Conscientious Objectors and the Unemployed: ‘refusal’ and pathology in prison medical care

This research strand seeks to examine the ways in which British authorities and penal institutions utilised the concept of ‘refusal’ to examine, construct, and intervene in the physical health of the British population between 1916 and 1939.

With a focus on two different carceral contexts – the imprisonment of conscientious objectors (COs) in the First World War, and the forcible ‘reconditioning’ of the long-term unemployed in labour camps through the Great Depression – the strand analyses the ways that ‘refusal’ was pathologised as the physical (and criminal) weakness of the nation.

This concept had been constructed by the state across the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian eras, as a by-product of the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and Britain’s industrialisation, and within the intersecting contexts of declining imperial status, the physical devastation of war, and burgeoning nationalism/patriotism.

The pathologising of ‘refusal’ can be located within the Enlightenment-based drive to map, classify and understand national populations in order to enhance the body-politic, which in turn facilitated a medicalised discourse around the somatic health of the state.

By examining the various discourses of the state, COs, and the unemployed around ‘refusal’, the research has three principle objectives.

  • First, it probes the rationale of such a pathology on the part of the state.
  • Second, it seeks to uncover its operational mechanisms in relation to health provision through the carceral sites of ‘conchie’ prison spaces and ‘reconditioning camps’.
  • And third, by analysing contemporary, state-devised notions of ‘softness’, ‘hardening’, vigour and virility, it aims to understand the degree to which the pathologising interpretations of the authorities were internalised or rejected by those who ‘refused’ in this period, and the subsequent effect on medical care in prison.

Conscientious objectors and the long-term unemployed can thus provide a new perspective through which to examine the objectives, politics and methods in the punishment, healthcare provision and welfare of prison populations.

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