Dale Hall is the founder and managing director of Opinion Research Services (ORS) – a spin-out social research practice from Swansea University. In this interview, he talks about his early years and how he moved from lecturing in political and social philosophy to delivering applied social research across the UK.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I had no idea! As an only child growing up in a deprived neighbourhood of Salford I had no role models and my family had no awareness of educational opportunities. Had I remained in the poor schools there, I’d have had no real future and could easily have drifted into crime. After failing the 11+, family contingencies sent me into care in Devonshire where I attended a new secondary modern school with dedicated teachers who were ambitious for their pupils. In two years there my life turned around – I still had no awareness of where education might lead, but at least I was being properly educated! Even when I got to study politics and philosophy at Reading University, I had little idea of what a degree meant or where it might lead.But in retrospect my lucky ‘escape’ from my early life in Salford taught me the importance of promoting social mobility through effective education for excellence.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
From Reading, I drifted (mainly on the recommendation of an influential academic) into post-graduate studies at the LSE. There, in the Department of Government, I came to believe in three disjunctions – between philosophy and practical life; between facts and values; and between interpreting meaning in human affairs and causal explanation. Therefore, I wanted to interpret social life philosophically rather than scientifically; but, of the three disjunctions, I continue to believe in only the last one.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
Lecturing in political philosophy at Swansea University, I specialised in ancient Greek political thought (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) and later also in the philosophy of explanation. I was fascinated by Plato’s interpretation of Athenian democracy and the human condition from the standpoint of eternity in his Republic – and I felt fortunate to be lecturing on such matters.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
My move into social research was ‘accidental’. During the 1987 general election campaign I wanted to see whether the public related to the distinction between negative and positive liberties (‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’) – so with fellow academics I designed a survey to find out! Of course, it was obscure and we probably failed miserably – but the idea of pursing social research to interpret the meaning of behaviour while also modelling its consequences was born. ORS was formed in 1988 as an interface between the university and the public and voluntary sectors; and we became a spin-out company in 1998.
What has been your best professional moment?
‘Moment’ is inappropriate since ORS has been running for 26 years and I’m immensely proud of what my colleagues do as a team – including the quality and productivity of their work. I’m particularly proud of our housing market assessments and controversial statutory consultations about the reconfiguration of health services and other major issues.
The worst was in 2008-10 when ORS reduced from 43 to 32 full-time research staff with some compulsory redundancies. I’d never faced such circumstances before and it was hard to see valued colleagues leaving. Since then we’ve re-grown to 45 full time research staff – and the team is much stronger than four to six years ago. Although unpleasant, I now think organisations sometimes need such transformations if they are to renew and strengthen themselves.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
I’ve been very fortunate to work with several very intelligent people, some dead and some alive, and I’ve learned a lot from them all. ‘Hero’ and ‘heroine’ are too individualistic since our greatest achievements have come within a team context.
Do you have a favourite quote?
It has to be Socrates’ Wisdom is the recognition of our ignorance and also the Delphic Oracle’s exhortation to Know thyself – with all that implies
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Consider the pros and cons of both universities and appropriate research companies; get some research work experience before you make a final choice; and ensure you have at least some background in quantitative methods since such skills are often neglected in social research education.