In the words of Michael Young, one of the 58 interviewed Pioneers in the Pioneers of Social Research Project, research is about following: “your inner light… Find out what you’re really interested in, what you really want to find out about, what you really want to say, even though you may change very much what you actually say later”. On one level, the Pioneering Social Research book and the project itself tries to capture these pieces of wisdom, snippets of imagination, to hand them down to the later generations walking in the footsteps of the men and women who made their careers at the research scene at the heart of the post-war British University. It is full of eureka moments of social discovery (very typical of the male Pioneers interviewed for the project) or their conspicuous absence (in the case of the women Pioneers whose career path usually involve not a small amount of meandering and fighting the different conventions of the day). It is about their life stories, and the complexities of these individuals that have produced some monumental work that will define a generation while at the same time being involved in family dramas, and work conflicts much like everybody else. Thus, the Pioneering Social Research book is about some titans of thought that are also ultimately human beings whose contractions should be appreciated because they tell us something about the social world around us. But let’s start at the beginning…
The Pioneering Social Research project and the Pioneering Social Research book now published with Policy press highlights the experiences and practices of the generations who were active from the 1950s to the 1980s in British academia and wider research scene. 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. 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’. The engine of their success had to be the research work, but many of our Pioneers spoke perceptively of their lives much beyond this, especially their earlier lives, hinting or reflecting on how these experiences may have shaped their research. The oldest, Raymond Firth, 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, 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 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 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. The book retells some of the most magical moments of research realization which may be career defining but also does not shy away from reflections of strife, of conflict, of struggle and acceptance. Thus, one should be able to open the book and read both about how David Butler ‘finds his voice’ on TV, of the time Peter Townsend spends working in a retirement institution while at the same time get a feel for the disappointment of John Goldthorpe with British academia, of the difficult time Ann Oakley and Mary Douglas have in recognizing their work. Of great significance is the absence of the environment and climate change as a theme in the Pioneers’ body of work, although one of the most recent interviews with Michael Redclift tries to address this gap. The Pioneering Social Research project is very much a living thing, and we hope to be able to continue adding to the pool of interviewees in the future.
The book and the project 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. Nor can we 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.
Crucially, however, the book demonstrates how the Pioneers responded to their own difficulties, and challenges of the time. These are very intimate stories, one that we the authors hope the reader 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. We will hold a zoom discussion on the book on the 3 September 2021, you can sign up through Eventbrite here.
Neli Demireva is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Essex researching migration, social cohesion and multiculturalism. She tweets from @DemirevaNeli
Paul Thompson is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex and the Founder-Editor of Oral history, and pioneer of oral history in Europe.
Ken Plummer is Emeritus Professor in Sociology at the University of Essex who focuses on narrative, life story and humanistic research.