and particular environments, which means that  – even when attempting to follow the guidelines imposed from above (which are often created and enforced to maintain the status quo) – ‘traditions’ may have to change to both remain workable and meaningful, as political, technological, economic, social, and cultural conditions change over time. History is therefore made by all of us – whether we are compliant (and accept the regulations and institutions imposed by those who rule – the ‘elites’), or resistant (challenging these rules and ‘structures’ – at times changing the nature of society). In addition, for many, History is meaningless if it does not ‘speak’ to them – relevance is not only more interesting: it ensures that history can provide the individual with a background, which is particularly important at times of instability.

The study of the ‘ordinary’ person is commonly known as Social History, which has been a growing field since the late 20th century – perhaps to some extent due to a ‘democratisation’ of not only ‘History’, but of ‘study’ in general, as more and more resources have been available to the individual (particularly the Internet). But we must come full circle and return to the question of histories that encompass the actions of those in power, at the level of the state, or ‘nation’. The numerous Social and Local Histories may be most useful when considered in conjunction, and placed within their wider contexts. By examining the local and specific in relation to broader forces for and of social change, exploring Economic History, Political History, History of Science and TechnologyHistory of Art and Design,  etc., it might be possible to both avoid inappropriate generalisations, by considering inter-relationships between the general and particular, exploring both the impact of the individual, household, and community upon wider society, and the institutions of society upon these units of analysis.

But why is ‘history’ important Anyway – and why should we investigate everyday life in the recent past?

In order to consider how life in the future might be improved (or a ‘comfortable’ life might be maintained), it is necessary to reflect upon our place within the world today; but it must be recognised that such a view is not only inevitably coloured by history: it is also influenced by our understanding of the past. The experiences and attitudes of our families (especially primary care-givers) and communities (of all their different types – not only local, but also gender, age, etc.) to a large extent inform our outlook, and structure what we see as ‘appropriate’ behaviour, within given circumstances. As hinted in the section above, to some extent, we live by the structures provided by those in power – at a local, regional, and national level; however, we often have to adapt these ideas and guidelines, according to our particular conditions of existence; furthermore, some actively reject these structures, and try to change them. Though much of our behaviour, and many of our thoughts (as well as our social relationships), are influenced by a range of structures, we are not always aware of this. We see particular ‘ways of doing’ and thinking as ‘natural’, because they are often shared by those around us (our families and communities). This is particularly the case if we remain within (apparently) unchanging communities, and we might easily assume that those outside our community, but that we see as similar to ourselves,  also share our way of life. In many ways, they might indeed do so, but there may also be many differences (for the reasons outlined above regarding the frequent need for environmental adaptation).

The structures by and through which we live may face rapid transformation if the existence or composition of communities change. For example, a scheme of urban renewal might remove part or all of the community (through demolition); or legislative changes – such as reductions or expansions in welfare provision – may mean that some people will no longer be able to remain in particular neighbourhoods and are forced to relocate, or might lead to an influx of those who would have previously been seen as ‘outsiders’. Such changes may given rise to reflection over the often-habitual practices that make up (are derived from) our ‘background’, as we are faced with different ‘ways of doing’; but if the majority continue to share our behaviour and attitudes, we may still see our habits and ‘traditions’ as the ‘right’ and ‘correct’ way to act. Sometimes we move outside our communities, and enter unfamiliar situations: at these times, we might become aware of different ‘ways of doing’. If, due to our ‘background’, we are in a minority, in this ‘other world’ our ‘ways’ might be irrelevant or not work, making us feel uncomfortable and ‘lost’ – and we may experience ‘culture shock’.

One major benefit in studying history is that it provides insights into ‘other ways of doing’; and it demonstrates that what we often see as ‘traditional’ is rather just one link in a long chain of human adaptation. In exploring how the individual, household, and community inhabited changing conditions, we may be able to consider the effects of local, regional, and national structures upon daily life. As noted above, such reflections can help us gain a deeper understanding of interrelationships between the general and particular – how all the different ideological frameworks that influence the ways we behave and think (for example, as mediated through state and local legislation, religion, education, employment, forms of entertainment, and so on) both constrain and enable thought and deed.

In particular, it might be difficult to accept that others influence not only our behaviour, but also our thoughts and beliefs. But history demonstrates a very close relationship between attitudes, and the combined conditions that make up our life – any or all of which are subject to change. We can see the evolution of, or transformations to, the views that we now take for granted, or see as ‘common sense’ – such as attitudes surrounding family, age, ‘race’ and gender, as well as, for example, criminality, ambition, and privacy.

In some cases, such changes may be due to unintended consequences, with developments in one area of life (for example, technological innovations – such as the vacuum cleaner, or the contraceptive pill) having more far reaching effects – in other areas of life – than may have been initially anticipated. In other cases, change is more intentional, and is the result of challenges made to dominant structures (and their associated belief systems) – such as the contestation of legislation informed by religious ideologies that imposed particular  moralities (which history can show us are liable to change over time). For example, it is evident that attitudes towards class, gender, age, and sexuality changed in Britain during and after the late 19th century.[iii]

Various social theories have developed over the 20th century to explain  interactions between individual action, and the structures (‘tradition’, ‘rules’, ‘institutions’) that govern society. The use of such theories within archaeology will form the subject of a subsequent post; but as these ideas (which have developed within the field of Sociology) are relevant – not only to historical studies in general, but with regard to the lives we live today – one theoretical framework that many archaeologists have found particularly useful will now be briefly introduced, through a (very simplified and fictional but plausible) case study (which is perhaps somewhat old fashioned, so that older readers who are as old as the author might find some relevance). This is accompanied by diagram, which attempts to schematically illustrate the process by which repetition of particular practices may reinforce the structures within which they are situation, and how agency might effect change, using Anthony Giddens‘  Structuration Theory. For further information of the Social Theory that informs this and the following case study, see Giddens 19791986; other, similar, sociological approaches have also been used within archaeological studies to pose questions related to social relationships and identities, particularly Pierre Bourdieu‘s Practice Theory.

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Case study:

A very simple example to consider the interaction of social structures and practices might be found in the (fictional) case of a young woman (for the sake of argument, let’s call her ‘Shirley’).  Seventeen-year-old Shirley is about to leave for her first day at work: she has little or no knowledge of the ‘correct’ way to behave in this new situation. Therefore, Shirley is a little nervous – for many reasons, but above all, she wants to ‘fit in’ (she sees this as the beginning of a ‘new life’, as she no longer has the company of her school friends – so she would like to develop new relationships). Shirley has to think about how best to enter this new situation; with regard to preparing for work, she sees getting her appearance ‘right’ as very important: she’s heard that people go by first impressions. So she watches (or remembers) her mother preparing to leave for work, hoping to pick up some of the unspoken, unwritten ‘rules’ that need to be known, but that may be hard to explain when seeing answers from those ‘in the know’.

Shirley remembers that her mother always puts on make-up in the morning before going to work; so she considers whether she should do the same. (Maybe Shirley always wears make-up, and therefore feels comfortable doing so – to her, it’s ‘only natural’; but she’s unsure whether it’s appropriate to do so at work – whether she’d suffer adverse effects, such as losing her job. She thinks of her previous experiences, recollecting that make-up wasn’t allowed at school, and wonders whether, perhaps, the same ‘rules’ apply. Or perhaps she’s never worn make-up, and wonders if, now that she’s entering the domain of adults, she should do so – whether it is expected of her. Effectively, she’s now ‘risk-assessing’.) She considers that, as her mother is to some extent ‘successful’ in the work-place (she’s kept her job for a while, is happy at work, and has many work friends), wearing make-up is after-all appropriate in this situation – which is what she does (see diagram: ‘repetition of practice’).

On reaching work, Shirley was relieved to find that nearly all of the other women were also wearing make-up: the practice is a ‘success’, as it enables her to ‘fit in’ to that particular situation. From now on, she puts on make-up every morning, no longer thinking about this task: it becomes a habit (‘routine’). In doing so, Shirley is replicating a structuring principle (‘reproduction of structure’) that has for some time informed behaviour and attitudes in relation to women within Britain.

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Here’s where we leave Shirley for a short time, to consider this historically:

By taking an objective, historical, view, it is evident that such ideas developed during the early 20th century ideas, when younger women started to wear more make-up; by WWII, the notion of ‘beauty as duty’ had taken root, demonstrating how quickly attitudes towards cosmetics (for all but elderly women) had changed, and had become entrenched within social (particularly gender) identities.[iv] As the advertising industry continued to develop during and after the middle of the century, the value of women within society was increasingly portrayed in terms of conformity to a particular physical ideal.[v] The power of these ideas might be seen in the extent to which particular concepts of physical attraction have been internalised by many women as being as, or more important than, other attributes, such as intelligence, or personal achievements. But also how notions of attractiveness, often deeply embedded within female (gender) identity, affect the self-confidence of many women within a multitude of social contexts.

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We return to Shirley a few years later. it’s quite possible that she’d have continued to apply make-up every morning before work for the rest of her life; but certain conditional changes might cause her to end this practice. For example, on returning home one night, she might discover a lapse in attention by the child-minder: Shirley’s three-year-old daughter Megan has destroyed her [Shirley’s] spare lipstick (a colour and brand she’s worn everyday since we first met her), and her ‘work’ one has, unfortunately, just ‘run out’ (she was counting on the spare, intending to pick up another tomorrow night – the earliest opportunity that’ll she’ll have to get a replacement). So Shirley now faces a dilemma, which causes her to reflect upon her daily application of cosmetics (‘monitoring of practice’). She thinks what a nuisance it all is, and maybe she’s feeling quite thoughtful, and questions not only whether or how make-up is important to her, but why. Her thoughts may go in any number of ways, but we’ll consider two alternatives.

To Shirley, make-up may be so important that she must take measures to continue the practice; so she phones her mother, who drops round with a new ‘lippy’. The colour is different to Shirley’s usual dark red, but she wears it anyway (feeling a little uncomfortable from stepping outside routine), and gets compliments the next day, on how much it suits her. From then on, she changes her routine so that she can purchase this particular colour and brand of lipstick (‘transformation of practice’). So starts Shirley’s life of internet shopping (and the local shop stops stocking her previous brand) (both ‘unintended consequences’).

However, other thoughts – and  unintended consequences - might have ensued. Perhaps after a few years in her job, having gained a promotion to a position of relative power, Shirley’s confidence and self-assurance has significantly increased since her first days of employment. On reflecting over her next move – whether she needs to secure replacement lipstick – she might question her need for the product, and decide to try out the next day at work without lipstick (instead, she decides to wear the earrings given to her by her sister). Again, she a little uncomfortable from stepping out of routine, but, although she gets a few side-ways looks from her co-workers (who at first can’t quite work out ‘what’s different about Shirley today?’), it’s absence doesn’t really have an adverse affect upon her life. On the contrary, in not having to keep re-applying it, she finds she has a few spare moments, which she uses to take a breath of fresh air. This causes her to think more about make-up in the office, and to consider why she has worn it all these years; from that day on, she no longer wears it, but puts the money she would’ve spent to different use (‘transformation of practice’).

We jump 15 year, to see Megan preparing for work, considering whether to wear cosmetics to her first day…

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It was noted above that sometimes we see particular ideas and behaviour as ‘natural’ and ‘right’, because the structures that have guided and informed our actions and attitudes are often deeply embedded within the fabric of our existence. We replicate these structures through habitual practices, rather than thinking about them – until we encounter difference, which may cause us to reflect upon what we – and often, others – do and think.

So as we generally perceive much of what we do as ‘normal’, it may be useful  to return to the evidence relating to the recent past, in order to more objectively (re)consider relationships between ideological schemes, and our everyday routines. (In addition, we may not always be aware of our reactions against such structures in order to affect change; or of the unintended consequences for which we are directly or indirectly responsible.) Studying recent history can be one way by which we might understand how and why we (or our forebears) interacted with the social and cultural frameworks that may have informed our thoughts and actions.

After this over-view, it may be useful to restate the comments made at the beginning of this section, but in slightly different terms. Greater knowledge of relationships between structures and practices in the past is beneficial for several reasons – not least, to achieve a degree of self-awareness. It enables us to consider how individual ‘agency’ (the capacity to effect change) influenced the formation and experiences of a range of communities (from the local, through the regional, to the national – alongside other communities of interest, such as religion or gender). And in doing so, we might more effectively explore our own roles in the development of society in the future.

A subsequent post will ask the question: ‘Why use archaeology to study the recent past?’


[i] If you’d like your website to be listed here, please contact LIP, as a list of relevant and interesting online resources is currently under development.

[ii] For example, Chris Upton’s 2005 Living Back to Back places very detailed local information within its wider social and historical contexts, and consequently provides both an excellent overview, and a meaningful study of the changing significance of and relationships between working-class housing, individuals and families, and place.

[iii] A very interesting summary on late 18th – 19th century transformations to notions of class, age and gender, in relationship to industrialisation and consumerism, is provided by this University of Berkely webcast.

[iv] During and after the late 19th century – particularly after WWII and in the 1920s, ‘fashionable’ young women began to more frequently wear cosmetics; for further information is available here. This reflects a change from Victorian attitudes, which incorporated notions of modesty disdained make-up – it became associated with the stage, and prostitution; yet cosmetics had been worn in earlier periods; for further information, see here, here, and here. Victorian values were indirectly related to technological and economic changes, which transformed the role of women within society: see note iii. This article  discusses American attitudes to cosmetics in WWII, which share some similarities with the notion of beauty as a duty’ in Britain.

[v] A useful article on this topic can be found here.