Archaeologies

, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp 238–262 | Cite as

Towards an Archaeology of the Welfare State in Britain, 1945–2009

Research

Abstract

In this paper I develop an argument for the specific contribution which archaeology might make to the study of the ‘classic’ welfare state in Britain (c. 1945–1975) and its aftermath (c. 1976 to present). This period saw massive state investment in infrastructure which transformed both the material and social worlds of its citizens, through new state policies, new networks of political and social control, the centralisation and nationalisation of a range of existing aspects of civilian life and the construction of housing on a monumental scale. While this is a topic which has been studied in detail by historians and sociologists, despite the massive investment in construction and the accompanying effects on the physical landscape of Britain, there has been relatively little work on the ‘material worlds’ of the welfare state. In developing this argument I focus particularly on public housing, an area which has been the subject of some previous archaeological comment and which provides a clear case study in the contribution which such an approach might make. State subsidised housing policy developed as a brave utopian socialist experiment during the interwar period in Britain, reaching its zenith in the mid-1970s, at which time the state supplied almost a third of the nation’s housing. Public housing projects became an area of experimentation in the realisation of modernist ideals of high density private accommodation and in the use of new building technologies and materials. However, following the demise of the classic welfare state, for various reasons high density public housing has come to be viewed as part of a dystopian social cycle, the buildings and associated landscapes themselves becoming a symbol of poverty, substance abuse and violence. From an early history associated with slum clearance and the development of idealised homes for the nation’s poor, many high rise/high density public housing developments from the classic welfare state are now more often viewed themselves as slums, their design and ‘materiality’ perceived as contributing to, or even creating, a series of social problems. I suggest, following earlier work by Miller (Man (New Series) 23(2):353–372, 1988), Buchli (The Archaeology of Socialism, Berg, New York, 1999) and Buchli and Lucas (Archaeologies of the contemporary past. Routledge, London, 2001) that an archaeological approach to the material world of public housing has the potential to reveal not only the ways in which changing state ideologies are expressed through their design, but also the ways in which individuals have (and continue to) engage with their spaces and material culture to manage the conditions of everyday life, and how such places exist within counter-discursive urban and suburban worlds. I also suggest that part of the role of an archaeology of the welfare state is to consider the circumstances under which the welfare state fails through a focus on the archaeology of poverty and homelessness.

Keywords

Contemporary archaeology Welfare state Public housing Council estates Homelessness Everyday life 

Résumé

Dans cet article, je développe un argument concernant la contribution spécifique que l’archéologie pourrait apporter pour étudier la protection sociale ‘classique’ en Grande-Bretagne (1945-1975) et ses conséquences (1976 - présent). Cette période a connu un investissement massif de l’infrastructure qui a transformé à la fois les mondes tant matériels que sociaux de ses citoyens, par le biais de nouvelles politiques d’État, de nouveaux réseaux et le contrôle politique et social, la centralisation et la nationalisation d’une gamme d’aspects existants de la vie civile et la construction de logements à une échelle sans précédents. Bien que cela soit un sujet qui a été étudié en détail par des historiens et des sociologues, et malgré l’investissement massif dans la construction et les effets d’accompagnement sur le paysage physique de la Grande-Bretagne, il y a eu relativement peu de travail consacré à la protection sociale de l’État. Dans le développement de cet argument je me concentre particulièrement sur les logements sociaux, un secteur qui a été le sujet de commentaires archéologiques qui fournissent une étude de cas claire dans la contribution qu’une telle approche pourrait apporter. L’État a subventionné la politique de logements comme une expérience socialiste utopique courageuse pendant la période d’entre les deux guerres en Grande-Bretagne, atteignant son apogée dans le milieu des années 1970, à un moment où l’État a fourni presque un tiers du logement national. Les projets de logements sociaux sont devenus un secteur d’expérimentation dans la réalisation des idéaux modernistes à grande échelle et dans l’utilisation de nouvelles technologies de construction et de matériaux. Cependant, suite à l’échec de la protection sociale classique, pour des raisons diverses la forte densité des logements sociaux a été perçue comme un cycle social contre utopique, les bâtiments et leur paysage associé devenant un symbole de pauvreté, de toxicomanie et de violence. D’une première approche associée à la disparition des taudis et le développement de maisons idéalisées pour les plus démunis de la nation, beaucoup de bâtiments à étages multiples et à forte densité produite par la protection sociale classique sont maintenant perçus à leur tour comme des taudis, leur conception et présence perçues comme entraînant ou créant même, une série de problèmes sociaux. Je suggère, après le travail mené par Miller (1988), Buchli (1999) et Buchli et Lucas (2001) qu’une approche archéologique du monde matériel des logements sociaux a le potentiel de révéler non seulement la façon dont les personnes ont (et continuent à avoir) de leurs espaces et leur culture matérielle pour gérer les conditions de la vie quotidienne et comment de tels lieux existent dans des mondes urbains et de banlieues contre discursifs. Je suggère également qu’une partie du rôle d’une archéologie de la protection sociale classique doit considérer les circonstances dans lesquelles elles échouent en se concentrant sur l’archéologie de la pauvreté et des sans abris.

Resumen

En el presente trabajo desarrollo un argumento sobre la aportación específica que la arqueología podría hacer al estudio del estado del bienestar «clásico» en Gran Bretaña (c.1945-1975) y de sus consecuencias (c.1976-actualidad). Durante este periodo el estado hizo ingentes inversiones en infraestructura que transformaron tanto el mundo material como social de sus ciudadanos, con nuevas políticas estatales, nuevas redes de control político y social, la centralización o la nacionalización de diversos aspectos de la vida civil y la construcción de viviendas a escala monumental. Aunque este tema ya ha sido estudiado pormenorizadamente por historiadores y sociólogos, y pese a las grandes inversiones en construcción y los efectos subsiguientes sobre el paisaje físico de Gran Bretaña, son relativamente pocos los trabajos sobre los «mundos materiales» del estado del bienestar que se han realizado. Al desarrollar este argumento me centro muy especialmente en la vivienda pública, una cuestión que ha sido objeto de ciertos comentarios arqueológicos previamente y que proporciona un claro estudio de caso en la aportación que este enfoque podría hacer. El estado británico subvencionó la política de viviendas como un valiente experimento de socialismo utópico durante el periodo de entreguerras, alcanzando su cenit a mediados de los 70, momento en que el estado suministró casi un tercio de las viviendas del país. Los proyectos de viviendas públicas se convirtieron en un campo de experimentación para poner en práctica ideales modernistas de alojamiento privado de alta densidad y para el uso de nuevas tecnologías y materiales de construcción. Sin embargo, tras el declive del estado del bienestar clásico, la vivienda pública de alta densidad ha pasado a considerarse, por distintas razones, parte del ciclo de socialismo distópico, al convertirse los edificios y los paisajes asociados en símbolo de la pobreza, del abuso y de la violencia esencial. De una historia antigua asociada con la eliminación de las construcciones chabolistas y la edificación de casas idealizadas para los pobres del país, hemos pasado a considerar barrios bajos muchos proyectos de vivienda pública de alta densidad y elevada altura del estado del bienestar clásico, debido a que se percibe su diseño y materialidad como algo que contribuye e incluso crea una serie de problemas. Sugiero, a la luz de trabajos anteriores de Miller (1988), Buchli (1999) y Buchli y Lucas (2001), que un enfoque arqueológico del mundo material de la vivienda pública puede revelar no solo formas de expresar las ideologías del estado cambiante a través de su diseño, sino también cómo las personas se han comprometido (y siguen haciéndolo) con sus espacios y su cultura material para facilitar las condiciones de la vida diaria, y que existen esos sitios en mundos urbanos y suburbanos contradiscursivos. También sugiero que parte de la función de la arqueología del estado del bienestar es estudiar las circunstancias en las que fracasa el estado del bienestar, enfocándose en la arqueología de la pobreza y la indigencia.

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Copyright information

© World Archaeological Congress 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of ArtsThe Open UniversityMilton KeynesUK

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