Whites Writing Whiteness

Letters, Domestic Figurations & Representations of Whiteness in South Africa 1770s-1970s

The ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ project (ESRC ES J022977/1), based at the University of Edinburgh, is concerned with how social change happens and the best ways for social science research to get to grips with this. In particular, it is investigating how change happened in South Africa over the two hundred year period from the 1770s to the 1970s, especially concerning the representation and re/configurations of whiteness and its various ‘Others’.whiteswritingwhiteness

Whiteness is the focus because of the powerful and almost definitional association between South Africa and what was for a lengthy time its highly structured racial order, a racial order which was emergent at the start of this period, and in its transitional or even terminal stages at its end.

A crucial question about this, and also a helpful answer, comes from Shula Marks and Anthony Atmore:

“… how has it come about such a small a number of whites has been able to impose itself on a far greater number of African peoples to achieve its present [1980] position of dominance, exploitation and power? It is, however, a question that can be answered only… by seeing the nineteenth century as it happened not as it turned out…” (Shula Marks and Anthony Atmore (eds) 1980. Economy and Society in Pre-Industrial South Africa. London: Longman, p.2)

Exactly the same question can and should be asked about the seventeenth, eighteenth and twentieth centuries too: how did a tiny number of white people come to dominate and to institutionalise, latterly in the form of apartheid, a system of exploitation and power over a large black majority? The ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ project is examining in detail what ‘as it happened’ in South Africa consists of, by using documents of life—in particular, letters—to explore how white people in South Africa wrote about and represented whiteness and its various ‘Others’, such as African and coloured people, whites of different ethnic and language groups, outsiders and foreigners and so on, from the 1770s to the 1970s.

South Africa has rich collections of historical papers in State, university and local archives across the country. These hold numerous extensive family-based collections with contents spanning two, three and sometimes six or seven generations. Their contents are replete in ‘documents of life’ terms: they frequently include diaries and memoirs as well as family, friendship and business letters as well as other documents; they were written by people of very different backgrounds, European origins, language groups, and economic and social circumstances; and these people lived in very different parts of the country.

Investigating these letter-writing networks enables how whites went about writing whiteness, and changes in how they did this over time, to be mapped in detail by tracing out the ‘one thing after another’ seriality of letters from the 1770s to the 1970s. Broad patterns and changes over this period are being explored across a large number—about fifty or so—of these collections, with a sub-set of in-depth case studies—about ten or twelve—involving detailed textual analysis of many of their composing documents. This will add up to more than 100,000 documents, from carefully sampled sources, providing a large and rich data set for the analysis of key project concerns.

Duration: 1st January 2013 – 31st December 2015

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Project Team

  • Prof. Liz Stanley (PI – Sociology, University of Edinburgh)
  • Prof Sue Wise (Professor Emerita, Lancaster University, Research Consultant)
  • Dr Andrea Salter (Sociology, University of Edinburgh, Research Fellow)
  • Mr Jacques Human (University of Edinburgh, Project PhD Studentship-Holder)
  • Matthew Groves (Developer – The Digital Humanities Institute)
  • George-Andrei Ionita (Developer – The Digital Humanities Institute)