Background: the Pioneers of Social Research Project

Background: the Pioneers of Social Research Project

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

This enabled many researchers to carry out their work on a scale and with a methodological diversity which could not easily be repeated today. Thus Peter Townsend, for his in-depth national study of old people’s homes, The Last Refuge, not only used elaborate quantification, but personally visited over a hundred institutions throughout Britain, even taking a temporary job as a bath attendant in one home, recording and theorising from his experience.

The high quality of such research makes it exceptionally worthwhile to revisit.

From its start in 1994, Qualidata – now part of the UK Data Service, and based at the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex – set about rescuing and archiving data from classic examples of social research carried out by British researchers in the last 50 years.

Before then, researchers’ data - such as interviews or fieldwork diaries - generally languished forgotten in home or office cupboards, largely inaccessible to other researchers and in danger of destruction. Other data were reported to be lost, including data of all the early ethnic community studies in Britain. In some cases this rescued material was archived at Essex, but other social research went to the most relevant specialist archives elsewhere.

Since then all data discovered has been archived digitally and made publicly available through the UK Data Service.

In-depth interviews with data depositors

Life story interviews with some of the most significant researchers who offered their research data for archiving and sharing were recorded, mainly by Paul Thompson, to explain the personal, social and intellectual context of the research.

These interviews proved so rewarding that in a second phase the project was expanded to include more pioneering social researchers who had begun work by the mid-1970s.

Each interview covers the researcher's family and social background and key influences with detailed accounts of major projects. Because of their detail, these interviews are long – in Peter Townsend’s case extending to 20 hours of recording.

We have now recorded some 30 social researchers' stories, split between sociologists and anthropologists, and including 11 with women. Our interviewees include:

  • Michael Young, Janet Finch and Colin Bell on family, kinship and community
  • W.M. Williams on rural and Meg Stacey on urban community studies
  • Dennis Marsden on single mothers and education
  • Stan Cohen on deviance and prisons
  • Ray Pahl on urban sociology
  • Paul Thompson on oral history
  • Sir Raymond Firth on anthropology in the Pacific and in Britain
  • Sir Jack Goody, Mary Douglas and Pat Caplan on Africa and anthropological theory
  • John Davis and Peter Loizos on Italian and Greek Cypriot communities

Most of the Pioneers interviews are already available to download as a collection, Pioneers of Qualitative Research, 1996-2012, through the UK Data Service. All are fully transcribed as well as summarised in detail. Audio files are available on request. 

With these interviews alone the Pioneers collection is already of unique value. We have published from it two special issues of the International Journal of Social Science Methodology: 7, 1 (2004) and 11, 2 (2008).

The University of Cambridge also holds the Leading Thinkers collection, comprising video interviews with a range of pioneering anthropologists, historians, ethno-musicologists, international travellers and others, including some of the researchers interviewed for the Pioneers of Social Research collection.

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