Pat Caplan

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"Archiving complex anthropological data ten years after the research"

Concepts of Healthy Eating Food Research: Phases I and II, 1992-1996

About the research

In the 1990s the ESRC funded an interdisciplinary research programme, ‘The Nation’s Diet’. Two of the projects, both titled ‘Concepts of Healthy Eating’, were based in the Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths. They looked at people’s conceptions of the relationship between food and health in an inner city area, Lewisham (Project 1), and in a rural area of Pembrokeshire (Project 2).

About the data

The two projects used a wide variety of methods including participant observation, semi-structured interviews, food frequency questionnaires, seven-day food diaries, and analysis of large quantities of secondary data.

While a variety of publications resulted from these projects, much data remained available and it was decided to archive as much of the material as possible, including 'work in progress' such as annual reports.

Archiving challenges

When these projects were conceived and carried out, archiving was not yet the norm or an ESRC requirement.

Pat Caplan, the Principal Investigator and depositor, made the decision to archive the data ten years after it had originally been collected and this raised some specific challenges.

She found that, although one dataset had been codified and anonymised during the project, the second Welsh dataset required further work to anonymise the data. Moreover many people appearing in the Welsh dataset would be instantly recognisable as it was derived from work in a small community.

It was therefore not just a question of changing their names, but in some cases of also removing place names and other information. In a few instances, the data was of such an intimate and personal nature, given by someone whose identity it was difficult to conceal, that the decision was made to remove some sections from interviews.

Early on, the decision was made not to archive either the tapes of the interviews or any photographs, in the interest of preserving the undertakings of confidentiality which were made at the outset of both projects. However, virtual copies of all interviews (which by then had all been anonymised) and food diaries were placed in the UK Data Archive, as well as hard copies of the food frequency questionnaires.

In the process of preparing the data for archiving, Pat aimed to finish the project by tidying and systematising it, making its data intelligible to others, and thereby prolonging its life.

Such an aim included the hope that others may find it of use, either comparatively with their own work, historically as being part of a particular time, or may obviate the necessity to re-invent the wheel and ask again questions which have already been asked and answered.

Reuse publications and outputs

In a short paper, Pat Caplan presents the history of a large and complex food project over a period of 15 years, from its initial stages, through data-gathering, publication of findings, to archiving, including dealing with ethical matters such as confidentiality and anonymity.

Pat intended that this paper would not only publicise the existence of this rich collection, but would stimulate discussion around archiving methods and how such data might be reused.

Read the report

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