Social Science blog

7 posts from January 2013

30 January 2013

Census Statistics and Resources

Today sees the Office for National Statistics (ONS) release key statistics for lower level geography data from the 2011 Census. In this post John Kaye explores the changing nature of census outputs and resources available to those who want to go back in time and analyse historic population characteristics

The 2011 Census, Key Statistics and Quick Statistics for Wards and Output Areas in England and Wales has been released today with some key findings around language spoken and statistics showing a significant decrease in married households and a small increase in co-habiting households.

Today’s data release is important for geographers and those interested in spatial research as it allows users to map out key characteristics of the UK population at output area: small geographic analysis areas introduced in 2001, with each area having a minimum of 40 resident households and 100 resident people, but the recommended size was rather larger at 125 households. The map below shows 2001 output areas around The British Library at St Pancras in London and the percentage of the local population born outside the UK.


Crown Copyright. Map Created by John Kaye

2001 was the first time that these population based small areas were used; prior to this census the smallest areas were Enumeration Districts, which were determined not by the size of the population, but by the practicalities of collecting the data. The same map around St Pancras for 1971 based on Enumeration Districts shows the changing nature of this geography.


Crown Copyright. Map Created by John Kaye

Geography isn’t the only way that the Census has changed; questions within the census change with the changing population and changing social issues. For example the question around household amenities in the 1950’s and 1960’s is around the presence of a ‘flushing toilet’, in the 1970’s and 1980’s this changed to an ‘inside toilet’ in 1991 and 2001 the focus changed to ‘toilet and/or bath or shower’. The chart below shows the changing questions and the amount of the UK population affected by lack of amenities since 1951.


Crown Copyright.

With rising living standards and increased access to household amenities the question about amenities has been removed from the 2011 census and questions about number of bedrooms per household and the type of central heating have been added.

When exploring the census and population statistics through time the following digital resources are useful:

Currently there is a digital gap around census statistics and reports from The 2nd World War until 1971, which includes the 1951 and 1961 censuses. However reports and statistics from 1921 to 1991 are available to view in hard copy on the open shelves in The British Library Social Science Reading Room, these include national and county aggregate reports and statistics for all census questions.

The Library also holds other census resources such as a number of maps generated with census and population data from the UK and all over the world. An example below is Augustus Peterman’s map of the British Isles based on the 1841 census.  Just like today the 19th century censuses generated vast amounts of geographic data. How to present that data in a way that could be understood was a major challenge, and required innovative methods. This map was produced by the German geographer Augustus Petermann, and featured a number of new techniques. He used shading to show differences in population density, and graduated dots or circles to show relative sizes of towns and cities. Graphs around the edges of the map show population growth over hundreds of years, and the different rates of growth in large cities (click on the map and zoom in to view the detail). This map, while undoubtedly useful for planning on a national scale, also demonstrates a more general fascination with statistics and population.   

   Augustus Petermanns population density map 1841 (credit British Library Board)

 Augustus Petermann, Map of the British Isles, elucidating the distribution of the population based on the 1841 census. London,1861. Scale 1:1,600,000. Click on the map and zoom for more detail.

The library also provides access to other population records such as the electoral registers and commentary and information around historic censuses through resources such as the British Newspaper Archive. There are many resources available and much to discover about the present and past population.


Census output is Crown copyright and is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen’s Printer for Scotland.

With thanks to Ian Cooke, Lead Curator – International and Political Studies.

28 January 2013

Call me the nicknamemeister (or N-dog for short)

Jonnie Robinson (Lead Curator for Sociolinguistics) writes about some of the nicknames which in the 20th century were associated with different surnames (or physical characteristics) in his most recent post on the British Library Sounds blog. Read more here.


22 January 2013

Behind the scenes in social sciences

What do social science curators at the British Library get up to? This post looks across the work of the scoial science department to show the range of activities undertaken by our team.

Every month my colleague @BLRobertDavies and I compile a list of recent activity by members of our department. We circulate this to our colleagues at the British Library as a way of keeping our colleagues in touch with the work that we do. It struck me this month that a post about range of activities undertaken here might provide some insight about what it is like to work within the area of social sciences in an institution which isn’t a university, think-tank, charity or research unit (but has strong links with all of these). I hope that this post might offer a view into the varied life of a social science curator and may even be fuel for thought for those hoping to pursue a social science career.

The Social Sciences department at the British Library includes curators from a range of backgrounds across Information Management, teaching and research (and a combination of all of these). There are subject and area-specific curators who work with the British Library’s collections to both manage these collections and improve access to the collections by those who need to use them. For example, last month we launched our Social Welfare Portal which has been developed by our team members who manage our Social Policy and Official Publications materials. It is a great example of how material is curated by Library staff in such a way as to be useful and accessible to audiences both within and outside of academia. Another way material is curated online is through the development of special website collections, for example, one colleague has recently developed a special collection of websites on Slavery in the Caribbean.

SMALL Caribbean Views
Exterior of an Antigua Boiling House, William Clark 1823 (BL Shelfmark: 1796.c.9). From the Library’s ‘Caribbean Views’ gallery

The British Library is unusual in that under the legal deposit act, we receive copies of all materials published in the UK. Yet this doesn’t mean that we don’t still select and acquire materials. For example, materials are selected on a monthly basis to comprise the reference collections which are held on the open shelves in our reading rooms, while publications published overseas and/or which fall outside the legal deposit act, are selected and acquired by curators.

As the home of our national collections, we want to ensure that the collections are well-used and understood by members of the public. To ensure that the collections are accessible our team members offer in-house workshops and seminars with their audiences, develop public events and often contribute to postgraduate study through seminars about our resources and research methodologies. One of our ESRC placement colleagues developed case studies about our collections which are aimed at social science postgraduates to show the range of our collections and how they can be used to enhance research. These are held on the ESRC website.

For school children, the Learning Team develops materials, workshops and teaching aides alongside the curatorial experts. For example, the Sounds Familiar resource and Food Stories were developed with our curators. We also work with colleagues across the Library to develop our major exhibitions. In fact, the May exhibition on Propaganda has been developed by one of our team members.

Much of what we do requires a very good working knowledge of what academic and other researchers need in order to undertake their research. Department members devote time to developing links and relationships with our users. Sometimes this is done through visits and through developing joint events for knowledge exchange (big events during December covered diverse subjects such as ‘Queer’ Families, Impact in Social Sciences, and Welfare Research), sometimes through collaborative research and collection enhancement activity (for example, the Sisterhood and After project) and sometimes through working with membership organisations, participation on external boards and committees and national and international projects. Curators on our team publish books, scholarly articles and blogs and contribute to strategic activity across the higher education sector and beyond.


Sisters! Question Every Aspect of Our Lives, 1975 © See Red Women's Workshop*

It is very stimulating to be able to work alongside such an erudite bunch of people, and while the knowledge held by colleagues can sometimes be daunting it also means that there is never a dull moment at the British Library!

*Via The Women’s Library, London and part of their 2009 exhibition Ms Understood: Women’s Liberation and 1970s Britain

15 January 2013

Digital Methods as Mainstream Methodology

On the 7th December 2012, the Library hosted the second event of the “Digital Methods as Mainstream Methodology” seminar series. This guest blog gives an overview of the event, the speakers and the topics and issues discussed.

The “Digital Methods as Mainstream Methodology" seminar series is funded by the National Centre for Research Methods Networks for Methodological Innovation. The network consists of three seminars that started in June 2012 at the University of Bristol. This network aims to:

  • To inspire researchers to deploy relevant, effective, innovative, digital methods, via a series of three open seminars;
  • To identify future training needs so that the wider social science community can make use of digital methods;
  • To foster networks for sharing of expertise between social scientists from a variety of disciplines and career stages, and computer and information scientists;
  • To provide networking and dissemination opportunities and provide a space to share expertise for researchers at all career stages.

The second seminar kicked-off with an introductory welcome speech and an overview of Social Science resources and the UK Web Archive by Peter Webster (Web Archiving Engagement and Liaison manager at The British Library). The seminar had three guest speakers, including Professor of Information Science, Mike Thelwall from the University of Wolverhampton, Professor of New Media, Sue Thomas, from De Montfort University and Dr.Danah Boyd, senior researcher at Microsoft Research/Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University.

Additionally, the event incorporated creative, specialist “Pecha Kucha” (Japanese for “chit chat”), presentations by postgraduate students and early career researchers currently working with digital research methods across a diverse range of subject areas, including the humanities and social sciences. Each presentation contained 10 slides, and forced presenters to concisely present their material in a rapid fashion, forcing them to deliver their talk in around 3 minutes.

The day was rounded off with a discussion session led by Christine Hine. The session reflected on a number of connecting issues that emerged across and between the two events, and across and between specific projects and overarching issues related to contemporary digital methods. These included: the thorny question of ethics and how to juggle authenticity and meaning with privacy and anonymity when working with digital content; working with secondary digital data as opposed to data that is produced (through, say, e-focus groups); and the difficulties of keeping up with the pace of change, particularly when it comes to dissemination. One thought provoking and challenging suggestion was for digital methods networks to initiate their own inter-and-multi-disciplinary open-access journals! A closing remark by one of the participants reflected on both the powerful opportunities and the powerful responsibilities involved in inhabiting a searchable world.

It was an exciting and informative day for all. More information about the seminars can be found at:

This post was written by Dr Steven Roberts Lecturer in Social Policy and Sociology at The University of Kent, Haley Watson Associate Partner: Trilateral Research & Consulting and Dr Yvette Morey Research Fellow at University of the West of England.

10 January 2013

Research participation and auto/biography

Sarah Evans writes about a visit to the MRC National Survey of Health and Development and asks about the experiences of those who have taken part.

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time at the home of the MRC National Survey of Health and Development, at the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing on a delightful Bloomsbury street. The NSHD has followed a representative sample of over 5,000 men and women who were born in England, Scotland or Wales during March 1946. It is therefore the oldest of the British birth cohort studies.

The study started as a maternity survey of over 13,000 babies, collecting information about the costs of care in pregnancy and childbirth. Detailed information about the health of the baby at birth was collected alongside socio-economic data about family circumstances. Over 5,000 of children were then followed across their life with quantitative and qualitative information about health, family and social factors collected at various intervals. One of the fascinating characteristics of the survey is the wonderfully varied platter of data collected. It ranges from great detail about physical characteristics and medical history, to observations of temperament and behaviours (from nose picking to fears and anxieties), to educational reports and hopes for the future from childhood to adulthood. It therefore offers not only an incredibly rich resource for social and medical researchers, but for the individuals involved, it provides a rather unusual form of biography.

Seeing some of the original questionnaires and reading the beautiful handwriting of one of the participants (who, at one point during his childhood, wrote that he hoped to become a musician) made me wonder about the experience of being a participant in such a long-term study (and also: did he become a musician?). The overwhelming majority of the participants are anonymous and will always remain so, but one, the journalist David Ward, has written about his experience of having his life documented by others. At various points he has revisited the data collected about him, to read what teachers and health visitors observed about him as a child, and to find out curious nuggets of information about his habits and home-life. David’s articles (written in 1977 and 2008) show how strange, unnerving and enlightening it must be to see things written down about oneself that one wouldn’t necessarily remember. His experience as a participant raises questions about how well we know ourselves; about the im/possibilities of autobiography; about how memories and selfhood are constructed and; about our reliance on others in producing the narrative of our lives. I left the LHA thinking about all those people (now in their mid-60s) who have taken part and who have enabled researchers not just to answer important questions about health and development, but whose very participation contributes to fundamental philosophical questions about the self. I would love to go back to see more.

Suggested further reading

Cosslett, T., Summerfield, P. & Lury. C. (2000) Feminism and Autobiography: texts, theories, methods. Routledge: London. British Library Shelfmark: General Reference Collection YC.2001.a.11541

Elliot. A. (2001) Concepts of the Self. Polity Press: Cambridge. British Library Shelfmarks: Document Supply m02/21729; General Reference Collection YC.2002.a.7937

Evans. M. (1999) Missing Persons: the impossibility of auto/biography. Routledge: London. British Library Shelfmark: Document Supply 99/1439

Parsons, S. (2010). Understanding Participation: Being part of the 1958 National Child Development Study from birth to age 50. CLS Working Paper 2010/5. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

Other useful information: The National Survey of Health and Development is participating in CLOSER (the Cohorts and Longitudinal Studies Enhancement Resource) which will harmonise data across a number of cohort and longitudinal studies and will support cross-cohort research. Find out more on their website and blog.

04 January 2013

upstairs fains I downstairs bagsy

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator in Sociolinguistics, writes about the difficulty in achieving authentic dialect in television dramas. He explores the regional accents portrayed in the very popular costume drama Downton Abbey and highlights the British Library's Opie collections as a resource for research into accent and dialect. Read the full blog post at the British Library Sound and Vision Blog.

03 January 2013

From Myths and Realities to Equality and Egalitarianism (and more besides…)

Robert Davies highlights some of the social science events scheduled for the early part of 2013, including public lectures by Professors Danielle Allen and Noam Chomsky as well the return of the 'Myths and Realities' series.

The Social Sciences department at the British Library hold a wide programme of events linked to the subject areas we cover.  Each year we hold in the region of 30-40 events: from one day workshops, seminars and conferences aimed at academics, early-career researchers, PhD students and practitioners (for example in the business, management and third sectors), to public talks and debates.

In the first four months of this year we already have five events planned. Our season of the ‘Myths and Realities' series of public debates, which aims to explore significant public and social issues and to challenge some of the common myths and assumptions we make, starts again on the 11th February 2013 with 'Are ‘friends’ the new ‘family’?', followed by 'Addictive Personality: Myth or reality?' on the 18th March and 'Work to live or live to work' on the 29th April. These events can be booked via our 'What's On' pages.

Image  Cc-by Gwennypics

Each year we hold the Annual Equality Lecture in partnership with the British Sociological Association. This year the speaker will be UPS Foundation Professor Danielle Allen, from the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton. Professor Allen is a political theorist who has published broadly on democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Her lecture will discuss whether the success of egalitarian politics depends on an underlying art of association; explore the egalitarian benefits of a connected society and how to cultivate the necessary habits and skills of association. The event will be chaired by Professor Judith Burnett, Chair of the British Sociological Association and Dean of the School of Law, Social Sciences and Communications at the University of Wolverhampton.

This year the library will also be hosting a very special event linked to the forthcoming ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’ exhibition. The philosopher, cognitive scientist and political activist, Noam Chomsky, will discuss the roles of the state and the mass media 25 years on from the publication of ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the mass media’.


Noam Chomsky

This is a foretaste of what’s to come this year.  If you wish to keep up-to-date with our forthcoming events you can visit the social science events page here which gives further details of each event and provides links through to the appropriate booking pages. We also aim to upload recordings of most of our events to the Social Sciences Podcast page.

The Annual Equality Lecture is also filmed and uploaded to the British Sociological Association’s Youtube pages.

Another good way to keep informed about forthcoming events is via our various twitter feeds (listed under ‘About this blog’). Finally, and by no means least, it is also worth visiting the British Library Eccles Centre for American Studies webpages to keep informed of other events and conferences being held across the year.

This post was written by Robert Davies, Engagement Support Officer for Social Sciences. For news of our events and activities, please follow Robert on Twitter @BLRobertDavies.The Myths and Realities Series is held in partnership with the Academy of Social Sciences and is supported by the ESRC.