A New Team Member and a New World

 A Brief Introduction

My name is George Stevenson I recently joined the team on the Defining Mass Observation project as a research fellow. I’ll be analysing MO scripts from the 1990 ‘Social Divisions’ directive focusing on how MO writers responded to questions about class and race and what these responses can tell us about identity and inequality around the period. Prior to this, I have just submitted my PhD thesis, entitled ‘The Women’s Liberation Movement and the intractable problem of class, 1968-79’, at Durham University. In this research I explored the importance of class in its many different forms to feminists involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement and tried to recover some of the previously absent voices of working-class women active in and around the movement. I’m currently awaiting my viva.

Alien and yet familiar…

Starting work on the Defining Mass Observation project as a historian has been a very interesting and revealing experience. To my historian’s eyes, the world of social science research at first seemed an alien one. The literature and approaches to research, with their clearly demarcated terms and concepts – strewn through nearly every page and action – challenged my conception of what we do as researchers in a quite fundamental way. Whilst history is certainly not shorn of theory in its analysis and conclusions, the reflexivity of social science, particularly on methodology, is rare. When I’ve analysed themes I’ve simply being doing one of the things that historians do, not ‘thematic analysis’. For a social scientist, the latter is not so generic but is instead a particular and specific type of analytical approach amongst others that should be carefully selected.

To begin with, this depth of theory felt quite off-putting. Historians are clear and careful with concepts but we tend to use far fewer of them, and, as I’m also finding, we tend to use different labels to talk about much the same things. The dichotomy, for example, between essentialist/realist and constructionist approaches in social science will usually be described as poststructuralist and structuralist in history (if mentioned at all). More problematically, terms like ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’, used to denote deductive or inductive approaches in social science also have other meanings in history. A ‘bottom up’ approach is usually associated with Marxist, feminist, subaltern or other more explicitly politicised types of history in which the past is understood through the experiences of the oppressed and dispossessed rather than the elite. For these ‘historians from below’, a group I identify with, a ‘top down’ approach is a slur rather than a consideration of the merits of deductive or inductive theories.

Nevertheless, it hasn’t taken long for this new world to seem more familiar. After all, although I might not be used to detailing my analytical approach so overtly, I – and every other historian – was still doing the same thing. My PhD thesis was structured thematically and I was in perpetual dialogue with myself, my supervisors and my research data about whether these themes were being decided by me (deductively) or were arising from the sources (inductively). This was especially true when I was analysing the oral histories of the interview participants in my project. In the field of oral history, there is as rich and vast a seam of theory and concepts as any in social science, and again, though the terms used across the two disciplines are different, the issues they discuss are greatly shared. Thus, in contrast to the discomfort of the alien world I had first encountered, I have begun to feel very much at home and I’ve started to enjoy the challenge of a new language and style of thought. The gaps between the disciplines are more slits than chasms and I am certain that the interdisciplinary nature of the Defining Mass Observation team will produce insights that would not have occurred in social science or history independently. We hope that this will also enable the outputs we produce to be as accessible to those arriving from one discipline as any other.

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