Alison Park is Head of the Society and Social Change Team at NatCen Social Research.
What was your childhood ambition?
My home was very literary: my dad was an academic, my mum worked in publishing. So perhaps unsurprisingly my earliest vision of a dream job was to be an author.
When did you turn to social research?
I discovered Sociology at A level and really enjoyed it – getting to understand what society really looked like, how it worked and recognising that there are different ways of thinking about the social world. So I took a Social Science degree at what was then Bristol Poly (now UWE). On the side while a student I got involved in various market research projects, the most (sadly) memorable being one that involved standing for hours in Stroud and Gloucester shopping centres trying to persuade people to tell me about what newspapers they read. Then I did an M.Phil. in Sociology at Nuffield College, Oxfordwhere for my dissertation I analysed and wrote up data from a survey of academic careers being overseen by A H Halsey. I focused on the experience of female academics and their career progression, which was really interesting as well as good practice when it came to doing social research analysis. By then I was pretty clear that I wanted to work in research.
What was your first job?
I went to NatCen (then known as Social and Community Planning Research, or SCPR) as a junior researcher, assisting on a range of projects, mainly to do with housing. In the mid 1990s I first got involved with the British Social Attitudes Survey, an annual study that began in 1983. It had, and still has, everything I like about social research – interesting topics, rigorous data collection and analysis, a commitment to report the results accessibly, and good media coverage. I have been involved with it ever since.
Your best professional moment?
Perhaps not necessarily the best, but the most challenging professional moment was when, for the 2001 national election, I appeared on the BBC Election Night panel, alongside Anthony King and Andrew Marr with David Dimbleby chairing. They were all seasoned veterans. For me, as a novice, it was both terrifying and exciting, aware that it was going out live (no opportunity for second thoughts or redrafts!). It was also a brilliant insight into what underpins that level of detailed news coverage: so much time! so many staff! such expense!
I suspect I have blanked the worst from my memory. But one of my first jobs at NatCen was working on a dictionary of housing terms. My spelling of ‘mortgage’ and ‘accommodation’ was found seriously wanting (this was the days before spell checkers)
Do you have a social hero/heroine?
It has to be Roger Jowell who sadly died at the end of last year. Having pursued my career at NatCen he was a strong influence on me and a dear friend. He was forward thinking, charismatic, caring. He leaves behind a great legacy, not just NatCen itself but also the British Attitudes Survey and the more recent European Social Survey.
A favourite quote?
I believe that there is great value in comparative research for illuminating what is unique in particular contexts. So I like Marshall McLuhan’s saying: ‘We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.’ Think about it!
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Go for it! At its best it is fulfilling, creative, practical – and it develops your ability with words and numbers. But it can be frustrating when you feel that you are not having an impact and your work vanishes without trace. You must work at this as a necessary research skill.
Interview by William Solesbury