Pioneering Social Research

The Pioneering Social Research project highlights the experiences and practices of the generations who were active from the 1950s to the 1980s, the crucial founding generations for today’s social research scene in Britain. These were the decades which saw the final phase of colonial anthropology, the explosive growth of sociology in universities, and then the founding of theme-based women’s, ethnic and cultural studies and the development of ethical practices and systematic methodologies. The book from this project (with Paul Thompson and Ken Plummer) is out now with Policy Press.

The book focuses on 58 Pioneer interviews. To be recorded among our pioneers implies in itself some kind of success story in research: primarily in terms of intellectual discovery and influence, sometimes later linked to taking a key position in the academic world and achieving, in Colin Bell ’s words, ‘a degree of celebrity’ (p 15). You would be able to read more about who they were, in the Biographical Summaries of the book on pp 219–231. The Pioneers lived and worked in British universities. The engine of their success had to be their research, but many of our Pioneers spoke perceptively of their lives much beyond work, especially their earlier lives, hinting or reflecting on how these experiences may have shaped their research explorations. Thus, the sociologist Peter Townsend , whose single mother was a struggling singer, frequently away from home, described his grandmother as the emotional and practical ‘rock’ of his childhood: ‘Nowadays, I reflect a lot on the question of being an only child and what that means. It led, in part, to my enormous interest in family relations and extended family life, and the structure of families’. 

The Pioneers collection has been successively initiated, processed and archived by the UK Data Service (of which the UK Data Archive is the lead partner). Today, the UK Data Service holds the recordings and transcriptions from interviews with 58 Pioneers. The transcribed interviews, interview summaries and selected thematic text extracts for most of the Pioneers can be downloaded in rich text format (RTF) together as a ‘bundle’ from the UK Data Service catalogue. The data is openly available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. Selected interview transcripts and summaries are also openly available to read online through Qualibank. Audio clips from the Pioneers can be found from the project’s playlist on the UK Data Service’s YouTube Channel. Finally, summary information on the Pioneers can also be browsed at UK Data Service, where open resources are available for teaching with this interview collection.

Professor Mike Savage has reviewed Pioneering Social Research for the Oral History Journal:

He says: “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.”

Watch out for Network, the newsletter of the British Sociological Association! Network devotes six pages to our book, Pioneering Social Research, and the accompanying website. Excerpts from the life stories of 58 pioneers in the field of social science, including sociological luminaries such as Janet Finch, Stuart Hall, Mildred Blaxter and Colin Bell are provided.

Many of the anecdotes feature in a new article that I am currently working on titled “Moments of conversion vs moments of discovery – the story of the Women Pioneers of Social Research”. This article focuses on the interviews recorded with the 18 women Pioneers in the project among whom Ann Oakley, Judith Okely, Mary McIntosh, Mildred Blaxter. It focuses on women Pioneers’ specific journeys to academic success and recognition which in many cases are very different to those of the men Pioneers in the project. This work was featured was featured in a podcast by the UK Data Service for IWD2022. The women Pioneers carried out much major work in terms of gender, communities, health and ethnicity and the Pioneering Social Research book with Policy Press captures something of the social and cultural contexts in which they worked and the dilemmas they faced. You can hear the full interview here:

There was a lively Zoom Discussion of the book, Pioneering Social Research: Life Stories of a Generation, co-organized with Policy Press on the 3rd of September 2021 that had more than 60 participants and many of our pioneers present such as Ann Oakley, Maxine Molyneux, Avtar Brah, Pat Caplan. The UK Data Service is working currently on a podcast based on this event that I will publish later here. The book was also featured in the New Book Seminar, Department of Sociology, University of Essex that took place in October.