Towards an archaeology of the welfare state in Britain, 1945–2009

Harrison, Rodney (2009). Towards an archaeology of the welfare state in Britain, 1945–2009. Archaeologies, 5(2) pp. 238–262.



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.

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