Conference report: ESSHC 2014, Vienna, 23-26 April 2014

Report on Tenth European Social Science History Conference (Vienna, 23-26 April 2014)

by Mirjam de Bruijn


Although African Studies (AS) and African History (AH) did not receive the attention it should have in the organization of this conference, it was generally admitted to have been more visible than other years. This year Stefano Belluci and I were the Africa Chairs, which meant that we were responsible for integrating AS and AH papers into the programme. We managed to create about 8 “Africa-titled” panels; a few of those had both regional aswell as thematic foci. The mission for 2016, when the ESSHC will be held in Valencia (Spain), should be to exceed  the success of African panels in this conference.

Why do we emphasize this “Africa”? In principle we are not really pro-promoting AS/AH as disctinct fields. It should automatically be part of the whole. However, the specifics of Africa and the hegemony of (Western)  academia make such a distinction necessary. Supporting AS/AH in such a big conference then becomes  a political statement, which is exactly what it is. Our hope is to eradicate the Africa Chair in  future conferences.

Life Histories in the Digital Age

Some of the panels dealt with the new opportunities offered by digitalised environments. I participated in the panel: (Re)presenting Oral History: Web & Performance. The papers dealt with participatory history writing:

  • biographies and film or theatre give a better impression, a biography is not only text; Biographies on stage (Jeff Friedman, USA);
  • creating history together around a topic on Facebook (Anne Heimo, Finland);
  • games in cyberspace are a (layman’s) reinterpretation of history which could be called oral history collectives (Graham Smith, UK).

It led me to reflect upon the following questions. Participatory history writing is a serious idea; but how to deal with information given by non-academics? Do we then consider the information given on Facebook as a kind of interview? Or does it lead to co-writing?

Biographies and life histories as performance is also an attractive idea and relates to our attempts to film what we hear and see.

Finally the recreation of history, and as such probably life in general, on the web is fascinating and a research field in itself.

Within the ESSHC one group specializes in ‘oral history’.  All their panels (which I unfortunately could not attend, but was able to read about) inspired me to organise our data archive centred around the main people/informants in our research. Life history can be a way to approach and decipher social change.


Unfortunately I did not attend as I choose to participate in a panel in which the relation between duress and gender was central: Gender, Political Violence and Narratives of the Self in the 20th Century. The papers were somewhat disappointing as they did not escape the victim narrative.

‘Africa’  panels

As Africa chair I also had the task to chair the panels that were composed of individual papers. One of those was labelled Criminal Justice in Colonial Africa. This is a field that has not had enough attention. We had two very good papers, one on witchcraft and how it was integrated into law in Belgian Congo from Bérengère Piret (University of Saint-Louis, Bruxelles); and one on Dutch criminal law in 17th century Cape, South Africa from Gerald Groenewald (University of Johannesburg). Interested readers can mail CTD for the transcripts. ,

I also chaired a panel on Expat histories and colonial identities with a very nice paper, especially the old photographs on the Finnish in in Katanga (Congo) and how they started the exploitation of mines by Timo Sarkka from Jyvaskyla University; and another paper of Aniek Smit and Maya Wester on the Dutch compounds in Indonesia, of Shell and an American company;

There were a few panels on African labour history which were coordinated by Stefano Belluci. Labour history has been neglected in AS, but apparently is becoming a field of interest as it relates to the development of capitalism in Africa; and to analysis in terms of political economy.

The themes on the panels on Africa were interesting, but of course not very abundant. The themes dealt with, were: children, identity (colonial), labour history, migration, political economy and labour, criminal justice, etc.