Permissiveness: A Useful Framework for Historical Analysis?

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is PhD student Katie Jones (Birmingham) who discusses the usefulness of the ‘permissiveness’ panel.

For this blog post I wish to share some initial thoughts on attending the recent inaugural King’s Contemporary British History conference as a young, female PhD researcher, my opinions on the general format and give my response to the panel centred on the narrative of ‘permissiveness’.

My first impression of the conference was that – as a PhD researcher – I immediately felt included. The four panels I attended exploring key themes and texts (permissiveness; reflections on Sally Alexander’s, Becoming A Woman; revisiting Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain and Thatcherism), PhD/ECRs were panellists, as well as also being visibly present amongst the audience. The overall representation of ECRs, doctoral students and even MA students was encouraging and for this alone the organizers deserve due commendation. This was largely helped, I’m sure, by incentivising PhD students with travel bursaries to attend the conference. Practically, this made it possible for those of us outside of London, whilst also helping to us to feel included, welcome, and ultimately, valued.

The experimental format of the conference, which saw panellists give short, five minute papers followed by an hour-long discussion, in my opinion, really worked. Yet, it would have perhaps been useful for speakers to have been allocated slightly longer time slots in which to pitch their initial thoughts, allowing them to expand on their points and bring in further evidence and examples from their research. However, the format facilitated lively debate and allowed for much more interaction between the speakers and the audience than the traditional conference format.

One panel generating such debate was the panel most closely related to my own research on masculinities, contraception and sexual health in late-twentieth century Britain was centred on the narrative of ‘permissiveness’ and the concept of the ‘permissive society’. This panel raised important questions centred on methodology we use to ‘get at’ permissiveness and secondly, around the term itself, which in turn prompted questioning of the language we use to make sense of historical processes. To me, the debate seemed to reveal that permissiveness was a somewhat unhelpful, vague ‘catch-all’ term which excluded the experience of certain groups and individuals. Hannah Charnock’s case for the uses of oral history and personal testimony was strong, exposing the limits of this narrative. Charnock argued for the uses of qualitative, which stood somewhat in opposition to the use of opinion poll data by fellow panel member Marcus Collins. These differing methodological standpoints proved for lively debate, encouraged further by the experimental format. Jodi Burkett’s paper was also hugely thought-provoking. Like Charnock, drawing on the personal testimony of black Britons, Burkett argued that when they spoke about their experiences of life in post-war Britain, ‘permissiveness’ was not a narrative they used and if ‘permissiveness’ did have an impact on the lives of black Britons, it did not take effect until the 1980s and 1990s. Surely then, ‘permissiveness’ loses legitimacy as a useful interpretive framework when it excludes the experiences of certain groups and individuals? Collins attested to the usefulness of the term in that it helps us to thread together often disparate subjects (homosexuality; prostitution; race relations etc.). However, during the discussion, delegate Lucy Delap was quick to draw attention to its inherent loftiness. I for, one would agree with her. Especially after hearing papers by Charnock and Burkett, as a historian dealing with experience and personal testimony myself, I doubt that ‘permissiveness’ remains a useful interpretive framework for understanding contemporary Britain, as this narrative clearly fails to match up with the lived experience of individuals. It seems a focus on individual lives reveals the limitations of this well established narrative by exposing who and what it excludes. Perhaps, then, it is time to rethink the some of the terms we use to try and make sense of contemporary Britain.

The conference format certainly revealed the usefulness of revisiting old debates in order to revise current frameworks for contemporary British history in the here and now. Yet, with a conference called Contemporary British History Now, it would have been exciting to hear even more new research. For speakers to go into greater depth of course you need time. From an organizational perspective, necessarily this would have meant reducing the discussion time and thus risk sacrificing the lively debate which followed the individual papers. Within a limited timeframe something has to give. I’m aware that when utilising an experimental format organizing a longer conference can be a risk, but perhaps this could be something to consider when organising future events after this recent success – I, for one, am intrigued by the approach taken by KCBH and will gladly return for more.

Katie Jones is a second-year doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her broader research interests centre on the histories of gender, sex and sexuality and emotion in modern Britain and her thesis explores masculinities, contraception and sexual health in late-twentieth century Britain, 1967-1997. You can also find Katie on Twitter @klhjones

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