Department of History
Visit Chris Renwick's profile on the York Research Database to:
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BA (Lancaster), PhD (Leeds), FRHistS
Chris Renwick is a historian of Britain since the early nineteenth century. He works mainly on the history of the social sciences and the welfare state. His work on these subjects has received international and interdisciplinary recognition. While his first book was shortlisted for the British Sociological Association’s Philip Abrams Memorial Prize in 2013, his most recent book, Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State, has been long listed for the Orwell Book Prize and short listed for the Longman-History Today Book Prize in 2018.
Chris’ first book, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (2012), recovered the forgotten history of British sociologists’ engagement with biology during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As well as uncovering fraught behind-the-scenes debates about the role of biology in social science, the book explored the research programmes and agendas that British sociologists rejected during the founding debates about their discipline. In so doing, the book considered how the field might have been different and what that tells us about the kind of sociology we came to have in the UK.
Chris then developed a number of different strands of research as part of an AHRC-funded project entitled "Biology, Social Science, and History: Past, Present, and Future Interactions". This research was focused on the period immediately before the First World War, when eugenics was entering a two-decade height of popularity, to the 1960s, when the agendas, aims, and practices we identify with modern social science were stabilised. Chris explored how biologists and social scientists were brought together by a shared interest in topics such as intelligence, fertility, nutrition, and poverty, as well as funding bodies such as the Rockefeller Foundation, in a set of debates about the nature of society and social structure, which shaped ideas that are now central to politics and social policy in Britain, such as social mobility. While Chris published a number of different articles on these topics, he also brought scholars from a wide range of fields together to debate and think about the broader questions that motivated the project, the proceedings of which were published as a special issue of History of the Human Sciences, entitled The Future of the History of the Human Sciences (2019).
Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State (2017), Chris' second book, was a product of his engagement with some of the broadest historiographical questions in those two earlier projects. Sociology has often been thought of as the science of the welfare state in Britain but the focus has, for understandable reasons, largely been on developments since the Second World War. In examining often-neglected aspects of that history, Bread for all had a number of aims. One was to tell a big-picture history about the long and messy genesis of the British welfare state. Another was to explore the importance of liberalism to the welfare state's history. Just as important, however, was an effort to explain how a variety of scientific approaches to society, including biology, economics, anthropology, and sociology, developed over more than 150 years, shaped not only the welfare state's shape and form but also British politics and society after 1945.
Chris is currently researching and writing the biography of Peter Townsend (1928-2009), one of the twentieth-century's most important social scientists.
A key figure in the “rediscovery of poverty” during the 1960s, Townsend is best known as one of a group of academics, including Richard Titmuss and Brian Abel-Smith, whose expertise was utilised extensively by Labour governments during the era of the “classic welfare state”. Yet Townsend was involved in an astonishing range of activities throughout his almost 60-year career. He helped found and campaign for the Child Poverty Action Group and Disability Alliance, created one of the UK’s most important sociology departments at the University of Essex, put health inequalities on the political agenda, and developed approaches to measuring poverty that were adopted by governments and organisations in Britain and abroad, among many other things. Townsend changed not only how social research was done in the UK but also the way people thought about fundamental concepts at the heart of the welfare state, shaping the language and ideas that social scientists, politicians, and the public use to talk about the old, the young, the poor, and the marginalised. In exploring these issues, the biography will use Townsend's life, from his childhood in a fatherless household during the Great Depression to his work as a consultant for organisations including the EU and UN, as a means of interpreting social change in a country that was transformed over the course of 80 years by war, the welfare state, the rise and decline of social democracy, fights for equality, and globalisation.
Provisionally entitled, A Society for People: The Life and Work of Peter Townsend, the book is contracted to Policy Press. The biography will be the third instalment in the Pioneers of Social Policy Series, supported by the Brian Abel-Smith Memorial Fund at the London School of Economics, following on from volumes on Brian Abel-Smith and Richard Titmuss.
Chris is an editor of History of the Human Sciences. You can read an interview with Chris about the journal and his research here.
A number of Chris' talks and lectures are available online:
Chris has appeared on a number of radio programmes in connection with his book, Bread for All. These include:
You can also listen to him talk about Bread for All on the University of York's "The Story of Things" podcast.
Summer term 2023
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