Social Research Archives: We need to look back to look forward 

The philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".  But when Georgina Culliford chaired the Social Research Association event on 'Using Archives in Social Research', she wasn't sure how digging up data from years gone by could help her as a social researcher very much focused on the present and future. Here are three of her observations from the event about using social research archives to illuminate research in the present.


1) Check if existing data can help contextualise or even replace fieldwork 

Research ethics encourage us to minimise the burden on participants as far as possible, and this includes preventing them from becoming 'over-researched'. 

It’s important to consider what data already exists before jumping into a field without thinking. This could be quantitative survey data from the UK Data Archive, which contains over 8,500 datasets Or perhaps a dive into the longitudinal qualitative exploration of personal and family relationships over time, which can be found in the Timescapes archive. 

Sure, our exact research questions and focus are extremely unlikely to exist already. But there could be incredibly useful contextualising information that might shed new light on a topic or change the focus of a project entirely. 

It's certainly something worth exploring in the early stages to ensure the research questions are as informed as possible - although this scoping time must be built into the project timetable. 

2) History is constantly being rewritten, but archives are a snapshot in time 

'History' is always being rewritten. In contrast, archived social or market research is fairly static. 

Quantitative surveys or qualitative interviews are collected. Transcripts are created, analysed and written into reports. And that's how they stay. 

We can go back to original data, analysis and interpretation to gain an understanding of the attitudes and language of the time, even if that wasn't the focus of the original project. 

Watch the full webinar here.
As an example, the NHS at 70 project was already documenting personal testimonies about health when Covid struck, prompting the development of the NHS Voices of Covid-19 project.
It was perfectly placed to capture and preserve real-time snapshots of attitudes to health and care throughout the pandemic; an invaluable resource of social history that can inform our research of a post-Covid world.
Another, slightly different example is the Archive of Market and Social Research, which holds decades worth of studies on everything from vegetarianism to attitudes towards the environment.

The reports, usually from research agencies, can tell us an awful lot about attitudes at the time, but also about what kind of research was commissioned at the time and how issues were framed. This can help us understand how present day attitudes have formed and evolved. 

Of course, a researcher using archives must also consider what is included in an archive and what isn’t. Archive content is selected and may reflect what and who was considered important at the time.  We must also be aware of the modern point of view from which we view archived research.

3) Don't be afraid to ask for help when re-purposing archived data 

There is an increased focus within academia on creating and using archives (in part to encourage more responsible and ethical practice). However, using archives is still relatively new to many researchers. 

The idea of taking data someone else has collected and repurposing it with an entirely different focus can seem daunting or uncomfortable. What if you interpret it completely differently, having not been in the room with the participant? What if the original research team object to having the data used in this way? What if access is denied? 

The response from the speakers is clear. Ask! 

Archivists are extremely knowledgeable. Most are happy to give free advice on applying for access, as ultimately they want people to engage with the collections they carefully curate. 

Likewise, engaging with the original research team of a study is not only permitted, but recommended. This can only help you understand the archived data better. 

Certainly there's a balance to be struck on how involved they are with the new project, but ultimately most would be thrilled to have their data interpreted in a fresh new way. 

Author Bio: Georgina Culliford is a research manager at Qa Research. Georgina specialises in qualitative research with participants in vulnerable circumstances and in the health and social care sector. You can contact her on [email protected]


Thank you to our fantastic speakers for their insights into the use of archives in social research:

Dr Angela Whitecross
Project Manager: NHS Voices of Covid-19
Centre for the History of Science Technology and Medicine
The University of Manchester

Phyllis Macfarlane
Trustee and Chairman of Contents Committee
Archive of Market and Social Research

Cristina Magder
Data Collections Development Manager
UK Data Archive 
UK Data Service

Dr Annie Irvine
Postdoctoral Research Associate - Work, Welfare Reform and Mental Health
Kings College London
ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health