Setting the Research Agenda for Voluntary Action History

Anjelica Finnegan, University of Southampton

VAHS New Researchers, a sub-committee of the Voluntary Action History Society, offers networking opportunities and support for postgraduate and early career researchers working on the history of charity, campaigning and civil society. As the new Chair of this group, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce the committee and offer an update on existing and future projects.

The committee currently has six members:

Anjelica Finnegan

As a vibrant area of study with a significant volume of research, the history of voluntary action is welcoming ever more new and early career-researchers to the field. The success of the VAHS New Researchers one-day workshops are evidence of this. The first workshop, held at Oxford Brookes University in February 2009, focused on ‘Medicine and Charity in History’. Through paper presentations and a roundtable discussion, it offered an opportunity for new and early-career researchers to discuss their work both with each other and with some leading scholars from the field, including Anne Digby and Steve King. Funded largely by the Economic History Society, VAHS New Researchers has so far run ten workshops for postgraduate and early-career researchers based on this model. Each focused on a different area of the history of voluntary action. These foci included urban and domestic history; youth and campaign groups; and public health and the British Empire. They have been held at a host of different universities including UCL, Warwick, Cambridge, Manchester, Huddersfield and Birmingham.

Members of the VAHS New Researchers group have the opportunity to organise a workshop related to their own research. It is the norm to have two organisers per workshop and to host it at the home institution of one of those organisers. Both applying for funding and organising events are necessary skills for an academic career. Furthermore, hosting such an event at the “work-in-progress” stage will offer an invaluable way to develop your own research, locate new avenues of inquiry and highlight areas for collaboration.

Work Futures Research Centre, University of Southampton

Michael Weatherburn and I have jointly organised the next workshop, which will be on the topic of ‘Unpaid Voluntary Work’ and held at the University of Southampton on 10 October 2012. Funded by the Work Futures Research Centre and the Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance, it will bring together new researchers from around the UK to discuss the important issue of unpaid voluntary work over the last hundred years. Research into this very contemporary problem currently offers little or no historical context with regard to unpaid voluntary work in twentieth-century Britain, which in turn hinders our understanding of it today. The workshop will aid in bridging this significant knowledge gap. It will, therefore, be of interest to both social scientists and historians with these interests: charity and the voluntary sector; social care; government policy; unions; gender; industry and activism. The interdisciplinary nature of the workshop offers an opportunity for fruitful collaborative links to be established with a view to future research in this area.

Charlotte Clements

In addition to the workshops, our newest member, Charlotte Clements, has taken the lead on establishing a writing group which offers an informal and supportive space for people to receive feedback on their writing from their peers. There are two elements to the group. It has an online element, offering new researchers from around the country a cost-free way to share their work, receive constructive peer feedback and offer the same to others.  The second element is face-to-face in the form of a ‘shut up and write’ meeting where postgraduate and early-career researchers meet once a month in a central London location to discuss their research, eat cake and write motivated by sheer peer pressure. The first online writing group ran successfully in August 2012 and the first ‘shut up and write’ meet will be at noon on 26 September at the British Museum’s Gallery Café. For more detailed information on how it works and its informal nature, visit the group’s page.

In addition to these two chief initiatives, we also support postgraduate and early-career researchers to engage with all areas of VAHS activities. These include the regular seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) in London, which offers researchers at all stages of their career a platform to present their research. In addition, the VAHS host a bi-annual international research conference; where a prize is awarded to the best paper by a new researcher. The VAHS’s fifth international research conference will be hosted by the University of Huddersfield on 10-12 July 2013. As well as the VAHS’ own conferences, we recently put together our first VAHS New Researchers panel for another conference. This was on the theme of ‘Agency in the History of Charity and Voluntarism’ as part of the 2012 History Lab Annual Conference. Another are the   regular new researcher contributions to the VAHS blog, a space for sharing and discussing the latest research and developments in the history of charity, campaigning and civil society.

With a focus on collaboration, networking and discussion, VAHS New Researchers hopes to build on an already strong network of new and early-career researchers to develop the vibrant and important research in the area of voluntary action history. Watch this space…

For more information on VAHS New Researchers and how to get involved, see here or contact Anjelica Finnegan at

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