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Re-using qualitative data

ESDS Qualidata is dedicated to supporting quality research and education by documenting, disseminating and providing advice on using qualitative research data for secondary analysis. ESDS Qualidata is committed to ensuring that access to qualitative data is as free, open, and easy as possible, while conforming to ethical and legal standards.

In the UK, and indeed in many countries still, one of the barriers to re-using data has been the lack of an infrastructure to enable access to the rich research data collected in the academic community. Until recently in the UK, potential users have had a limited choice of qualitative data that have been made available compared to the more than 5,000 quantitative datasets accumulated over 40 years by the UK Data Archive (UKDA). However, the choice has grown over the past ten years: by 2007, over 240 qualitative data sources were available, with more than 100 collections available in digital format via the ESDS Data Catalogue.

photo of various media
photo of old photographs and letters

Since 2000, ESDS has conducted two national surveys of academics and researchers to ascertain their views on access to qualitative data including: what kinds of data are preferred and in which formats. Many users want to be able to access digital datasets across a wide range of disciplines for both research and teaching. The most popular topics were social class and social change, health and criminology, whilst the ability to browse qualitative data online is also viewed as a useful resource. ESDS Qualidata offers thematic guides in these and other areas ( In addition, the ESDS Qualidata Online web site allows browsing of some of the classic interviews (at present Paul Thompson’s life story studies - 'the Edwardians' and '100 Families', Mildred Blaxter’s study 'Mothers and Daughters', and Dennis Marsden's research 'Mothers Alone' (

Re-use provides a unique opportunity to study the raw materials of the recent or more distant past to gain insights for both methodological and substantive purposes.

Approaches to the re-use of data

Recent debates about secondary analysis have challenged basic assumptions, such as the meaning of 'secondary', the concept of 'pre-existing' data, and even whether or not the primary/secondary distinction is constructive. These recent debates are advancing the epistemology of reworking data and offer foundations for researchers pursuing various forms of re-use, such as the examples provided below.

Description: Previous research can be used to describe the attributes, attitudes and behaviour of individuals, societies, groups or organisations at the time of the original project.

Comparative research: Comparative research provides comparison over time or between social groups or regions etc.

Re-analysis: Re-analysis asks new questions of the data and makes different interpretations from the original researcher. It approaches the data in ways that were not originally addressed, such as using data for investigating different themes or topics of study. The more in-depth the material, and the more contextualised the raw data, the more possible this becomes. This does not involve attempts to undermine researcher's previous analysis.

Research design and methodological advancement: Research design and methodological advancement involves designing a new study or developing a methodology or research tool by studying sampling methods, data collection and fieldwork strategies and topic guides. Although researchers often publish a section on methods used, researchers' own fieldwork diaries or analytic notes can offer much insight into the history and development of the research.

Learning and teaching: Both older 'classic' studies and more contemporary research can provide rich case material for learning and teaching in both research methods and substantive areas across a range of social science disciplines. ESDS Qualidata provides a teaching resource on exploring diverse interview types (see and other teaching resources.

Examples of re-using qualitative data

Early classic examples of data re-use include: Seebohm Rowntree's (1901) three surveys of poverty in York; Llewellyn Smith’s (1930-5) repeat of Charles Booth’s (1891-1902) poverty survey in London; Robert and Helen Lynds’ studies of Middletown (1929, 1937); or, to take an anthropological instance, the controversial restudy and reinterpretation by Oscar Lewis (1963) of Robert Redfield’s (1930) research on the village of Tepotzlan in Mexico. ESDS Qualidata case studies screenshot

More recently, Paul Thompson's national study of 'The Edwardians: Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918’ (1975) has provided a unique set of over 450 interviews with men and women born before 1918. These data have been used by over 100 researchers and students and they are now available in digital format via ESDS Qualidata (SN 2000: Since 2003, Mike Savage has used 'Affluent Worker in the Class Structure' (SN 4871: for his study of social identities; Mike Roper has used 'The Edwardians' (see above) for his study of Mothers and Sons in the First World War, and Peter Jackson has used '100 Families: Families, Social Mobility and Ageing, an Intergenerational Approach' (SN 4938: for his research on cooking and gender. More information on these and other case studies can be found on:

Articles and case studies of re-use of qualitative data

There is a growing body of literature on the re-use of qualitative data, addressing ethical, methodological and epistemological issues. The following articles cover a range of perspectives, from the experience-based to the more theoretical.

The following recently published special issues are recommended:

  • Thompson, P. and Corti, L. (eds.) (2004) 'Celebrating classic sociology: pioneers of contemporary British qualitative research', International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Theory and Practice, 7(1), February 2004.
    This contains an edited collection of papers given at the 2001 conference 'Celebrating Classic Sociology: Pioneers of Contemporary British Qualitative Research'organised by ESDS Qualidata (

Many of the research datasets under discussion in these papers are archived at the University of Essex at the National Social Policy and Social Change Archive and at the UK Data Archive.

A list of additional published articles relating to secondary analysis of qualitative data can be found at:
Re-using qualitative data

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What is secondary analysis of qualitative data?

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Pioneers of Qualitative Research
Pioneers of Qualitative Research

British social research experienced an unprecedented flourishing from the 1940s to the 1970s.

This site takes a look behind the scenes through interviews with researchers who pioneered various qualitative methods.

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