100 years of social research

Reposted from Methodspace: a summary of the NatCen Informing Public Policy New Agendas for Social Research Conference (23-24 April 2009)

Abstract: A short and illustrated history from the Webbs to the present, highlighting key developments in the evolution of social research contributing to the betterment of society. Chair: Ian Diamond, Chief Executive, Economic & Social Research Council. Speakers: Howard Glennerster, Professor Emeritus of Social Administration, London School of Economics and Jonathan Bradshaw, Professor of Social Policy, University of York.

What has the influence of social research been on social policy over the past 100 years? Jonathan Bradshaw introduced two of the major influencers on the understanding of poverty in the UK: Seaborn Rountree and Peter Townsend.

Rountree studied poverty in York. He wasn’t the first person to study policy in the country, but he had a large impact. He took a population survey of all households in York. His book, published in 1901, was an extraordinary work – photos, summary tables, graphics, many in colour. He set the standard of how to present research findings long before we had packages to do this for us. Substantial chapters focussed on children’s health, diet, and physical wellbeing.

Although he denied it, by far the most important finding was the causes of poverty. Wages were too low to maintain physical efficiency.

A spate of studies followed in other towns across the country. He made a massive contribution to the understanding of policy and attitudes to the poor. He contributed to the battles in policy about the role of the poor. Although he didn’t propose policy, he spoke about the impacts of poverty.

Peter Townsend contributed some of the most important policy studies on poverty and old age durning the ‘50s and ‘60s. Jonathan described the work as ‘passionate, beautiful writing’. The three major features of his research were:
– First to conceptualise poverty as relative to time and place.
– Resources: He pioneered use of social indicators to show poverty was affected by many factors.
– Classification of groups: we no longer talk about poor as a single class. We recognise types of people affected by many factors.

What can be drawn from these two great social scientists?
– Age doesn’t matter. They were both very young. They committed lifetimes to their chosen subject.
– Personal qualities matter. Both intensely humane people.
– Personal commitment matters – both involved in politics
– Both wrote beautifully and evocatively. Without jargon.
– Although they used cases, main research method was surveys, and findings based on data.
– Neither ever received any money from the government.
– Both had good original ideas.

Howard Glennerster then introduced some of the major trends in education and health. Unlike the poverty studies above, social research on education and healthcare came much later.
Education policy in first half of this century was punctuated by series of reports with a noticeable absence of what would constitute social research. One example of a report from 1938 (a history of English education) has only two figures in whole report. This contrasts quite strikingly with reports in the 50’s and 60’s. These had statistical evidence and impact on policy in a very different way – real transformation in just 20 years.

For the health services, social medicine began to be taught at University of Oxford in 1942. They strove for it to be seen as a branch of clinical medicine. While research was being done on smoking, cancer, heart disease, this didn’t look at social reasons. It was left to the conservative government of 1951 to introduce discussion of social research in health. It was the first time GDP was considered with regards to health.

Using social research provided a new framework of ideas – there were huge shifts in the way we thought about the problems. More social research is going on all the time, but making less of an impact than it first did. But new ideas and new framework of thinking will always catch the interest of policy makers.

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