Researching and Writing History with Jim Hagan

By Wells, Andrew | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Researching and Writing History with Jim Hagan


Wells, Andrew, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


This essay has two related purposes: the first is to understand how Jim Hagan practised the historian's craft; the second, to provide a glimpse into the personality and passions that motivated this productive and gifted historian. These two purposes are closely related: the method that historians adopt is typically shaped by the questions they pose--and these questions are deemed significant by the author's personality, interests and ideology (something more than their conscious beliefs). Jim would have welcomed an article about his historical method, but resisted the idea of exploring his motivation; he was a rather private person, suspicious of the cult of intellectual personality and unsympathetic to the idea of psycho-historical explanation of either history or the historian.

Our Association

The sources for my observations are derived from a 25 year association, partnership, friendship and co-authorship. Our closeness waxed and waned; he had many other longer-standing friendships and worked with Rob Castle, Rob Hood and former postgraduates--especially Brad Bowden, and sometimes alone on many other projects. Despite our long association there were fewer discussions about historical theory and method than many might assume; Jim was frequently talkative but rarely self-reflective. With the exception of Rob Castle, I may have had more historiographical debates and undertaken more historical research with Jim than anyone alive. I had little direct influence on his approach to researching and writing history, but more on the topic or area of research.

Just to complete the picture: we jointly supervised about a dozen PhD theses, worked on curriculum changes for undergraduate teaching, and presented papers at numerous conferences and workshops in Australia, but also in the Netherlands, Indonesia, the Philippines, Canada and Vietnam. We collaborated in organising conferences and workshops, ran research centres and consumed a large quantity of beer together (some of it Jim's home brew). At the University of Wollongong, Jim chaired my first selection committee, was my head of Department, then Head of School, and finally faculty Dean. In more recent years, he was a Professorial Research Fellow in an Australian Research Council (ARC) Key Centre which I sometimes led, and then continued as a Professorial Fellow in the same faculty where I had become Dean. We applied for and held four or five ARC research grants together. In short we had a bit to do with each other.

Theoretical Influences

From the moment I met Jim--when I applied for a job at Wollongong--until his death, there was little obvious variation in his views about the purpose, theory and method of research. I must confess I had felt obliged to read Jim's History of the ACTU (the long, unexpurgated version) in preparation for my interview and, nearing page 100, I wearily closed the book, turned off the light and asked myself: did I need to go this far for a contract lectureship? Subsequently, I understood that its reading was essential in order to become a labour historian. During 1984, my first year at Wollongong, Jim gave a paper to the postgraduate seminar in the Wollongong history department and explained at some length how the political relationships (I think in the NSW south coast dairy regions) were the expression of underlying economic relationships. These relationships seemed to be as much about technology as about property relations. I was then going through a phase of high Althusserianism and rather boldly suggested his conception of the economy and class relationships was more Adam Smith than Karl Marx, and to sharpen the accusation, pressed home the charge of economic reductionism.

Although this encounter caused consternation, it rather crudely captured a part of the truth. What I had missed, however, is that--rather like for a great blues guitarist--an apparent simplicity of form could, in the hands of a true virtuoso, produce sophisticated variations in content. …

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