London is a fascinating city, a buzzing metropolis with an incredibly rich history. It has been the subject of an untold number of academic studies, as well as an almost infinite assortment of films, books, poems, pictures and other cultural products.
London is obviously a fantastic city to study. It is the economic, social, political and cultural centre of Britain, and during the heights of the British Empire it served this role for huge swathes of the world. It has a population of over eight million people, who speak over 300 languages. This quantity and diversity of people, organisations and events provides fertile ground for huge numbers of research projects. As well as this, it is almost unrivalled in terms of the archives available for use, and being the focus and inspiration of so much academic and cultural output means that there is a wealth of sources available to study.
We are both studying London for our PhD research; Hannah looks at the historical geographies of protest in the city between 1780 and 2010, and Bethan is working on so-called ‘austerity’ fashion in London after the Second World War, in collaboration with the Museum of London. We are also both utilising archival research in our projects. London is a unique area of study for both of us in its own way. In terms of protest, London’s role as the symbolic and literal centre of British politics makes it a key location of dissent. With regards to fashion, London is known as a world fashion capital, and although the history and origins of this status are contentious, London has long been a centre for fashionable production and consumption.
One of the first steps when conducting research to to ensure you have a clear definition of the terms involved in your project. However when it comes to London, that is not an easy thing to do. London means so many things, to so many people, that it is hard to pin down a coherent and concise definition. Is London a city of 8.17 million people, or an area of 611 square miles? Knightsbridge or the East End? London is all of these things, but each research project must decide how it wishes to locate itself amid these different definitions, by means of summary or selection.
The richness and diversity of London also pose other challenges to the researcher, particularly when it comes to archival research. Archival sources go through several selection processes; firstly, when the archival institution, curator or individual collector decide which items to keep and preserve, and then secondly when the researcher chooses which materials to use in their research. As an archivist or collector, how do you choose sources to accurately represent such a varied city as London? As a researcher, which sources best represent that variety within the scope of your research? Is it even possible or indeed desirable to draw meaningful conclusions about ‘London’ as a coherent entity?
The possible existence of a London bias should also be considered. Is London researched too much, at the expense of other British cities? If this is the case, do we as researchers have a responsibility to correct this imbalance? Researchers and academics have a great deal of power in terms of representing the people and places that they study, should we therefore try to ensure that each place is represented ‘fairly’?
As you may have guessed from this post, we have a lot of unanswered questions in relation to this topic. For this reason, we choose not to draw conclusions, but instead leave the topic open for further discussion. Do you consider yourself to be a researcher of London? Was it a deliberate decision or simply a matter of convenience? How do you tackle the challenge of researching something of the sheer immensity of London?
Answers on the back of a postcard please (although any thoughts or opinions in the comments would also be very welcome!)
Hannah Awcock and Bethan Bide