History Postgraduates: Inspiring and invigorating new research

May 2020

It is exciting to see the range and scope of postgraduate research coming out of History at the University of Queensland. It is timely to highlight the diverse research of three recent graduates in History, supervised by staff in both the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry (HPI) and the Institute of Advanced Humanities (IASH). These emerging scholars cross time and place, from the local to the global, and from the recent past to the distant past. And intriguingly, all three researchers make significant impacts on not just historical thinking, but on our contemporary views of the world.

Dr Michelle Pfeffer’s thesis examined a series of deviant thinkers in seventeenth century England, who argued that humans do not possess immaterial, immortal souls. These thinkers went against the religious and philosophical consensus of the time – and Pfeffer’s research aimed to understand what encouraged these individuals to convert to such a radical view during an intensely religious period, and why they decided to publish their ideas despite the incredible risk it posed to their careers and reputations.

Her work – supervised by Professor Peter Harrison in IASH – involved examining newly rediscovered notebooks and correspondence, to show that their readings of history and philology led them to believe that the ‘immortal soul’ was a pagan invention wrongly assimilated into Christianity by the ‘Platonic’ early church. Historians have seen these individuals as part of a secularisation narrative, where new science and medicine forced people to reject the soul. It turns out, however, that their apparently ‘modern’ views were motivated not by science so much as by the latest humanities scholarship of the time.

Dr Anna Temby’s thesis is an innovative exploration of the way that public space was constructed and controlled in Australian colonial cities, using Brisbane as a case study. It examines the intersections between social and governmental control of public spaces in the promotion and maintenance of ‘public order’. This notion of the ‘construction’ of space is considered but not in the literal and material sense, but also as a product of the aspirational and imaginative processes of city-building by municipal authorities and citizens, in attempts to create ‘ideal’, and ordered, city spaces.

Temby’s research, which was supervised by HPI’s Associate Professor Lisa Featherstone, examines these spaces both as a response to these aspirational processes, and to the ‘improper’ or ‘undesirable’ use of public spaces by urban citizens. By bringing public sentiment into contact with these governmental processes, Temby demonstrates how this manipulation and regulation of space interfered with broader concepts of individual liberty and the ‘rights’ of people to public space.

Xiaoqing Kong, whose thesis is currently under examination, has produced significant new work on the development of the living environment in Shenzhen from 1979 to 2018. By studying the housing development of Shenzhen in the past forty years, this thesis argues that competition as well as cooperation of the local government, developers and buyers are the driving forces of Shenzhen’s property boom.

Moreover, this thesis – supervised by Associate Professor Chi-Kong Lai in HPI –delineates that the government is the dominant player responsible for preserving the competitive balance of a tripartite game between government, developers and buyers, a role vital for housing development and urban growth in China. Xiaoqing Kong has argued that only when the government correctly and effectively uses its power to make the three groups interacting benignly can a dynamic balance be maintained, thereby furthering the development of Chinese cities.

Importantly, all of these researchers contribute to our understanding of not just the past, but of contemporary life. Pfeffer’s work examines the links between the humanities and sciences, in particular the developments we now associate with modernity. Temby’s work considers the ways that urban public spaces functioned and functioned, and speaks to wider debates over the seemingly universal and equalising spaces of the urban sphere. We can see that public spaces – such as streets and parks – were constructed and policed along particular social and cultural lines and designed to cater to the tenuous notion of the ‘ideal urban citizen.’ Xiaoqing Kong’s thesis talks explicitly to the contemporary city: she had previously studied urban planning and architectural design in Shanghai Tongji University. Combined with historical research, her professional experience allowed her to develop an in-depth understanding of urban development in China and the resultant changes in Chinese everyday life.

These are but three examples of the fascinating scholarship taking place in History at UQ right now: historical work that it is important in its own right, but also for what it tells us about our current world.