Background: Pioneers of Social Research

Background: Pioneers of Social Research

Between the 1940s to the 1970s, British social research experienced an unprecedented flowering, enabling researchers to carry out their work on a scale and with a methodological diversity which could not easily be repeated today. For example, Peter Townsend, for his in-depth national study of old people’s homes undertaken in the 1970s, 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.

In the early 1990s, Professor Paul Thompson, himself a pioneering oral historian at the University of Essex, launched a ‘search and rescue’ mission to track down data from classic and definitive studies in social research, carried out by British researchers since the 1950s; understanding that they were at risk. With ESRC funding he started Qualidata, which worked to resurrect and make available primary fieldwork materials, often languishing and forgotten in home or office cupboards. As well as preserving interviews and fieldwork notes, which are now available through the UK Data Service, he also interviewed the studies’ investigators. The Pioneers of Social Research collection brings together insightful interviews with some of the most significant and notable researchers in the British Social Science sphere.

The Pioneers interviews

Interviewees offered their research data for archiving and explained in their own interviews the personal, social and intellectual context and antecedents of their research. Each individual interview covers the researcher’s family, background, key influences and detailed accounts of their key projects.

Due to the in-depth nature of these interviews, some exceed 20 hours of recording. The Data Service holds the recordings and transcriptions from interviews with around 50 Pioneers, ranging from anthropologists, to sociologists and economists. Transcribed interviews and interview summaries are downloadable as a collection, through the UK Data Service’s Data Catalogue and are also available to read online through Qualibank. Full audio files are available on request and each individual additionally has their own playlist on YouTube that comprises a selection of thematic audio extracts.

These interviews are of unique and salient value. The UK Data Service, alone has published from the collection, two special issues of the International Journal of Social Science Methodology: 7, 1 (2004) and 11, 2 (2008). Paul Thompson, principal investigator on the project, is also set to release a book in 2018, based on the pioneers of social research.

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