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Reconstructing vernacular understandings of
social identity from the secondary analysis
of historic social survey data
Jon Lawrence
University of Cambridge
The historian and secondary data
• Just another survival from past?
• Still needs close attention to specificity as source
• Conditions and purpose of making
• What shapes survival (and conclusions can draw)?
• BUT potential for reframing classic texts now ‘history’
• Special value of qualitative data – voices not heard?
• Especially contemporary ‘subaltern’ voices
• How mediated? (by questions, context, transcription….)
Three studies with significant surviving field-notes:
Bermondsey, Bethnal Green/Debden and Luton
Interrogating the research process
• At simplest whether data match conclusions
• Does enough survive to judge?
• Is the process of selection/omission clear?
– Young and Family & Kinship project
– Affluent worker’s cutting room floor (e.g. fantasy)
• Clues to hidden influences/abandoned hypotheses?
• Reconstructing intersubjectivity - and its effects
Mass-Observation, Bolton focused on facets of
everyday public life – speech mostly overheard
Bolton Council, Image ref. 1993.83.17.05
– Pub interior by Humphrey Spender
Bolton Council, Image ref. 1993.83.17.07
– Men playing dominoes, Spender
Vernacular languages of the social
• Mass Observation (Bolton 1937-39) – verbatim speech at
a premium (mostly overheard – little in the home)
• Raymond Firth – Bermondsey 1947-49 – extensive field
notebooks, working papers & daily write-ups
• Young ‘Family & Kinship’ study 1953-55 – mostly collated
summaries of interviews, some field-notes
• Affluent Worker (1961-64) – transcribed questionnaires
• Quotation or paraphrasing? Who is speaking?
• BUT can offer important insights into how people spoke
about family, place, ethnicity, class and nation
• Often complicates dominant understandings
Topic notes, Bermondsey project 1947
(Firth Papers, 3/1/11, LSE)
• Note researchers’ names
and who wrote up [BEW]
• Date & time of meeting
• Informants’ names
• Extensive use of quotation
marks for speech
• Some attitudes explicitly
paraphrased – but also
some ambiguity (e.g. ‘Some do
and some don’t’)
Typed-up interview notes, Bethnal
Green 1953, Young Papers, Churchill
• Detailed reconstruction
of family history from
observation &
• Snatches of speech e.g.:
‘W. said to me “Oh
don’t stick up for men”.’
• Includes reported
speech ‘So now Sis says
she “does not want her
house upset”.’
Some snippets of recorded speech
• Bermondsey, 1947: “We keep ourselves to ourselves, and then we can’t
get into trouble. The [Guinness Trust] buildings are like a country village –
anything happens everyone knows it – news travels”, Mr ‘Ingles’.
• “you have to keep yourself to yourself in a place like [the Buildings]. There
would be quarrelling over sharing the sinks otherwise. As it is people wash
up in their flats and carry out the dirty water.” Mrs ‘Nicholls’ (Firth Papers)
• Bethnal Green, 1953: “My daughters come to me with all their troubles –
makes me ill – about having no money – or baby-minding, or something of
the sort. I say when they’re married, they’ve got to look after themselves”
Young Papers, #BG49.
The question of social identity
But can we mine data for insights into ‘identity’?
Savage reading Affluent Worker (Sociology 2005)
Class rarely an ontological category in vernacular usage
Interview dynamics will shape testimony (HWJn 2014)
Class and gender both performative
But can decode performance as window on class relations
May learn more from stories told about others than from
statements about the self
• Must also be attentive to myths, fantasies and emotions
(including researchers’)
• Contemporary meaning recoverable if not ‘identity’
History Workshop Spring 2014
Talking class in Luton, 1963-64
• “I’ve got no ideas about class at all, to me a person is a person, an
individual … to me everybody is an individual human being. I’ve
never been a great lover of these upper class, middle class & lower
class.” L548 [F1]
• “Workers are people that have to strive for a living. Anybody that’s
not actually living on wealth, right up to – I don't know what you
are – [interviewer response] – teachers and things like that.” L132
• “everybody is the same except for their jobs, except professional
men get a bit extra, which they need to have. They are all human
beings.” L083 [M7]
• “[lower class people are] those who've never made any attempt to
better themselves in any way - what was good enough for their
parents was good enough for them…” L105 [M6]
• Martyn Hammersley, ‘Qualitative data archiving: some reflections on its
prospects and problems’, Sociology, 31 (1997), 131-142
• Natasha S. Mauthner, Odette Parry, and Kathryn Backett-Milburn, ‘The
data are out there, or are they? Implications for archiving and revisiting
qualitative data’, Sociology, 32 (1998), 733-745.
• Paul Thompson and Louise Corti, Special issue – ‘Celebrating classic
sociology: pioneers of contemporary British qualitative research’,
International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 7, 1 (2004)
• Mike Savage, ‘Revisiting classic qualitative studies’ Forum: Qualitative
Social Research 6, 1 (2005)
• Selina Todd, ‘Affluence, class and Crown Street: reinvestigating the postwar working class’, Contemporary British History, 22 (2008), 501-518
• Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, ‘Class, Community and Individualism in
English politics and society’ (Cambridge PhD, 2014)

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