Appointment of two post-docs on Professor Julie Anderson’s ‘Living Assessment’ research project

The School of History are delighted to share the news of the appointment of two new post-docs on Professor Julie Anderson’s ‘Living Assessment‘ project: Dr Emily Bartlett and Dr Eilis Boyle. The Living Assessment project is a £1.4 million Collaborative Award between the University of Kent, the University of Cambridge and the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), and funded by the Wellcome Trust.

The research project looks to understand the experiences and impact of health and social care assessments on children and families,  particularly the lived experiences of assessments in the past and present.

We caught up with Emily and Eilis to find out more about their experience prior to joining the University of Kent, and how their research expertise contributes to the project.

Could you tell us a bit more about your PhD research and time at your prior institution?

Emily: My PhD was concerned with British charities for disabled ex-servicemen after the First World War. In particular, it examined how charitable activities shaped understandings of disability in this period. That is, how disabled ex-servicemen and war-disabled bodies were portrayed in charitable discourse, and how this influenced public responses to disability: did charities position these men as objects of pity? Did they refer to them as heroes? Were war-disabled bodies depicted as weak and fragile, strong, masculine, shocking etc.? How did this influence broader notions of disability in the first quarter of the twentieth century?

I was especially interested in thinking about how charity objects like artificial Haig poppies – which were made by disabled veterans at the Poppy Factory and sold in November each year – contributed to shifting perceptions of disability. My recent article, ‘Reassembling Disabled Identities: Employment, Ex-servicemen and the Poppy Factory’ in the Journal of Social History examines how the material attributes of artificial poppies and tangible features of workshops (such as machinery, workbenches, and adapted tools,) physically directed war-disabled bodies, and consequently influenced ideas about  disabled people’s capacity for industrial employment.

Eilis: My PhD explored the reconfiguration of disability, gender and power in spaces of ‘care’ in interwar Britain. Examining the experiences of (male and female) veterans with facial and mental wounds, it interrogated how disabled veterans managed their (in)visibility, autonomy, agency and authority in systems predicated upon ideals which they struggled to conform to and at times actively sought to resist. Drawing together theoretical frameworks from gender and disability studies, this research situated the lived and affective experiences of veterans and their families within wider power structures. This approach showed that post-war systems of care were a powerful means of fortifying the gendered order and the hegemony of normalcy, that is, the social construction of disability as a devalued social category and able-bodied/mindedness as the ideal, in interwar Britain.

I have absolutely loved researching and teaching at the University of Leeds over the past five years, though I’m thrilled to be joining the Living Assessment project and I’ll admit that I’m looking forward to the Kent climate, although I will definitely be bringing my Yorkshire tea…

How do you feel your PhD research will contribute towards the ‘Living Assessment’ project?

Eilis: My PhD and previous publications have centred the lived and affective experiences of the people at the heart of systems of ‘care’, foregrounding their voices, particularly when those voices have been marginalised and/or suppressed. Analysing professional perspectives in tandem with the perspectives of children and families will provide important insights into the conflicts, (mis)communications, and performative practices which have shaped health and social assessments and their outcomes. This relational approach also helps us to think critically about the social and structural dynamics of power underpinning these encounters. I am interested, for example, in the process of knowledge production which takes place in assessments and where authority is (deemed to be) situated, as well as issues around access to voice. Whose voices and opinions are privileged in these encounters? My previous work situates the personal, domestic and everyday as important analytical foci by which to better understand the impact of formal practices of ‘care’. I am, therefore, very excited by the project’s engagement with user-led stakeholders like Experts-by-Experience.

My previous research has emphasised the importance of analysing experiences and practices of care through a gendered lens. I also draw on theoretical frameworks from disability studies in order to unpack the normative values which are built into, and actively reproduced by, assessments of disability and domesticity, and the administration of welfare. I believe these intersections are also crucial to understanding children’s health and welfare assessments. For example, what gendered expectations are reflected in the questions asked by/of assessors? How have domestic dynamics which subvert normative gender roles been perceived, and what outcomes does this have for children and families? How do assessments and judgements about health, risk and harm vary depending on the gender of the child, assessor, or parent/s?

By accounting for intersectional issues including, though by no means limited to, gender, I hope to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of child health and social care assessments, and to examine how these processes can reproduce – but also have the potential to challenge – social and structural inequalities. Approaching the subject in this way could feed into a more complex framework for assessments which centres the lived and affective experience of individuals with diverse needs and preferences.

Emily: My expertise in the interrelated histories of disability and charity will offer insight into the social role of charity in shaping historical ideas about, and experiences of welfare assessments. By interrogating the language, imagery and objects that charities used to represent children and families, my approach will shed light on the ways that charitable activities contributed to popular understandings of disability, disabled bodies, and what constituted an ‘at risk’ child, as well as the ‘needs of the child’. This approach will also offer insight into whether disabled children were represented as more ‘at risk’ or ‘in need’ of care than nondisabled children.

My research will also use anthropological insights into material culture to consider families’ experiences of social welfare. By examining the various objects involved in processes of assessment and intervention — such as notebooks and checklists, communication technologies, toys, and clothes— I hope to uncover the ways that objects influenced understandings of what constituted a child or family ‘in need’. What were, for example, the material expectations of childhood in the late 20th century? Did a lack of objects, or a lack of specific objects, classify a child as ‘in need’? Did the presence of certain objects in homes act as a key motivation for state intervention into the lives of children and families? Interrogating objects can also expose the emotional realities of disabled and ‘at risk’ children during moments of assessment and state intervention: examining, for instance, the objects that children took with them when removed from their homes and families — such as a teddy bear or a blanket— can shed light on moments of distress, comfort, and longing, and can also uncover otherwise unrecorded social interactions and relationships between children, caregivers, and social workers.

By considering material things, my aim is to re-focus objects within the history of health, welfare, and childhood, and to acknowledge the active role of children in moments of assessment.

You can find out the latest news and information about Living Assessments on the project website.