Pioneering Social Research: Life Stories of a Generation

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Paul Thompson, Ken Plummer, and Neli Demireva

Bristol: Policy Press, 2021, pp 254, £60.00, hardback

This lovely book offers an elegant and accessible introduction to the fifty-eight life interviews of pioneering UK social scientists initiated by Paul Thompson in 1997 and completed in 2019. The book features long extracts from the interviews, with roughly half of the total words being extended quotation from the archive. Although this approach is not normally recommended, here it successfully provides telling vignettes of the personal and professional testimonies of famous social scientists, indeed revealing the strengths of the qualitative interview method that many of the pioneers themselves championed. 

These pioneers shaped the glory years from the 1950s to the 1990s when British social science burst into light as part of the massive expansion of UK higher education. It is therefore difficult to overstate the importance of the Pioneers resource, and of Paul Thompson’s role in leading it. Originating at a time when the archiving of quantitative data was becoming fully mainstreamed, but when the place of qualitative research was uncertain in a frantic climate when replication was de rigeur, Thompson’s support for the Qualidata archive, and in commemorating the role of qualitative and mixed methods social inquiry was crucial. The archive has already come to bear bountiful fruit, with increasing recognition of the role of social scientists in post war British society. The lives of several of the Pioneers are the subject of recent book length studies (e.g. Lise Butler’s  study of Michael Young, Stuart Hall’s Familiar Stranger and Chris Renwick’s forthcoming biography of Peter Townsend). This surge of interest gives this collection great piquancy. As the secondary analysis of qualitative data has become an increasingly familiar method, especially amongst historians, so our gratitude and respect for qualitative social science pioneers grows.  

When I consulted the Pioneers archive in the early 2000s it wasn’t really clear how systematic the sampling of the pioneers actually was, or indeed, what to make of it as a serious resource. It turned out that a remarkable number had worked at the University of Essex and were personally acquainted with Paul Thompson. The book demonstrates that the recent boosting of the sample has considerably, if not entirely, balanced this out. In fact, well over half of the interviews, thitry-four, have been conducted since 2010, and this is a much larger and more expansive archive than I anticipated. Even so, how a ‘pioneer’ is defined is slightly enigmatic. The youngest pioneer (Sara Arber) was born in 1949 (not 1948 as is mistakenly noted on p3), but beyond this the selection is somewhat opaque. The archive now includes quantitative champions such as John Goldthorpe, John Bynner and David Cox, as well as social scientists who became senior university managers such as Janet Finch, Howard Newby and Ivor Crewe. There has been greater concern to ensure ethnic and racial, as well as gender diversity (academics with careers based in the north of England still seem to be under-represented, but this might be my personal prejudice).  

What stands out is the significance of the Pioneers archive for uncovering the rich history of British sociology. Thirty-three of the interviews are with sociologists, compared to fourteen with anthropologists, with only scatterings from other disciplines. Given the significant ways in which sociologists ushered in a new modernising agenda in Britain from the 1960s, it is not incidental that the chapters of this book so powerfully evoke the creativity, innovativeness, and dynamism of this generation. In a well-known blog, Branko Milanovic has famously lamented the ‘non-exemplary’ lives of top economists: ‘What struck me was their bareness. The lives sounded like CVs. Actually, there was hardly any difference between their CVs and their lives (to the extent that I could tell)’. What stands out from the Pioneers archive, by contrast, is the lack of standardisation and the sheer creativity, ingenuity and dynamism of this group. To be sure, they were operating in an academic environment before the h-index, the Research Evaluation Framework, and audit was even contemplated, let alone a driving force in academic culture. Indeed, there is plenty of reason to cheer the passing of old ways. Leonore Davidoff was shocked that she obtained her first post at Birmingham by being interviewed on the streets outside the Athenaeum Club from which as a woman she was barred. The very idea that it was possible to offer posts on the basis of a one-person interview panel held in a gentleman’s club should dispel any nostalgia for the ‘good old days before audit’. 

The chapters are loosely organised to provide neat headings to display the creativity of the pioneers, placed in the context of their times. Analysis is largely downplayed, but the authors do bring out how overarching social and political issues figured in the thinking of the pioneers; feminism; de-colonisation and the enduring hold of empire; sexuality and gay rights; anti-racism. It is clear that that this was not a narrow secluded world of scientific expertise, that these pioneers were saturated by politics, but that these concerns were pursued non-dogmatically and creatively. 

The most sustained analytical focus of the book is on the contested relationship between quantitative and qualitative methods. The methodological fluidity and openness which was evident in the golden years has arguably been lost as research traditions have hardened and become more institutionalised. The book does not shy away from reporting vignettes about conflicts which have only festered over the years. If only John Goldthorpe hadn’t turned his back on British sociology in the 1970s perhaps there would have been better integration of quantitative and qualitative sociology? If only Colin Bell hadn’t fallen out with Margaret Stacey in the Banbury study, perhaps community studies would be in better shape? (It’s striking that it seems to be the ambitious young men who come over as the most confrontational – or perhaps they are just more direct in speaking their minds when talking later in life?) Above all, the question this book provoked in me was how do we renew our creative and pioneering social science imagination in the early twenty-first century?

How to cite this article:

Savage, Mark. Review of Pioneering Social Research: Life Stories of a Generation, by Paul Thompson, Ken Plummer, and Neli Demireva. Oral History Journal Online Reviews Section (October 2021).

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