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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Affective Society: Loneliness and Community in Post-war Britain

  • Author(s): Harper, Katharine Leigh
  • Advisor(s): Vernon, James
  • et al.
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My dissertation is about loneliness as a social problem in Britain after the Second World War. I analyze four case studies in which various experts and care-taking professionals who identified loneliness as a problem among the populations with which they worked. Studying the period from 1945 to 1985, I show that the problem of loneliness challenged the social imaginary of the postwar settlement, in particular the sense of national community that underwrote British welfare state. I demonstrate that from this anxiety that modern Britons were lonely, new therapeutic cultures emerged in the fields of social work, psychiatry, and mental healthcare that emphasized the individual's capacity to create social bonds within a small group. These attempts to engineer community among strangers and neighbors undermined the very expertise that carried out the task.

Historians often attribute the rightward shift in British politics in the 1970s and 1980s to economic and political thought that enshrined a transcendent and market-oriented individual independent from state assistance. My research into the cultural and social dynamics of loneliness shows that rather than hyper-individualism, experts in social work and psychotherapy imposed a different ideal: small peer groups that could serve the function of self-help, and individuals who could forge meaningful relationships with others based on a culture of sharing. To show this trajectory, away from a regime of expertise and toward independent small groups, I use four case studies. The first is social workers in public housing in the 1950s and 1960s; second is the Group Analytic Society founded by Samuel Foulkes, a pioneer in group psychotherapy; third is the policy of community care and the growth of patients' rights; and finally I study Alcoholics Anonymous UK and support groups.

This project is based on original archival research conducted in the United Kingdom. For papers related to social work in British public housing, I visited the London Council of Social Service archives at the London Metropolitan Archives. The papers of the Group Analytic Society, Samuel Foulkes, and Mind were all found at the Wellcome Collection in London. The archives of Alcoholics Anonymous UK were located at the organization's headquarters in York, UK; and are in the process of being moved to the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York. I also draw on published primary sources put out by the above organizations and related entities.

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This item is under embargo until August 27, 2021.