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Professor Mark Peel – Dramatising Poverty: Comparative Perspectives on Case Files, Stories and Remedies.

In this highly engaging lecture Professor Mark Peel draws on his monograph, Miss Cutler and the case of the resurrected horse: Social work and the story of poverty in America, Australia and Britain (University of Chicago Press: 2011) to present a history of poverty in Boston, Minneapolis, Portland, London and Melbourne. Peel describes this comparative study as fundamentally a book about stories; stories that tell us what the people who encountered the poor during the 1920s and 1930s heard them saying, and how they formed what they heard into dramatized explanations of poverty’s origins and remedies. Through an analysis of approximately 2,000 case files Peel assesses different approaches to poverty, identifying a broadly Anglo-Australian approach which saw poverty largely as a problem of character, and an American approach which held out a greater possibility for redemptive transformation. He also demonstrates how the Great Depression and World War II affected approaches to poverty and assessments of the poor.

‘What are you writing about me in your books…’

Peel takes an innovative and original approach as he dramatises six encounters between social workers and clients, developing scripts which serve to write the poor back into the history of poverty and welfare. In this paper he explains how something of what the poor said is contained in the archive of charity and social work, albeit reshaped and amended. As well as providing insights into how class, gender, race, time and place affected experiences of and approaches to poverty, Peel  provides a model of how to approach the history of poverty that doesn’t leave the poor out.

Reviews of Miss Cutler and the case of the resurrected horse: Social work and the story of poverty in America, Australia and Britain (University of Chicago Press: 2011):

“Mark Peel has written the first work of twenty-first-century history, and it stands as a model of how historians think and write multivocal accounts of the past.” Daniel Walkowitz, New York University.

“This is a book about learning to listen. It traverses the old and new Anglo worlds between the wars, attending to the exchanges between social workers and the poor—intimate exchanges of judgment, redemption, class, gender, and race. Yet as we listen and learn, so do the protagonists, themselves caught in tides of history that prove transformative. A remarkable exercise in felt history and historical imagination.” Janet McCalman, University of Melbourne.

Dr Lindsey Earner-Byrne, Dr Carole Holohan and Prof Mark Peel at ‘The meaning of poverty’ workshop, held in University college Dublin on 5th September 2014.

About the workshop

Professor Mark Peel delivered this keynote address at a workshop entitled ‘The meaning of poverty’ held in University college Dublin on 5th September 2014 and organised by Dr Carole Holohan, Dr Lindsey Earner-Byrne and Professor Mary Daly. The workshop brought together those working on poverty in nineteenth and twentieth century Ireland, including Northern Ireland, with the aim of identifying common and transnational threads that link the experience of and responses to poverty across time and space. Papers included:

  • Olwen Purdue (QUB): ‘”Please pardon the liberty”: voices of the unemployed from 1930s Belfast’.
  • Lindsey Earner-Byrne (UCD): ‘Personalising Poverty: Irish Charity Case Letters, 1920-1940’.
  • Peter Gray (QUB): ‘The Meaning of Poverty in Pre-Famine Ireland’?
  • Carole Holohan (IRC/UCD): ‘Rediscovering poverty: Ireland in the sixties’.
  • Mel Cousins (TCD): ‘Politics, politicisation and the poor law boards, 1838-49′.
  • Sarah-Anne Buckley (NUI Galway): ‘Poverty, agency and child welfare in Ireland: the case of the NSPCC, 1922-1956’.

The day concluded with a fascinating Witness panel as Professor Emeritus Helen Burke and Professor Emeritus Séamus Ó Cinnéide discussed their professional and personal engagement in the fields of poverty research and welfare work in the 1960s and 1970s. This workshop was funded by the UCD Seed Funding Scheme.

About Professor Mark Peel

Mark Peel is the Pro Vice Chancellor for the College of Arts, Humanities and Law and Pro Vice Chancellor for Access, Recruitment and Transition at the University of Leicester. Before coming to Leicester, he was Professor of Modern Cultural and Social History, Head of History and Head of the School of the Arts at the University of Liverpool. Previously he was a Professor of History at Monash University in Melbourne. His research focuses on the experiences of marginalised people and on the dynamics of social mobility, class and gender. His publications include Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse: Social Work and the Story of Poverty in America, Australia and Britain (University of Chicago Press, 2012); (with Christina Twomey) A History of Australia (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011) and The Lowest Rung: Voices of Poverty in Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Image: detail of front cover of Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse: Social Work and the Story of Poverty in America, Australia and Britain (Liffey).

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