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Celebrating Classic Sociology: Pioneers of British Qualitative Research

A symposium organised by Qualidata and held on 5-6 July 2001 at the University of Essex

Brief Report
Selected Abstracts
Original Programme (includes full list of speakers)

Selected Abstracts

Session One
Louise Corti
Preserving the social scientific heritage: the role of Qualidata

Qualidata's main aim is to facilitate the preservation and re-use of qualitative data in the UK and to co-ordinate information about the existence of available sources of such data wherever they are housed. In this paper, I hope to offer a global picture of what is happening in the world of qualitative data archiving. Qualidata is in a strong position to be able to offer this insight as it was the world's first initiative to pioneer preservation of qualitative social science data on a national scale. This was facilitated by the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) implementing a mandatory policy for research grant holders to offer datasets of all kinds created in the course of their research. The policy has been met with both great support and animosity by the research community. In this paper I address some of the reasons why the concept of sharing qualitative data generates such mixed feelings and how, in seeking to further Qualidata's mission, we have managed to build a new more open research culture.

Qualidata's work has provided sparks of inspiration to a number of research groups across the world beginning to consider the systematic preservation of qualitative data. I conclude with a discussion of how we must now build in qualitative data archiving into mainstream digital data archiving and dissemination strategies to facilitate easy access to data for both researchers and students.

George Brown
Qualidata and the preservation of meaning

My research career has been far more focused on research than that of the typical university social scientist, with minimal teaching commitments and in latter years external scientific status with the MRC who provided consecutive 5-year programme grants. From such a privileged position I have been able to avoid some of the negative effects of the increasing cost of research as the questions tackled inevitably become more complex. This privileged position has enabled the development of sensitive measures which use the investigator as the measuring instrument, something rare in survey type inquiries but crucial for the avoidance of response bias. One feature of these measures is their ability to provide simultaneously data that can be subjected to quantitative analysis and detailed qualitative material that can be explored and then systematically re-explored, sometimes many years later after further research has raised additional hypotheses. For example material about life events collected and analysed as negative or positive in 1966, and stored as qualitative descriptions of the context in which they occurred, was reread 20 years later with the aim of detecting whether each event scored highly or not on a new dimension, that of intrusiveness which was suspected of having relevance for onset/relapse of schizophrenia. The hunch did turn out to have been correct. With the openings now afforded by the archiving of qualitative material one can envisage many further opportunities for such fruitful remaining of old data.

This style of work has also enabled a series of increasingly elaborated studies to be carried out over many years on essentially the same set of basic issues - such as why schizophrenic patients relapse, why women become clinically depressed and what determines recovery. One unexpected consequence has been that now hundreds of inquiries have been carried out by our colleagues using the core measures in many parts of the world, often extending research to other issues - say the role of life event stress in a whole range of other psychiatric and physical conditions.

I will discuss some of the features of such research that make the possibility of 'archiving' attractive. I will also touch on some problems: for example much of our work has emphasised how much 'meaning' can be lost if tone of voice and other paralinguistic features are ignored. But there are clearly practical and ethical issues here that probably rule out dealing with this - at least with our own material.

Session Two
Sue Donnelly
LSE Archives: visiting and revisiting the social sciences

The British Library of Political and Economic Science at the London School of Economics has been collecting archive material and other primary sources for over 100 years. Over that 100 years archives have been employed for research purposes unthought of by their original creators. This paper will look at the impact of developing technologies in expanding the uses of archives even further and their effect on the ways in which archivists are working and opportunities for exploiting and publicising archive resources beyond their original audiences. The paper will particularly focus on the archival history of the Charles Booth's Inquiry into London Life and Labour, 1886-1902 and the New Survey of London, 1928-1933, as examples of changing research approaches in the social sciences.

Dorothy Sheridan
Mass-Observation: the archivist's perspective

The papers generated by the research activities of "Mass-Observation" (1937 until the early 1950s) arrived at the University of Sussex in 1970 and were established as a public resource soon after. Sorting and cataloguing work has taken place over the past three decades although, as a matter of policy, access for research use has been maintained during this period. The most substantial recent support for this work was a grant from the HEFCE/JISC Non-Formula Funding for special collections in the Humanities in 1995. This three year project enabled us to create a web site and to prepare all existing handlists including databases so they could be mounted on the web site. Actual documents, except a select few used for illustration, were not included. Hard copy catalogues were also re-edited and are available in the reading rooms. The NFF award did not allow for further cataloguing and there remains some material in the archive with only very preliminary (non-electronic) finding aids.

Current developments include the re-design of the web site structure in the light of observations about the way researchers and staff use it and the feedback that researchers themselves have offered. The relative importance of the web site in attracting users has been monitored in relation to other forms of promotion and publicity.

Discussions about proposals to digitise and network the archive continue to be concerned with three main issues:

The care and control of privacy of the large amount of 'sensitive' or personal material.

The problem of priorities: the need to channel scarce resources into further cataloguing of uncatalogued material including the urgent need to automate the database of the post-1981 collection.

The contradiction between increasing remote access while being funded on the basis of physical access (eg under the Research Support Libraries Programme).

The need for security copies and the value of digitisation as a form of preservation.

Robert Perks
Oral History Collection at the British Library National Sound Archive

The oral history collection at the British Library National Sound Archive holds many thousands of recorded interviews ranging from Jewish history to political activism, disability to music, medicine to the arts, steelworkers to photographers, chefs to publishers. It encompasses Europe's largest oral history collection, the Millennium Memory Bank, a snapshot of Britain at the turn of the Millennium through the memories and voices of 6000 Britons. Data about the collection is now available online.

Gill Backhouse
National Social Policy and Social Change Archive

In this presentation, I will introduce the collections in the archive by giving a brief overview. I will then describe the finding aids by which researchers can gain access to the research material using the Qualidata online searchable catalogue; the role of Qualidata staff in advising on access conditions and providing further details on the archived material; and the facilities provided by the Albert Sloman Library Special Collections. I will then describe the ongoing proactive work of Qualidata in locating and facilitating the deposit of appropriate research material, highlighting examples from recent searches for the original data from classic British social studies from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, including the successes, disappointments, blind alleys and intriguing findings. Finally, I will address the future directions for the archive in terms of the acquisitions policy, promoting the existing collections and satisfying the needs of researchers in this digital age.

Session Three
Terence Morris
Understanding Juvenile Delinquency

The research technology available to researchers in the 1950's differed little from those employed in the preceding 100 years apart from the camera and the Hollerith IBM card and the counter sorter. Tape recorders were rare, expensive and often unreliable so that notebook and pencil were basic tools.

Methodologically there were two basic approaches, each also stemming from the classic work of the preceding century; the statistical analysis of published data which could be conducted without going into the field and the observation and interview of deviants and offenders in their social setting.

The first method derived from the work of the early members of the Royal Statistical Society; the second from the work of Mayhew, amplified by the influences of British social anthropology, notably Malinowski and Firth. The theoretical assumptions were essentially Positivist, modified by inputs from a functionalist approach that was seldom articulated. In techniques there were parallels with Victorian and Edwardian mountaineering while theoretical assumptions bore striking similarity to the neo-colonial atmosphere of early British anthropology.

Liz Stanley
From biography to social structure : A plea for passion, promiscuity and procreation in the qualitative archive.

This paper will argue passionately in favour of qualitative data archiving and explain why by thinking about this in connection with the ideas of 'documents of life' and 'auto/biography'. Here four research projects which made use of qualitative data archives of different kinds to explore biography and social structure, collective biographies, the interface between lives and the nation-state, and the archive as a topic for investigation in its own right and not just as a resource, will be briefly reviewed. The paper will then propose that a promiscuous approach to what kind of data is archived, or rather what kind is included within the archive (for these are not necessarily coterminous), will best suit the analytic needs of this and future generations of qualitative social scientists, because what is technically 'bad data' may indeed be 'the very best data' for exploring a particular intellectual problem. It will conclude by proposing that what is needed is procreation in the qualitative data archive, arguing that the Qualidata project should be given major support from the academic community in advancing the cause of a 'meta-archive' or 'hyper-archive' approach.

Nigel Fielding
Automating the ineffable: getting the maximum from archived data

The paper suggests some benefits of secondary analysis of qualitative data and addresses some of the methodological criticisms that have been made about secondary analysis in qualitative research. There is a particular focus on epistemological criticisms of secondary analysis, and the concern about being able to recover the original fieldwork context of the data. Advantages of secondary analysis in qualitative research are identified, and comment made on aspects of the social context of empirical research which inhibit the realisation of such advantages.

Session Four
Colin Bell
Doing sociological research - 'owning up'

At Essex in the mid 1970s Colin Bell and Howard Newby put together Doing Sociological Research: seven "accounts of how sociology is actually practised."

Besides themselves the accounts were by Max Atkinson, Stan Cohen and Laurie Taylor, Robert Moore, Ray Pahl and the late Roy Wallis.

Two of the accounts were published in the teeth of vigorous opposition from either professional colleagues or the researched. Our learned friends were never far away!

One account was lost altogether (to that book) in face of very senior colleagues' resistance.

Do they tell us more about the authors than the research?

For the latter see the use made of them by Gordon Marshall in his In Praise of Sociology. Should there be more rather than less of this kind of account? ...for teaching and to puncture the research pretensions of sociology in order to present different (and more realistic?) accounts.

The genre has hardly thrived!

Janet Finch
Feminism and qualitative research

This brief presentation will draw on my own research experience, and on published research, to consider how far feminist ideas have shaped the practice of qualitative research in British sociology, and with what consequences.

Ronald Frankenberg
Developments in the sociology of place: a sceptical view of the concept of qualitative data

Social Science reached its lowest ebb in modern Britain when some of its leading practitioners, intoxicated by co-presence in All Souls, immodestly promised a Minister that with funding would come findings with which he could solve the problem of generationally transmitted poverty. SSRC was de-scienced but saved serendipitously by a natural scientist who understood that the long term achievements of science arose from the questions practitioners asked not the answers they had given to particular problems in specific circumstances now past. Rothschild modestly proposed, as had two commissions before him, that fact finding to solve immediate problems was important but not more important than basic research. Defining the questions that it was useful to ask and especially those that were not, perhaps ought to be seen as the long term contribution of social science to governance. Permanent Secretaries may be interested in questions and better friends than Ministers seeking simple answers for their critics. Can questions be conserved as well as answers?

Frank Bechhofer
Qualitative Data and the Affluent Worker Study: a missed opportunity?

In this brief paper I shall review the qualitative material which was collected in the course of the Affluent Worker Study, the use which was made of it. and how it influenced what came later. I shall then discuss whether, with the benefit of over thirty years hindsight, researchers might view the contribution of qualitative data differently today.

Michael Young
Problems of updating an earlier book: Family and Kinship in East London
Session Five
Mildred Blaxter
Understanding health inequalities: From 'Transmitted Deprivation' to 'Social Capital'

This presentation will offer a brief personal journey through three decades of research on inequities in health, paying tribute to some pioneers and considering the special contribution which qualitative methods have made in linking different 'ways of knowing'. An attempt will be made to derive some generalised lessons over time from this body of empirical medical sociology. In particular (and especially in the most recent work) the importance of contextualising individual experience and personal narratives within social history and social policy will be emphasised.

Jim Ogg, Chris Phillipson, Miriam Bernard and Judith Phillips
Revisting Bethnal Green: Changes to the family and community lives of older people

Bethnal Green has exerted a powerful hold on social investigators down the years, and for many British sociologists their first introduction to the discipline will have come through reading Pelican editions of classic studies such as Michael Young and Peter Willmott's Family and Kinship in East London, and Peter Townsend's The Family Life of Old People. These books were hugely important in setting an agenda for an applied and policy-orientated sociology, and for highlighting the case for a mixed-methods approach to collecting data about people and the communities in which they lived.

The aim of the paper is to examine the relevance of classic sociology given the different urban settings in which researchers now operate. The paper reviews the way in which the earlier studies might be used, an issue that is important to run alongside the effort being put into preserving and maintaining major research studies. At one level, the extent of change since the 1950s has been such that any comparison between now and then would seem unsatisfactory, especially in relation to inner city contexts such as Bethnal Green. However, it will be argued that there are a number of ways in which we might use the Bethnal Green studies both to develop our understanding of the way in which communities change, and also to apply in a revised form some of the issues which the original studies were concerned to pursue. This issue will be explored using a number of themes relating to community and urbanisation, families and social networks, and poverty and social exclusion. Within each of these, the aim will be to address how qualitative research can address and take forward some of the key concerns and ideas which underpinned classic sociology of the 1950s.

Elizabeth Murphy
Scanning the horizon: will postmodern, post-scientific, politically oriented approaches be the death of policy-relevant qualitative research?

Qualitative research continues to encounter considerable ambivalence among policy-makers and practitioners, who are seeking a sound knowledge base on which to base key decisions. This is despite major contributions to key policy areas, such as health, education and social exclusion. While many are sensitive to the inability of quantitative methods to answer all significant and relevant questions, they nonetheless continue to be troubled by some of the practices and rhetoric surrounding qualitative research. They ask: "Is it really science?", "Doesn't it blur the boundaries between research and journalism, or even fiction?", "Isn't it just political activism camouflaged as research?". Questions such as these are not easily dismissed. Indeed some of the most vocal, contemporary advocates of qualitative methods embrace a version of such research which closely reflects the worst fears of such critics. They reject science as a model, seeking, rather, a rapprochement with the humanities. As a result, they deliberately attempt to break down the barriers between scientific accounts and other forms of writing, including journalism, fiction and poetry. Finally, they seek to replace the search for authoritative knowledge with a commitment to furthering political change (whether this change is the overthrow of patriarchy, neo-colonialism or capitalism), through openly ideological research. Such versions of qualitative research are now widely disseminated in the research community. While they may have an important role to play in a democratic society, through stimulating creativity and promoting diversity of thought, their wholesale adoption threatens to undermine further the credibility and acceptability of policy-relevant qualitative research. In this paper I examine the claims of advocates of post-modern, post-scientific and politically-oriented qualitative research. Rather than dismissing such claims as intellectual sleights of hand, I recognise the very significant issues which underpin critiques of conventional research practices. I argue that, while we need to deal with these issues, the solutions proposed by advocates of 'alternative' qualitative research are neither the most appropriate nor the most helpful. I suggest that it is possible to retain commitments to the search for authoritative knowledge, to the clear and precise presentation of research findings and to the distinction between political activist and researcher and that it is vital that we do so if we are to sustain our claim to produce research findings that are useful and relevant.

Sue Scott
Speaking Sex: qualitative research on sex and sexuality

In this paper qualitative sociological research on sex and sexualities, in the UK since the 1970s, will be explored through key examples. An assessment will be made of the impact of such work on both sociological thinking and policy agendas, as well as of the impact of feminism on sociology in this area. The paper will also address methodological issues raised by research into an aspect of social life which is sensitive, embodied, interactional and intersubjective. To what extent does the 'specialness' of sex call in-depth interviews into question as the predominant mode of data collection? Should sex be understood as a mundane aspect of the quotidian rather than a special area of social life? How can we understand the relationship between sexual stories and sexual practices? Finally some possible directions for future research will be suggested.

Session Six
Paul Thompson
Pioneering the life story method

This talk will focus on the interdisciplinary context which generated the use of the life story method for The Edwardians, resulting in the first large-scale project of this type in Europe, and also the nucleus for Qualidata's subsequent archival efforts. I will reflect on how far the difficulties which we encountered at the beginning have been overcome or replaced, or remain.

David Vincent
Working Class Autobiography

Working class autobiography became the subject of concentrated historical analysis between the mid 1970s and mid 1980s through the publication principally by David Vincent and John Burnett of a series of analytical studies, edited texts, anthologies and annotated bibliographies. This work established that the scale and value of this genre of source material was much more extensive than had been realised. At the modern end of the genre, autobiography was linked to the burgeoning oral history movement, and it was recognised that the texts represented the transition from spoken to written reminiscence made possible by the spread of literacy and popular reading.

As the genre became a part of the historical landscape, its features began to receive increasing attention from new critical and psychological theories of the self. The author's identity, which appeared doubly present in the text as both object and subject, now seemed doubly absent. It was claimed that the self was a fiction, the ambition to reconstruct it through print at best an illusion. An exponential rise in literary criticism of autobiography on both sides of the Atlantic forced closer attention on the object of the text and the text as an object. In general, the literary critics remained largely unaware of the scale and variety of working class autobiography, as most historians let the post-structuralist debate pass them by.

It can be argued that some of the criticism has been too ready to subsume autobiography into the category of fiction, but also that historians need to be more sharply aware of the influence of narrative forms on the construction of the texts. As they composed their accounts the writers negotiated between a series of frameworks, generating what remained provisional versions of their lives. For the social historian, there is no safety in numbers, merely the chance of a greater understanding of the interaction between the author and the narrative. Here, as with other categories of evidence, we need to develop further a sociology of literary forms. Comparison and contrast, informed by theory, permits an assessment of the scope of the narrative structures and the ways in which the autobiographer may negotiate them. Of particular value are the margins of the genre, where the multiplicity of continuing life reviews are transmuted into the singularity of the written judgement, where oral reminiscence turns into more formal means of personal history, and where writing turns back to oral sources and strategies. But we may only embark upon this enterprise if we have a sense of the full variety of constraints and the possible ways of responding to them. Quantity helps us to escape the limitations of what is, in essence, a non quantitative category of evidence.

Dennis Marsden
The Changing Experience of Researching Family and Intimate Relationships

My talk will revisit some of the key 'methodological moments' in my research on family and intimate relationships over the past forty years, starting with Education and the Working Class, Mothers Alone and Workless, and concluding with current research on couples, divorce and affairs. As a basis for this discussion, I will briefly describe the origins, context, and methodological assumptions of a number of pieces of research, trying to identify why I and various colleagues collected and interpreted data in the way we did. Overall, I will chart a shift from the attempt to cover relatively large numbers in some emotional depth, towards a greater emphasis on the exploration of smaller numbers of case studies in much more complex and possibly intrusive detail.

Methodologically, I have moved from the retrospective reconstruction of interviews to direct recording, which permits much closer analysis of the interview interaction. With this change has come a greater scepticism about the literal truth of what people tell interviewers, and a realisation of how individuals reconstruct and rewrite their experience, both for themselves and for the interviewer. The way that respondents interact with one another and with the interviewer can provide evidence of the workings of gender, power and conflict in relationships. But along with this realisation of the possibilities of in-depth qualitative interviewing has come a greater awareness of the ethical problems raised by attempts to probe more deeply into people's emotional lives.

Initially, my research with Brian Jackson was an attempt to understand and locate our own experience in the broader context of the lives of others in similar circumstances. However, my recent (holiday) reading of working-class autobiographies (Caroline Steedman and Lorna Sage) now encourages me to reverse this process, so that instead of autobiography being the starting point of research, the end-point of my career in research may be a further - and hopefully more fully informed - excursion into autobiography.

Ray Pahl and Liz Spencer
Friends and personal communities - methodological issues

Our paper is based on research we have recently carried out on friendship and friend-like relationships. We wanted to explore the actual set of social relationships in which people are embedded and to liberate respondents from received categories. The paper describes an innovative method for generating and mapping personal communities, and discusses the development of some new typologies.

End Note
Martyn Hammersley
Pasts, presents and futures for qualitative research

Views of the future of qualitative research are even more obviously social constructions than are accounts of its past. At the same time, any history of qualitative research hints at what its future might be. So, in a situation where exponents of qualitative research seem to have very different images of its past, there will also be divergent ideas about its future; both about what is likely to happen, and about what should happen.

In this paper I look at some recent versions of the history of qualitative research, including that underpinning this conference, and consider what implications they carry for its future. The divergences amongst these histories raise questions about the nature of qualitative research, and about its relationship to the rest of sociology - in particular, to quantitative work and social theory.

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