Learning about social research archives made me realise: We need to look back to look forward

The past may be a different country – but it holds lots of relevant information for researchers, says Georgina Culliford.

The philosopher George Santayana once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

But when I chaired the Social Research Association event on ‘Using Archives in Social Research’, I wasn’t sure how digging up data from years gone by could help me as a social researcher very much focused on the present and future.

In fact, thanks to the amazing insights from our fascinating speakers –

– I learned a lot. Here are three of my observations about using the past to illuminate the present in social research.

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 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

One thing that struck me when listening to the speakers was the relative ‘purity’ of the data in archives.

‘History’ is a constantly shifting entity that is continually 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 it stays.

As a result, we have perfectly preserved snapshots of the attitudes or language of that time, even if that wasn’t the focus of the original project.

As an example, the NHS Voices of Covid-19 project was already documenting personal testimonies about health for the NHS at 70 project when Covid struck.

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 the language and framing of such issues over time. This can help us understand how present day attitudes have formed and evolved.

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 re-purposing 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.

Georgina Culliford is a research manager at Qa Research. You can contact her on georgina.culliford@qaresearch.co.uk or 01904 632 039

Photography: Age Barros on Unsplash