Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

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.


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