Australian Labour History: Contexts, Trends and Influences

By Bongiorno, Frank | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Australian Labour History: Contexts, Trends and Influences


Bongiorno, Frank, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


Labour historians have been among the most reflective history practitioners in Australia. As Terry Irving and Sean Scalmer have suggested, the field is prone to recurrent crises, a tendency they see as connected with the labour historian's role as a movement intellectual. (1) But while consideration of labour history's changing relationship to the labour movement is indeed critical to any understanding of its genealogy, I draw attention here to what is usually treated as a second-order theme in the literature: the relationship between labour history and the practice of Australian history itself.

There have been major shifts in Australian historiography across the last century to which labour historians have contributed, responded and adapted but which they have not controlled. In responding to these changing contexts, they have drawn on social and cultural 'capital' specific to the labour history community itself. But labour historians' practices were also shaped by what they understood as imperatives arising from professional location and identity. Those who pioneered the field in universities emphasised labour history's 'scholarly qualities' as part of their claim for its recognition as other than 'a form of politically biased antiquarianism'. (2) We also have accounts of the how labour history, having become embedded in this academic milieu, was reshaped by the rise of the new social history. (3) Finally, there has been recognition that many labour historians of recent years are not employed within history departments, with consequences for the shape of the sub-discipline. (4) Yet perhaps partly for this very reason, there has been less reflection on labour history's specifically historiographical contexts than its political settings. Labour history forms its own intellectual cultures, traditions, practices and institutions but, as a mode of historical production, is also shaped by changes in how history is made by historians, wherever they are found.

This article, then, will suggest that post-World War II labour history has been deeply influenced by the evolving professional imperatives associated with university-based research and teaching in an increasingly globalised academic culture. Yet Australian labour history has also continued to derive distinctiveness from its sympathies with the labour movement's struggles, a healthy scepticism concerning the illusion of detached and apolitical scholarship, and a strong associational culture that includes professional scholars from a variety of disciplines and labour activists occupying a range of ideological positions. It has been experimental in its forms of production and target audiences, and creative in responding to shifting contexts. Labour history has pioneered and sustained a politically-committed history that has, in turn, exercised a larger influence on Australian historiography.

Origins

The Australian labour history community has been telling stories about its own origins--in a fairly self-conscious way--since at least the 1960s. Certainly by the 1970s in Australia, social history's impact had prompted labour historians to question what, if anything, provided the field with an identity beyond the institutions it had recently created for itself, such as its society and journal. What follows are three inter-related 'creation stories' that have been used since then to make sense of labour history's foundations. Each version stresses the early significance of a certain type of labour history; and each type--still recognisable through its later adaptations and manifestations--exercised a continuing influence over the field's broad sense of scope and purpose. We can see in this diversity indications of the intellectually pluralist nature of the labour history enterprise. Indeed, the field has been able to encompass a sprawling subject matter, diverse understandings of the connections between historical production and politics, and considerable variety in the historian's relationship to the labour movement itself.

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