Isabella Pereira is a Research Director in Ipsos MORI’s Qualitative Social Research Unit. She is also a new trustee of the SRA.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up? I am pretty sure that I wanted to be in Bananarama (n.b. original line-up, ideally being Siobhan). But later on I was keen to do something wordy - journalism or law. Hedging my bets, I did an English degree.
When did you first turn towards a social research career? I worked in book publishing after university, where I discovered contemporary non-fiction. My team worked on Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work, in which the author goes ‘undercover’ doing a number of low-paid jobs and gives an account of the challenges of getting by. From there I started reading more on social issues and decided to change track and apply for a postgrad in Social Policy. Things went from there.
What was your first professional job? And first project there? I was hired as a researcher in Ipsos MORI’s fast and furious Social Research Institute in 2008. My first study was an online qual piece about innovation in government: we spoke to teachers, social workers, nurses and the police using online bulletin boards, which was very effective. Nearly a decade on there still isn’t enough online qualitative research in government studies; it would be great to change that.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves? I spent several years learning the core skills, largely working for HMRC, for whom we pluckily tried to understand customer experiences of tax credits overpayments. This was an exhausting but very useful apprenticeship.
One important milestone was joining the SRA Events Group in 2011, during a long period of cuts to social research funding and staffing. As well as being good fun, it meant I could keep learning and developing at a time when there were very few other opportunities around. I also met many of the industry’s great and good, which remains a very useful professional resource.
Another key event was helping found Ipsos MORI’s Qualitative Social Research Unit in 2013. This was motivated by a desire to drive innovation, quality and consistency in Ipsos MORI’s qualitative research - our team of just six people provides qual methods support to the whole Public Affairs division, working across hugely diverse policy areas and methods. The move also cemented some great working relationships: everyone in the team is both very good at what they do and exceptionally generous; I learn from them constantly.
What has been your best professional moment? We did some unforgettable longitudinal depth interviews with lone parents for the DfE/ HMRC Childcare Affordability Pilots in 2009. The participants were incredibly brave, tough women taking on very daunting challenges in their lives – and the (equally determined) researchers had to battle snowdrifts and icy concrete estates to get the interviews done. It felt like a triumph when the work was completed.
More recently, our mixed methods work with Shelter developing the Living Home Standard has been a real point of pride - the study made the Ten O’Clock News, which was a real relief in terms of finally being able to explain to people what I actually do.
...and worst? Oh, I’m not one for war stories.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine? Howard Becker’s oeuvre is a must-read for all qual researchers. “Howie” is unfailingly original and accessible – for example Telling About Society reframes genres such as drama, the novel and photojournalism as forms of research enquiry. He’s also very frank and unsparing about what it takes to do research well.
Do you have a favourite quote? I can’t say I do, so I looked some up. This one made me laugh: “There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there.” Indira Gandhi
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career? I think if they asked me the question they probably wouldn’t need much encouragement! Many young people are completely unaware of research as a career option - but the industry is crying out for different perspectives. So the people I’d encourage most heartily would probably instead ask “what is social research” - and we should do more to help answer that question.