The history of experience and agency: a critical intervention 8.-12.3.2021 online
About the conference
The new history of experience is a methodologically and conceptually innovative approach that seeks to ask novel questions about social, cultural, biological, political, religious and economic history. Among other things, it seeks to understand how individuals and groups meaningfully perceived reality and, crucially, their own role in it. Does this framing suggest a route away from the concept of ‘agency’, which, despite critical historiographical treatment in some fields, remains important in the social sciences and many other historical subfields? Historians have sought to uncover or account for agency in marginalized and oppressed historical actors and groups in laudable efforts to point to real and sometimes invisible power relations, as well as highlighting cases of resiliency and explaining individual and group responsibility for events throughout the lifecourse. Historians in several subdisciplines have questioned the usefulness of the concept of agency for some time now. Historians of race and particularly of slavery, of the poor, of gender and of children and youth have all pointed to substantial problems with the concept. While some have proposed redefining and repurposing the concept, others have called for its outright rejection and replacement.
We would like to explore the extent to which the history of experience might be used to replace agency and/or deal with its inadequacies. Or does the concept of experience somehow change our understanding of agency as well? How does the interplay of experience and agency influence our understanding of history and society?
The conference was held fully online.
 See, for example, Walter Johnson, “On Agency.” Journal of Social History 37 (2003): 113-124; Thomas, Lynn M. “Historicising Agency.” Gender & History 28, no. 2 (August 2016): 324-339;
Mona Gleason, “Avoiding the Agency Trap: Caveats for Historians of Children, Youth, and Education,” History of Education 45, no. 4 (2016); Susan A. Miller, “Assent as Agency in the Early Years of the Children of the American Revolution,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 9, no. 1 (Winter 2016): 48-65.
Monday 8 March at 13-15 EET (GMT+2)
Theme 1 – Personal Nationalism and the Question of Agency
Prof. Maarten Van Ginderachter, University of Antwerp
Dr Reetta Eiranen, Max Planck Institute for Human Development
Prof. Zsuzsa Millei, Tampere University
Prof. Raúl Moreno Almendral, University of Salamanca
Chair: Dr. Ville Kivimäki, Dr. Sami Suodenjoki & Dr. Tanja Vahtikari, Tampere University/HEX
How people participate in “doing the nation” is a fundamental question for the study of nationalism. This is especially important for the histories of experience and emotions, which are interested in the ways the nation is “lived.” Social anthropologist Anthony P. Cohen’s concept “personal nationalism” (1996) is one useful approach in this respect. The term helps to understand how people use nationalism and nationhood to formulate their sense of self. Our panel discusses personal nationalism as a concept of analysis in historical studies and also the limits of attributing agency to individuals in personalizing nationalism and “doing the nation.” Possible questions to be addressed are, for example: How much agency is there to personalize nationalism in different historical contexts? How does this differ according to, e.g., social class, gender, age and ethnicity? Where are power and conflict situated in the study of personal nationalism? How do the historically and culturally changing understanding of the self and its expressions affect the applicability of the concept? How does personal nationalism relate to structural explanations of nationalism? What limits do sources set for studying how people of the past appropriate nationalism – and how can we access the personal nationalism of those people who have not left behind any conventional ego-documents?
Prof. Maarten Van Ginderachter: Agency in everyday nationalism
Dr Reetta Eiranen: From personal nationalism to national indifference: Gendered perspective
Prof. Zsuzsa Millei: Everyday nationalism: Methodologies, modalities and childhood as method
Prof. Raúl Moreno Almendral: Autobiographical sources and the personal approach to the history of national phenomena
Tuesday 9 March at 12-14 EET (GMT+2)
Theme 2 – Lived Welfare State
Prof. Helen Johnston, University of Hull
Prof. Kate Rossiter, Wilfrid Laurier University
Prof. Jen Rinaldi, Ontario Tech University
Prof. Pauli Kettunen, University of Helsinki
Prof. Pirjo Markkola, Tampere University/HEX
Chair: Dr. Johanna Annola, Dr. Hanna Lindberg & Dr. Antti Malinen, Research Fellows, Tampere University/HEX
The session discusses the interplay between experience and agency as analytical tools by exploring different conceptualisations and contextualisations of the lived welfare state. In everyday life, the welfare state is lived through various social benefits, services and institutions, some of which date back to earlier periods. These institutions and structures of welfare provision are based on shifting constructions of the “social”, and they generate special experiences of the individual-society relationship. Thus, the focus on the lived welfare state calls for new perspectives and conceptualisations to combine micro level from below approaches and a macro analysis of society.
This session explores and problematizes the ways in which the concept of “agency” is used to explain the space of experience in the lived welfare state. We focus on lived institutions, lived institutional care, and encounters between individuals and institutions, ca 1700s–2000s. What do “agency” and “experience” mean in these encounters and how could scholars of the welfare state deal with concepts such as agency, experience, emotions, and subjectivity, among others? How can agency be re-evaluated when moving between different institutional and experiential settings?
Pauli Kettunen: The agent called society as a mediator between experiences and expectations – a conceptual history perspective to the making of Nordic welfare states
Jen Rinaldi & Kate Rossiter: Huronia’s Double Bind: How Institutionalization Bears Out on the Body
Helen Johnston: Motherhood and long-term imprisonment in Victorian England: Experience and Agency in female convict prisons
Pirjo Markkola: Lived institutions as an approach to the experience of the welfare state
Tuesday 9 March at 15-17 EET (GMT+2)
Theme 3 – Oral History
Prof. Lynn Abrams, University of Glasgow
Prof. Alessandro Portelli, University of Rome
Prof. Leyla Neyzi, Sabanci University
Dr Kirsi-Maria Hytönen, University of Jyväskylä/HEX
Chair: Dr. Heidi Morrison, Senior Research Fellow, Tampere University/HEX
Granting historical agency to marginalized people was one of the driving forces behind the origins and evolution of the field of oral history. Recently, however, scholars from various fields have brought attention to some problems with the concept of agency. The relationship between agency and oral history is particularly important for historians of experience who use oral history as a critical methodological tool. Memories are a way to understand how individuals make sense of their realities, and how these realities are connected to larger structures and ideologies.
This virtual roundtable will be a platform for oral historians to brainstorm together about the continued usefulness or not of the concept of agency to oral history, and the implications of this for historians of experience. The roundtable will include brief opening remarks on the topic by the participants and then open to a discussion of questions (both pre-formulated and audience-generated). Some of the questions discussed will include: In what ways has the field of oral history evolved on the western liberal conception of the individual, i.e. that humans exert agency when they exercise free fill? What are the limitations to thinking about agency from the perspective of individual choice? What are examples of divergent forms of agency in human experience? How can oral historians discern from interviews the ways in which people’s every-day actions operate on the collective level, i.e. the idea that people’s actions are created through situations? How can an oral historian be sure to not fall into the entitlement trap of using their interviews to “grant” agency to another person or “liberate” marginalized actors from the past? What methodological contributions can historians of experience make to the field of oral history, and vice versa?
Wednesday 10 March at 14-16 EET (GMT+2)
Theme 4 – Childhood and youth
Dr Kristine Alexander, University of Lethbridge, Canada
Dr Sarah Duff, Colby College, USA
Prof. Mischa Honeck, Universität Kassel, Germany
Dr Susan Miller, Rutgers University, Camden, USA
Dr Ishita Pande, Queen’s University
Dr Simon Sleight, King’s College, London, England
Dr Karen Vallgårda, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Dr. Ville Vuolanto, Tampere University
Chair: Dr. Stephanie Olsen, Senior Research Fellow, Tampere University/HEX
The history of childhood and youth is a key field where questions of agency should play out. After all, children and youth are among the most marginalized actors because of their minority, and also because of various intersecting categories – class, race, gender, sexuality – which often leave them without a strong say in their own lives. Yet, historians of childhood and youth have been some of the most vocal in articulating a discomfort with the concept of agency. Several key interventions by historians of childhood, including Mona Gleason and Susan Miller, have suggested that agency needs redefining or replacing. This work has built on seminal interventions by historians of race, slavery and gender in particular.
This roundtable features leading scholars in the field, all of whom have problematized agency in their written work from different angles and national and colonial perspectives. We will point to potential pitfalls of agency from various theoretical, methodological and political perspectives and discuss potential alternative routes out of the “agency trap.” The novel category of experience will figure prominently in theorizing these alternatives.