Giving is getting research

November 6, 2014

May we politely point out to Charles Keidan (“Good for the money”, Features, 23 October) that research on philanthropy has been well established in British historical scholarship for many years.

In the 1960s and 1970s, debates over patterns of giving through post-Reformation endowed charity preoccupied economic historians, while Marxist social thought influenced ideas about philanthropy as an instrument of class control in industrialising Britain.

Urban historians have long been fascinated with the civic philanthropy of the elites who forged the fabric of Victorian cities, from Sunday schools to “Phil and Lit” institutes. The fashion in histories of social policy since the 1980s for recovering non-statutory forms of welfare has led to a significant body of work on philanthropy, of which Frank Prochaska’s is the most celebrated; his Women and Philanthropy in 19th Century England, which fused feminist history with a revised understanding of voluntary action, is just one of several contributions.

In our own field, the history of medicine and public health, the continuing importance of philanthropy to the pre-NHS hospital system has been a particularly vigorous field of research and debate in the past 25 years.

The history of philanthropy has also encompassed the international level – witness studies of Rockefeller health funding drawing parallels with current philanthropy such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

We will not elaborate on the substantial work on contemporary charity, which organisations such as the University of Birmingham’s Third Sector Research Centre undertake within the disciplinary taxonomy of civil society or voluntary sector studies. However, this can hardly be considered moribund either.

Martin Gorsky, reader in history
Virginia Berridge, professor of history
Centre for History in Public Health
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London

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