The Voice of the People? Re-reading the Field-notes of Classic Post-war Social Science Studies

Our final post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Jon Lawrence, Reader in Modern British History at the University of Cambridge. Jon discusses his ongoing project to write a social and cultural history of post-war Britain in which ordinary people take centre stage as the experts on their own lives and experiences. In the process he revisits a number of the issues that have run through this symposium: how to relate the individual voice to the collective voice and its wider culture; how to account for the influence of the archive on the voices that are recorded; the extent to which we can or should be looking for ‘authentic’ voices; and perhaps above all  Jon reiterates the enormously rich and rewarding avenues of enquiry that are open to those engaged in the reflective pursuit of history from below.       

Jon Lawrence

I often wonder what life’s for. Greavsey lives for work, but I don’t. I’m happy to go on as we are or get a packet and be the idle rich. I’m not bothered about sweating for a £40 a week job. I’m happy now. I could do with £50,000 but I’m happy as I am. Are you? How can you be? You’re far from home. You can drink but that’s not real happiness. You’re going to lecture and do teaching, the same things one time after another. That’s just talk. We put up with bad conditions. But we’re more free than you. We do something different each day. We can move about. We know how to have fun, we don’t try to worry or try to keep up with the Joneses.

‘Ron Morris’, October 1968[1]

I am currently writing a social and cultural history of post-war England based largely on contemporary voices as they were recorded by social scientists between the 1940s and the late 2000s. This extract is from a study of Swan Hunter’s Wallsend shipyard on Tyneside. I will say more about this man and the context in which he came to say these things later. For now I simply wish to offer this as an example of how rich such testimony can be; and also to plant the question: how should we treat a plebeian voice which is so obviously not just exceptionally eloquent, but also knowingly engaged in a dialogue with academic knowledge?

Besides the Wallsend shipbuilding project I am currently re-analysing field-notes from ten other post-war English community studies for a book exploring the relationship between individualism and communitarianism since the 1940s. These sources allow us to write a different type of social history: one in which ordinary people’s thoughts and feelings at the time take centre-stage – where they become the experts on their own lives. Almost every social history of modern Britain relies either on the views of contemporary experts, or on retrospective accounts based on people’s memories. There is nothing wrong with either approach, but they cannot take us into the contemporary thought-world of ordinary people. In many ways this is the terrain that the great literary critic Raymond Williams termed the ‘structure of feeling’ – the deep, underlying ethos and values of an age. Williams’s focus was literature, but more common-place, everyday language can be read for insights into the ‘structures of feeling’ of ordinary people. Note the plural usage here; I am not claiming that there is some single, unified popular thought-world that can be revealed by the application of close-reading techniques drawn from literary criticism. We must expect to find heterogeneity and complexity, not holistic unity. We need to remember, as Stuart Middleton has observed, that Williams’s conception of the ‘structure of feeling’ was stamped heavily by the influence of the Gestalt movement as distilled from the anthropology of Ruth Benedict.[2]

As I have argued elsewhere, if we want to gain insights into what people felt, rather than what they thought they should say, in any given exchange we face considerable challenges, but not insuperable ones.[3] In trying to make judgements about how to read respondents’ testimony there are many factors that we need to register. As Mike Savage has observed, we need to start by asking what factors may have influenced the survival of our sources in the archive. Are they chance survivals at all?[4] If our aim is to critique the original conclusions of a study then issues of representativeness must loom large. They also loom large if we want to make generalizable sociological statements. In 1971 Jennifer Platt famously launched a scathing critique of the unscientific methods of Michael Young and his Institute of Community Studies. She dismissed its work as largely impressionistic, arguing that the samples involved were hopelessly inadequate for drawing robust sociological conclusions.[5] One can only imagine what she would make of historians using the chance survivals from Young’s study to make claims about the past.

So what’s my defence? Well in many ways it’s similar to Willmott and Young’s original response to Platt. They accepted many of her methodological criticisms, but argued that intensive, ethnographic research can offer individual-level insights which off-set deficiencies of sample size.[6] Having now spent two years working on the field-notes of English community studies, I have no doubt that it is the intensive ethnographic studies that throw up the most useful insights into popular attitudes and aspirations.

From my point of view the problem with surveys, even good ones, is that they strongly shape the terms of discourse, making it less likely that we will gain a clear sense of how people conceptualised social issues for themselves. By contrast, more open-ended interviews and ethnographic observation tend to leave greater room for vernacular understandings to emerge within the research process.

Because portable tape recorders were so unwieldy before the launch of the compact cassette, social researchers tended to rely on taking notes by hand until the late 1960s.[7] Sometimes the original field notes survive, and where they do we see that although some testimony was sometimes recorded verbatim, often researchers were content to paraphrase, including only short snippets of direct quotation. We have to accept that down to the 1960s the vernacular speech we find in the archive has already been pre-filtered by contemporary researchers. What survives is for the most part what seemed of value to them at the time.

From the 1970s everyone used tape recorders, but they did not always have the funds to transcribe their interviews in full, and even when they did vernacular speech was often modified to read better on the page. It could also be censored. Some of the files from Ray Pahl’s Isle of Sheppey project include corrected drafts of audio typists’ transcriptions. In one case he has simply crossed through a section of the transcript where a respondent, talking about her arguments with incompetent welfare officials, says: “(indistinct) there’s the white people that actually ought to be in the job anyway”.[8] Now it could be that Pahl thought that the transcriber had imposed her (or his) own meaning on an indistinct passage, but it seems just as likely that Pahl wished to excise an uncharacteristic lapse into vulgar racism.

This raises perhaps the most important question of all: just how realistic is it to argue that we can access vernacular understandings at all? Isn’t this just another version of the delusion that we can make the subaltern speak, when in truth all we can do is weave the snippets of speech that survive in the archive into our own meta-narratives of social change?[9] Evidently it is only the historian who gets to speak unmediated in this endeavour; it is they who will orchestrate hundreds of disembodied transcripts into a single, unified text. But that text does not expunge the voices it is made from; nor can it determine what meanings those voices will convey to the reader.

In any case, we are not here talking about trying to distil some supposedly ‘pure’ vernacular voice, uninfluenced by either the research process or the wider dominant culture. There is no reason to believe that any such voice existed in twentieth-century Britain. This was a highly mediated, pluralist society. Ross McKibbin may be right to argue that older, urban districts possessed their own distinctive culture, and right to call this ‘working-class culture’ if one allows a very broad definition of ‘working class’ to include publicans, shopkeepers and anyone else who lived in these districts and shared their customs (this was really a culture of place more than class).[10] But that culture was not hermetically sealed from the wider culture; print, cinema and radio all reinforced the deep-rooted interconnections that characterised British culture – interconnections which long predated the new mass communication technologies. It is in this sense that Britain possessed what Le Mahieu has termed a common culture by the 1930s – not a single culture, but rather a cultural life with important elements of commonality and connection.[11]

We do not, therefore, need to worry that our field-notes may have been ‘contaminated’ by the social interaction inherent in the research process. Yes, we have to read for this influence, but understanding how different sub-cultures navigated each other is important in itself. It is also important to know what was considered socially acceptable to say (and not say) in different contexts at different times. As Will Pooley observed earlier in this symposium, reading for silence, and just as importantly for reticence, is an essential part of this process.

Mike Savage has suggested that ordinary people have come to internalise the concepts and methods of the social sciences since the 1960s, and that social research has been a principal agent for this change.[12] Certainly, people came to be more knowing about the methods and concepts of the social sciences in the late twentieth century, but this is not quite the same thing. What I have found most striking in post-war social-science encounters is the way in which the research process often encouraged people to think and speak as historians and sociologists of their own lives. I don’t doubt that there is something artificial about this process – that being asked to offer an account of oneself to power (or at least to the constituted expert) tends to encourage a particular type of formalised, rational discourse. But what people say is rarely a direct echo of the tropes and idioms of social science. Rather, the social-science encounter appears to act as a catalyst for the exercise of a deep-seated human urge to impose meaning and pattern on life. Time and again, confronted by the official expert, people appear to feel entitled to present themselves as the custodians of a popular counter-expertise. We can learn much from listening to these exercises in the making of vernacular history and sociology.

That’s what the ships’ plumber Ron Morris is doing in the monologue we began with. Context is all important here. This was the culmination of a series of exchanges over the preceding week. As in this case, many of these involved Morris tracking the researcher down to share his thoughts. The researcher, a young history graduate from Oxford whose father was a London print-worker, records: ‘I’d done nothing to provoke this … it came at the end of the afternoon and I was relaxing after the days remembering and note-taking and this outburst took me really rather by surprise.’[13]

In this exchange Morris sets himself up as a spokesman for the men – it’s striking that a series of direct challenges to the researcher are sandwiched between seven ‘I’ statements and six ‘We’ statements (Carol Gilligan advocates constructing ‘I poems’ when analysing personal testimony but I have found it helpful to pay close attention to all pronoun usage).[14] Four days earlier Morris told the researcher: ‘You’re out trying to put us all together and look at us as one group, aren’t you? But we’ve all got different opinion[s]. There’s nothing in common with us at all.’ He was interrupted before he could elaborate, but at the end of his shift he resumed where he had left off: ‘What have we in common after all, just money and shagging. Money is the root, no matter what’s said. We’re all individuals outside that. Each has their own opinion’.[15] His plea to recognise the men’s individuality sprang from what Mike Savage has termed the stubborn strain of ‘rugged individualism’ in English working-class culture.[16] But it was an individualism, as we have seen, that still found it easy to elide ‘I’ with ‘We’; individual with community. Understanding the ways in which historically English popular culture has sought to reconcile the two identities lies at the heart of my current project.


[1] Qualidata: Shipbuilding workers (MSS.371/shipbuilding workers), Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, Boxes 1 to 15; Box 1, File 7, ‘Observation Notes on Plumbers’ Shop,’ p.74 (emphasis added). The author acknowledges Professor R.K. Brown and Qualidata for making the material discussed in this chapter available to the public. Those who carried out the original work and analysis bear no responsibility for the re-analysis that follows.

[2] Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (1961) and Marxism and Literature (1977); Stuart Middleton, ‘Modernism, the Left and the Problem of Culture in England, c.1932-63’ University of Cambridge PhD (in progress).

[3] Jon Lawrence, ‘Social-science encounters and the negotiation of difference in early 1960s England’, History Workshop Journal, 77 (Spring 2014), pp. 215-39.

[4] Mike Savage, ‘Revisiting classic qualitative studies’ Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6, 1 (2005) <urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0501312>.

[5] Jennifer Platt, Social research in Bethnal Green: an evaluation of the work of the Institute of Community Studies (1971); Michael Young and Peter Willmott, Family and kinship in East London (London, 1957).

[6] Michael Young and Peter Willmott, ‘On the Green,’ New Society, 28 Oct. 1971.

[7] Joe Moran, ‘Vox Populi? The recorded voice and twentieth-century British history’, Twentieth-Century British History, 25, 3 (2014), pp. 461-83.

[8] Pahl Papers, Isle of Sheppey Collection, ‘Social and Political Implications of Household Work Strategies, 1978-1983” UKDS SN 4876, Box 5, NSPSCA, Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex

[9] Gayatri Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988), pp. 271-313; James Vernon, ‘Telling the Subaltern to Speak: Mass Observation and the formation of social history in post-war Britain,’ in Proceedings of the International Congress, ‘History under Debate’, Santiago de Compostela, July 1999 (Santiago del Compostela, 2000).

[10] Ross McKibbin, Classes and cultures, England 1918-1951 (1998), ch. 5.

[11] D. L. LeMahieu, A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communication and the Cultivated Mind in Britain between the Wars (1988).

[12] Savage, Identities and Social Change.

[13] Qualidata: Shipbuilding workers, Box 1, File 7, ‘Observation Notes on Plumbers’ Shop,’ p. 74.

[14] Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber & Patricia Leavy (eds), http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412984034.n12 Print pages: 253-273Emergent Methods in Social Research, C. Gilligan et al, ‘On the Listening Guide: A Voice-Centered Relational Method,’ http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412984034.n12.

[15] Qualidata: Shipbuilding Workers, Box 1, File 6, ‘Observation notes on plumbers,’ pp. 68 and 69.

[16] Mike Savage, ‘Sociology, Class and Male Manual Work Cultures,’ in J. McIllroy et al (eds) British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics: Volume Two: the High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79 (1999).

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One thought on “The Voice of the People? Re-reading the Field-notes of Classic Post-war Social Science Studies

  1. Pingback: VoxPop2015: The People’s Conclusion | the many-headed monster

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