History as research method: The Survivors History Group

the love fish
dog wagging tail

Presentation by Andrew Roberts, secretary Survivors History Group at the 3rd Qualitative Research on Mental Health Conference (Nottingham) 25.8.2010.

download Download full paper "The development of the Survivors History Group and its collective research, with reflections on the hierarchy of methods that use history in social science."

History is rarely listed as a social science research method

But social science includes structure and history.

Theorists from Mary Wollstonecraft to Michel Foucault have used history as a research method.

History as a methodology is not reinventing the wheel, just acknowledging that our science has wheels.

Mary Wollstonecraft - A founder of social
science history

Barnaby Rudge - A fictional founder of the
mental patients movement

I will be talking about history from the perspective of particular participants, mental patients or survivors.

A recent analysis (Survivors History Group 31.3.2010) suggests that the history of the mental patients' movement written by ourselves has had a different content and a different methodology to that written by others.

Our histories have tended:

1) to be histories of the movement,

2) to have a descriptive or a reflective approach,

3) to be collectively constructed

Other people's histories have tended to be histories of something else - for example: "anti-psychiatry" - looked at from the perspective of a theory of social movements.

dog wagging tail Theory - movement - who wags who?

From the survivor perspective the dog is our history and we love it, from the established perspectives of outsider writers, the tail is our movement, their theories are the dog and that is wagging us.

The Survivors History Group started in April 2005

It was formed to preserve and develop what the survivor movement had already done.

It inherited a rich tradition of survivor history writing.

the love fish

Survivor history writing includes the primary efforts of individuals to record what they experience.

Joan on a swing

Joan Hughes (1928-2008) drafted a movement outline in the early 1980s and also recorded a confidential autobiography of her experiences at the heart of the Mental Patients Union in the early 1970s

There appears to be two streams of research: a survivor stream and an academic stream. An example of this:

In 1990, two survivor historians, Judi Chamberlin and Rae Unzicker published

"Psychiatric Survivors, Ex-Patients, and Users: An observation of organizations in Holland and England".

This survey tends not to be noted in academic publications.

Judi with Rae's book

pulling down churches In 1991, academics Anne Rogers and David Pilgrim published

"'Pulling down churches': accounting for the British mental health users' movement"

This contains a survey of the movement which is almost always noted in academic publications.

What accounts for the salience of the academic's work and the invisibility of survivor research? The two papers' above may give us a clue to one factor:

Rogers and Pilgrim's paper is sttong on theoretical context. It analyses the mental health users' movement as a "new social movement" and relates this to the article of that name by Habermas.

The empirical quality of the survivor history research stream has been stronger than the academic stream. (Survivors History Group 31.3.2010)

Social science academics place a very high value on critical theory and frequently criticise concern for empirical accuracy.

Survivor historians tend to place an equally strong value on getting our empirical descriptions right and even avoiding theory.

1996 Peter Campbell and reflective history

Peter Campbell performing The Mental Marching

Peter Campbell, a founder of Survivors Speak Out in 1985 has written many reflective articles on the movement.

in 1996, his "The history of the user movement in the United Kingdom" was published as chapter 26 in the Open University reader Mental Health Matters.

This is the classic reflective history of the United Kingdom movement. By reflective I mean that Peter does not simply recount history, but does so as a reflection on its significance for the movement.

Reflecting on the significance of history in this way tends to be individual and shared - On the Survivor History internet forum, for example.

But not collective. The Survivor History web site aims to be descriptive and relatively neutral with respect to interpretation.

Collectively, we have deliberately avoided creating a "party line".

The Health Through History Initiative

History is more than a research method for survivors. Tower Hamlets African and Caribbean Mental Health Organisation (THACMHO) was started by mental health service users in 1996. Its projects include "The Health Through History Initiative".

Sankofa bird

One of its symbols is the Sankofa bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg in its mouth. The egg symbolizes the future. We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came to be who we are today.

1997-1998 Reclaim Bedlam and Peter Beresford's Asylum museum dream

In 1997 Royal Bethlem Hospital commemorated its 750th Anniversary and precipitated a dramatic conflict with some mental health service users over the interpretation of history.

A group of mental health survivors took to the streets in "Reclaim Bedlam" protests. It was out of this that "Mad Pride" developed.

Reflecting on this conflict in 1998, Peter Beresford argued that

"If mental health service users/survivors are to take charge of our future, then we must also regain control of our past".

Nottingham General Lunatic Asylum

Before all the old asylums were converted into luxury flats, Peter called for lottery millions to be poured into preserving one as a museum and archive run by psychiatric system survivors.

There were to be two aspects to this memorial:

First, it was to preserve a user's view of psychiatry's history (and present).

Second, it was to preserve and publicise the history of the mental health survivors movement.

Frank Bangay, 1999 Naked Songs and Rhythms of Hope

Frank Bangay's collected works, Naked Songs and Rhythms of Hope was launched at Mad Pride's "first ever gig" on June 20th 1999.

Naked Songs and Rhythms of Hope

Frank once said

"our poetry and other forms of creativity are our only voice, and the only way we really have of communicating our experiences"

He has made poetry the core of his history writing. Copiously annotating his poems sothat they provide both the detail and the emotion of the more working class origins of the survivors' movement.

His work combines individual biography and movement history.

On Our Own Terms 2000-2003

On Our Own Terms is the most important printed empirical contribution to the academic history of the survivor movement so far. No one else has attempted anything approaching it.

The whole research project was collectively controlled by survivors. Depite its academic credentials it is often not noticed by historians outside the survivor history movement.

On Our Own Terms

On Our Own Terms is a survey of the user movement in England in the context of an analysis of its historical development. It provides a snapshot of the movement at the time and one of the few efforts to provide quantitative data on the development of the movement.

A core of the report is an analysis of 318 questionnaires returned by user groups in England. The historical dimension is provided qualitatively in a table of "Key developments in the service user/survivor movement in England" and quantitatively by analysing when the groups started and what that indicates about the growth tendency of the movement.

The On Our Own Terms research is the immediate background to our own work and several of the people involved in it are active members of the Survivor History Group. The Survivor History Group later used its historical table as one of the starting points for our web history of the movement.

the love fish

Survivors History Group - archives

Survivors History Group began in 2004/2005 as an archival project to rescue the physical history of the mental patients' movement from the skip.

The Glasgow Link team in 1985

The first artifact we preserved (as a group) is a video of a presentation called "Life after Mental Illness" that members of Glasgow Link Clubs made at a Mind Conference in 1984.

This is believed to be the first time that mental patients made a collective presentation to a Mind Conference.

Individually, some of our members preserve extensive archives in their own homes. These include the records of the Scottish Union of Mental Patients (1971-1972) the Mental Patients Union started in London in 1973, Survivors Speak Out (1986-2009) and the United Kingdom Advocacy Network (1991-present).

We are seeking ways to preserve such collections for future public access.

In the meantime we have adopted a policy of listing important archives in a way modelled on the idea of listed buildings.

Survivors History Group - manifestos

A summary manifesto drafted in July 2005 became the basis for a fuller statement in January 2006

The short manifesto said that

We are to be survivor-led and operate as an independent group, but will willingly cooperate with interested allies.

We did not want to impose a history on others, but to find ways in which the full diversity of user/survivors can record and share history.

We also wanted to draw on the different forms that survivor history has taken

The long manifesto commented on the construction of history to the exclusion of the patient and on the need for a space in which patients could make our own history.

Our "basic founding principle" was to be that "service users own their history".

We would "acquire materials from the full range of people involved in the mental health service user movement"

"develop a publications policy" and "make as much material as possible available electronically".

with a manifesto

Survivor History web



We adopted some lateral thinking to adapt Peter Beresford's founding vision to our practical means.

Our visitors come quietly in by the world wide web and sometimes email us with contributions to the exhibits. But the web site is an an archive and a museum. It is copied every six months or so by the UK Web Archive for perpetual preservation. Anything we put on it will be preserved as securley as a book in the British Library or and exhibit in the British mueseum.

The website was adopted by the group in June 2007. The "studymore" site was created to enable archiving by the National Web Archive and this began the following month.

The pictorial fish - heart - snake logo was adopted from the archives of the Mental Patients Union at the same time.

The website includes:

The story/stories of the movement in the form of a timeline.

Individuals' stories inter-related to the story of the movement.

Detailed information boxes about individual events or groups.

Indexes of survivor history related features in magazines such as Asylum and Open Mind.

Reviews and summaries of books and articles about survivor history.

Copies of articles.

Copies of documents and images from the movement's history.

Lists of paper records about groups. Lists of books and pamphlets and records of where papers, books and pamphlets are preserved.

The web page began with documentation of material about the 1970s in the care of Andrew Roberts, but a multitude of other contributors have added to the story and the site is now a collective history of the survivors movement and its context which everyone is invited to contribute to.

Survivor History internet forum


the internet forum

The Survivors History internet forum began in June 2008.

It is a Google Group modelled on one previously established by the United Kingdom Advocacy Network.

The reason for setting it up was to avoid the bottlenck of material all going through the Secretary before it reached members or the public via the web.

The forum now has about seventy members and active discussions most days.

We are careful about the titles used for threads and about archiving the emails so that they can easily be used for our research.

electronic communication

Theory of history

John Stuart Mill argued that there are stages or levels of history writing. They are levels in the sense that one is higher than an another, and that the higher should rest on the ones below, and stages in the sense that we need to pass through them, we cannot start at the top. John Stuart Mill

A fantasy John Stuart Mill on the methods of the Survivor History Group and their relationship to the methods of social scientists

a fair land

"The survivor history group represents the methods of history writing that we need to begin with in childhood and in the infancy of science. It is based on attempts to copy stories, arrange matters in date order, and study how this relates to written records."

"Sociology represents the highest stage of history writing. Sociology attempts to trace the laws that relate the observed events of history. In my time it was represented (amongst others) by Auguste Comte and Marx and Engels. In your time it is represented by people like Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas and Zygmunt Bauman."

Methods of Survivor History

I made an analysis of the methods used by a range of historians of the survivor movement. This is the list of methods I abstracted. I have arranged the in some kind of correspondence to Mill's levels - Starting at the foundations and rising to the dreamy spires. a fair land

Participants' memories/stories

Interviews (Secondary collection of above)

Diaries and autobiographies


Contemporary observation and participant observation

Archive collection

Primary analysis of movement literature and relevant media reports

Putting things in date order

Annotating poems

Reading and reflection

Secondary analysis of literature

Discourse analysis and other sociologically informed approaches



An that is where I will leave you - With the reflection that buildings with dreamy spires and no foundations do exist. We see them in the clouds

They were used to illustrate the cover of Julie Ford's Paradigms and Fairy Tales. An Introduction to the Science of Meanings in 1974.
a fair land
Julie was my tutor and it has not been my intention to deride the importance of imagination in the construction of social science.

It is possible for description and reflection to live in partnership with imagination and theory.

It is also possible for academics to respect the care that survivors have given to the construction of an empirical history of our movement.

I am tired and I want to go home