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
Original Programme (includes full list of speakers)
This conference was organised by Qualidata, the Qualitative Data Service at the UK Data Archive and was sponsored by the Department
of Sociology at Essex and the British Academy. This will be remembered as one of the key events to have taken place for British
Sociology at the start of this new Millennium.
Delegates gathered to hear papers from seminal figures of British sociology. Speakers included Michael Young on updating Family Life
and Kinship, Peter Townsend on reliability, Janet Finch on feminism and qualitative work, Colin Bell on the problems of engaging in
Although there was a desire to highlight the work done in the past this was not a backward looking event. Many of the papers offered
rich insight into research strategies, methods and analyses used by eminent sociologists during the 1960s and 1970s which continue to
have an influence on contemporary theory and research today. Emphasis was placed on how this work informed current and future practice
in the field of qualitative research. Some speakers focused on this idea, such as David Vincent on working class autobiography and
Chris Phillipson with Revisiting Bethnel Green, that looked at a project to follow up classic studies of the 1950s and
1960s with new research.
Qualidata is committed to providing the research, learning and teaching communities with significant real life data that can be
re-analysed, reworked, compared with contemporary data, and that will, in time, form part of our cultural heritage as historical resources.
For British sociological research the decades since 1950 have witnessed an unprecedented flowering: in the growth of its influence,
in the spread of its themes, and in the development of its quantitative and qualitative methods. From the 1960s into the 1970s sociology
was not only an exceptionally popular subject with students, but was also given more national research resources than at any time before
or since. This enabled social researchers to carry out studies of a thoroughness unlikely ever to be equalled. Just one example is Peter
Townsend's in-depth national survey of institutional homes for the aged The Last Refuge.
This great wave of research activity has left us with a triple heritage. The first is the development of crucial ideas - such as the role
of the extended family in the cities, or of the 'moral panic' - which remain part of the mainstream of current sociological thinking.
The second is the uneven residue of original research data, which it has been Qualidata's goal to rescue. Much of it is now permanently
archived as a resource for social researchers in the future. The third heritage is the surviving members of that pioneering generation of
researchers: for despite some major losses, most of them are still with us, and a good many of them still actively researching.
In this summer of 2001 Qualidata is in its seventh year of work, and our rescue mission for the data from classic early sociological
studies is almost completed. We have confirmed some grave losses, including all of the uniquely sustained research of John and Elizabeth
Newson on child rearing; the Banbury studies, Rex and Moore's Sparkbrook study to name but a few. But more positively, we have rescued
the surviving data from many other researchers, including outstandingly well-known single projects such as The Affluent Worker,
Mods and Rockers, and the entire life's work of pioneering researchers such as George Brown and Peter Townsend.
This symposium can be seen as a unique moment in British Sociology. An opportunity to celebrate the rescue of a crucial part of our
heritage for future generations. At the same time it enabled younger researchers interested in that research data to come together with
the pioneers who generated it, and to reflect both upon that past achievement and upon the relevance of classic British Sociology for
understanding the social issues of the 21st century. It also provided the opportunity to debate and think ahead about qualitative
research and its methods. Moreover, and perhaps more significantly for Qualidata, the underlying message of the symposium was to promote
both the archiving and re-use of British qualitative data archives.
The conference was enjoyed by all and seen as an important step in putting the re-use of qualitative data on the intellectual agenda for
contemporary research. Plans are afoot to publish a selection of the papers in a future issue of the International Journal of Social
Director Qualidata, UK Data Archive, University of Essex