Mark Peel

mark-peelMark Peel followed his BA (Hons) and MA at Flinders University with an MA at Johns Hopkins and a PhD at the University of Melbourne. He took up a position as lecturer at Monash in 1995, following postdoctoral and research fellowships at ANU. He was appointed professor of History in the School of Historical Studies at Monash University in 2007 and elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Social Sciences in 2008. At the end of 2009 he moved to the UK as Professor of Modern Cultural and Social History in the School of History, University of Liverpool and is currently the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Student Experience) at the University of Leicester. He is an Adjunct Professor of History at Monash University.

Research interests: As an Australian and comparative historian of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he is interested in histories of poverty, inequality and social justice, with a particular focus on poor people’s activism and ideas about justice, changing notions of entitlement, and the history of charity, social work and welfare. He also writes in the genre of national history (with both A Little History of Australia and the co-authored A History of Australia). He has had a particularly strong reputation as a teacher—in 2008, he received both an Australian Learning and Teaching Council Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning and Monash University’s Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Award—and has contributed to debates about curriculum and teaching methods in both secondary and university education. He contributed to the revision of the Australian history curriculum in Victoria, for instance, and also served on examination panels in modern history. Unusually for an historian, he also conducted research on teaching, learning and student engagement with schoolteachers, school students and university students and helped develop particularly innovative programs in the area of school-university transition and student welfare.

General Source: ASSA


Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse: Social Work and the Story of Poverty in America, Australia and Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2012; A History of Australia. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011 (with Christina Twomey); The Lowest Rung: Voices of Australian Poverty. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 2003; A Little History of Australia, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1997−2007.

Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse: Social Work and the Story of Poverty in America, Australia and Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. xi, 325 p.

The author describes his book as follows:

‘This is a book that might take a while to find its readers. On the one hand, it is a comparative account of how social workers explained and dramatised poverty’s origins and remedies in five different cities in three countries: Melbourne (Australia), London, Boston, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon (USA. The similarities are strong, and the differences subtle. I hope academic readers—perhaps especially in America—will have a stronger sense of the ways in which comparative analysis highlights what is shared and what is different in the way people who are not poor understand those who are. On the other hand, Miss Cutler is an attempt to use its primary sources—the case files that social workers wrote about their clients—in a new way, as the basis of ‘scripts’ in which I have written the clients’ possible words and perspectives back into the narrative. It is a kind of dramatic license, and I did it because otherwise the clients remain silent, and the fact that most people don’t listen to the poor is one of our most important barriers to effective responses to poverty. I also wanted to show what happened when these mostly women social workers did listen and began to write narratives about poverty that emphasised injustice and ill-fortune rather than the flaws of character. It has also proved somewhat controversial. Some reviewers liked it, but some really, really did not, arguing that it is not history and that dramatisation has no part in what we do. I think history always dramatises and it is better to seize that opportunity as a writer.’

Case study headings emphasise the author’s play of imagination: ‘Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse’; ‘Miss Hedges and the Stupid Client’; ‘Miss Wells and the Boy who Wanted to Be an American’; ‘Miss Lindstrom and the Fried Potatoes’; Miss Perry and the Boy Who Knew Numbers’; ‘Mr O’Neill and the Seductive Client’. Playful though these headings might be, the book has a serious purpose, as ‘a history of what people who encountered the poor during the 1920s and 1930s heard them saying and of how they formed what they heard into dramatized explanations of poverty’s origins and remedies’ (p. 1). One reviewer, who liked the book and accepted its literary innovations, wrote ‘Peel’s distinctive contribution is to engage social work case files as literary texts, as both objects of critical analysis and evidence of everyday narratives by which the social workers who wrote them organized their practice’ (Clemens 2013: 469).

Selected Reviews: Journal of American History 99/2 (September 2012), 625−6 (Daniel Levine); Journal of Interdisciplinary History 43/3 (Winter 2013), 469−70 (Elisabeth S. Clemens); American Historical Review 118/1 (February 2013), 160−1 (S. Jay Kleinberg); Social History 38/1 (February 2013), 110 (3) (Pat Thane); Australian Social Work 66/1 (2013), 149−51 (Jane Miller).

A History of Australia (with Christina Twomey). London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011, xv, 305 p.

This book forms part of the Palgrave Essential Histories, a series of ‘compact, readable and informative national histories’ designed to appeal to a broad general readership. It is thus conceived as an introductory text for readers who may know little about Australian history and as such is also ideal for teaching.

According to Mark Peel, ‘national histories are very important, and it is crucial that historians maintain their commitment to writing a vibrant, engaging account of the nation’s past. It is an obligation that I first undertook with A Little History of Australia for Melbourne University Press in 1997, and I welcomed the opportunity to write more than ten thousand words in my second attempt. I was delighted when Christina Twomey, now a professor at Monash, agreed to write the second half of this book, on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While I had shaped the themes, Christina was able to write about the last hundred or so years with a focus on ideas and issues that I might have missed. It was also more challenging for me to write the first half, as it meant thinking about to write the long history of the first people and summarise the colonial period in ways that would capture readers who might not know much about Australian history.’

The book comprises fifteen short chapters of an average length of 16−17 pages. The first eight chapters were authored by Peel, while Twomey took responsibility for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the latter seven. The Federation of the colonies in 1901 acts as a hinge between the two parts of the book.

Introducing the book, the authors remark that ‘Australia is a large country that became a small nation’, identifying one of their challenges as the need to address an unfortunate conviction that ‘nothing much happened’. They note the absence of nation-building landmarks such as revolutions, wars of secession, separation or independence, or the blood-letting tumults of political change. ‘We committed ourselves to writing a history that would challenge the popular perception that Australia’s history is boring and uninteresting’, wrote Peel, ‘and I think we did a pretty good job of it.’ Critics generally agreed that the authors, although constrained by the genre, brought fresh insights to the dominant themes and episodes while remaining attentive to shifts in popular understandings of Australia’s past.

Reviews: Australian Book Review 340 (April 2012), 15−16 (Frank Bongiorno); Labour History 103 (November 2012), 261−2 (Zora Simic); Australian Journal of Politics and History 58/3 (2012), 449 (Lyndon Megarrity); Agora 47/4 (2012), 64 (Phillip O’Brien); Australian Historical Studies 44/1 (2013), 142−3 (Mary McKenna); Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 15/1 (Spring 2014) (Catherine Nevin).

The Lowest Rung: Voices of Australian Poverty. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 2003. xvi, 206 p.

The Lowest Rung is based on conversations with more than three hundred people living and working in three suburbs that were among the most disadvantaged in Australia during the 1990s. Names of 249 of these are listed in the book’s opening pages. This is a larger group of people than usually appears in most Australian, British or American studies though the author drew the bulk of his insights, ideas and inspirations from a smaller group of around 150 people.

The book followed on from the author’s earlier study of social relationships and policy in his hometown of Elizabeth in South Australia. Melbourne’s Broadmeadows, Sydney’s Mount Druitt and Brisbane’s Inala, the author argued, were places of prophecy, in which Australia might see its future, for good and for bad. Peel claims the book as his most important, not least because the people who shared their wisdom with him mostly thought he had ‘got it right’. Peel wrote, ‘the book was an attempt to speak against explanations of poverty’s origins that blamed the poor, and to write instead about poverty as a form of injustice; perhaps more important, it was also an attempt to write about poverty’s solutions as needing to be based in the concrete, practical wisdom of those who know it first-hand and in their remarkable record of activism for social justice, multiculturalism and reconciliation’.

‘Women do the talking in these suburbs’, Peel observes (xii). In his seamless discussion of gender, Peel ‘tried to capture the fundamental importance of women as shapers and practitioners of what I called “everyday social justice”’. ‘I also wrote discrete chapters about emotions and attributes that the poor are not really supposed to have, from anger through to hope and pride.’

In choosing to centre his critical analysis around these ‘voices from below’ and extract his evidence from their stories, Peel departs from the statistical emphasis of much social science writing about poverty. His is also a more democratic history-making that gives voice to those previously excluded from the historical narrative. One reviewer identified the defining theme of the book as being its assertion that ‘everyday justice in Australian society is about showing respect to people and listening to them with trust as they state, on the basis of their very own very considerable knowledge, what is needed to improve their situation’ (Fincher 2004: 390). The book exemplifies the author’s conviction that ‘knowing the urban past is also about shaping a better urban future’ (Peel 2001: 568−9).

The book was short-listed for the Victorian Premier’s Award (Non-Fiction) in 2004.

Sources: Mark Peel, ‘Urban History’, Oxford Companion to Australian History, ed. Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (Oxford University Press, 2001), 658−9.

Reviews: Australian Book Review 254 (September 2003), 11 (Rob Watts); Australian Historical Studies 36/124 (2004), 389−90 (Ruth Fincher); Journal of Family Studies 10/1 (April 2004), 128 (Helen Cameron); Melbourne Journal of Politics 30 (2005), 156 (Madeleine Laming); Australian Journal of Career Development 14/3 (2005), 61−2 (Julie Farthing)


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