Alison Light
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Family history
History’s poor relation?
in Emancipation and the remaking of the British imperial world
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Alison Light reflects on family history in the light of the one that she is writing. Hers is a history of the English labouring poor, generations of servants, sailors, dockers, migrants in search of work, ‘an English family history without roots, a family history for a floating world’. Family history is an immensely popular activity, privatized and commodified, an individualized kind of history, finding your own past. Professional historians have largely been dismissive of it. Yet it has great strengths with its longitudinal reach, its ways of connecting the local to a wider world, the parochial to the national, the national to the international. It can dissolve oppositions, resist the idea of urban and rural life as separate compartments, challenge public/private divides. Family history makes us see things differently. It can be articulated to left or right – it has no necessary political belonging. It deserves scrutiny.

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