Sunday, November 09, 2014

Can history and mobilities ever get along?


This past weekend, the Social Science History Association (SSHA) held its 39th annual conference in Toronto at the iconic Royal York Hotel. Being right on my doorstep, I decided to attend. The SSHA is a global group of scholars (although primarily American) who combine social science topics and concepts with the canon of historical study: temporality. I have always thought that history and the social sciences would work well together, but my penchant for highly social topics of study appears to be an unusual choice for historians.

I attended three paper sessions, each of which was tied to one of my areas of interest, but all of them unique and interesting in their own ways. The first, Migration to Tropical Frontiers, although disappointingly lacking two of the four presenters, allowed me to learn about a facet of the twentieth century's Jewish diaspora that I had never encountered before, namely a small enclave of migrants-cum-dairy farmers under the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Of particular interest in Allen Wells' paper on the subject was how the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which had been bankrolling the group of 750 Jews, found itself in 1946 torn between the project and the enormous task of funding the urgent resettlement of Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine. In the end, the Dominican project gradually lost its funding as Israel's needs became central to Jewish fundraising around the world. Just like my local case study of how Toronto's United Jewish Appeal became increasingly focused on Israel, the Joint Distribution Committee found itself shifting its priorities from multiple diasporic spaces to just one: the nascent State of Israel.

Two panels on Saturday attracted my attention. Toronto, European Suburb: Postwar Migrant Communities and their Visions of Homeland in Canada's Largest Diasporic City looked at how migrant communities in Toronto continued to stay connected to their places of origin. While my research on Jewish Toronto showed an increasingly vocal and assertive community, these papers showed that Toronto's other immigrant groups, including the Portuguese, Polish, Macedonians and Italians, were also gaining their voices at the same time, often using the same techniques of political lobbying, internal sponsorship, fundraising and public demonstrations. I was particularly interested to learn in Gilberto Fernandes' paper that the Portuguese community found itself divided by the 1961 'Bay Street Riot,' when rival groups fought for and against the Portuguese dictatorship of the time. It is quite similar to 1965, when Toronto's Jews took part in the 'Allan Gardens Riot' against neo-Nazis.

The last, and best-attended of the sessions I chose was Migration History and the 'Mobilities Turn.' My interest in transport history has introduced me to both pure transport history and also the world of mobilities, a new sociological sub-field which examines how people move around and how their movement becomes part of their daily routine. However, as two of the papers showed (one delivered by the geographer Colin Pooley and the other by historian Donna Gabaccia), while historians and social scientists study almost the same thing, they rarely communicate or collaborate. As Pooley showed, mobilities work is rarely historical. Most scholarship is theoretical and often uses field work undertaken in the present to address today's mobility landscape. Rarely does it venture into mobilities of the past. Likewise, Gabaccia clearly demonstrated that leading journals in the field of migration history and mobilities (The Journal of World History and Mobilities respectively) do not cite each other and, while both are ostensibly talking about people moving around, they use incompatible vocabularies.

Both papers came to a very similar conclusion. In short, these two sub-disciplines (and, as Pooley did, I would add transport history as a third) need to collaborate and realize that they both have techniques and ideas to share with each other. Mobilities offers insight into the experiential side of moving around, while history allows us to see change over time and whether mobility was different in the past. It is, however, early days. As Gabaccia explained, the social sciences need a "rupture" from their current dichotomy of the present and a contiguous past to appreciate that past events are not homogenous. Until then, mobilities cannot effectively be implemented into historical study. As Pooley demonstrated in his own extremely interesting work reconstructing everyday mobility from life writing in the 19th and 20th centuries, the gaps in historical sources make a social science-like analysis problematic. Several people in the panel suggested a roundtable at next year's SSHA meeting to begin the process of reconciling historians and social scientists in a joint study of mobilities and (as several people correctly mentioned) immobilities with migration and other histories of moving around.

Reflecting on the mobilities debate, I wonder if the sides really are that far apart. I think immediately of the copious work on 'railway spine' and similar imagined ailments in Victorian rail travel. In the latter part of the 19th century, reports of mysterious ailments afflicting railway travellers began to appear in the press and even in he pages of the Lancet.[1] Freud spoke of the sexual excitation caused by the rhythmic movement of trains.[2] The railway compartment was an ambiguous mix of public and private, cosy and threatening (especially after the Briggs Murder).[3] The railway compartment necessitated a new set of behaviours. Reading while travelling became a popular activity to respect the privacy of fellow travellers. This, in turn, spawned the mass publishing of books.[4]

As these examples show, the history of Victorian railway travel seems to mix the temporality of history with the experience of travel as outlined by mobility studies. Part of the difficulty in reconciling these two fields is that much of the work on Victorian railway travel is part of yet another discipline – Victorian Studies – which combines history, literature and social science. Similarly, my introduction to much of this was through railway studies, a discipline combining history, geography, archaeology, social science and economics. Could it simply be that social scientists and historians are being a little stubborn? As this debate unfolds, we may find that the differences are not so insurmountable as we once thought.

Notes:
1. Ralph Harrington, “The Railway Journey and the Neuroses of Modernity,” in Pathologies of Travel, ed. Richard Wrigley and George Revill (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), 229–59.
2. Sigmund Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, [https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Three_Contributions_to_the_Theory_of_Sex]
3. Harrington, “The Railway Journey,” 229-59; Matthew Beaumont, “Railway Mania: The Train Compartment as the Scene of the Crime,” in The Railway and Modernity: Time, Space and the Machine Ensemble, ed. Matthew Beaumont and Michael Freeman (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007), 125–53; Kate Colquhoun, Mr. Brigg’s Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder (London: Little, Brown, 2011).
4. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Leamington Spa: Berg, 1986).

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