Blog written by Neli Demireva and Paul Thompson.
The Pioneering Social Research project and the 2022 book Pioneering Social Research: Life stories of a Generation (Policy press), highlight the experiences and practices of a generation of academics active from the 1950s to the 1980s in British academia and wider research scene. Based on 58 life story interviews, available through the UK Data Service and archived as the oral history collection C1416 ‘Pioneers of Social Research’ at the British Library, the book captures some of the most magical moments of research realization. Those moments may be career defining but we also do not shy away from discussions of strife, of conflict, of struggle and acceptance. There is no satisfactory way in which a conventional sample of ‘pioneer’ social researchers could be created. To be recorded among our pioneers implies in itself some kind of success story in research: first and foremost in terms of intellectual discovery and influence, however also linked to taking a key position in the academic world and achieving, in Colin Bell’s (C1416/34) words, ‘a degree of celebrity’. The oldest interviewee, Raymond Firth (C1416/25), was born in 1901 and is exceptional in already being an active researcher in the interwar years. The youngest interviewee was born in 1949, Sara Arber (C1416/58), and all had begun their research careers by the 1970s. They had mainly made their key contributions by the 1980s, but several continued publishing into the 2000s. Altogether, 33 are with sociologists –most of whom first trained in other disciplines, especially anthropology –and 14 with lifelong anthropologists. There are also three interviewees from politics, two each from geography and economics, another two from statistics, and one from cultural studies. These are essentially British pioneers, although they worked worldwide.
On the practical side, the book and the oral history interviews can be seen as an example of ‘owning up’ – a set of illustrious researchers and academics take the reader or listener through their experiences of the research process. The book illustrates how empirical social research was conducted and given shape in mid-twentieth century Britain. Our Pioneers carried out much major work in terms of class, gender and ethnicity and the book captures something of the social and cultural contexts in which they worked and the dilemmas they faced. Thus, one should be able to open the book and read both about how David Butler (C1416/44) ‘finds his voice’ on TV, of the time Peter Townsend (C1416/23) spends working in a retirement institution while at the same time to get a feel, of the difficult time Ann Oakley (C1416/01) has in embarking on her PhD studies.
The book and the oral history collection do have weaknesses with which we have explicitly engaged. Our 58 interviewees cannot be taken as ‘representative’ of a wider scholarly pool. They are unique cases, and there are many other researchers who if alive and willing could easily have been included, and some who may have made even greater contributions and told very different stories. Inevitably, some key researchers had already died before we could record them. We miss especially the stories which we might have had from Richard Titmuss (d. 1973), Max Gluckman (d. 1975), John Rex (d. 2011), Edward Shils (d. 1995) and Cathie Marsh (d. 1993). We cannot be sure of the memories of our tellers; like almost all historical sources, whether created in the past or subsequently, what they say sometimes may be factually incorrect. Regardless, they represent important historical sources of how the interviewees remember and retell their life stories. The Pioneers of Social Research collection is very much a living thing, and we are indeed adding to the pool of interviewees this year.
Crucially, however, the book and collection demonstrate how the Pioneers responded to challenges – personal and academic. These are very intimate stories, one that we hope the reader or listener will not rush through but will cherish and savour. The Pioneers were resilient, but above all, they proved to have the creative ability to turn the problems upside down and use them to develop their own thinking. In this, future generations can really find a rich source of inspiration – one that will continue to inform beyond the lifetime of the interviewees in this project. Our dear friend and co-author Ken Plummer (C1416/48) passed away last year and we cherish the ability to hear his warm and lively voice speaking his own life story of discovering his own sexuality, and developing a new field and establishing the journal Sexualities as well as struggling to cope with the pain of HIV research. All these recordings are available at the British library reading rooms in London and Boston Spa, as well as at the UK Data Service in Essex. We hope that many readers of ‘this lovely book’, as Mike Savage calls it, will similarly enjoy learning more about the Pioneers and will engage with their work, both the written publication and the full life story interviews.
Pioneers of Social Research can be found by searching C1416 at http://sami.bl.uk and can be listened to at the British Library reading rooms in St Pancras, London and Boston Spa, Yorkshire. For more information on similar collections please consult the collection guide 'Oral histories of social policy'.
Neli Demireva is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Essex. Her research interests include migration, inter-ethnic ties, social cohesion, ethnic penalties and multiculturalism. She uses a variety of methods in her research, both quantitative and qualitative, and believes strongly in mixing methods to uncover the ‘deep stories’ of sociology.
Paul Thompson is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He is Founder-Editor of Oral History and Founder of National Life Stories at the British Library. He is a pioneer of oral history in Europe and author of the international classic The Voice of the Past (4th edition 2017). His other books include The Edwardians and Living the Fishing. He is co-author of Growing Up in Stepfamilies, of The Myths We Live By (with Raphael Samuel), and (with Daniel Bertaux) Pathways to Social Class.
Ken Plummer (1946-2022) was Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He researched and wrote widely on sexuality, especially lesbian, gay and queer studies. His methodological concerns were with the development of narrative, life story, symbolic interactionism and the post-modern turn.