Pioneers in Social Research – a new book sheds light on the foundations of modern sociology

  • Date

    Thu 5 Aug 21

image of book cover of pioneering showing sociologists and studies

A new book Pioneering Social Research: Life Stories of a Generation written by sociologists from the University of Essex and published by Policy Press shows how modern social research in the UK was shaped.

The authors, Emeritus Professors Paul Thompson and Ken Plummer with Dr Neli Demireva from the University of Essex’s Department of Sociology, shed new light on the lives, methods and motivations of those who helped develop a new world of research methodology, pioneered feminist research, and first confronted the issues of race and ethnicity.

The book combines a fascinating history of the generations who built outstanding and influential social research with a valuable resource for future research and teaching on methods.

Interviews with 58 ground-breaking social researchers, active from 1950-1990, vividly illustrate the foundations of modern sociology and the publication is set to become a textbook on the history of methodology. It charts the move away from colonial anthropology into the era of the explosive growth of sociology in universities, and then the founding of theme-based women’s, ethnic and cultural studies and the development of ethical practices and systematic methodologies.

The book is based on the Pioneers of Social Research project at the UK Data Service, a resource for students, teachers and researchers of social sciences.

A seminar, to be held on Friday 3 September, will bring sociologists together, including some of the pioneers themselves and will touch on several important questions.

Dr Neli Demireva, organiser and chair of the seminar, said: “We want to examine further how social research has developed in the UK in the 20th Century? What were the key moments of discovery? Who were these pioneers and what did they study? What impact did this have? Are they relevant to contemporary debates on intersecting inequalities, feminist inquiry, methods, racism and decolonisation? It will be a fascinating event.”Among the life-stories revealed are:

  • Peter Townsend, who worked on poverty, ageing, health and disability using a variety of methods, and who in 1963 became one of the founding professors at the new University of Essex, and as first Professor of Sociology, help build a diverse and vibrant Sociology Department.
  • Sir David Butler, the Oxford-based social and political scientist who coined the term ‘psephology’ for electoral statistics and was a co-inventor of the ‘swingometer’.
  • Tirril Harris, the social psychologist who with George Brown researched the social causes of depression in women, exploring the links between people’s social conditions and life experiences and their susceptibility to psychological illness.
  • Ruth Finnegan, FBA OBE anthropologist, who began recording storytelling of the Limba in Sierra Leone and later made a notable community study of music in the new town of Milton Keynes.
  • Mildred Blaxter, a pioneer of qualitative methods in medical sociology, whose major works were on disability, and on transmitted deprivation.
  • Stuart Hall, FBA, one of the most well-known figures in cultural studies.
  • Sir Ivor Crewe, former vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, whose work as a political scientist focuses on voting behaviour and elections leading to him becoming a familiar face on election nights.

The full list of researchers interviewed are found on the UK Data Service Website.