Dec 14

Guest post #6, Nick Emmel: Revisiting yesterday’s data today

past-present-futureToday we welcome Dr Nick Emmel as our guest blogger. Nick has been investigating social exclusion and vulnerability in low-income communities in a city in northern England since 1999. The research discussed in this blog, Intergenerational Exchange, was an investigation of the care grandparents provide for their children. This was a part of Timescapes, the ESRC’s qualitative longitudinal research initiative. More details of this research are available at http://www.timescapes.leeds.ac.uk/research/intergenerational-exchange.html.

In this thought provoking post, Nick reflects on his experiences of revisiting qualitative data, and the ways in which new interpretations and explanations are generated over time. 


Revisiting yesterday’s data today 

I have recently finished writing a paper about vulnerability. This is the third in an ongoing series of published papers; the first published in 2010 and the second in 2014 (Emmel and Hughes, 2010; 2014; Emmel, 2017). Each elaborates and extends a model of vulnerability. All three are based on the same data collected in a qualitative longitudinal research project, Intergenerational Exchange, a part of Timescapes and its archive. The second and third paper draw on newly collected data from subsequent research projects as well. In this blog I want to explore how interpretation and explanation are reconstituted and reconceived through engagement with these new data and theory, considering some methodological lessons in the context of qualitative longitudinal research.

At first sight the narratives told us about poverty, social exclusion, and the experiences of grand parenting by Bob and Diane, Ruth, Sheila, Geoff and Margaret, and Lynn, which populate these three papers seem fixed, even immutable. After all, I am still using the same printed transcripts from interviews conducted between 2007 and 2011, marked up with a marginalia of memos and codes in my micrographia handwriting, text emphasised with single and double underlines in black ink. But each time I get these transcripts out of the locked filing cabinet in my office I learn something new.

To start with there are the misremembered memories of what is actually in the transcripts. Many of the stories our participants tell, Geoff and Margaret’s account of the midnight drop, Sheila bathing her kids in the washing machine, or Lynn walking into the family court for the first time, I have retold over and over again. In their retelling details have been elaborated, twisted, and reworked to make better stories so my students, service deliverers, and policy makers will think a little harder, I hope, about powerlessness, constrained powerfulness, and ways in which excluded people depend on undependable service delivery. In this way they are no different to the original stories, neither truth nor untruth, but narrated for a purpose, to describe experience in qualitative research. Getting the detail and emphasis right is important. The participants know their lived experience far better than I do. Re-reading the transcripts, these stories are reattached to their empirical moorings once again. But this is only the start of their reanalysis.

Rereading may confirm empirical description but past interpretations are unsettled by new empirical accounts. New knowledge has the effect, as Barbara Adam (1990:143) observes, of making the ‘past as revocable and hypothetical as the future’.  In the most recent of the three papers the apparently foundational role of poverty elaborated in our first paper is reinterpreted. New data from relatively affluent grandparents describe the barriers they face in accessing services and the ways in which these experiences make them vulnerable. This knowledge has the effect of reconstituting the original transcripts, shifting attention away from the determining role of poverty to relationships with service providers in which poverty may play a generative part. These data evoke new interpretations. But it is not only new empirical accounts that reshape this longitudinal engagement, new ideas are at play.

In this blog I have suggested that new empirical accounts change how we understand and interpret existing data. To ascribe reinterpretation only to these insights is not enough however. Explanations rely on more than reconstructing empirical accounts in the light of new insight. For a realist like me theories guide the reading of the original transcripts and the collection of new data. Theories are practical things, bundles of hypotheses to be judged and refined empirically. We started with a theory about time as a chronological progression of events, as is explained in the first paper. For our participants, they noticed little difference as recession merged with recession all the way back to the closure of the estate’s main employer in 1984. This theory was found wanting when we came to looking at young grandparenthood and engagement with service provision in the second paper. A refined theoretical account of the social conscience of generational and institutional time supported explanation. These theories, like the empirical accounts of the social world they are brought into a relation with, are revocable and only ever relatively enduring.

To paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, no researcher ever steps into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and it is not the same researcher. Revisiting yesterday’s data today reminds us of these methodological lessons in qualitative longitudinal research.


Adam, B (1990) Time and social theory Polity Press, Cambridge.

Emmel, N. (2017) Empowerment in the relational longitudinal space of vulnerability. Social Policy and Society. July.

Emmel, N. & Hughes, K. (2010) “‘Recession, it’s all the same to us son’: the longitudinal experience (1999-2010) of deprivation”, 21st Century Society, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 171-182.

Emmel, N. & Hughes, K. (2014) “Vulnerability, inter-generational exchange, and the conscience of generations,” in Understanding Families over Time: Research and Policy, Holland J & Edwards R, eds., Palgrave, Basingstoke.

Image source: Fosco Lucarelli ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/fosco/3915752142/).


1 comment

  1. David Booth

    Dr Emmel’s excellent points, as I understand them, are not just applicable to qualitative research, nor indeed even just to longitudinal data.

    Recently, I too took old data out of a ‘file drawer’ (actually cupboard pile – and unlocked because these transcripts were anonymised) and wrote a publication on new developments of the theoretical basis of the original publication, also pointing out practical implications quite different from those made then (indeed similarly turning from personal constraints to service use), doi:10.1111/joss.12143 (2014).

    One big difference is that, in my case, the first publication from those data was (shortly after they were collected) in 1983! (It’s cited of course in the 2014 paper, and accessible online via GS, RG, FL or WoK.)

    The second difference is that no new data were included in the second paper (nor could be – the informants were untraceable). The original data were not longitudinal either, in any sense recognised by this forum I assume, although they did involve two interviews but only a (!)week or so apart, covering different but relate material. Nevertheless such interviews could and should be repeated at intervals of years and even decades, for example during childhood and adolescence and through stages of adulthood, or before and after shifts in subculture, in order to answer questions addressed by longitudinal research generally. We have only stretched to a few months, with simple replications.

    Thirdly, my experience is that it requires quite a stretch, even from realist qualitative researchers, to agree that our method of data collection was qualitative. Informants were put through a highly structured interview, based on physical variants of familiar situations (as commercial focus groups often are). Yet informants were relied on to use their own constructs of the terms used in the designed questions and to respond without numbers by marking a line anchored in the middle on personal memory.

    The bummer is that our analysis of the data was as quantitative as conceptually contentful research can be. There was no statistical analysis because the models then and now destroy the information of interest to us (and to each informant and the services they and we use). Rather, the spaces between samples and memory on the line were converted into numbers and fed into an equation determined by the biosocial psychological theory introduced in the 1983 paper and given an additional application in the 2014 paper. Like all qualitative researchers, we were relying on informants and investigators sharing sufficiently similar acculturation for the embodied uses of the verbal constructs and the positions on the line to map into common social and material culture.

    I’d be most grateful if Dr Emmel or any other reader would let me know of any misinterpretation of his blog or anything broader that I’ve missed.

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