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BA (Lancaster), PhD (Leeds), FRHistS
Chris Renwick is a historian of Britain since the early nineteenth century. His main area of expertise is the relationship between biology, social science, and politics, in particular how the interaction of the three has shaped the way we think about, study, and govern society. 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.
His second book, Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State (2017), developed out of that research. 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 exploring 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 working on a number of pieces of research that emerged from his AHRC-funded project entitled "Biology, Social Science, and History: Past, Present, and Future Interactions". He is primarily 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 identifiy with modern social science were stabilised. Chris is exploring how biologists and social scientists were brought together by a shared interest in topics such as intelligence, fertility, nurtrition, 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. However, he is also interested in thinking about the implications of debates about the relationship between biological and social thought for scholars in a number of different fields.
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.