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Writing History After E.P Thompson

November 16-18, 2015

All events will be in 1014 Tisch Hall, unless otherwise noted.
The workshop is free and open to the public.  Registration is required.


Schedule of Events (PDF DOWNLOAD)

Monday, November 16

Session 1: What Has Been Lost? What Has Been Gained?

10am – 12pm
Jim Oakes, City University of New York: “No Such Thing as a Disloyal Slave: Rethinking E. P. Thompson's Legacy for the American Civil War”

Lynn Thomas, University of Washington: “Agency”

Kathleen Canning, University of Michigan: “The Social in the Cultural: Critical Reflections on Experience, Consciousness, and Subjectivity”
Luise White, University of Florida: “Whigs and Hunters: The Path Not Taken”

12pm – 1pm Lunch

Session 2: Thompson and African History

1pm – 3pm
Peter Delius, University of the Witwatersrand: “Thompson's Child or a Remote Relative from the Colonies? A Footnote from a Foot Soldier in South Africa's History Wars, 1970-1990”

Hlonipha Mokoena, University of the Witwatersrand: “The Hardness of the Times and the Dearness of All the Necessaries of Life: Class and Consumption in Bilingual Nineteenth-Century Newspapers”

Derek Peterson, University of Michigan: “Nonconformity in Africa’s Cultural History”
Clive Glaser, University of the Witwatersrand: “Thompson on the Highveld: Social History and Humanist Socialism”

Discussants: Jack Taylor, University of Michigan; Stephen Sparks, University of Johannesburg

Session 3: Thompson and Empire

3pm – 4:30pm
Bridget Kenny, University of the Witwatersrand: “The ‘Lift Girls’ Lament: Sex and Race in Johannesburg Department Stores, 1950s & 1960s”

Juan Cole, University of Michigan: “Crowds, Workers, and Millenarians: Thompsonian Historiographies of the Middle East”

Christopher Lee, University of the Witwatersrand: “Histories Without Groups: Thompson’s ‘Average’ Working Man and Colonial Life”

Discussants: Lynn Thomas, University of Washington; Prinisha Badassy, University of the Witwatersrand

5pm – 6:30pm
Seminar by Dilip Menon,University of the Witwatersrand: “ Writing History in Colonial Times: The Space and Time of Religious Polemic in Late 19th and Early 20th Century Southern India” - (1636 School of Social Work Building)

Tuesday, November 17

Session 4: Capitalist Transformation and the Commons

10am – 11:30pm
Gregory Dowd, University of Michigan: “Jacksonian Democrats and Hunters, 1836-1837: Customary Rights, Property in Land, and Law”

Federico Helfgott, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos/Universidad Antonio Ruiz de Montoya: “Mining Labor, Communal Land, Rent, and Moral Economy in the Central Highlands of Peru”

Khumisho Moguerane, Oxford University: “Class, Culture, and Segregation: The Pattern of Landholding in Colonial Bechuanaland”

Discussants: Peter Delius, University of the Witwatersrand; Alex Lichtenstein, Indiana University

12pm – 1pm Lunch

Session 5: The Influence of Anthropology: E.P. Thompson as Geertzian Proxy?

1pm – 2:30pm
Adam Ashforth, University of Michigan: “Revisiting the Xhosa Cattle Killing”

Robert Blunt, Lafayette College: “Old Age and Money: The General Numismatics of Independent Kenya”

Bernard Dubbeld, Stellenbosch University: “Scales of Studying Historical Transformations: Divergent Roads Out of Thompson in African Studies”

Discussants: David William Cohen, University of Michigan; Nancy Rose Hunt, University of Michigan

Coffee Break

Session 6: Religion and Moral Economies

3pm – 4.30pm
Dilip Menon, University of the Witwatersrand: “Religion, Identity, and Community in EP Thompson’s Oeuvre”

Leslie Hempson, University of Michigan: “The Moral and Political Economy of Measurement in Twentieth Century India”

Dunbar Moodie, Hobart and William Smith Collete/ University of the Witwatersrand: “Using E.P. Thompson to Think About South African History: Notes on a Personal Journey”

Discussants: Butch Ware, University of Michigan; Pamila Gupta, University of the Witwatersrand

5pm – 6:30pm
Seminar by Hlonipha Mokoena, University of the Witwatersrand: “Zuluness on Trial: Re-reading John W. Colenso’s 1874 Langalibalele and the Amahlubi Tribe Being Remarks Upon the Official Record” - (4701 Haven Hall)

Wednesday, November 18

Session 7: Space, Property, and the Environment

9am – 11:00pm
Rosalie Kingwill, University of the Western Cape: “Kinship, Custom, and Class: Property Relations Among African Freeholders in the Eastern Cape”

Anne Berg, University of Michigan: “Green Capital, the Aesthetics of Poverty, and the Feel-Good Politics of Recycling”

Robyn D’Avignon, University of Michigan: “Ancient Indexes: Colonial Geology and West African Gold Prospecting”

Keith Breckenridge, University of the Witwatersrand: “Plaatje's Native Life in South Africa, the Commons, and the Racial Limits of Colonial Progressivism”

Discussants: Dario Gaggio, University of Michigan; Sarah Emily Duff, University of the Witwatersrand

Coffee Break

Session 8: Class and Capitalism Now

11:15am – 12:45pm
Joshua Coene, University of Michigan: “What Can Capitalism and Class Reveal in the Recent History of Imprisonment?: Thoughts from New South Wales and Pennsylvania”

Andrea Wright, University of Michigan: “Managing Unruly Workers: Worker Strikes, Oil Companies, and the Development of Labor Policies in the Arabian Sea”

Faeeza Ballim, University of the Witwatersrand: “Capital Beyond the Minerals-Energy Complex: The Un-making of the Working Class in Twentieth Century South African Agriculture”

Discussants: George Steinmetz, University of Michigan; Bernard Dubbeld, Stellenbosch University

12:45pm – 1:30pm Lunch

1:30pm – 2:30pm Closing remarks



E.P. Thompson was a hugely important figure in the global development of social history from the 1960s. In South Africa his influence was marked, reflected in historical scholarship with recognisably Thompsonian characteristics defined by richly detailed explication of the experiences of the black working class. Revisionist scholars challenged liberal convictions about the pre-industrial origins of racial segregation in South Africa and claims about the colour-blind character of the market, but structuralist revisionists in the 1970s were centrally preoccupied with understanding the nature of South Africa’s capitalist transition in the light of literature on capitalist transformations globally. Early revisionist social histories explicated the preservation, resilience and importance of ‘pre-capitalist’ social forms (chieftaincy, oscillating migrant labour between urban and rural areas). This more comparativist moment did not last across the field.

Thompson’s attack on Althusserian Marxism, The Poverty of Theory, helped fuel a reaction against structuralist accounts of racial capitalism in South Africa which took the form of social history emphasising the agency of the black working class in inauspicious circumstances. With retrospect this was both a productive and unproductive development. As elsewhere, the Thompsonian legacy in South African historiography and historical practice now appears inherently paradoxical: encouraging sensitivity towards culture and the analysis of class as process, while nurturing a common sense which was – and in many ways remains – of generally hostile disposition towards theory. From the mid 1980s social historians were much less likely to engage with larger theoretical and comparative debates about the relationships between capitalism, the state, coercive labour regimes, race and class formation than scholars a decade before. Curiously, the precocious sensitivity to culture which South African social historians developed was not facilitated by the kinds of anthropological influences that were important to the ‘cultural turn’ in Anglo-American scholarship.

Like Thompson, the leftist historians who he inspired in South Africa were challenged for insufficiently addressing gender and race, and were subsequentlyassailed by post-structuralists for alleged commitment to teleological Marxist meta-narratives and naïve empiricism. This workshop aims to explore the genealogies and legacies of Thompsonian social history across Anglo-American, Africanist and South Africanist scholarly domains. Historians at Wits and Michigan share training and ongoing intellectual interests in the theoretical challenges of writing social history in a world where many of the tenets of class analysis have been undermined by the effects of de-industrialisation. There remains a nagging sense – underlined by the interest generated by Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twentieth First Century – that the contemporary global predicament necessitates the writing of theoretically ambitious comparativist histories employing culturally nuanced class analysis in the mode of the Thompsonian tradition. The workshop promises to interrogate the legacies, limits and possibilities of Thompsonian scholarship (and the relationship between theory and empiricism between the North and South).