James Patrick Ferns is a 3rd year PhD student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, where he is based within the Scottish Oral History Centre, supervised by Prof Arthur McIvor. James is an active trade unionist, serving on the University and Colleges Union (UCU) Strathclyde branch committee as well as its national education committee. His research interests include deindustrialisation, nationalism, working-class history and politics, and class and gender identity. His PhD thesis, Workers in Transition: Work, Identity, and Deindustrialisation in Scotland since 1980, utilises oral history to illuminate the post-redundancy experiences of shipbuilders and steelworkers following 1980, examining the impact of deindustrialisation on their understanding and experience of work as well as their expression of identity.

Project statement

Work is intrinsic to the formation of both personal and collective identity. Likewise, the loss of work, or transition into new employment, has a consequential impact on an individual’s identity.

The existing literature on deindustrialisation has outlined the social alienation prevalent in deindustrialised communities, highlighting deindustrialisation’s often devastating personal consequences. However, the transitions workers make following their loss of employment, and specifically, the significance of these transitions in relation to identity, has not been adequately explored, especially in relation to Scotland, where deindustrialisation was both rapid and pervasive.

The occupational culture of heavy industry is renowned for its extensive trade unionism, male-dominated workforce, shop floor camaraderie, and the prevalence of a rigid masculinity. Given their previous immersion in a distinctive occupational culture, a study of the post-redundancy experiences of ex-heavy industry workers can offer a window into the impact that transition into a different work environment has on identity.

In capturing complex and experiential narratives oral history is indispensable in understanding the impact of deindustrialisation on workers’ identities. My research utilises oral history to illuminate the post-redundancy experiences of Scottish shipbuilders and steelworkers following 1980, which involved the creation and analysis of 51 new interviews.

My research analyses work in a deindustrialised setting. By exploring how workers defined, understood, and acclimatised themselves to new working environments this research offers a unique approach to understanding how deindustrialisation and employment transitions affect workers’ identities. An examination of workers’ testimonies of redundancy and employment transition provides a more layered understanding of the consequences of deindustrialisation, thereby contributing to historical and sociological understandings of class, masculinity, and employment. My research is especially poignant in light of the contemporary political environment, with deindustrialisation positioned as a key issue in the Scottish independence referendum, Brexit, and the general rise of both left and right-wing populism.