MY CAREER: GRAHAM CROW
Graham Crow is Professor of Sociology and Deputy Director of the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods at the University of Southampton.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I don't think I ever imagined I'd end up as a Professor! My parents wanted me to do something different to what they had done: my father worked on a farm and we all knew what a low-paid, long-hours job that was, while my mother had a succession of part-time jobs in shops and offices. I was very lucky in the teachers I had, and perhaps they acted as sorts of role models. Like many people of my generation , I was the first person in my family to go to University.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
It wasn't until quite late on as an undergraduate in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University that I realised that the things I was reading about in books and journals were the products of research to which new generations of researchers would be needed to add, and that I might be among those researchers. Unlike to-day's undergraduates, I didn't have a single lecture on research methods, so going on to postgraduate research at Essex University was a bit of a shot in the dark. I don't think the people supervising me thought I had a natural talent; I still remember one of them saying that something I'd written about doing research was "worthy but dull"! But I loved interviewing people and then analysing and talking about findings, and I guess that over time I learned how to make the subject less dull.
What was your first professional job?
I got my first full-time job lecturing in 1983 at Southampton University when I was still writing up my PhD, and had to learn to be quite flexible about what I taught and to whom. Teaching social science to medical students was a challenge, but worth persevering with, because they kept me on my toes. I also taught on a whole range of other courses, including some on historical and comparative sociology where I learned about subjects as diverse as the Indian Caste system and the diversity of state socialism (this was still pre-1989).
And first project?
This involved looking at the history of housing and the changing meaning of 'home'. At first this led me to the analysis of historical documents, but then I focused on contemporary relations between neighbours, and what Peter Willmott referred to as the 'friendly distance' that exists between people who live next door to each other, being supportive while at the same time seeking to preserve privacy. We also found, as other researchers have, that people will be more forthcoming to interviewers about what they do for other people than they will be about what other people do for them, because nobody wants to appear dependent or beholden, and this issue of how to deal with what people say they do not always squaring with what people actually do has stayed with me as a core methodological puzzle.
What has been your best professional moment?
I'm always pleased when one of my research students is awarded their degree and proud of my part in that. Also running some of the ESRC's Research Methods Festivals , and when they have gone well that has produced a real buzz – it's no easy task keeping 800 social researchers happy!
There would be several contenders for the worst professional moment. Most of these involve disappointment - sometimes my own, but more often someone else's. I'm not as good as I should be when telling people that their work is not up to scratch, especially when they have been expecting a more favourable verdict.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Ann Oakley, because she asks such interesting questions across a range of topics and writes about them accessibly and with commitment.
Do you have a favourite quote?
I do like Marx's 'Doubt everything'. One of the courses I teach has 'How do we know that?' as a recurrent theme.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
There will always be a need for good social researchers, although their career will involve clashing swords with people who have vested interests in particular answers being produced.
Interview by William Solesbury