Sociability and democratic practices in Great Britain, 1760-1850
International colloquium, Université Bordeaux Montaigne, 5-6 October 2017
Deadline for submissions: 31 March 2017
From the popular movements associated with John Wilkes in the 1760s to the Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s, a growing number of demands were being voiced coming from outside, and often directed against, the principal state and ecclesiastical institutions (the royal court, Parliament, the Church). In the 1780s, supporters of parliamentary reform came together in various county associations across England and in burgh reform societies in Scotland.
Following the French Revolution, a plebeian form of sociability began to develop not only in the form of radical or Jacobin political societies and clubs but also as anti-Jacobin and loyalist groups. Abolitionist, working men’s and trade union movements, local and national leagues such as the Anti-Corn Law League and, of course, the Chartists also raised moral, religious and class-based demands. These are just some examples of the many diverse movements that adopted various forms of association and that were evolving at this time. Going beyond the simple question of ideology, and in analysing these different forms of sociability, recent historiography has significantly added to our understanding of these groups.
In particular, studies of the 1790s have shown that such democratic innovations owed at least as much to their new practices as they did to the ideas being disseminated by artisan societies such as the London Corresponding Society. The connections between ideology, practices and political consequences were nevertheless far from simple, as shown by the example of the loyalist associations that emerged in this period and whose aim was to counter the Jacobin threat. Paradoxically, these ideologically conservative associations also contributed to the politicisation of the common people, which was just what they were trying to avoid.
Today, it is necessary to place these questions within a longer-term perspective, what was previously referred to as the Age of Reform or, in the wider European context, as the Age of Revolution, and in this way to study the legacies and the breaks between the democratic and less democratic forms of sociability. As part of the CLIMAS research group, looking in particular at the theme ‘minor forms of power” (Puissance du mode mineur), we will seek to understand the ways in which such ‘minor’ groups, although they were working from outside Parliament and were, voluntarily or involuntarily, excluded from the official decision making process, were nevertheless able to make proposals, to set examples and to disseminate their ideas. How did these groups use their ‘minority’ position to their advantage? Were they looking to establish alternative and exclusive forms of sociability? Or were they, on the contrary, attempting to break out of their ‘minor’ position and to influence the ‘major’ forms of political representation?
Associations as laboratories of democracy? Theory and Practice
In what ways can these societies, in their ideologies and/or their practices, be regarded as laboratories of democracy at local, national, sectorial, or religious levels? How did they theorise, apply or reject those practices which are today accepted as being typical of democracy such as universal suffrage and the secret ballot? Did they put in place other democratic practices such as attributing executive roles among their leaders in turn or by a form of random selection? What degree of coherence or contradiction was there between their ideologies and their actual practices?
To what extent were these open or closed groups and how far did their different forms of sociability allow for a wider participation in politics, beyond those people who already had the right to vote (in terms of gender, class, religion)? How was the inclusion, or exclusion, of different groups justified?
With regard to questions of order and disorder, how did these societies manage conflict and dissension? How were they able to reconcile mass mobilisation and public order? Did they caution violence or attempt to keep it within limits?
Did these forms of sociability draw on the examples of those institutions that already existed, such as ecclesiastical councils, masonic lodges or clubs? In what ways were their activities and the transmission of ideas spread geographically, between generations or from one socio-political sector to another?
Each of these questions needs to take into account the political context and in particular the attitudes of the authorities which, at times, could be repressive and at others conciliatory. We need also to ask how this led these groups to adopt different strategies, which could be either democratic or undemocratic, of adaptation, resistance or subversion.
The parliamentary model and alternatives to it
What were the links between these societies and the official institutions? In particular, with the Westminster Parliament? What forms of discourse did they adopt towards parliament? Did they draw on the example of parliamentary procedures? Or its vocabulary? Or did they instead seek to differentiate themselves from these? Were they seeking to set themselves up as alternatives to Parliament or as complementary to it, as a source of propositions and as a pressure group? Were they attempting to give an example and to apply in practice the ideals that they wished to see introduced in Parliament or in other public institutions?
Did these societies look for inspiration to British and/or foreign models (the French Revolution, American democracy…)? Were there local and regional specificities between England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland?
What were the reactions to these societies? Were they greeted as welcome alternatives or criticised for wanting to usurp the prerogatives and the functions of Parliament?
Papers may take the form of case studies or take more theoretical or historiographical approaches to the period under consideration, such as questions relating to the periodization, to concepts such as agency, performance or the public sphere, or methodological approaches (linguistic turn, the study of networks, spatial analyses…).
Proposals of no more than 300 words should be sent to any of the following addresses:
before 31 March 2017, and accompanied by a short personal biography. Replies will be sent out in mid-April.
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