Protest History or the History of Protest?
A workshop on ‘new approaches to the history of protest and collective action’ was held at the University of Hertfordshire on 1 July 2011. The event could not have been at a more opportune time. The day before the workshop, trade unions conducted a major strike. Only a couple of weeks later, London and other cities experienced the largest social unrest since the early 1980s. The workshop, funded by a History Workshop Journal grant, offered an overview of the revival in the history of protest, showcasing the work in progress of new scholars and the recent work of more established historians, including H. T. Dickinson, Adrian Randall, and Robert Poole. It included exciting innovation: a live broadcast and the virtual participation of delegates on an online discussion board. Discussion centred on the basic purpose of the history of protest. Was categorizing ‘protest’ a reductive process, neglecting the larger context of everyday life that social historians study? Or was it necessary to revisit the history of important protests and social movements now that labour history has moved away from its main focus on class? Debate moved on to consider the contemporary resonances of protest history. Participants agreed that academic scholars need to do more to reach out to the public. Historians should provide the conduits for public debates about the origins and parallels between historical collective action and the current wave of social protest movements. Although historical objectivity was regarded as important, participants considered the important role of memory and public history in conveying the meaning of contemporary unrest. The workshop ended with plans for the next series of workshops, to be held at the University of the West of England in February 2012, and at the University of Gloucestershire in summer 2012.