"Caring Power: special schooling and the 'feebleminded' in Birmingham 1870-1914"
The subject of my research is the emergence of ‘feebleminded’ children and youth, and the systems of education and care developed for them in late-19th and early-20th century Birmingham. It will focus on the construction of ‘feeble-mindedness’ and will critically explore policy-making and practice, as well as evaluating the impact of diagnosis on the children and their families. This study draws on recent work that emphasises the construction of ‘feeblemindedness’ as a moment in the history of disciplinary power. It explores the historical emergence of the knowledge used to identify and diagnose ‘feebleminded’ children and youth and it aims to devise methodological strategies for evaluating their impact. It seeks to explain how special education came to be constructed and also to trace the effects in terms of pupil behaviour and professional practice. Understanding the processes which led to the categorisation of ‘normal’ and ‘feebleminded’ allows the researcher to examine the assumptions that underpin current practice.
The period between 1870 and 1914 has been chosen for study as it is key to the development of mass elementary schooling, and was a period of uncertainty and debate over the nature of and responses to mental deficiency, culminating in the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act and the 1914 Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act. National legislation was permissive and set a framework for education and care, but it is clear that local responses were significantly different. This is a local study examining provision for the ‘feebleminded’ in the city of Birmingham, which draws upon extensive archives that document the structure and content of these educational and welfare programmes, to provide an empirical case study that tests theories on the development of education systems and to question previous problematic claims based on sketchy empirical data.
Finally, this research recognises gender as an important factor in the provision of education and welfare at the local level. In late-19th century Europe, women activists and social reformers became increasingly visible in local government and, more specifically, in the fields of health, welfare and education. By developing this ‘caring power’ these women sought to help others, but in so doing were able to develop new gender identities for themselves.
My research is funded through a 3-year studentship from the Economic and Social Research Council.