Prostitution, domestic violence, suicide and child abuse: the research topics of Postdoctoral Research Fellow Louise Settle are not the most cheerful in the world. However, with the help of improvisation and comedy, Settle is taking these issues to a pub in Tampere.
On 18 May, Settle will talk about her research at O’Connell’s Irish Bar. The performance will be realised in cooperation with The improvAcademy, an English-language improv group.
“Scientific knowledge can also be disseminated lightly and it can be entertaining without compromising credibility. I think it is the researchers’ responsibility to make their knowledge known as widely as possible. Society has supported my education and research, so I think it is only fair that I give something back to society,” Settle says.
She underlines that her intention is not to mock serious topics or to make the research seem ludicrous. The aim is to use improvised comedy so that people can learn something whilst having a laugh with friends.
According to Settle, in this world where truth and lies are constantly mixing in politicians’ talk and the media, it is important to highlight research knowledge in ways that make people pay attention.
“A sense of history would be very important in this day and age. I also believe that people would find history fascinating if it were communicated in an interesting manner,” Settle continues.
In the United Kingdom, Settle’s home country, the relationship between knowledge and belief has recently been especially visible, particularly in the Brexit referendum.
“People – and the newspapers – are now declaring that they no longer trust experts. Before the referendum, experts who opposed the British exit from the EU predicted that the British economy would collapse and voiced various other concerns. When no immediate collapse ensued, people decided that they can no longer trust experts,” Settle says.
Academics need support to get their message across in the media. Many are very busy so they need help, especially in form of University funding or training courses. Furthermore, they should be given more credit for making their research known so they feel encouraged to continue doing so.
“Now we are in a situation where people do not want to listen to experts and that is a bit dangerous. However, we experts must not give up but must get people to trust scientific knowledge again. We have to make knowledge so interesting that people want to listen, even if that happens with the means of comedy,” Settle continues.
What, then, should we know about prostitution in Scotland in the first half of the twentieth century?
Settle is a historian and her doctoral dissertation examined how the Scottish authorities reacted to prostitution. It turned out that at a time when probation was a new form of punishment, the accused prostitutes were not only convicted but also offered concrete help. Probation officers did not just monitor the convicted prostitutes’ probity; they actively supported them in starting to lead another kind of life.
“Other types of work were found for the prostitutes who wanted it and they were offered psychological and financial support. This was done through semi-formal networks in which the police and social services participated. Individual officials also had a lot of their own decision-making power. They knew their ‘clients’ and may have helped the prostitutes as they saw fit because there were fewer regulations,” Settle says.
In other words, a “multi-agency approach” – a phrase du jour – was already practiced on the everyday level a hundred years ago. When there was little unnecessary bureaucracy, the authorities were free to provide help as it was needed. Some of this flexibility has been lost more recently.
“Of course, regulation was needed because freedom and power also led to the abuse of power. However, we could learn from some of the old ways. For example, helping prostitutes these days largely relies on charities. Instead of only relying on charities, the state could play a big role in providing support for women to leave prostitution if they want to find new working opportunities or need help with addiction problems,” Settle says.
During her doctoral research, Seattle became more interested in the relationship between the authorities and people’s private lives.
“For example, how did the authorities respond to attempted suicide – which was illegal at the time – or prevent divorce, which was also a part of the authorities’ job because the starting point was to keep families together? How were such things, or, for example, domestic violence, addressed at a time when especially men’s private lives were not thought to be an outsider’s concern?” Settle asks.
The answer was to regulate the behaviour of women and children. The heads of households were men who were thought to be more or less independent. The situation did not change until 1907, when probation was first enacted in British legislation. Probation offered the authorities the opportunity to get a glimpse of peoples’ private lives. The probation officer might come to the home – which was the private arena of men, too – to monitor that the offenders met the conditions of their probation.
The roots of probation as a punishment lie in the temperance movement and thus in religion. On the one hand, the practice of probation became legal at a time when areas of expertise such as social work and psychology were professionalised. The probation practices thus reflected the influence of both religion and scientific research.
“It was somehow possible to combine these aspects, which enabled the authorities’ ‘infringement’ of people’s private lives. However, this was problematic in many ways, and could be seen as middle class experts enforcing their ideologies on working class families,” Settle says.
People were set on the straight and narrow by the force of legislation, but also by various support measures, such as emotional counselling.
“In domestic violence cases, a ‘nagging wife’ might be advised to be less aggravating in the future. Men were told to stay calm and not to lose their temper,” Settle says.
At that time, such guidance was especially offered to families with children because people started to become aware of the impact of the emotional climate of the home on the later life of children.
More recently, probation has become, above all, a punishment. Settle argues that something has been lost in the process.
“I am sure many things were done wrong earlier, and we should by no means transfer the old practices to the present, but perhaps we could learn something from them,” Settle says.
This is one reason for Settle to showcase historical knowledge in a pub through comedy.
“When we know our history, we can better influence current politics,” she says.
• Louise Settle is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow working at the Institute for Advanced Social Research (IASR) at the University of Tampere, Finland, for a two-year period ending in July 2018.
• Settle researches twentieth century British social history, and specialises in crime, gender and sexuality.
• She has organised improvisation performances where researchers first talk about their research topics and then improvisational theatre groups create a performance based on the talk.
• Louise Settle will talk about her research and The improvAcademy will perform at O’Connell’s Irish Bar on Thursday 18 May, address: Rautatienkatu 24, Tampere.
Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Photographs: Jonne Renvall