A backward glance into contemporary social injustice:  a case for Foucault’s ‘history of the present’

A backward glance into contemporary social injustice: a case for Foucault’s ‘history of the present’

Susan Martin

‘Progress’ becomes a very loaded term when used to signpost change in society, with its connotations of action, and the implication of having moved beyond wholesale social injustices that haunt the past. Perhaps this is the reason that disbelief frequently accompanies headlines detailing failures to protect the vulnerable across economic sectors in the developed world.  That the ‘Dickensian’ is possible, globally in the twenty-first century, through shortcomings in policy design as well as outright policy failure, makes these cases even more disturbing and incomprehensible.

In a previous article for Discover Society, I detailed how historical documents may be used to understand the present. In that project, I created a Foucauldian genealogy to understand how a vibrant street market and hundreds of women street traders could disappear from the urban landscape. In the process, the stories of those who were silenced at the time were emancipated to effectively rewrite the history of a piece of legislation.  That was possible when I situated myself in the past amid the metanarratives, and ‘listened’ to what the numbers in the data available on these women had to say.

However, a genealogy can also create a ‘history of the present’ in contemporary social research across disciplines to illuminate the systemic underpinnings of injustices, and make sense of present-day policy failures. Rather than only addressing the problem at hand, the researcher can turn to the history of the problem, along with what Hunt and Wickham (1998) conceptualize as the swirl of power around and in the central problem.(1)

“More tractable than English servants”
That was how one Victorian household manual characterised migrants who sought positions as domestic servants.  Lucy Delap notes in a policy paper for History and Policy that Britain now is “understood as a more democratic, egalitarian society”, thus contemporary domestic workers are “imagined to be empowered by modern social relationships”.  However, her studies on domestic workers, their working conditions, and their rights, identify a key commonality that leads to exploitation for those who entered domestic service in nineteenth century Britain and those who enter domestic service now.

Historically, Delap notes, servants were drawn from the vulnerable: the young, orphans, and migrants.  In the early twentieth century, migrant typically meant that they came from rural locations, Ireland, or Wales;  whatever the place of origin or ethnicity, they were isolated from family support.  Many were also vulnerable because of the control their employers had over them:  if they wanted to find work elsewhere, they needed to have a reference.  Post-war, Delap notes, there are fewer orphans and teenagers employed as domestics, however there are far more migrants that come from farther away.  Like those who went before them, these women are isolated from family and support, fear losing a vital source of income, and may be further hampered by a lack of English skills and the threat of deportation.

These parallels are traced to power imbalances that exist in social relations and practices.  However, they are compounded by what Delap conceptualizes as “structural vulnerability”. One example of a historic structural deficit is found in the National Insurance Benefits.  Made available to workers from 1911, benefits were not available to domestic servants until 1938, an indication of how their work was regarded in the official record:  toiling in the private sphere allowed for neglect in policy and law for nearly three decades. A similar neglect, resulting from the ‘blurry line’ between a public and a private workplace, exists today.

This perpetuates the vulnerability that comes, according to Delap, of not seeing oneself as “a contracted worker, with rights and protections”.  While conditions in the past and the present may have notable differences, and there is no direct line of causality, the ‘history of the problem’ and the role of power imbalances in the problem, facilitates an understanding of how tractability is created, and how exploitation and abuse in this sector continue.  Alongside policy and the law, Delap also identifies the social stigmatization that surrounds this type of low-paid, ‘low-skilled’, and ‘dirty’ work as a condition that continues to increase the vulnerability of those who rely on it for survival now as in centuries past.

Breaching the ‘self-evident’
In Foucault’s (1991) work, understanding the resilience of an injustice across time, amid social changes, is possible through ‘eventalization’.  What is offered as knowledge or ‘truth’ about social conditions by those in power, teamed with the practices that flow from the ‘self-evident’ truths, allows subjugation to be deepened.  Thus, he offers, rediscovering ‘events’ including connections, encounters, supports, or strategies is needed to call into question what has come to be taken for granted as ‘self-evident’.  The event may then be analyzed as what he referred to as the “multiplication or pluralization of causes”.(2)

What is key for the researcher – layperson, journalist, or scholar – trying to get to the source of the injustice in question is that by working with a pluralization of causes, he or she is freed from a preoccupation with finding a single line of causality from past to present.  To this end, ‘eventalization’ serves both a theoretical and political purpose:  according to Foucault, it calls into question actions and knowledge that have been constituted in society as “self-evident” and “universal”.(3)  It is this theoretical-political function of eventalization that may then disrupt what has been held as self-evident in a society.

A ‘history of the present’ and  society’s frontline
In a column published in May 2020 in the Irish Examiner, Clodagh Finn addressed the fight by Ireland’s contract cleaners “to get a 40-cent per hour pay rise” in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis.  In her analysis of the contemporary she drew on the work of historian Ciarán McCabe on charwomen and the itinerant, precarious conditions in which they lived and worked in Dublin into the early 20th century.  Turning to the past, she explains, was a means to find an explanation for Ireland’s “inexplicable disregard” for its “thousands of contract cleaners”.  At the time, two months into the crisis, Finn questioned the lack of outrage over the Covid-related death of a cleaner working at a hospital in Dublin who “died after keeping people safe for €10.80 an hour”.  She cites the answer provided by one hospital cleaner:  “The cleaners are also frontline workers, risking their lives as well, but nobody looks at us like valuable staff.”

The implication of privilege in the proliferation of the ‘self-evident’ and ‘truth’ across time is clear in designating work as ‘valuable’.  In the case of the domestic worker or contract cleaner, it is often assumed that progress in workers’ rights must apply to all workers and will have created protections for cleaners in the developed world.  A deficit develops over time when protections fail to keep up with the fact that permanent became contract, or that the ‘nanny’ became the ‘au pair’, subtle changes to some that can mark a change in legal status for others.  ‘Eventalization’ of these changes and the social imbalances created by the lasting stigmatization of the vulnerable, will reveal how entrenched stereotypes work with policy and legal deficits to render guarantees of social protections ineffectual, and signal the vital need for an interrogation of the ‘self-evident’.

Hunt, A., & Wickham, G., 1994. Foucault and law: towards a sociology of law as governance. London:  Pluto Press.
Foucault, M., 1991. “Questions of Method”. In:  Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller, eds.  1991. The Foucault effect: studies in governmentality.  Chicago:  University Of Chicago Press.  p. 76.


Susan Marie Martin is an independent researcher.