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

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 (


Dec 03

Research team blog 6: Getting out of the swamp

annaDear friends,

We have been working with Dr Anna Tarrant during the course of our project (Anna was our first guest blogger – read again here). Anna’s research, ‘Men, Poverty and Lifetimes of Care’, is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and University of Leeds and is exploring change and continuities in the care responsibilities of men who are living on a low-income. Like our project, Anna is drawing on data from the Timescapes research programme, including Following Young Fathers and Intergenerational Exchange.

Anna has a great new article out in which she looks at how the secondary analysis of thematically related qualitative longitudinal (QL) datasets might be used productively in qualitative research design.

The article abstract is below, as is a link to the full text. Happy reading!

Anna Tarrant (2016): ‘Getting out of the swamp? Methodological reflections on using qualitative secondary analysis to develop research design’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, DOI: 10.1080/13645579.2016.1257678

In recent years, the possibilities and pitfalls of qualitative secondary analysis have been the subject of on-going academic debate, contextualised by the growing availability of qualitative data in digital archives and the increasing interest of funding councils in the value of data re-use. This article contributes to, and extends these methodological discussions, through a critical consideration of how the secondary analysis of thematically related qualitative longitudinal (QL) datasets might be utilised productively in qualitative research design. It outlines the re-use of two datasets available in the Timescapes Archive, that were analysed to develop a primary empirical project exploring processes of continuity and change in the context of men’s care responsibilities in low-income families. As well as outlining the process as an exemplar, key affordances and challenges of the approach are considered. Particular emphasis is placed on how a structured exploration of existing QL datasets can enhance research design in studies where there is limited published evidence.

Nov 14

Research team blog 5: Time in Timescapes

It is obvious to state that time is the most important aspect of qualitative longitudinal research since it affords a rich insight into the phenomena being studied as it evolves. Yet throughout our project, time has been one of the most difficult aspects of the data on which to get an analytical ‘grip’.

Time in Timescapes

Time in Timescapes

Time matters – yet it its presence is complex, fluid and intersectional. These many dimensions, or layers of time, are captured in our data archive. These include biologically defined life cycle stages (aging and developmental change), family and kinship groups (aligned vertically through time), age cohorts (aligned horizontally through time), as well as socially / culturally defined categories, sequences or events (such as becoming a parent).

Time is a narrated aspect of the texture of social life. Our data shows this intersection between time and space, with participants variously describing ‘time’ as something that can be in short supply, as in demand and, within the context of work and family lives, a source of negotiation, stress and, at times, conflict. Time can also be part of the more abstract notion of ‘being there’, where time spent together provides the basis through which caring and intimate relationships are created, and sustained.

Time is also historical. The projects themselves have a temporal identity, as an archive of a particular epoch and the particular socio-economic contexts in which individual lives were unfolding. At a further level, time frames the research process, and does so differently across the six projects for which we have data. Each were conducted in broadly the same historical time, yet they captured time in different ‘waves’, and using different methods (from life history / biographical interviews, through to daily diaries and ‘day in the life’ observations).

How time matters, and how we can ensure it foregrounds our analysis, will be an ongoing source of reflection for our project. To help us make sense of some of this messiness we have begun to ‘map’ the time in Timescapes using Tiki Toki, a web-based software for creating interactive timelines. In our timeline we have sought to capture when participants within each study were born, the epoch in which the study was conducted, the duration of each study and the different ‘waves’ of research. We have also sought to include any key outputs from the project and any follow-on studies (such as Anna Tarrant’s ongoing work on Men, Poverty and Care). These latter aspects will be added to as the study progresses.

Of course, our portrayal of time is two dimensional, and is in part a pragmatic effort to tidy the messiness of time. Its limitation is in our inability to ‘map’ the social, cultural and emotional dimensions of time, and how these intersect (i.e. the emotional and practical connections within, and between, generations, or how these change or stay the same across different historical time frames). That is an aspect of time that our ongoing processes of analysis will seek to capture.

To open our Toki Toki, click on the image below, Please let us know what you think, and if you decide to design your own, share it with us here.


Nov 08

Research team blog 4: Approaches to Analysing Qualitative Data: Archaeology as a Metaphor for Method, 18th October 2016

Today we would like to share the videos from our NCRM seminar on Approaches to Analysing Qualitative Data, where we presented our ongoing work alongside Professor Emeritus Clive Seale and Professor Maria Tamboukou. In the seminar we used the metaphor of archaeology to think about how can we ‘dig down’, and where do we dig, to get an analytic grip when working with large and complex bodies of qualitative data. It was a great event, and we learnt a lot from our co-presenters and audience on how to develop our approach to analysing large volume of qualitative data.

Professor Seale provided a fantastic overview of how to use computer-assisted text analysis when working with a corpus of qualitative data that is too large to be analysed using conventional analytical approaches. He used two packages – Wordsmith and Wordstat – to demonstrate the ways comparative keyword analysis can reliably analyse large amounts of text, providing a picture that is ‘less biased’ by the researchers’ own subjectivity. This big ‘aerial’ view can then be combined with more in-depth qualitative analysis to facilitate an approach which bridges the quan-qual divide.

Professor Maria Tamboukou’s presentation brought together the theory and method of archival research, particularly in the context Foucault’s archaeological framework. She notes that Foucault, despite being an ‘archive’ addict, wrote little about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of ‘doing’ archival research. Drawing on her own research, Professor Tamboukou provided insight into the working practices of archival research. As researchers we come to the archive with specific questions, and as such have a role in defining the archive and the knowledge that comes from it. But the fragments and traces in the archive, she noted, should also surprise us and challenge our pre-existing judgements and prejudices.

The presentations looked at very different methodological approaches, but both have helped us develop our own project. We are drawing on data from an archive: this not only holds the stories of the research participants, but also traces of the original researchers and archivists. In accessing the data, manipulating it and asking our questions of interest, we are making our own trace. Yet we also want to be surprised by our data, and are seeking to use keyword analysis in a way that allows us to excavate new layers of understanding and meaning from the data. We see potential in conceptualising our approach as one which employs theoretical and empirical investigation, using both as a means of moving between the stages of our own archaeological metaphor.

Continue to follow our website for more information on our project as it progresses. In the meantime, you will find references to Professor Seale’s work within his presentation. You may also like to look at the chapter he wrote with Jonathan Charteris-Black for the The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Methods in Health Research, ‘Keyword Analysis: A New Tool for Qualitative Research’.

Please also look at Professor Tamboukou’s wonderful new book ‘The Archive Project‘, which is co-written with Niamh Moore, Andrea Salter and Liz Stanley. You can visit the project’s website here.

Oct 11

Research team blog 3: Case Histories in Qualitative Longitudinal Research, 6th & 7th October 2016

Susie and I were delighted to have been invited to the University of Sussex this week to talk about our project at an NCRM event on case histories. Organised by case study experts, Rachel Thomson and Julie McLeod, the event brought together an international and interdisciplinary group of researchers working with, and negotiating, ‘cases’ in qualitative longitudinal research.

An overriding theme was the tricky question of what makes a case ‘a case’. A case, it seems, can be many things. They can be selected theoretically or pragmatically; they can represent the ‘typical’ or the extraordinary; and they can relate to, and shape, both process and outcome. As noted by Rebecca Taylor, a case study design can help the qualitative researcher ‘frame’ their research, enabling a stronger analytical grip, particularly when handling large or complex data. But whilst the case can provide the means through which to make sense of the messiness of our data, it doesn’t necessarily have to structure it. The case in itself can be temporal. Its boundaries can shift (and be shifted) over time, responding to events and actors in the field, new points of comparison and emergent theoretical possibilities.

Two points made at the training spoke to our research. The first is that despite their fluidity, the very nature of case studies is reductionist: decision making about how your cases should be bounded, of course, results in some things being included, and other aspects being excluded. Second, is that while a case may be bounded in some way (a case can be a town, an organisation, a family, an individual), it should always seek to illuminate something bigger, and be larger than the sum of its parts.

If you have been following our work, you will know that we are working with secondary data from six of the projects archived under the Timescapes initiative. Together, this dataset amounts to 1,000 documents, and 165 ‘sets’ of data (cases?) relating to individuals and families. We have been using the metaphor of the archaeological excavation as a means of approaching our dataset. Working as ‘aerial archaeologists’ we began by completing a ‘surface survey’ of the dataset, looking at its contours and texture. A ‘geophysical survey’ followed, utilising new computational methods through which to conduct a corpus analysis of the dataset. With this big ‘aerial’ view in place, we began the process of digging into our data. Initial ‘shovel test pits’ involved the selection, and analysis, of a small number of selected cases. We are now planning ‘deep excavations’. These will involve a larger number of case studies, but focused on a narrow research question.

Our process is very much work in progress. Key questions for moving forward are how should we both define a case, and in turn, how our cases should be selected. In essence our aim is to demonstrate the ways in which corpus analysis (the aerial view if you like) can assist in the analysis of large volumes of qualitative data, whilst retaining the forms of analysis which provide biographical depth, and insight into the complex micro dynamics of how, why, and in what circumstances, change happens. Most critically we want to demonstrate how these approaches can be brought into dialogue – enriching each other, rather than sitting in opposition.

We continue to develop our work and will be reporting our progress here. We have a forthcoming event in London on the 18th October where we will discuss our archaeological metaphor in more detail. Further training events are being planned for the months ahead.

We will finish by saying thank you to all the presenters and participants at the event. It was incredibly valuable, and has given us many, many ideas for developing our project. We look forward to sharing our explorations with you.



Aug 08

Forthcoming event: Approaches to Analysing Qualitative Data, 18th October 2016

On the 18th October 2016 we will be hosting a seminar at The Foundling Museum in London, ‘Approaches to Analysing Qualitative Data: Archaeology as a Metaphor for Method’.

The seminar will ask the question, how can we ‘dig down’, and where do we dig, to get an analytic grip when working with large and complex bodies of qualitative data? The metaphor of archaeology enables qualitative analysts to think about what lies ‘underneath’ the corpus of material being analysed, working extensively and intensively to identify and excavate meaning. Researchers working with different bodies of qualitative materials will be discussing how they approached their analysis, from a range of methodological perspectives. The seminar is likely to be of interest and use to researchers with a range of qualitative analytic skills and experience, from postgraduate to senior.

Our speakers include:

Professor Emeritus Clive Seale (Brunel University) : An archaeological approach working with keyword analysis of a large corpus of qualitative data

Professor Maria Tamboukou (University of East London) : Archaeology of knowledge and working in the archives

Dr. Susie Weller (University of Southampton) and Dr. Emma Davidson (University of Edinburgh) : A layered archaeological approach to analysis across multiple sets of qualitative longitudinal data

For full details and booking, visit the ‘Training and Events’ page on NCRM website. We look forward to welcoming you there!


Aug 01

Guest post #5, Sue Bellass: The challenges of multiple perspectival QL analysis


IMG_7916-Edit-800x800Our guest post today is by Sue Bellass, a PhD student in the School of Nursing, Midwifery, Social Work and Social Sciences at the University of Salford. Her thesis, which she is due to submit in August, has been exploring how intergenerational families are affected by young onset dementia over time.

In this post, Sue shares in detail her approach to analysing data over time, from multiple perspectives. The process has been complex and challenging, but has also brought creativity and freedom – and ultimately a deeper understanding of the lived experience of young onset dementia.

If you would like to know more about Sue’s research, contact her by email:

The challenges of multiple perspectival qualitative longitudinal (QL) analysis: a strategy created for an intergenerational study of young onset dementia

Although dementia is often perceived to be a condition that occurs in later life, around 1 in 20 people with dementia are below the age of 65 (Alzheimer’s Society, 2015). Over the last two decades there has been increasing interest in developing qualitative understandings of the experience of the condition in younger people; however, almost without exception existing studies have used cross-sectional designs, providing only a snapshot of life with an unpredictable, dynamic condition. For my PhD I decided to use a QL methodology to explore relationality over a twelve-month period by following five intergenerational families where one person had received a diagnosis of young onset dementia.

Since people with dementia are a marginalised, negatively positioned group (Sabat et al., 2011), I felt it was appropriate to democratise the research process to enable my participants to choose their preferred means of engaging with the study. This choice included the method of data collection (ethical approval was gained for interviews, audio/ video diaries, blogs and tweets) and, if participants opted for interviews, which family members would participate and where the interviews would take place.  Ultimately, 18 participants chose to be interviewed, 16 of whom were interviewed in pairs or larger family groups, with two preferring individual interviews. Interviews were conducted in three waves at months 0, 6 and 12.

Analysing the data set has been a challenging process. As Henderson et al. (2012) note, despite increasing interest in QL methods, methods of analysing and representing complex QL data sets have rarely been explicated. I experienced this as a mixed blessing; on the one hand, there is space for creativity, flexibility and freedom, on the other, there is room for doubt to flourish!  I have attempted to slice the data in different ways in order to interrogate the data set to best effect.  Inspired by Thomson (2010, 2014), I treated each family as a unique case and also aimed to create a cross-case analysis across the four generations represented in the families.

Example QL matrices


Initially I attempted to analyse the group interviews at the ‘family’ level, however it quickly became apparent that divergent accounts were being obscured.  Subsequently I took a multiple perspectival approach (Ribbens McCarthy et al., 2003), teasing apart individual experiences within the families, viewing them as cases within a case. For each person, I induced categories of experience then, to permit holistic re-engagement, organised the raw data in a time-ordered matrix across the three waves.

Then, again for each person, I created a longitudinal matrix adapted from Saldana (2003) to look for transitions and continuities, using motif coding, a form of coding which draws attention to recurring elements in experiences, and describing through-lines, a crystallisation of a participant’s change over time. Although it could be argued that such an approach may disguise intersubjective creation of meaning, I consciously retained a focus on relationality, creating spaces within the matrix to capture data on meaning-making processes over time. Finally I created an intergenerational matrix, organising the data by generation to look for patterns and themes, setting the data against the backdrop of the recent increasing public, policy and research interest in dementia to try and interweave biographical, generational and historical timescapes.

Qualitative research has faced criticism for lack of clarity regarding the relationship between theory and data, and this, I argue, is an important area to address as we continue to develop the contours of QL research. My own perspective has been influenced by Mills (1959), who describes a ‘shuttle back and forth’ between theory and data. I have utilised such an iterative approach, and have drawn on theory from the sociology of chronic illness and family and relationship sociology to develop understandings of the intergenerational experience of young onset dementia.


Alzheimer’s Society (2015). Dementia 2015: Aiming higher to transform lives. London: Alzheimer’s Society.

Henderson, S., Holland, J., McGrellis, S., Sharpe, S., & Thomson, R. (2012). Storying qualitative longitudinal research: sequence, voice and motif. Qualitative Research, 12(1), 16-34.

Mills, C.W. (1959). The sociological imagination. London: Penguin.

Ribbens McCarthy, J., Holland, J., & Gillies, V. (2003). Multiple perspectives on the ‘family’ lives of young people: methodological and theoretical issues in case study research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 6(1), 1-23.

Sabat, S.R., Johnson, A., Swarbrick, C., & Keady, J. (2011). The ‘demented other’ or simply ‘a person’? Extending the philosophical discourse of Naue and Kroll through the situated selfNursing Philosophy, 12(4), 282-292.

Saldaña, J. (2003). Longitudinal qualitative research: analyzing change through time. California: Alta Mira Press.

Thomson, R. (2010). Creating family case histories: subjects, selves and family dynamics. In Thomson, R. (Ed.) Intensity and insight: qualitative longitudinal methods as a route to the psycho-social. Timescapes Working Paper Series No.3.

Jul 26

Research team blog 2: NCRM Research Festival

We recently had the pleasure of presenting our work at the 7th ESRC Research Methods Festival, hosted by the University of Bath. And what an event it was! Over three days we joined social scientists from a huge range of disciplines and sectors and at different points in their research careers.

Wine reception

Wine reception

It was great to find that many of the methodological issues being discussed ‘spoke’ to our own research. Big Data, longitudinal methods and the qualitative / quantitative divide were all hotly debated. Jane Elliott’s keynote addressed the term ‘Big Data’, the digital revolution and the computational techniques being developed to analyse large corpuses of unstructured data. Jane highlighted the possibilities machine learning can bring to Big Data analysis, but also the important role of the researcher in determining clear research questions, and validating outputs. She concluded that rather than dividing qualitative / quantitative research further, computer-assisted methods can empower, and bring both groups together.

Time was also a focus: from Bartlett’s look at the diary methods as a means of capturing lives as they are lived; Gershuny’s and Sullivan’s consideration of time use diaries for understanding the rhythms and patterns of everyday activities; and Goodman’s work on tracking, over time, the experiences of those living and dying with dementia in care homes. Technologies are advancing many of these methods, and researchers are being afforded greater access to longitudinal datasets. CLOSER Discovery was one resource promoted at the Festival, an online resource enabling researchers to view and appraise data from eight of the UK’s leading longitudinal studies.

So where does our research fit with these issues? We presented with Anna Tarrant, Leverhulme Fellow at the University of Leeds. Anna’s work has featured on our site before (check it out here), and together we outlined our ongoing strategies for working with combined qualitative longitudinal datasets.

As we detailed in our presentation, we are likening our work to the stages of an archaeological excavation and are finding this helpful in thinking about how we access the data at different levels and in different ways. This is a rather apt metaphor for interrogating the large and complex ‘field’ of QLR since it invokes the notion of understanding the layers of the past, excavating the past through waves of data, and across the lifecourse.

This approach has taken several stages, with each ‘digging’ further into the dataset. We began with explorations akin to a ‘surface survey’ to evaluate the breadth and nature of the archive, and to organise it into a composite dataset. We then used ‘geophysical surveys’ to explore the landscape of the data without penetrating the surface. Here we employed a range of computer-assisted technologies to examine word frequencies; words or phrases that often used with other words or phrases; and word clusters. Using the outcomes of our different ‘surveys’, we identified ‘cases’ for further testing. In these shovel test pits we were able to use example cases to simultaneously compare computer-assisted corpus-oriented analyses with more conventional in-depth explorations.

Our next step is to move onto ‘deep excavations’. These will use the outcomes of our ‘surveys’ and ‘test pits’ to inform where and how we delve deeper into the detail of selected cases, with a focus on change and continuity across layers of time. It is here, as Jane suggests, that we will start to ask specific and focused questions of our data.

We have found that while quantitative methods for analysing large corpuses can provide insight into the texture of a qualitative dataset, concurrent ‘thick’ readings can be used productively to expand meaning and understandings. ‘Big’ qualitative data analysis necessitates a combination of interpretive techniques and, with this, has the potential to bring qualitative and quantitative approaches into conversation. We hope to continue this conversation as we progress our research.

We hope those who attended our session enjoyed it: we are looking forward to sharing our work further. One such event will be an NCRM short course, which we hope to publicise soon. In the meantime, the National Centre for Research has a wide range of training and events to choose from across the UK.

Jun 27

Guest post #4, Libby Bishop: Data from the past and for the future – Qualitative longitudinal data available at the UK Data Service

We are pleased to have Dr Libby Bishop contribute as a guest blogger. Libby Bishop (Ph.D.) is Manager for Producer Relations at the UK Data Archive (University of Essex).  She provides support and training on data management toLibby Bishop researchers and data producers, with specialisation in ethics of data use: consent, confidentiality, anonymization and secure access to data.  She also teaches workshops on secondary analysis of qualitative data. Libby worked as a Senior Research Archivist at the University of Leeds, where she was responsible for creating and managing the Timescapes archives and providing support for those using the data. Libby has published individually, and with others, on data management, qualitative secondary analysis and the ethical issues associated with big data. Her work has been critical in supporting the sharing and re-use of qualitative data, and advancing a more nuanced understanding of secondary data analysis.

In this post, Libby explains how a data archive is the perfect starting point for those new to qualitative longitudinal research.  

Data from the past and for the future: Qualitative longitudinal data available at the UK Data Service

You may already be a member of the tribe of qualitative longitudinal (QL) researchers if you are reading this.  But what if you are just starting out? You might be curious about how others have done QL projects.  Of course, there are published articles to look at, and there are many to choose from now. But wouldn’t it be helpful to actually look at the data other researchers have used? To read in some detail what strategies were used to maintain contact between interviews? To read transcripts to discover, for example, exactly how the interviewer gently guided the respondent back to topics from the previous contact, without losing the thread of more recent events? All this, and more, is possible by looking at qualitative longitudinal data collections available for research at the UK Data Service.Time-Background-Clock-Public-Domain

Below I provide a brief introduction to just a few of these collections, of which we have dozens. These are available to be downloaded and used by researchers (after having registered with the Service). Two of these studies are about older age, and another is on a timely issue: elections.

SN 851919 Maintaining Dignity in Later Life: A Longitudinal Qualitative Study of Older People’s Experiences of Supportive Care

The aim of this study was to examine preparations for the end of life made by older people with supportive care needs and the factors that support or undermine a sense of dignity. Thirty-four participants in Bristol and Nottingham were recruited via GPs and day centres. All had health problems that required support and care to varying degrees, including family care and support, medical treatment, community nursing, home care services and moves to care homes. They were interviewed face-to-face on four occasions (on average) between June 2008 and January 2011 and contacted by telephone between interviews. Face-to-face interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim.

SN 5237 Adding Quality to Quantity: Quality of Life in Older Age, 2000-2002

The broad aim of the study was to define the constituents of quality of life in older age. The research questions were twofold: how do older people define and prioritise quality of life, and how do they feel it can be improved? This study represented a unique multidisciplinary and mixed methods collaboration between investigators with backgrounds in sociology, psychology, social gerontology, transport planning and clinical epidemiology. Following the fielding of the questionnaire, 80 respondents were selected for an in-depth interview to probe factors further affecting quality of life.

SN 6861 Qualitative Election Study of Britain, 2010

This research project recorded the views and concerns of Britons before and after the 2010 General Election. By conducting 14 focus groups with people in England, Scotland and Wales the project investigated, qualitatively, pre- and post-election views. The aim was to generate data that: 1) provided insights into the views and perceptions of citizens on politicians, party leaders, and political issues (e.g. civic duty, political alienation, political activism) before and after the general election; 2) allowed for analysis of the meaning that underlies their assessments, uncover sources of normative values, and make explicit the tacit assumptions participants use to reach their judgements. Three additional focus groups were conducted on the night of the first ever Leaders’ Debates and the transcripts record people’s expectations in advance of the debates and their reactions afterwards. As well as the focus group transcripts, the collection includes a quantitative file of results from the pre-focus group questionnaire given to participants.

And watch this space – comparable data from the 2015 UK elections will be arriving shortly.

What could be better than QL data? Getting funded to do research with QL data! The ESRC has a programme, the Secondary Data Analysis Initiative, which does just that. It offers funding for up to 18 months and £200,000 for research that collects no new data, but uses data from selected existing resources. One of the designated resources is Timescapes, a rich lode of QL data.  Another, the Qualitative Archives on Ageism and Conflict, is held at the Northern Ireland Qualitative Archive.

As always, if you want any help getting starting or looking for data, just get in touch.

Jun 08

Guest post #3, Prof Rachel Thomson: Case histories in QLR

rachelthomsonRachel Thomson, Professor of Childhood & Youth Studies at the University of Sussex, writes our third guest post. Rachel is also one of the directors of the Sussex Humanities Lab. She has been involved in several qualitative longitudinal studies and has co-edited two special issues of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology on the topic in 2003 (6:3) and 2015 (18:3). She blogs at and

In this post Rachel explores case histories in QLR. We too have been contemplating different understandings of ‘the case’ and Rachel’s post has encouraged us to re-think what we consider to constitute a case and how we might go about analysing cases across an archived dataset that comprises six QLR studies. We found her thoughts on the fluidity of cases and practices of casing very insightful. Rachel and colleagues will be running a two-day training course on Case Histories in Qualitative Longitudinal Research’ at the University of Sussex on 6-7th October 2016. We welcome your comments and ideas. 

Case histories in qualitative longitudinal research – some thoughts

Questions of scale

Qualitative longitudinal research can play around with our ideas of scale. A study can seem to be ‘small’, following 6 cases for example, yet at the same time can be ’big’, or perhaps a better word is ‘deep’ in collecting many instances of data for that case over an extended or just intensive period of time. Discussing this point Lyne Yates (2003) makes a case for QLR having a different kind of ‘warrant’ – or relationship with validity –moving us away from ideas of cases as being ‘representative’ in an abstract way –be that they are typical or that they may provide insight into a wider population through the operations of probability sampling. By following just cases over a period of 10 years (as we have in an ongoing study) we are able to understand relationships, sequences, consequences and antecedents in a concrete way- exploring the relationship between what we say and do, and between what we want and what we get – as researchers and as participants. More recently Liz Stanley has challenged the qualitative quantitative distinction on her work using collections of letters showing that in an era of digital data qualitative material and quantity and quantification are not mutually exclusive (Stanley 2015). Rather we might think of scale in terms of a zooming in and zooming out of perspective, and the potential to combine the affordances of the microscope and macroscope. Debates about scale within QLR parallel debates about scale within ‘big data’ and the kinds of digital tools that can be used to explore patterns, to zoom in for the close-up and to zoom out for the landscape or the map.

From cases to casing

QLR can be designed in different ways in order to reveal different kinds of cases. At the most basic level we might think of the case as a unit of analysis that we follow over time. So for example in our project Making Modern Mothers, the unit of analysis was women about to have their first baby. Yet cases are not stable, especially when pregnant and in this study we expanded our case to include significant others (especially grandmothers) and children when they were born. These children are now the focus of a follow-on project that explores digital childhoods, yet the backstory of the family is a vital part of the case and family members play a key part in narrating the case of the child who is the focus and who as we watch moves from being a ‘case’ of a child into a teenager and an adult. Analytically we can also think of the case in other ways, for example thinking about all of the urban families together and considering their affinities and their difference from the rural families. We might also think of the case of social class, or cutting the data set in the opposite direction, from the diachronic to the synchronic, considering how the families responded to a key external event such as the ‘credit crunch’ that turned into the extended period of austerity through which we continue to live. Rather than thinking of cases as stable and defined simply through existence we might follow Charles Ragin (1992) to think about practices of ‘casing’ in social enquiry, a flexible analytic practice that pays due respect to the complexity of the social realm and which in linking ideas and evidence had the potential for the testing and emergence of theory.

The case history and the archive

The ‘case’ itself is an object and genre with a history linked to practices of natural history, collecting, sorting and narrating and reflections. Butterflies were collected and displayed in a case long ago in a way that has parallels with the ways that doctors and lawyers began to conceptualise case histories and case law. A special issue ‘On the case’ of the journal Critical Inquiry helps us as social scientists understand our practices in historical and cultural context as well as helping us see the kinds of spillages that echoes that may travel between medical, legal, scientific and literary uses (Berlant 2007).There is no definitive way of constructing or telling a case, yet we may find ourselves being drawn into particular tropes taking up associated forms of authority. When telling the story of an individual over time it may be hard to escape the perspective of the doctor or the social worker who is able to see and describe underlying causes or pathologies. Perhaps we need to deliberately disrupt these well-worn narrative tendencies by reading materials against the grain, changing the direction of our analysis, or moving between individual and collective or conceptual cases self-consciously in order to find new perspectives.

In earlier work I suggested that we might make use of the notion of the archive more fully in our work learning from the critical work that has been done of reading the archive (Thomson 2007, McLeod & Thomson 2009, Thomson 2011). If we think of our data sets as archives, which can be organised into all sort of cases (individuals, institutional, geographical, temporal), we can also think about the kinds of stories that can be told from the archive, putting material together in a particular way will enable a particular history. Yet this is not definitive or exclusive. That material could be told in different ways by different analysts without taking away from the ‘validity’ of the material itself. Digital information systems allow individuals to build their own archives, copying and linking data from public collections and potentially making their own archives available to others. Sociological data sets are also made available to and interrogated by secondary analysts and there is a compelling case for social scientists to build on the lessons of historical and literary scholars about archival methodologies and epistemologies as well as understanding the new methodologies of the digital humanities. Having my data used by secondary analysts encourages me to believe that the potentials of this area are just beginning to be explored by sociologists – see for example

An event

The more I think about the case, case studies and case histories, the more I feel that they lie on the emergent boundaries of new kinds of sociology – even though the case study is associated with the very birth of the discipline and the Chicago School. On October 6th and 7th my Australian colleague Professor Julie McLeod and I will be teaching a 2 day advance methods course for the NCRM, based in the Mass observation Archive at the University of Sussex . The course responds to the request for more focus on methods of analysing QLR data among the participants at our 2015 course ‘Affective methods: capturing everyday temporalities with QLR’. In this course we will be exploring what it might mean to make a case from data archives, both those we generate from primary research, those we find in archives, and those we construct from a range of heterogeneous sources. The course will explore methodologies of the boundaries of history and sociology and between scientific and humanities paradigms. Please join us.


Berlant, L. (2007) ‘On the case’ Critical Inquiry: special issue 33 (4)

McLeod, J. & Thomson (2009) Researching Social Change: qualitative approaches, Sage.

Ragin, C. (1992) ‘”Casing” and the process of social inquiry’ in Ragin & Becker (eds) What is a case: exploring the foundations of social inquiry, Cambridge University Press.

Stanley, L. (2015) ‘Operationalizing a QLR project on social change and whiteness in South Africa, 1770s – 1970s” International Journal of Social Research Methodology 18:3, 251-65.

Thomson, R. (2007) ‘The qualitative longitudinal case history: practical, methodological and ethical reflections’ Social Policy and Society, 6(4): 571-582.

Thomson, R. (2011) Unfolding lives. Youth, gender and change. Policy Press

Thomson, R., Hadfield, L., Kehily, M.J. and Sharpe, S. (2010) ‘Family fortunes: an intergenerational perspective on recession’ 21st Century Society 5 (2): 149-157

Thomson, R Thomson, R. (2014) Generational research: Between historical and sociological imaginations, International Journal of Social Research Methods, 17 (2) 147-156

Yates, L.(2003) ‘Interpretative claims and methodological warrant in small number qualitative longitudinal research’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology 6 (3): 223-32.