The Anthropology of Post-Coalonialism

The convenors are pleased to present this review-essay alongside an extended reading list of literature on coalmining communities.

Chima Michael Anyadike-Danes

Durham University

July 15, 2022

British social anthropologists have long suffered from “an uncertainty concerning the legitimacy (even the possibility) of undertaking anthropology in Britain” (Rapport 2002, 4). Despite such concerns, anthropologists have spent more than seventy years studying Britain’s coalminers and their kin and using the data gathered to conceive of the British coalmining community. This was initiated by Veronica Tester of Mass Observation – an English organisation which Bronislaw Malinowski once described as “a nation-wide intelligence service” (Malinowski 2012). It was set-up in 1937 by Tester, a maverick anthropologist, a surrealist poet, and a documentary filmmaker to study and document daily life in England producing a native anthropology. In 1942, Tester travelled to Kent to study striking miners and their families (Mak 2015; Mass Observation 1942). This was only the beginning, as in the 1940s and 50s two other groups of anthropologists decided to study coalmining. T.T. Paterson and his research group, F.J. Gillett, William Watson and Constance Shirley Wilson, followed swiftly on the heels of Tester by studying miners in Fife, Scotland (Paterson and Willett 1951a; 1951b; 1951c; Watson 1952; 1953; 1964). However, this group’s work, like Tester’s, had minimal impact on the broader field of anthropology. Instead, it was a group of two anthropologists, Fernando Henriques and Cliff Slaughter, and a sociologist, Norman Dennis, whose study of a West Yorkshire mining community in the 1950s was to make a marked impact (Dennis, Henriques, and Slaughter 1969; Slaughter 1956; 1958). In Coal is our Life, their monograph, the trio portrayed their field site as England in miniature. They argued that for miners and their families the labour process defined everything from gender relations to leisure to perceptions of the future. It was in essence a total social fact. A powerful, evocative text, Coal is our Life remains the most influential social scientific work to have been published about British coalmining.

Perhaps the ease with which anthropologists of Britain turned areas where coal was mined into coalmining communities that they could research owes something to how they have been othered. Jane Nadel-Klein surveying representations of groups British and Irish natives who were denied coevalness suggests that owing to their labour process miners were represented as a distinct, inferior race (Nadel-Klein 2003, 117). This is an important observation for such a discourse had long existed in Britain. Indeed, Andrew Metcalfe traces the othering of the miners from the seventeenth century onwards demonstrating that they were classified by those members of the British middle and upper classes to the right of the political spectrum as Untermensch (Metcalfe 1990). The left’s response was equally problematic as they celebrated miners’ successes at establishing a proto-welfare state by reducing them to an archetype – the ideal proletarian (Metcalfe 1990).

While it may seem unnecessary to know something of how anthropologists and others have historically portrayed British coalmining areas, this could not be further from the truth. I think it worth looking at how anthropologists in Britain have theorised and written about the “coalonial” period if only for the insight that it offers into post-coalonial Britain. The “post-coalonial” is a term that I have coined, inspired by the historian On Barak’s concept of “coalonialism” (Barak 2015).  For Barak, coalonialism refers to a specific time period in which British imperial expansion and industrialization were entangled (Barak 2020). Coal in this frame is no mere fuel because it engenders socio-cultural and political reorganisation, aiding in the rise of new forms of racialisation, the reformulation of various communities, and proletarianization. To my mind, the post-coalonial is a heuristic. It allows for an enquiry not just into forms of social-cultural and political organization that exist after post-imperial Britain’s abandonment of coalmining, but scrutinises and reconsiders the appropriateness of the anthropological concept of the coalmining community and asks what work is this analytic performing.

As even within a limited post-coalonial period there is a considerable body of literature, this review-essay centres on the scholarship of Andrew Dawson, Cathrine Degnen, Katharine Tyler, and Cathrine Thorleifsson. It is these anthropologists who have continued to attend to developments in post-coalonial British life. In particular I discuss, present, and analyse their work through the lenses of aging and intergenerational conflict and belonging and community. To my mind these frames seem particularly pertinent for anthropologists analysing life in Britain’s post-coalonial coalmining areas.

Photo taken by the author

Aging and Intergenerational Conflict

Fordist mass manufacturing was characterised by an obsession with standardisation, efficiency, and predictability, but coalmining was the diametric opposite (Nye 2013). Mining’s output was, for longest time, unpredictable and resulted in miners entering into ontologically complex relations with the earth (Dawson 2002a). Hence the successful extraction of coal was referred to as “winning” coal. Unpredictability resulted in a high mortality rate and surviving to retirement meant the possibility of developing various respiratory diseases (Dawson 2002b). However, it was not just this unpredictability around mortality that made anthropologists take an interest in the areas of Britain where coalmining occurred, but also how they dealt with aging. For instance, both William Watson and Allison James studied children’s socialisation (James 1986; Watson 1953). While earlier anthropological work had focused on children in British mining areas, in what follows I describe how at the start of the post-coal era there was a turn amongst scholars like Andrew Dawson and Cathrine Degnen towards studying and theorising about the elderly. More recently, there has been an attentiveness to inter-generational relations.

Andrew Dawson began his ethnographic study in Ashington, a settlement in Northumbria, in 1985 just after the conclusion of the 1984 miner’s strike which was a seminal event in the history of British organised labour. It was the moment that Mrs Thatcher used the state’s monopoly on “legitimate” violence to permanently break the nation’s trade union movement. It was thus the beginning of a period of great upheaval and change in Britain’s history of production.  A native of Ashington, and from an extended family of miners, his particular focus was on the elderly and their social clubs. Like his near contemporary, Susan Pickard, who studied aging in the valleys of South Wales in the early 1990s, Dawson’s publications from this phase of his career were centred on understanding how his elderly interlocutors were dealing with the changes that Thatcherism had wrought (Dawson 2002a; Pickard 1994; 1995). Indeed, in a particularly important essay that drew upon anthropological scholarship on the phenomenology of the body and ritual, Dawson highlighted how amongst the elderly incidents of what might be termed psychological and physiological decline led to a kind of out-of-body sensation and a disassociated identity akin to Cartesian dualism (Dawson 2002b). This ongoing experience of losing control of one’s body served as the basis for communitas and biosociality as inhabitants bonded over maladies like incontinence and dementia. They also actively produced and performed art that reflected these realities and allowed for them to be shared with their fellows (Dawson 2000). Dawson contended that bonding in such a manner was possible because a combination of the labour process, the exigencies of cooperating to provide aid to one another, and geography had already created in mining areas like Ashington an identity that prized and honoured collectivism over individuality (Dawson 1998). The latter was a quality strongly associated by his interlocutors with both the middle-classes and southern England.

Several years after Dawson began his work, his dissertation inspired Cathrine Degnen to spend five years conducting ethnographic research with the elderly in the South Yorkshire coalmining town of Dodsworth. What characterised her own early work was a focus on how memory, temporality, and notions of age itself were the products of socialisation (Degnen 2007). In an article that appeared in The Sociological Review, Degnen argued that memory talk was a persistent feature of life in Dodsworth (Degnen 2005b). Degnen described, in a fashion reminiscent of Kathleen Stewart’s description of West Virginia coal country (Stewart 1996), how residents of Dodsworth were able to reveal the webs of relations that connected them to other people and places in the village through constantly shifting temporal frames between the past and the present. For Degnen, drawing upon Timothy Ingold’s notion of landscape (Ingold 2000), this was not just a case of memories merely overlaying Dodsworth’s existing geography; instead Dodsworth was a specific and ongoing “villagescape” produced through these relations. Moreover, this memory work with its shifting temporal frames was a particularly important hallmark of the conversational style of her elderly interlocutors (Degnen 2005a). They deployed it along with information others might deem irrelevant and with background information that they decontextualised in order to create a particularly ageless self. While Dawson had briefly highlighted intergenerational conflict in his work, it is in Degnen’s articles that this starts to come more obviously to the fore, as she contends that talk of this sort tends to create intergenerational friction, because it baffles younger people whose sense of temporality, she asserts, is very different.

The issue of intergenerational conflict within coal settlements is central to Katharine Tyler’s work on whiteness, class, and the forgetting of Britain’s imperial past (Tyler 2012). In the early 2000s, Tyler conducted a multi-sited study in Leicestershire that included as one of its sites the former industrial settlement of Coalville. Her particular focus during six months in the town was twofold: firstly, to understand how racism was expressed in a working class area (as opposed to a middle-class one) and secondly, to understand anti-racism amongst white, working-class youth (Tyler 2004). Tyler’s study was motivated in part by her dismay at white middle-class attitudes that demonised the white working-classes as the most racist and xenophobic population in England rather than seeing older members of such populations as merely being more likely to deploy openly racist language. Here, the post-coalonial settlement plays a particular role as an idealised working-class area. Drawing on the work of scholars like Marilyn Strathern and Jeanette Edwards, Tyler argued that the profound onto-epistemological shock resulting from deindustrialisation’s upending of the social order had created a discursive opportunity for younger members of Coalville’s community to challenge the openly racist narratives propounded by their older relatives. Tyler’s work is of profound importance because of its attempt to not only understand how racism and xenophobia were classed and imbued with different significances by different generations.

More recently, Andrew Dawson has returned to the question of aging particularly as it related to intergenerational conflict (Dawson 2018b). He did so at a particularly politically charged time in Britain due to Brexit, austerity, the rise of Corbynism, and successive Conservative governments. According to pollsters, the last of these had largely been as a result of Britain’s aging population. Indeed, in some analyses the only generational segment of the population the Tories could rely upon were the elderly. This led to commentators representing intergenerational conflict as a hallmark of this particular period in British history and to suggest that Labour’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, might be swept to power on the back of what they termed a “youthquake.” Dawson carefully drew these threads together and argued that in Ashington one of the consequences of austerity politics and the immiseration it had wrought was that some of the elderly increasingly regarded the town’s youth as non-people. For his elderly interlocutors, personhood had very much been linked to employment and the labour process. Specifically, there had been a valorisation of coal-mining labour because of its danger and difficulty. However, the youth of Ashington lacked the opportunity for such employment; instead, they faced a world of menial labour, and it was in such contexts they were liminal beings, unable to complete the rite of passage, as their elders saw it, and emerge as adult human beings. Instead, they remained as others.

Photo taken by the author

Belonging and Community

The longstanding portrayal of British coal-mining areas as isolated and homogenous is belied by the complex coalonial histories of migration, often from the Celtic nations. However, the perception of homogeneity and isolation have often led anthropologists to examine their social reproduction. In the early 1950s, William Watson explored the factors which led to migrant miners being assimilated into a mining area in Fife. More recently, Stephanie Jones explored how rugby had come to replace mining as a central element of identity formation for the inhabitants of a pit village in the South Wales valleys  (Jones 2003; Watson 1952). In the last decade academics and journalists have travelled many roads, conducted endless interviews, and spilled much ink all in the cause of understanding Britain’s coal-mining settlement’s ideas about belonging. This renewed interest in people that had come to perceive themselves as overlooked and unheard derived from a desire to understand the increasing opposition to European immigration, the growing support for Britain’s right-wing parties like UKIP and the Conservatives, and the Brexit vote. Why, such commentators asked, were the purportedly archetypal proletarians abandoning the Labour Party and left-wing values?

Just as the 1990s came to a close and New Labour was finding its footing, Dawson published “The Dislocation of Identity: Contestation of ‘Home’ Community in Northern England” (1998). It is a powerful and perceptive essay exploring how recent developments in Ashington were revealing of changing notions of home. He paid particular attention to a contest between different groups within the community over who would be providing an oral account of the village’s travails for posterity. Despite the seeming homogeneity of the mining town, he described the contest as revealing barely disguised antagonisms. On one side, a middle-class former principal who had resided in the village his whole life and was an active participant in historical preservation; on the other, a retired miner who had worked globally. At the moment in which a member of the middle-class might succeed in defining what constituted the mining community, Dawson detailed how the miner and his supporters mobilised various arguments. These included the idea that to be a working-class miner was to be part of an internationalist, global community of the proletariat united in the struggle against capital.

If the subject of Dawson’s analysis had been conflicts over the definition of community, Cathrine Degnen took a very different tack in an extremely thoughtful article (Degnen 2013). She argued that what defined the mining community of Dodsworth was “knowing” (it seems that this kind of knowing is also related to the notion of consciousness). Being present in the village for decades and thus being entangled in the web of relations that constituted its landscape made one know the community and thus made one part of it. Degnen suggests that knowing as she used the term was “historically contingent, and tied to socioeconomic transformation, shifts in forms of sociability, changes in housing tenure, and changes in government infrastructures” (Degnen 2013, 568). Degnen’s description of belonging as deriving from temporal depth was similar to an argument that Leonard Mars has made in relation to mining communities (Mars 1994; 2015). True to his membership of the Manchester school, Mars deployed an extended case study analysis to explain how a Scottish Jewish doctor residing in an isolated mining area in the South Wales valleys eventually came to be regarded by the villagers as not just a mere professional, but part of the community. Specifically, he attended to the web of relations the doctor had forged over the course of his fifty years of service, in particular emphasising the value villagers had placed on the doctor living among them as an equal, rather than either playing at lord of the manor or commuting to the village from a larger population centre.

Katharine Tyler, Degnen’s contemporary and occasional collaborator, had very different concerns with respect to belonging in her 2012 monograph Whiteness, Class and the Legacies of Empire. She was interested in exploring the various ways in which in Coalville, British Asians were continually designated as others, denying the imperial histories that explained their presence and resisting the possibility that were anything but eternally other. Attending to some of the town’s residents’ preference for speaking about the community’s history, Tyler argued that Coalville’s production of community and belonging was tied to ideas about place and respectable ways of inhabiting it, and in this respect it was no different than the middle-class communities she had also researched. Naturally, the specifics of Coalville’s ideas about community and belonging were at odds with how the middle-class imagined such concepts, and also in opposition to the simplistic narrative of white backlash that has come to dominate the British media’s coverage of ethnic relations in such areas. With respect to Coalville, Tyler emphasised that residents’ unwillingness to understand the role of coalonialism in creating relations between the Asians and Britain.  A further complication to the possibility of assimilation to respectability was British-Asians’ entrepreneurialism as found in their restaurants and corner shops. For working-class residents, this was seen as embodying middle-class values. British-Asians were thus intersectional others marked off as outsiders to the working-class environs not just because of their ethno-racial heritage but because accumulating capital in this way was regarded as anything but respectable. 

While Tyler observed that coalmining was not the only industry in Coalville, she also argued that it was the only one that was central to community identity. In this respect, what Tyler was framing as a community identity was similar to Doncaster which Cathrine Thorleifsson spent four months studying in the 2010s as part of a muti-sited project investigating the rise of far right populism in the UK, Hungary, and Norway (Thorleifsson 2016a). Thorleifsson’s argument drew on the concept of post-Fordist affect as formulated by Lauren Berlant and employed by Andrea Muehlebach (Berlant 2007; Muehlebach 2011). Essentially, she contended that in Doncaster, post-Fordist affect manifested in the form of a nostalgia for a lost community and economy based on coalmining which rendered some locals particularly susceptible to claims by the far-right party UKIP that if elected they would implement a form of protectionist, resource nationalism which would see them reintroduce British coal as a fuel source (Thorleifsson 2016b). The corollary of this was that by doing so they would bring back the communities of practice and ways of life that were entangled with it. While such arguments have become convincing to some, Thorleifsson has observed, as Dawson did, that there exist multiple perspectives about community which challenge such essentialist narratives of homogeneity. Indeed, in other accounts, Doncaster was presented as a long site of multiculturalism. Promoters of such a view cited, for example, the longstanding presence of large Roma and traveller communities in the town.

Slightly after Thorleifsson published her work on Doncaster, Andrew Dawson returned to the question of community and belonging in Britain’s coalmining communities. In one article, focusing on the question of the white working-class and their attitude to immigrants in the wake of the 2017 election, he suggested that their attitudes were considerably more nuanced than media coverage would suggest (Dawson 2018a). Specifically, he contended that while immigration was seen by some of his interlocutors as undercutting the bargaining power of Britain’s working class, the work ethic that migrants displayed was regarded by proponents of such arguments as laudable. Consequently, he claimed that some of his interlocutors hated the phenomena of mass migration, not immigrants themselves. Reframed slightly, using the sorts of arguments that Degnen, Mars, and Tyler have made, Dawson was suggesting that immigrant populations were able to become known and regarded as respectable through their respectable forms of labour. However, this was not Dawson’s only intervention. Concurrently, he collaborated with Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins on a series of articles exploring ideas around the theoretical terrain that Thorleifsson had discussed, namely care and post-Fordist affect, and their implications for community and belonging (Goodwin-Hawkins and Dawson 2018; Dawson and Goodwin-Hawkins 2018; 2020). The pair contrasted their longstanding field sites, the mining village of Ashington, where Dawson had worked since 1985, and the Lyng Valley weaving communities, where Goodwin-Hawkins had been conducting research since the early 2010s (Goodwin-Hawkins 2012). Pointing to the way the labour process associated with the weaving industry had engendered an ethic of individualism in the Lyng Valley as compared to the solidarity long associated with coalmining, they argued this had ongoing implications for how residents of both communities approached belonging, and so could not merely be reduced to nostalgia. Identifying Ferdinand Tönnies as a forerunner of modern affect theory, they characterised this phenomenon as post-industrial Gemeinschaft. They suggested that it was this, not nostalgia, which explained these communities’ willingness to vote for Brexit.

Photo taken by the author


Recent anthropological work on Britain’s coalmining settlements has produced a variety of insights that have mobilised and extended theory in some unforeseen ways particularly around issues of aging and belonging. In conclusion, I offer readers some material for consideration by making three points on the subjects of race, the unit of analysis, and the notion of post-coalonialism.

With respect to race, I believe that Tyler’s deployment of ideas from whiteness studies was of great value and can be fruitfully extended. Moreover, it points to the necessity of anthropologists of mining areas considering how race, class, and coalonial pasts are entangled and occasionally ignored. It is inarguable that such questions have gained additional salience in Britain because of the recent work of historian Norma Gregory and her collaborators. They broke new ground by researching and highlighting the role that Black miners played in Britain. This was a topic that has gone unaddressed in the more than seventy years that anthropologists have been studying mining communities in Britain. Indeed, beyond the work of Dawson, Tyler, Thorleifsson, and Mars, it seems that the last time questions of race and ethnicity in Britain’s mining areas was addressed by an anthropologist was the 1950s when William Watson looked at the experiences of Eastern Europeans working in a Scottish mine (Watson 1952). Moreover, the presence of Black miners in Britain, the international bonds of union brotherhood, and the exporting of miners from Britain to other mining locations across the globe suggest that the image of the working-class mining community as a hermetically sealed settlement lacking in coevalness can and should be dismissed out of hand.

                Another important point that arises from examining these studies is the unit of analysis. Throughout this piece, I have mentioned the phrase coal-mining communities, but a post-coalonial lens reveals how in many ways such a term only serves to obscure some profound differences in the modes of production between the places discussed. In some of these settlements, there was no other industry while in others employment opportunities were considerably more varied. Furthermore, if we are to follow Dawson and Goodwin-Hawkins’ admirably innovative lead with respect to post-industrial industrial gemeinschaft then greater attentiveness must be paid to the labour process. As William Watson discussed in his early account of coalminers migrating from Lanarkshire to Fife the nature of coalmining in these two areas was very different (Watson 1952). In one area the height of the tunnel required inching forward on hands and knees while in the other one could stand upright. One would expect that if nothing else this engendered very different relations between miners. Finally, it is worth scrutinising chains of production and supply which should also lead to a consideration of what it would mean for a given place to become post-coalonial. If one seeks to imagine a globally post-coalonial future, it is unlikely to look like Britain’s present where post-coalonialism is somewhat illusory, resting as it does upon an outsourcing of production and denying the continued relevance of coalonialism for how people in Britain’s coal-mining areas lead their lives. Indeed, one might ask if Britain has ever truly been post-coalonial, or have at both an analytical level and a material one analyses that emphasise the temporal specificity of terms like coalonialism failed to enquire into how coal constitutes the structure and organisation of specific spaces.

Chima Michael Anyadike-Danes is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Durham University.


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