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Lecture Oral History – Paul Thompson

The Experience of Social Research: Reflections on Qualitative Research and steps towards modern approaches

Lecture by Paul Thompson, the man who founded and developed academic oral history 

Date: 23 November 2012, afternoon. 14.30 – 17.00 (followed by drinks)
Venue: PC Hoofthuis room 1.04 Spuistraat 134, Amsterdam
Co-referees: Stef Scagliola (Erasmus University), Sjoerd Keulen (University of Amsterdam)
Registration is necessary, send an email to

British social research experienced an unprecedented flowering from the 1940s to the 1970s, and this enabled many researchers to carry out their research on a scale and with a methodological diversity which could not easily be repeated today. Unfortunately these pioneering researchers failed to ensure that their data – such as interviews or fieldwork notes – could be available for future use. It generally languished forgotten in home or office cupboards, inaccessible to other researchers and in danger of destruction. From 1994 Qualidata – now part of ESDS, the UK Data Archive at Essex – set about rescuing and archiving as many of the research data of pioneering researchers from the last fifty years as could be located. We reported some very serious losses, such as the data of all the early ethnic community studies in Britain; but also rescued much invaluable material. Since then all data has been archived digitally, and made publicly available through ESDS.

From the beginning, an in-depth life story interview with the most significant researchers was recorded, usually by Paul Thompson, to explain the context of the research – personal, social and intellectual. Essex University’s Sociology Department has been one of the cradles of life story/oral history work in Britain, and indeed the archiving there of Thompson’s interviews for The Edwardians, resulting in publications by many visiting researchers, was a key model behind the founding of Qualidata.

These interviews proved so rewarding that in a second phase the project was expanded to include all major researchers who had begun work by the mid-1970s. Each interview covers family and social background and key influences with detailed accounts of major projects. Most of the Pioneers interviews are already available as a resource through ESDS Qualidata, and copies are currently being made available at the British Library Sound Archive. All are fully transcribed as well as summarised in detail. On the Pioneers website accompanied by a brief biography and where possible, text and audio interview extracts. The site will link to any data collections we have or links to any that sit in other archives, and also links to related on-line biographical collections such as Macfarlane’s films on the Cambridge University website, ‘Leading Thinkers’.

These interviews can be rewarding in two different perspectives. Firstly we can look at them as individual biographical accounts, to understand the influences, fieldwork methods, feelings and experiences of a major and admired earlier researcher. We can also trace, through their notably acute social observation, how researchers’ lives were shaped by family and society. We can see how their own experience, for example of social class or the extended family, could generate their key research concerns. In both ways coming to better understand an earlier generation of researchers can be an inspiration to younger researchers, offering models, and encouragement to develop new ideas from their own social observation and experiences.

Secondly, we can trace significant themes which run across whole sets of interviews, and which are still very much relevant today. Examples include gender and kinship, the pleasures of research, or how ideas develop; and research design, fieldwork methods, ethics, and methods of analysis. Through tracing these themes we can tap some of the long experience of earlier qualitative researchers on issues which still very much concern us.

Paul Thompson will expand on why and how he reached this approach.

The event is sponsored by “Heritage and Memory of Conflict”, the Research Priority Area Cultural Heritage and Identity of the University of Amsterdam.