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Who was Ruth First?
A significant figure in the South African Communist Party, First became a leading light in the campaign against the apartheid regime. In 1963, she was imprisoned without charge and fled to London the following year. There she became active in the UK anti-apartheid movement, publishing several books and research papers and organising campaigns from her family home in Camden. She took up a lecturer post in the Department of Sociology and Social Administration at Durham in 1973, teaching a new course on development studies and raising feminist issues. She was on leave from Durham working in Mozambique when she was assassinated by a letter bomb.
We are engaged in three separate projects under the Ruth First umbrella, one celebratory and two academic research.
2022 – 40 years on – Celebrating Ruth First
This project teams up CHESS's academic projects "Ruth First in the North" and "Objectivity between Social Science and Social Practice" with the Ruth First Educational Trust, a charity that since the 1960s had been funding opportunities for students from southern Africa to undertake postgraduate study at Durham University (UK), and also with St Mary's and St Chad's colleges. As 2022 marks the 40th anniversary of Ruth First’s death, we should plan a series of events throughout the year to celebrate her life and work and in particular her time in Durham. We want these events to go beyond the University and reach out to the wider community.
In March 2022 we kicked off our programme with the unveiling of a recently restored mural dedicated to Ruth First. The restoration was commissioned by Durham City Parish Council with whom CHESS and the Ruth First Educational Trust worked very closely. The mural is located on the outside of the Ruth First House on Providence Row in the City.
Later this year we plan to set up a small pop-up exhibition that we hope will reach a wide audience at different locations around Durham.
On 24th October we have secured Durham Cathedral as a venue for a ticketed Memorial Event at which the award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir will perform. We are still finalising details of this event but will update this page with more information as soon as details are confirmed.
About our Academic Research
There are two strands to our research. The first of these arose from a recognition that Ruth’s time at Durham was sparsely referenced in the literature. We started looking through archive material held at the University and set up interviews with people who worked with her and lived with her during her time in Durham. This research is still developing but is already helping us to put together a much more detailed picture of this important period in First’s life and her impact, not only on the people she came in contact with but also on the University and the wider community. This has been sponsored by European Research Council and Liverpool University under the direction of Philosophy, Politics and Economics lecturer Katherine Furman - University of Liverpool and University of California San Diego, which sponsors two research assistants for the project.
The second strand is a philosophical study looking at how we balance objectivity with more politically participatory methods. These ideas developed out themes explored in Nancy Cartwright’s ERC Advanced Grant, Knowledge for Use (K4U), When that project ended CHESS secured a small amount of additional funding from the British Academy which runs out in August 2022 but our work in this area will continue beyond then.
For a long time, the orthodox position insisted that science is meant to be value-free. Without that it can’t be objective. More recent thinking (from K4U and elsewhere) argues that at a very great many points, the sciences—especially but not exclusively the human sciences—cannot be value-free. There are many decision points where scientific reasoning is insufficient for settling what should be done. This is especially apparent when it comes to modelling, measurement and determining what can and cannot count as evidence. So, we are particularly interested in how Ruth First’s active political work and values informed her teaching and research, especially at Durham, and how her research affected her political point of view and the political actions she recommended and undertook.
1) Ruth First in the North
The Ruth First in the North research group aims to discover more about First’s relationship with the City of Durham, the University and its history of activism against oppressive regimes, and to learn more about how her research and teaching affected – and was affected by – her political activities.
Prof Nancy Cartwright
Dr Katherine Furman
University of Liverpool
Dr Diana Collecott
Mr Adrian Harris
2) Objectivity Between Social Science And Social Practice: Ruth First in Durham (British Academy Grant)
PI: Nancy Cartwright
How do we balance objectivity with more politically participatory methods?
For a long time, the orthodox position insisted that science is meant to be value-free. Without that it can’t be objective. More recent thinking that K4U has been involved in argues that at a very great many points, the sciences—especially but not exclusively the human sciences—cannot be value-free. There are many decision points where scientific reasoning is insufficient for settling what should be done. This is especially apparent when it comes to modelling, measurement and determining what can and cannot count as evidence. Still no-one believes that anything goes, so newer research aims to develop notions of objectivity appropriate to value-engaged science. Especially relevant here are researchers who themselves are engaged in political activism, simultaneously deploying their research knowledge and adding to it.
There are many ways of approaching this. We do so via a study of the remarkable feminist and anti-apartheit martyr Ruth First. First taught at Durham from 1973 to 1978 and was still on leave from Durham when she was assassinated by a letter bomb in Mozambique where she was teaching and advising on development strategies. The Remembering Ruth First Project studies how her active political work and values informed her teaching and research, especially at Durham, and how her research affected her political point of view and the political actions she recommended and undertook.
This project aims simultaneously to…