Working-class studies, oral history and industrial illness

McIvor, Arthur; Fazio, Michele and Launius, Christie and Strangleman, Tim, eds. (2021) Working-class studies, oral history and industrial illness. In: The Routledge International Handbook of Working Class Studies. Routledge Handbooks . Routledge, London. ISBN 9781138709829

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Social class was and continues to be a key determinant of health and well-being: materialist interpretations that emphasize the importance of economic power relations have real traction in explaining patterns of mortality and morbidity in industrial and post-industrial societies. Health sociologist Clare Bambra, for example, has recently argued that 'Paid work, or lack of it, is the most important determinant of population health and health inequalities in advanced market democracies' (Bambra, 2012, ix). My argument, however, is that to really comprehend what is happening here we need to understand work-health cultures – that is the way that workers experienced, understood, reacted to and narrated such power relationships in their homes and workplaces. What did ill-health, disability and death signify and mean to individuals, to families, and to working-class communities? What impact did it have? And how did workers react to risk and manage illness, mobilise and organize around these issues? It is the contention here that for the period within living memory these sorts of questions can be elucidated by an oral history approach, developing a dialogue with those directly affected. We need to listen (and to listen closely) to workers' voices to connect better to their worlds. Recently oral historians Michelle Winslow and Graham Smith commented: 'It is a mark of the contribution of oral history to the history of medicine that studies located within living memory are open to criticism if they fail to include oral history' (Winslow and Smith, 2011, 372). A similar case might be made for working-class studies.