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Mile End Institute

Contemporary Political History in the Digital Age

11 February 2016

Time: 1:30pm
Venue: Foreign & Commonwealth Office

How does the current ‘digital revolution’ compare to technological change in earlier periods, from the birth of radio and television to the arrival of the fax machine and photocopier? 

How are digital technologies changing the methodological and conceptual terrain of political history? And how should we preserve and analyse ‘born-digital’ sources, from central government emails to activist tweets? In short, if digital technologies have changed politics in our time, how are they changing political history?

This event brought early-career and more established historians together with archivists, policymakers and digital specialists to consider these and other questions about the relationship between politics, digital technologies and the writing of history.

The event, hosted in partnership between the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historians, forms part of a wider programme of activity on the theme of Rethinking Contemporary British Political History, which is funded by a British Academy’s Rising Star Engagement Award held by Dr Helen McCarthy at Queen Mary University of London. 

Blogs from this event:

Dr Helen McCarthy: Contemporary Political History: Mapping the Road Ahead

Shane Dillon: The Digital Archive: Challenges for Historians


Panel One: Digital Politics and Government in Historical Perspective

Keynote speaker: Russell Davies, writer and strategist

Respondent: Dr James Ellison, Reader in International History, Queen Mary University of London

Chair: Dr Helen McCarthy

This panel explored the ways in which digital technologies have changed and are changing the practices of democratic politics and government, and what implications this might have for historical narratives of British politics and political culture.

• What do we mean when we talk about the ‘digital state’ or ‘digital democracy’?
• Where have digital technologies made the greatest impact on political practices and identities? Where have they made the least?
• Have the effects of the digital ‘revolution’ been overstated? What can we learn from earlier technological revolutions, when seeking to document and evaluate the political consequences of present-day digital technologies?

Panel Two: Digital Politics and the Practice of History


Dr Katrin Weller, Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences

Dr James Baker, Lecturer in Digital History, University of Sussex

Professor Patrick Salmon, Chief Historian, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Simon Demissie, Head, Modern Domestic Records, The National Archives

Chair: Dr Robert Saunders, Lecturer in Modern British History, Queen Mary University of London

This session focused on to the practical challenges of preserving, archiving and making accessible ‘born-digital’ sources alongside more conventional, paper-based sources. It reflected upon the related question of how digitisation shapes the type of history it is possible to teach and write.

  • Are digital technologies creating new kinds of ‘born-digital’ sources for political historians? How are they being captured, preserved and made available to researchers?
  • Will such sources require historians to develop new methodologies or conceptual tools to analyse them? What can historians learn from other disciplines or approaches?
  • How will the shift towards an increasing proportion of ‘born-digital’ sources shape the kinds of histories that get taught and written?
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