Henry Mayhew's anthropology

Mayhew vividly captured the lives of the working class poor in London in the late 19th century. Philip Swift brings the importance of this work right up to date:

No armchair theoriser, Mayhew's work took him into the streets and into the lives of poor Londoners: the lives of silk-weavers and street poets, costermongers and prostitutes, cab drivers and rat catchers, and he documented their experiences without romanticism. By his extensive practice of quoting his informants directly, he gave authority to their experiences, and these testimonies are electric for the same reasons, accounts that are still sparking today, over a century and half later.

He concludes his interpretation of Mayhew's journalistic-ethnographic method with a scathing appraisal of Britain in 2010, accompanied by a plea for more relevant and activist anthropology:

London in November, and the cold leaks in through the windows, but our current politics is more chilling still. With the coalition government in power now in Britain, a systematic attack has been launched against the poor. In the face of apparent economic crisis, the new government seeks to place the blame on the size of the state. It looks to carve up and contract out the public sector, to reduce benefits and other support services, and to privatize higher education. This is politics as demonology, in which the bankers are the angels – highly mobile, righteous and untouchable. The poor, by contrast, are characterised as indolent, deceitful and sinful, victims of their own 'lifestyle choice' (in the words of our Chancellor). History threatens to concertina in upon itself, creating ominous overlaps. The massive student protest in London last week was compared to the Chartist demonstrations of the mid-19th century. And on the letters page of my newspaper today, a correspondent asks, 'How long before we see the return of the workhouse?'

Mayhew's verdict returns with a vengeance: 'That which is said by the economists to be the greatest possible benefit to the community is a gain only to the small portion of it termed the moneyed classes'. Perhaps, then, we will need new Mayhews, to carry out their activist anthropologies across the country, bearing witness to the realities of poverty, in order – as he said – to better reckon with the 'perils of the nation'.

I highly recommend that you read the rest of Philip's blog post. You can also check out Keith Hart's follow-up, which throws Marx into the mix.


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