School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations

Suggested Topics for Master of Arts and PhD Theses in History

The following staff members have listed a range of topics which may be of interest for postgraduate students to pursue:

Sekhar Bandyopadhyay

India through European eyes

Victoria University Library has recently procured a microfilm collection called 'India during the Raj: Eyewitness Accounts'. It consists of diaries of a variety of European observers of India in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Apart from this, at Alexander Turnbull Library, there is an impressive collection of travel accounts on India written by European travellers during this time.

On the basis of these documents, an excellent thesis can be written on European perceptions of India, taking into consideration the recent theoretical interventions in the understanding of Orientalism, ie European construction of the Orient.

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Steve Behrendt

British Atlantic maritime history, 1650-1850 

Topics concerning British Atlantic maritime history in the period 1650-1850, based on analysis of sources contained in online book collections (such as Early English Books Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Making of the Modern World), rare books and microfilms held at the Alexander Turnbull Library, ship registers, newspapers, trade lists, colonial records, ships' muster rolls and parliamentary papers from the Houses of Commons and Lords.

Students can focus on:

  • Particular maritime businesses (eg the slave trade, sugar trade or whaling)
  • Interconnections between maritime commerce and the Navy
  • Medical history, or the development of ports in the Atlantic world.

Victoria University of Wellington holds the largest-collection of slave-trade related materials in Australasia.

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Simone Gigliotti

Shoah Foundation video-testimonies 

There are around 50 of these in the Alexander Turnbull Library Oral History Collection and also in Auckland War Memorial Museum. Possible PhD students could look at comparative experience with Australian video testimonies (around 2,500). Themes:

  • forced migration
  • resettlement
  • survival
  • displacement
  • assimilation
  • trauma, etc

among other theoretical considerations and historical context of immigration. Some work being done on Australian dimension and next to nothing on New Zealand.

Holocaust and Visual Histories 

Source: Shoah Foundation testimonies in the Victoria University Library.

Other topics in consultation with the lecturer with reference to Testaments to the Holocaust archives in the Victoria Library.

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Kate Hunter

Aspects of social and cultural history of World War One

There are a great many photographs, official records, and personal papers of soldiers, nurses and families affected by war in Wellington repositories that could form the basis of a postgraduate thesis. Theoretical considerations/frameworks could include:

  • Manliness, femininity, ideas/representation of the body during the Great War
  • Remembrance and commemoration, educating children about the war during the interwar years
  • Changing attitudes around death and dying, grieving and bereavement
  • The experience of and changes in rural communities during the war, especially the manifestations of modernity.

Possible topics include:

  • A comparison of Kai Tiaki (journal of NZ nursing) and the Gazette of the British First-Aid Nursing Yeomanry (available through 'Women, Work and Society, 1914-18' database held at Victoria library) and/or the Royal Nursing Journal (UK) now fully digitised.
  • A comparison of British, New Zealand and Australian women's adventure writings about their war experiences as published in women's magazines, journals and school journals.
  • Using the Dorothy Neal White collection of children's literature (at National Library), examining aspects of juvenile fiction before and after the war; perhaps in combination with the children's columns/pages in various newspapers.
  • An exploration of domestic sewing, and the role of sewing in providing 'comfort' to soldiers, especially to wounded soldiers (and/or pre-war sewing for families if you wish). Whole hospitals were fitted out with bed linen and pyjamas for patients through the efforts of sewing women!
  • Aspects of culinary history.  Cooking, butchery and dressing, domestic service, home economics education, kitchen design, cookbooks as sources, account books, diaries, advice columns etc.
  • Aspects of environmental and gardening history and other transformations of the landscape through burning, ploughing and planting (using magazines and gardening literature eg New Zealand Gardener which began in 1947 or Brett's Colonists' Guide, farming newspapers, diaries, personal papers, photographs: entering 'gardening' as a subject in Tapuhi reveals a great number of 19th and 20th century records from gardening diaries, clippings and scrap-books to ledgers from seed companies - all rich source material)
  • Other topics in this area that deserve more scholarly attention include fishing (both commercial and recreational, sea or fresh-water) in New Zealand and hunting. A comparison of conservation and wildlife policies of settler colonies, particularly Canada and New Zealand, also New Zealand hunters' and fishers' visits to other countries such as Africa, Australia and India, all lend themselves to rich thesis topics.

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Dolores Janiewski

19th Century topics

  • Debate over slavery, 1830-1865
  • the Media and Literary construction of 'race' in US History, 1830s-1900s
  • US Civil War. soldiers' experience, the homefront, gender and civil war, slavery and civil war racial violence, 1865-1900
  • lynching; Ku Klux Klan; disfranchisement & segregation, 1890-1900
  • Women's rights and woman suffrage, 1848-1920
  • US Empire and the Pacific, 1820-1900, Hawaii, Samoa; frontier conflicts
  • Wounded Knee and the end of the 'Indian Wars', 1880s-1890s
  • Comparisons between New Zealand and the US West.

20th Century topics

  • The Better America Federation and anti-Communism in the 1920s US
  • Cold War US culture, foreign policy; involvement in Vietnam
  • SEATO treaty, 1954-1975
  • Détente and its enemies; Civil Rights movement, 1954-1965
  • Second wave feminism, 1967-1982
  • The Religious Right as transnational network, 1940-2007
  • Conservative movements in US History, 1934-2005
  • Conservatism and US Foreign Policy, 1934-2004
  • Gender and US literature, 1830-1900
  • Race & US literature, 1830-1900
  • Advertising and US culture, 1870-1940
  • Political cartoons and US politics, 1830-1870s
  • Sexuality and US politics, 1830-1870s
  • The debate over empire and anti-imperialism in the US, 1870-2007
  • Religious Right: New Zealand-US connections, 1970s-2005
  • Freedom Summer, 1964
  • The US-New Zealand peace and anti-nuclear movements.

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Pauline Keating

  • Women missionary writings on Chinese women: eg Ida Pruitt and Lady Hosie. There's a massive body of secondary literature on Pearl Buck (including a monograph on Pearl Buck's Chinese women), and it could be used to kick off a study of some other missionary women's writings. Pruitt and Hosie provide a nice contrast because they were aligned with the Communists and Nationalists respectively. An MA project could be broadened to include other missionary writers (having established that their writings are accessible). A PhD on this topic would require a visit to the Ida Pruitt Archive at Columbia.
  • A History of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) in Post-Mao China. Originating in the mid-1990s, the number of NGOs in China has grown rapidly in recent years. A history of this phenomenon is very usefully situated in the changing state-society relationship in the post-Mao era and invites reflection on 'democratising' processes accompanying that change. Because a large number of China's NGOS are 'international' (that is, initiated by organisations outside China), documentation about them is usually in English and accessible. And because the Chinese government is now supporting the development of NGOs and inviting foreign 'investment' in them, laws and regulations pertaining to their management and functions have been translated into English.
  • Western reformers and rural China in the 1920s and '30s (up to 1937). China 's 'rural crisis' was vigorously discussed and hotly debated by Chinese reformers and revolutionaries in the Republican period, particularly the 1930s. A number of foreigners collaborated closely with Chinese agronomists and rural economists in the development of rural reform programmes (reforms that could prevent a revolution). The most well known are R.H. Tawney and John Lossing Buck, both of whom were based in Nanjing (the seat of government at the time) and were associated with Chinese rural specialists who tried (with very limited success) to get National government funding for their projects. Foreign rural specialists also contributed to an English-language journal published by Nankai University (Tianjin), the Nankai Social and Economic Quarterly. I have photocopies from this journal, enough to support a HIST489 research essay (together with the Tawney and Buck writings). The journal is held by the Australian National Library and an MA student would probably need to find funds to visit Canberra. Keith Buchanan, former Professor of Geography at VUW, belongs to this category of Western analysts of China's 'rural problem', but his writings focused on the 1950s. It might be possible to develop a 1930s/1950s comparative study, particularly if Professor Buchanan's papers are available.
  • Representations of Chinese women by the '5th generation' of Chinese filmmakers. The backdrop to this study are the dramatic changes in China after 1978 and the reconstructions of recent Chinese history undertaken by a number of the '5th generation' of film makers. A starting-point could be Chen Kaige's 1984 Yellow Earth - a critique of the Chinese Communist Party's treatment of women. And because practically every film that has been made since 1980 could serve as source material, a case study approach will be necessary.
  • China's environmental crisis in historical context. There is a small but strong body of secondary literature on China's environmental history (cultural, socio-geographical, science and economic histories). And there is a growing volume of primary sources in English that describe and analyse the impact of the post-1978 reforms on the environment. A HIST489 essay could report and analyse the recent and present-day discussions of China's environmental problems in the light of China's long history of environmental conquest ('struggles with nature') combined with a search for 'harmony with nature'. An MA or PhD on this topic would require an ability to read Chinese sources.

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Charlotte Macdonald

  • An aspect of the history of radio in New Zealand focusing on broadcaster/audience relations, sporting broadcasting and/or the history of radio 'soap' series. Resources held at the Sound Archives, Christchurch, will be critical. Existing cultural histories of radio in Australia and the US alongside Patrick Days' 2-volume history of broadcasting in New Zealand, provide a foundation in secondary sources.
  • The sporting press in New Zealand and Australia. Little work has been done on the extensive sporting press which developed in Australasia from the 1880s. Titles ranged widely often combining gentlemen's illustrated magazines with sporting reports, licensed victuallers' papers with sporting titles, racing and other sporting coverage. As the daily press took up sports reporting the weekly press responded with new and different titles. Through the 20thC sporting coverage continued to be an innovative area for publication with motoring and radio-related titles appearing in the 1920s and lavish photographic weeklies enjoying popularity in the post-WW2 years. Another angle would be to look at the sporting pages within the major daily and weekly newspapers charting their place within the commercial and political world of print culture. Rich sources exist for a variety of thesis projects at MA or PhD level.
  • Drinking and playing. A study examining the long relationship between alcohol and competitive and recreational sport. To what extent has New Zealand's sporting culture relied on alcohol? This could be framed around a particular time period, event, sporting activity or set of recreational institutions (pubs as well as playing fields).
  • Lost Cases. Horse stealing, 'unnatural offences', petty theft, libel, murder, concealment of birth, and other matters of dispute: a study using the sources identified in the newly created and released 'Lost Cases' database of legal cases heard in New Zealand's Supreme Court, 1842-1883 (there are a number of possible angles and areas of focus though the broad field is one of the conjunction of law and history). See New Zealand's Lost Cases as a starting point.
  • Nineteenth century negotiator, politician and administrator Donald McLean (1820-1877) left a huge quantity of correspondence and papers, now a major collection in the Alexander Turnbull Library's manuscript collection. These have very recently been digitised and a portion transcribed and those written in Māori, translated. A thesis would draw on a selection of these documents to investigate an aspect of New Zealand's history 1840s-1870s. See also entry on McLean in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (NZDB) and Ray Fargher, The best man who ever served the Crown? A life of Donald McLean, Wellington, 2007.

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Alexander Maxwell

  • The Habsburg, Romanov, Soviet and Ottoman Empires. East European Empires offer many interesting research topics, including ethic tensions in a multi-ethnic state, the modernisation of peasant societies, struggles for democratisation or socialism, or the question of dynastic loyalties. Students could address such questions either from the perspective of the imperial courts in Istanbul, Vienna, Moscow, or St Petersburg, or from the perspective of a specific national community: Russian, German, Turkish, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Greek, Armenian, and so forth. This list is not exhaustive. Extensive sources are available online for several of these topics. While I am particularly skilled in Slovak, Hungarian and Macedonian history, I am interested in supervising topics anywhere in Eastern Europe.
  • Theories of Nationalism. The study of nationalism poses many theoretical problems, and can be approached from many different angles. Nationalism has an intellectual history, but also a social and organisational history. Students may wish to study the spread of nationalist feeling, the relationship of patriotic intelligentsias to the people they claim to lead, the relationship between national ideology and patriotic action, or the social and gender composition of national movements. I have special expertise in the relationship between nationalism and linguistic loyalties, corporeal practices, consumption habits, and clothing, but am willing to supervise topics investigating other aspects of nationalism.
  • Social and Gender History During the Long Nineteenth Century. Some of the most exciting historical research occurs in the field of gender studies. My research on nationalism and clothing, as well as nationalised sexuality, make me eager to work with students looking at the relationship between gender identities and other social variables. Victoria Library and the Turnbull Library together have rich resources on Anglophone social history: sources such as The Ladies' Cabinet of Fashion, Music and Romance (first published in 1832), The Child's Own Magazine (1832-1871), Leisure Hour (1852-1905), Boy's Own Paper (1876-1967), and Gentlewoman (1898-1920) and The Girls' Empire: An annual volume for English-speaking girls (1902-04) all offer rich pickings for political analyses of gender and society.
  • Eastern Europe During and After Communism. The Soviet Union and its Empire in Eastern Europe attracted considerable attention during the Cold War, but the collapse of Communism has created a new discipline of 'transition studies'. Students may wish to examine political or social aspects of the transition, ethnic or ideological tensions in the newly independent states, or cultural developments in this vibrant and exiting region of the world. Post-Communist states have been very active in creating online repositories and archives, and considerable resources are also available in English.
  • East European Diasporas in New Zealand. Students interested in the relationship between immigrant communities and the 'old country' may wish to examine East European ethnicities. Turnbull library has copies of the Czechoslovak émigré newspaper Střípky Čriepky, the Polish émigré papers Solidarność na Antypodach (1985) and Krzyż południa (1990) and the Hungarian papers Ujzélandi Magyar híradó (started in 1958) and Magyar szó (1990). A student taking an interest in one of these communities could even bypass the language barrier through the techniques of oral history, and Krzyż południa has also published articles in English. While my own research primarily concerns European history, the resources of the Antipodean East European Study Group might benefit students interested in this region.

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Jim McAloon

New Zealand history

  • New Zealand regional history, especially nineteenth century
  • Histories of business in New Zealand (including farming)
  • Labour history, including histories of unions, of work, and of workplace cultures
  • Political history, including policy issues, parliamentarians and political parties, and also extra-parliamentary political movements - and comparative approaches are welcomed
  • Migration from Britain and Ireland to New Zealand, particularly with a regional focus.

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Adrian Muckle

19th century travel (and travellers' accounts) in the Pacific.

The Turnbull Library has extensive holdings.

  • Pacific Islands' history post-1942/Aspects of decolonisation in the Pacific. This is emerging as an important area of research. Possible topics include: Wartime thinking about future political statuses; regionalism; social and political developments in the post-war era (the 1940s, '50s and '60s) and prior to independence. Quite a lot of research has been done about the political and legal dimensions of decolonisation, but not so much has been done about the social, cultural and economic dimensions of this process.
  • New Zealand-Pacific relations and regionalism. Possible topics include: New Zealand's relations with particular Pacific Island territories and states; New Zealand and the development Pacific regionalism post-1945; New Zealand's involvement in the Institute of Pacific Relations (See Beaglehole Room archives re IPR and NZIIA); Important connections are also provided by trade/labour Union connections; media, health organisations and churches.
  • The Pacific war. This is an area of growing public interest. There is work that could be done on the experiences of New Zealanders in the Pacific during WW2; and the literature (and other media) associated with the war in the Pacific.
  • New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Students with French language skills may be interested in topics relating to New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Possible sources/areas of study include: Catholic mission records up to c1956 (eg missionary responses to WW1 or WW2 in New Caledonia and the development of particular mission stations); New Caledonian historiography (eg a study of the Bulletin de la Société d'Études Historiques de la Nouvelle-Calédonie); history and literature (depending on published sources available at the Turnbull Library); relations between New Zealand and New Caledonia or French Polynesia (eg during the 1980s); New Zealand's response to the Kanak independence movement.
  • Historiography. There is a need for critical (and comparative) historiographies of Pacific island nations (eg Samoa, Fiji, PNG, French Polynesia).

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Other Topics

  • War Histories. Two kinds of study might be thought of under this heading - studies of official war histories taking advantage of the recent digitisation of the complete Official History of NZ in WW2 series; studies of either WW1 or WW2 personal letters and diaries given the large collection at the ATL, and the possibility of setting these alongside the growing body of oral history on WW2 (and some of WW1).
  • Historical Geography. The geography of the 1913 strike in Wellington - where did activity take place, was it geographically specific, or dispersed, etc? 'When we looked at the Waihi strike for the atlas, we found that strikers and strikebreakers were completely mixed up in terms of where they lived - the strikebreakers were not 'outsiders'. Wellington would be different of course - but how much?' Malcolm McKinnon, editor, New Zealand Historical Atlas, 1997.
  • Histories of Suburbs. There is a good secondary literature on suburbanisation in the library. It could be applied to any Wellington suburb/cluster of streets, in a particular period. Adrian Humphris' geography MA on Kilbirnie suggests some ways of approaching it (he is currently working as an archivist at WCC archives).
  • Consumption. History of milkbars, cinemas, department stores.

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Collections as a starting point for topics

The University Library is acquiring additional collections of direct value to postgraduate research in History. See, for example:

  • British Parliamentary Papers on line
  • Early English Books on line (EEBO)
  • Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO)
  • Women, War and Society, 1914-1918, from collections of the Imperial War Museum, London.
  • Empire On-Line
  • Defining Gender
  • Recent purchases of Adam Matthew microfilms
  • Alexander Turnbull Library. The Turnbull library holds copies of several major collections of microfilmed materials relating to the Pacific, notably the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau (PMB) microfilm series. PMB indexes are available in Victoria library and online.

The number of digital collections is also growing. Recently the following have become available:

  • Matapihi  - a combined photographic database for a number of New Zealand repositories
  • Te Ao Hou - the complete collection of Te Ao Hou the Māori Affairs magazine from 1952 to 1976
  • Te Ara - the new New Zealand Encyclopedia.

The National Register of Archives and Manuscripts (NRAM) provide a listing of archives and manuscripts in many of the major New Zealand research repositories.

The following are all to be found in the JC Beaglehole Room Special Collection, Victoria Library:

  • Springbok Tour archives. The 20 year restriction ended in 2001, so there are now only Privacy Act implications to using this material. Tapes would need to be copied and some might need restoration, but there are transcripts. The papers of Lindsay Wright are related.
  • Wellington Investment and Trustee Association papers 1886-1968. This is an excellent source - long-running, has a name index to the Investors' Ledger. The papers were literally rescued from going to the tip. One researcher has used them so far.
  • Kelburne and Karori Tramway Company Ltd and Kelburne-Karori Motor Bus Company
  • Papers of Angus McCurdy - Originally collected by Les Cleveland for a study of McCurdy as a lobbyist and this angle might appeal to someone.
  • Many pamphlets and some MSS. material for Sir Robert Stout.
  • Papers of Geoffrey Joseph Schmitt re Tasman Pulp and Paper etc. Geoffrey Schmitt (1921-2000), later Emeritus Professor of Economics at Waikato University, was employed by Tasman Pulp and Paper Company Limited from 22 August 1953 to 31 December 1967, first as Secretary, later as General Manager, and from June 1963 as Managing Director. 23 bundles of papers originally deposited per Gary Hawke, plus 'Tasman: Early years of Tasman Pulp and Paper Company Limited: a personal history' and further papers deposited later.
  • NZ Institute of International Affairs
  • NZ Institute of Architects records 1906-1967 (later records are in Auckland)
  • Student drama - 'Extravaganza' scripts from the 1940s etc. Other student records: NZUSA (NZ Universities Students Assoc.) and VUWSA, NZ Student Arts Council posters, various Victoria clubs eg the caving club, the Biological Society, the Anglican Society, Debating Club.
  • New Zealand Library School Students Association records
  • Graduates' Association [University of New Zealand]. The stated objects of the Association were to further the interests of University Education in New Zealand and to promote friendly intercourse among the students and graduates of the University. 1885-1892 (ie pre-VUC). 'A meeting of graduates of the New Zealand University was held in the Congregational schoolroom, on the invitation of the Revd W H West BA LLB, on Thursday June 18th 1885. The graduates present were Rev. W H West BA, LLB, PS Hay MA, HB Kirk MA, JC Webb BA, W P Evans MA, JT Barnicoat BA, TR Fleming BA
  • Imperial Universities' Rifle Match Committee records 1945-1967
  • In the architectural history field, the Architecture and Design School Library holds papers and plans etc from Gray Young architects.
Contact The Librarian, J C Beaglehole Room.

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