Autobiographies in social research

An autobiography is an account of the life of an individual, written by that individual, sometimes with the assistance of a professional biographer.

One of the most popular UK autobiographies of 2020 was Harry and Meghan’s ‘Finding Freedom’, and it is supposed to ‘dispel rumors about their relationship from both sides of the pond’.

The Amazon critics, however, disagree. The comments ranked at 2 and 3 (accessed 18 August 2020)  in order of usefulness both give the book 1 star out of five and comment thus:

Dela – 1.0 out of 5 stars Pure fantasy

“… the reader can only assume a good proportion of [this book is] made up… the reader is left with a very poor impression of the couple. As someone else said – this is very much an ‘own goal’.”

600 people found this helpful

hellsbells123 – 1.0 out of 5 stars Dross of the highest order – all time low for Harry

“Dreadful book full of ridiculous unnecessary detail from a couple who profess to want privacy. This is a book masquerading as a love story but full of bile, hatred and bitterness. “

578 people found this helpful

Source

The strengths and limitations of autobiographies as a source of data

Whether they have a readership of millions or tens, autobiographies are selective in the information they provide about the life of the author.

They thus tell you what the author wants you to know about themselves and their life history.  

However, you have no way of knowing whether the events outlined in an autobiography are actually and I wouldn’t even trust an autobiography to give me an accurate view of the authors’ own interpretation of what the most significant events in their life history were.

The author may exaggerate certain events, either because they mis-remember them, or because they want their book to sell, thus they are selecting what they think their audience will want to read.

In some cases, events may even be fabricated altogether.

As a rule, I’d say that the more famous someone is, then the less valid its contents are.  An exception to this would be less famous ‘positive thinking’ lifestyle gurus, whose income maybe depends more on their book sales than really famous people, who could possibly afford to be honest in the biographies!

Either way, there are so many reasons why an autobiography might lack validity, I wouldn’t trust the content of any of them – think about it, how honest would you be in your autobiography, if you knew anyone could read it?

Using autobiography sales data may be more useful…

IMO the value of autobiographies lies in telling us what people want to hear, not necessarily in getting to the truth of people’s personal lives.

If want to know what people want to hear, look a the sales volumes – there are really no surprises…..

Top selling autobiographies of all time (source)

Relevance to A-level Sociology?

Twitter data is a source of secondary qualitative data (public rather than private data) and so is relevant to the research methods part of the course.

Personal Documents in social research

Personal documents are those which are intended only to be viewed by oneself or intimate relations, namely friends or family. They generally (but not always) not intended to be seen by a wider public audience.

For the purposes of A-level sociology, the two main types of personal document are diaries and personal letters.

Today, I’m inclined to include personal ‘emails’ and certain intimate chat groups – such as circles of close friends chatting on WhatsApp, in this definition, because the data produced here will reveal personal thoughts and feelings, and isn’t intended for wider public consumption.

I think we can also include some personal blogs and vlogs in this definition, as some of these do reveal personal thoughts and feelings, even if they are written to be viewed by the general public – people sharing aspects of their daily lives on YouTube, or people writing more focused blogs about the travel experiences or how they are coping with critical illnesses, all have something of the ‘personal’ about them.

We could also include ‘naughty photos’ intended only to be shared with an intimate partner, but I think I’ll leave an analysis of those kind of documents out of this particular post!

Just a quick not on definitions – you need to be careful with the distinction I think between personal and private documents.

  • Personal documents = anything written which reveals one’s personal thoughts and feelings. These can either be written for consumption by oneself, by close others, or sometimes for public consumption.
  • Private documents – these are simply not intended to be viewed by a wider public audience, and can include someone’s personal diary or intimate letters/ photos between two people, but company accounts and strategy can also count as private documents, even if shared by several dozens of people, if not intended for consumption by a wider audience.

As with all definitions, just be clear what you’re talking about.

Certainly to be safe, for the sake of getting marks in an A-level sociology exam question on the topic, personal diaries and ‘intimate letters’ are certainly both types of personal document.

Examples of sociological research using Personal Documents

Thomas and Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant (1918/ 1921)

Ozana Cucu-Oancea argues that this remains the most significant work using personal documents in the history of the social sciences (source).

The study used a range of both personal and public documents, and the former included hundreds of letters between Polish immigrants and their families back home in Poland, as well as several personal diaries.

In all the work consisted of 2,200 pages in five volumes, so it’s pretty extensive, focussing  on the cultural consequences of Polish migration.

The documents revealed touched on such themes as crime,  prostitution, alcoholism; and the problem of social happiness in general.

What was significant about this study from a theoretical point of view is that it put the individual at the centre of social analysis and stood in contrast to Positivism which was popular at that time.

The limitations of using personal documents in social research

  • There is a problem of interpretation. The researchers might misinterpret the meaning of the documents. The less contextual information the researchers have, the more likely this is to happen.
  • Practically it takes a long time to sift through and organise the information.
  • Who cares? Let’s face it, are you really going to go and read a 2, 200 page work analysing letters from Polish Immigrants, written over 100 years ago?

Relevance to A-level Sociology?

Twitter data is a source of secondary qualitative data (public rather than private data) and so is relevant to the research methods part of the course.

A-Level Sociology Official Statistics Starter (Answers)

One of the supposed advantages of official statistics is that they are quick and easy to use to find out basic information.

To test this out, I use the following as a starter for my ‘official statistics’ lesson with my A-level sociology students:

I print the above off as a one paged hand-out and give students 10 minutes to find out the approximate answers to each of the questions.

If some students manage to find all of them in less than 10 minutes, they can reflect on the final question about validity. I wouldn’t expect all students to get to this, but all of them can benefit from it during class discussion after the task.

Official statistics stater: answers

Below are the answers to the questions (put here because of the need to keep updating them!)

How many people are there in the UK?

66, 800 000 estimated in 2020

Source: Office for National Statistics Population Estimates.


How many households are there in the UK?

27.8 million in 2019

Source: ONS Families and Households in the UK 2019.


How many marriages were there last year in the UK?


240 000 in 2017, latest figures available

Source: ONS Marriages in England and Wales

How many cases of Domestic Violence were there in England and Wales last year?

In the year ending March 2019, an estimated 2.4 million adults aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year (1.6 million women and 786,000 men).

Source: Domestic Abuse in England and Wales, November 2019.


What proportion of GCSE grades achieved 4 or above in 2020, how does this compare to 2019?

79% of GCSE entries in 2020 received 4 or above, up from 70% in 2019.

Source: The Guardian.

How many students sat an A level in Sociology last year?

38, 015 students sat an exam in A-level sociology in 2019.

Source: Joint Council for Qualifications (curse them for PDFing their data and making it less accessible for broader analysis).

Do any of the above sources lack validity?

It’s hard to make an arguement that the last two have poor validity – however, you can argue that these are invalid measurements of students’ ability, because of variations in difficulty of the exams and a range of other factors.

With the DV stats, there are several reasons why these cases may go under reported such as fear and shame on the part of the victims.

Marriages, there may be a few unrecorded forced marriages in the UK.

In terms of households, the validity is pretty high, as you just count the number of houses and flats, however, definitions of what counts as a household could lead to varying interepretations of the numbers.

The population stats are an interesting one – we have records of births, deaths and migration, but illegal immigration, well be it’s nature it’s difficult to measure!

The point of this starter and what comes next…

It’s kinaesthetic demonstration of the practical advantages of official statistics, and gives students a chance to think about validity for themselves.

Following the starter, we crack on with official statisics proper – considering in more depth the strengths and limitations of different types of official statistics, drawn from other parts of the A-level sociology specification.

A-level teaching resources

If you’re interested in receiving a paper copy of this, along with a shed load of other fully modifiable teaching resources, why not subscribe to my A-level sociology teaching resources, a bargain at only £9.99 month.

Unlike Pearsons or Tutor to You (however you spell it), I’m independent, all subscription money comes straight to me, rather than the resource designers getting a pittance and 90% of the money going to the corporates at the top, like with those companies.

How has Coronavirus Affected Education?

The most obvious impact of the 2020 Coronavirus on education was the cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams, with the media focusing on the chaos caused by teacher predicted grades being downgraded by the exam authority’s algorithm and then the government U-turn which reinstated the original teacher predicted grades.

While it’s fair to say that this whole ‘exam debacle’ was stressful for most students, in the end the end of exam period cohorts ended up getting a good deal, on average, as they were able to pick whichever ‘result’ was best.

It’s also fair to say, maybe, that most of the students who missed their GCSEs and A-levels didn’t miss out on that much education – what they missed out on, mostly, was the extensive period of ‘exam training’ which comes just before the exam, which are skills that aren’t really applicable in real life.

However, in addition to the exam year cohorts, there were also several other years of students – primary and secondary school students, and older students, doing apprenticeships and degrees, whose ‘real education’ has been impacted by Covid-19.

This article focuses on some of the recent research that’s focused on these ‘other’ less newsworthy students.

This post has primarily been written to get students studying A-level sociology thinking about methods in context, or how to apply research methods to the study of different topics within education.

Research studies on the impact of Coronavirus on Education.

I’ve included three sources with lots of research: the DFE, The NFER and the Sutton Trust, and then a few other sources as well.

The Department for Education (DFE)

The DFE Guidance for Schools resources seems like a sensible place to start for information on the impact of the pandemic on schools.

The Guidance for the Full Opening of Schools recommends seven main measures to control the spread of the virus.

This guidance suggests there is going to be a lot more pressure on teachers to ‘police’ pupils actions and interactions – although ‘social distancing’ is required only dependent on the individual school’s circumstances, and face coverings are not mandatory. So schools do have some discretion.

All in all, it just looks like schools are going to be quite a lot more unpleasant and stressful places to be in as various measures are put in place to try and ensure contact between pupils is being limited.

The National Foundation of Education Research (NFER)

The NFER has produced several mainly survey based research studies looking at the impact of Coronavirus on schools.

One NFER survey of almost 3000 senior leaders and teachers in 2200 schools across England and Wales asking them about the challenges they face from September 2020.

The main findings of this survey are as follows:

  • teachers report that their students are an average of three months behind with their studies after missing school due to Lockdown
  • Teachers in the most deprived schools are three times more likely to report that their pupils are four months behind compared to those in the least deprived schools.
  • Over 25% of pupils had limited access to computer facilities during lock down. This was more of a problem for pupils from deprived areas.
  • Teacher anticipate that 44% of pupils will need catch up lessons in the coming academic year.
  • Schools are prioritizing students’ mental health and well being ahead of getting them caught up.

The Sutton Trust

The Sutton Trust has several reports which focus on the impact of Coronavirus, specifically on education. The reports look at the impacts on early-years and apprenticeships, for example.

A report by the Sutton Trust on the impact of the school shutdown in April noted some of the following key findings:

  • Private schools were about twice as likely to have well-established online learning platforms compared to state schools, correspondingly privately schooled children were twice as likely to receive daily online lessons compared to state school children.
  • 75% of parents with postgraduate degrees felt confident about educating their children at home, compared to less than half of parents with A-levels as their highest level of qualification
  • 50% of teachers in private schools said they’d received more than three quarters of the work back, compared to only 8% in the most deprived state schools.

Research from other organisations

  • This article from the World Economic Forum provides an interesting global perspective on the impact of coronavirus – with more than a billion children worldwide having been out of school. It highlights that online learning might become more central going forwards, but points out that access to online education various massively from country to country.
  • The Institute for Fiscal studies produced a report in July focusing on the financial impacts of Coronavirus on Universities. They estimate that the sector will have lost £11 billion in one year, a quarter of income, and that around 5% of providers probably won’t be able to survive without government assistance.
  • This article in The Conversation does a cross national comparison of how schools in four countries opened up. They grade their approach. It’s an interesting example of how some social policies are more effective than others!

Final Thoughts

I’ve by no means covered all the available research, rather I’ve tried to get some breadth in here, looking at the impact on teachers and pupils, and at things globally too.

By all means drop some links to further research in the comments!

Two-stage balloon rocket as an introduction to ‘experiments’ in sociology

The two-stage balloon rocket experiment is a useful ‘alternative’ starter to introduce the topic of experiments – a topic which can be both a little dry, and which some students will find challenging, what with all the heavy concepts!

Using the experiment outlined below can help by introducing students to the concepts of ‘dependent and independent variables’, ’cause and effect’, ‘controlled condition’s, ‘making predictions’ and a whole load of other concepts associated with the experimental method.

The experiment, including the materials you’ll need, and some discussion questions, is outlined here – you’ll need to sign up, but it’s easy enough to do, you can use your Google account.

Keep in mind that this link takes you to a full-on science lesson where it’s used to teach younger students about physics concepts – but modified and used as a starter it’s a useful intro a sociology lesson!

Also, students love to revert back to their childhood, and you can call this an activity which benefits the lads and the kin-aesthetic learners, Lord knows there’s precious little enough for them in the rest of the A-level specification, so you may as well get this in while you can!

The two-stage balloon rocket experiment

(Modified version for an intro to experiments in A-level sociology!)

  1. Set up the two-stage balloon rocket experiment in advance of the students coming into the classroom. Set it up with only a little amount of air, so it deliberately is a bit naff on its first run.
  2. Get students to discuss what they think is going to happen when you release the balloon along the wire.
  3. Release the balloon.
  4. Discuss why it didn’t work too well.
  5. Get students involved with redesigning the experiment
  6. Do round two.
  7. Use the examples of ‘balloon speed’ as ‘dependent’ and ‘amount of air/ fuel’ as independent variables’ when introducing these often difficult to understand concepts in the next stage (excuse the pun) of the lesson.

Questions you might get the students to consider:

  • What variables did we find had the biggest impact on how far the rocket traveled?
  • Did any variables have a very small impact or no impact at all?
  • If we had more time or other materials available, what changes would you make to make the rocket travel even farther?

Don’t forget to save the animal modelling balloons you would have bought for this and use them for the ‘Balloon Animals Starter’ in the next lesson on field experiments.

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Sociological Experiments

This post aims to provide some examples to some of the more unusual and interesting experiments that students can explore and evaluate.

I’ve already done a post on ‘seven field experiments‘, that outline seven of the most interesting classic and contemporary experiments which are relevant to various topics within the A-level sociology syllabus, in this post I provide a much fuller list, and try to present some more unusual examples, focusing on contemporary examples with video examples where possible.

The Circle

Channel Four’s ‘The Circle’ is an experiment of sorts – contestants have to stay in one room and can only interact with each other by a bespoke, in-house social media application, competing for popularity. At the end of every day the two-three most popular people get to kick out someone from the least three popular people, then a newbie comes in to replace them.

The Twinstitute

This recent series which aired on BBC2 involves getting identical twins to do the same tasks under different circumstances – to see what the effect of ‘external stimuli’ (independent variables) are on factors such as ‘concentration’.

In one classic, and super easy to relate to example, sets of twins are asked to do a written IQ test – one half are allowed to keep their mobile phones on the table, another have to put them away – all other variables remain the same. The findings are predictable – the group with their phones out get worse scores.

Conclusion – mobile phones are distracting, quite a useful fact to remind students of!

Sleep deprivation makes people less likely to want to socialise with you!

A 2017 experiment measured how respondents perceived tired people. The findings were that respondents were less likely to want to socialise with sleep-deprived people.

  • 25 Participants (aged 18-47) were photographed after normal sleep and again after two days of sleep deprivation.
  • The two photographs were then rated by 122 raters (aged 18-65), according to how much they would like to socialise with the participants. The raters also rated the photos based on attractiveness, health, sleepiness and trustworthiness.
  • The raters were less likely to want to socialise with the participants in the ‘sleep-deprived’ photos  compared to the photos of them when they’d had normal sleep. They also perceived the ‘sleep-deprived’ versions as less attractive, less health and more sleepy.
  • There was no difference in the trustworthiness ratings.

You have to think about this to get to what the variables are:

  • The main dependent variable is the raters’ ‘desire to socialise’ with the people in the photos.
  • The independent variable is the ‘level of sleep-deprivation’ (measured by photos)  

What I like about this experiment is the clear ‘control measure’ – the researchers used photos of the same participants – after regular sleep and sleep-deprivation.

Without that control measure, the experiment would probably fall apart1

Science Professors think female applicants are less competent

In this 2012 experiment researchers sent 127 science professors around the country (both male and female) the exact same application materials from a made-up undergraduate student applying for a lab manager position.

63 of the fake applications were made by a male, named John; the other 64 were made by a female, named Jennifer.

Every other element of the applications were identical.

The researchers also matched the two groups of professors to whom the applications were sent, in terms of age distribution, scientific fields, and tenure status.

The 127 professors were each asked to evaluate the application based on

  • their overall competency and hireability,
  • the salary they would offer to the student
  • the degree of mentoring they felt the student deserved.

The faculty were not told the purpose of the experiment, just that their feedback would be shared with the student.

The results

Both male and female professors consistently regarded the female student applicant as less competent and less hireable than the otherwise identical male student:

  • The average competency rating for the male applicant was 4.05, compared to 3.33 for the female applicant.
  • The average salary offered to the female was $26,507.94, while the male was offered $30,238.10.
  • The professor’s age and sex had insignificant effects on discrimination —old and young, male, and female alike tended to view the female applicants more negatively.

Blind auditions improve the chances of female musicians being recruited to orchestras

A comparative study by Cecilia Rouse, an associate professor in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University, seems to confirm the existence of sex-biased hiring by major symphony orchestras.

Traditionally, women have been underrepresented in American and European orchestras. Renowned conductors have asserted that female musicians have “smaller techniques,” are more temperamental and are simply unsuitable for orchestras, and some European orchestras do not hire women at all.

To overcome bias, most major U.S. orchestras implemented blind auditions in the 1970s to 1980s, in which musicians audition behind a screen that conceals their identities but does not alter sound. However, some kept non-blind auditions.

This provided the context for a nice ‘natural experiment’…

Using data from the audition records, the researchers found that:

  • – for both blind and non-blind auditions, about 28.6 percent of female musicians and 20.2 percent of male musicians advanced from the preliminary to the final round.
  • – When preliminary auditions were not blind, only 19.3 percent of the women advanced, along with 22.5 percent of the men.

The researchers calculated that blind auditions increased the probability that a woman would advance from preliminary rounds by 50 percent.

As a result, blind auditions have had a significant impact on the face of symphony orchestras. About 10 percent of orchestra members were female around 1970, compared to about 35 percent in the mid-1990s.

Rouse and Goldin attribute about 30 percent of this gain to the advent of blind auditions.

Their report was published in the September-November issue of the American Economic Review.

The Marshmallow Test

This classic 1971 experiment was designed to measure a child’s level of self-control, or will-power. In sociological terms, this is measuring a child’s ability to ‘defer gratification’.

Researchers put a child in a room with one Marshmallow. The child was informed that they could eat it whenever they wanted, but if they could wait until the researcher returned, they could have two Marshmallows.

The researcher then left and the child was left alone to deal with their temptation for approximately 15 minutes. In the end 2/3rds of children gave into temptation and ate the Marshmallow, the other third resisted.

The researchers then tracked the children through later life and found that those who had more will power/ self control (those who hadn’t eaten the treat) were more likely to do well at school, avoid obesity and generally had a better quality of life.

NB – it’s down to you to do your research on how replicable and valid this experiment is.

Here’s one of the original researchers in 2015 saying how they’ve evolved and replicated the experiment and he’s written a book on the importance of teaching self-control to enhance people’s quality of life:

On the other hand, this is a video which is critical, saying that future studies found that social economic background accounted for around half of life-success, with individual will-power only accounting for half.

(However, this second video appears to be one young guy with no academic credentials, other than the lame bookshelf he’s put in the background, hardly semiotics genius.)

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Voices of Guinness: Oral Histories of Work in Modernity

Voices of Guinness: An Oral History of the Royal Park Brewery (202) is a recent academic work by Tim Strangleman which explores the experience of work in one Guinness Factory from the 1940s to the early 2000s.

The research took place over several years and consists of oral histories (presumably based on in-depth structured, or even unstructured interviews) with people who used to work in the factory and the use of a range of secondary documents such as photos, pictures and the Guinness factory magazine.

Strangleman puts together a kind of collage of life histories to present various stories about how workers made sense of going to work: what work meant to them and how they coped with its challenges.

This is a useful example of ‘work in modernity’ – Strangleman describes how the Guinness company established a kind of ‘industrial citizenship’ – their aim was to build workers who were fully rounded humans who had a sense of ownership over their work, a concept which many seem very alien now with ‘zero hours contracts’.

The workers for the most part in the 1940s – 1970s at least bought into this – they felt at home in the workplace and because of this, they felt able to criticize the management, a situation which may have been uncomfortable for them, but helped them to keep the workers happy enough.

In the 40s-60s – leisure was broadly focused around the factory and with work colleagues – there were several social clubs such as sports clubs, even theatre clubs, but this started to change in the 1960s when rising incomes led to more privatised forms of leisure.

The workers in late modernity also expected to be employed for life, which is one of the most notable changes to date – most students today don’t want a job for life, and you see the idea of ‘temporary employment’ built into the modern day site of the factory – NB the Guinness Factory is now closed, it has been replaced with ‘Logistics’ wharehouses, the kind of temporary structures which stand in contrast with the more permanent nature of work in modernity.

For details of the book please click here.

You can find out more about this study through two useful podcasts:

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is an excellent study to show what work used to be like in Modernity, and as Strangleman says, it reminds us what we have lost in Postmodernity.

It’s also interesting to contrast how the solidness of the factory then ties in with the stable idea of ‘jobs for life’ whereas now people no longer expect or even want jobs for life, we see more temporary buildings forming the basis for working class jobs, most obviously the prefab Amazon warehouses.

In terms of methods this a useful example of a study that uses secondary qualitative data and interviews for oral histories.

Theoretically, there are definite links here to what Bauman would have called more solid forms of Modernity!

The Up Series – Britain’s Best Loved Longitudinal Study

From 7 Up to 63 Up

The Up Series has followed the lives of fourteen children since 1964, and it is still going today, with 11 respondents still actively involved in the project.

The original 7 Up was broadcast in 1964 and featured the children talking about their hopes and aspirations for the future. Since then, the cameras have returned every seven years to document the changes in the lives of the respondents, up until the most recent, ‘63 Up’, which aired in 2019 on Brit Box.

The Director of the series is Michael Apsted, and one of things he was interested in testing was whether children’s characters were ‘set’ by the age of seven – based on a famous quote/ theory of Aristotle –

‘Give me the child at seven, and I will show the man’ – implying that by seven, a child’s character is pretty much set by that age.

Apsted was also interested in the extent to which social class background determined the future life-chances of the children, and the documentary selected children from extreme ends of the social class spectrum – Tony, for example is a classic working class London East Ender, who can’t sit still in school in the first episode and is talking about how important fighting is, while Andrew is attending a private boarding school, and at age seven already knows the college at Cambridge he wants to go to and that he intends to be lawyer.

The documentary series has a strong focus on personal life-histories, and every seven years, the respondents have  been asked why they made certain decisions and how they coped with life’s up and downs, especially during the previous seven years.

The latest series sees the respondents getting very reflective of their ‘adult lives’ now that they are in or approaching retirement.

63 Up is split into three parts, three hours long in total, with in depth-semi-structured interviews with all the remaining participants. Besides their life-histories, you get to see the close relationships that have built up between the director and the respondents, which is something only possible with a relatively small-scale longitudinal study such as this.

Michael Apsted: Director of 63 UP

If you want to watch the whole thing, you’ll need to subscribe to BritBox. There are some playlists on YouTube, but IMO it’s worth paying the subscription for a month just for this (or if it’s yer first time, not paying because you can cancel after the first free trial month!)

Seven Up: Relevance to A-level Sociology

  • The most obvious link is to research methods, with this as a pretty interesting example of a longitudinal study, but it also shows other methods – namely semi-structured interviews and also ‘Life Histories’.
  •  It also links to families and households – there’s a lot of focus on family life, it’s kind of like an application of the Personal Life Perspective – you get to see how the meaning of family varies for the respondents
  • It’s a powerful reminder of how social class has influenced life-chances.

The strengths of this small-scale Longitudinal Study

  • The sample selection allows us to compare the life-progression of working-class kids and upper middle-class kids, from childhood to retirement.
  • The in-depth nature of the study allows us to relate personally to the stories of individuals – many of the respondents talk about how they think ordinary people will be able to relate to their life stories. Good empathetic understanding.
  • Over the years a close relationship has built up between the director and the respondents, and the later now seem to own the process more – with more of the input coming from them.
  • We get to see how political and economic changes have impacted individuals from their micro-perspective – this is a great example of an Interpretivist perspective, and it shows the sociological imagination at work.
  • Fortunately, the attrition rate hasn’t been too bad with this study.
  • We really get to see how social class effects life-chances with the working class respondents seeming to worry more about their children’s futures.

The Limitations

  • The sample size is too small to make generalisations to the population. It isn’t worth doing statistical comparisons because of the low numbers.
  • Women are underrepresented, especially now one has died and another has pulled out. And there is only one non-white participant.
  • There seems to be a gender bias in the original interviews – with many of the questions focusing on marriage for the women, but less so for the men, so difficult to make comparisons.
  • The study has clearly made the respondents minor celebrities, and being part of it may have made them lead their lives different.
  • Ethically it’s been quite demanding on the respondents, most of them talk about not looking forward to doing the interviews.
  • Will it carry on until 70-Up?!?

How to use this as a teacher

There’s a danger this might be of more interest to you as a teacher, and not so much to your students, especially if you’re of a certain age!

However, you can give students a feeling for the documentary series by simply showing them the original summary YouTube clip (I recommend) which is quite entertaining, and then following up by a couple of clips from the latest 63 Up, add in timings.  

If you just focus on Tony and Andrew, who are the first two respondents, you get to see the real difference in social class background, and you can give students a feel for the differences in ‘life-course’ these two individuals have had.

Tony: working class, and grew up in the East End of London

In the original 7 Up, Tony is one of the more memorable characters, we see him running around a lot, falling over, climbing up railings, struggling to sit still in class and talking about how important it is to ‘have a fight’.  

His aspiration was to be a jockey, and he became one when he left school at 15, but after riding in three races and not placing, he turned to taxi driving as a career, and by 21 he was doing the knowledge to become a London cab driver.

He’s had what seems to be a reasonably successful, but fairly typical working class life – he married in his 20s, and by 28 had two kids.

He moved to Essex in 40s, bought a second home in Spain, and spent a lot of holiday time out there with his family.  

He had plans to move to Spain permanently to set up a bar in his 50s, but that all collapsed along with the wider development complex he was buying into in the area, so they consolidated, sold their Spanish assets, and are now living in a nice static Caravan in Essex (I think it’s Essex), surrounded by other traditional working class people.

He’s still married to his first wife, despite getting caught with one affair.

He voted for Brexit, but feels let down by the Tories, who he’ll never vote for again.

In 63 Up he’s still a cabby, and reported losing   a third of his income because of Uber.

On the class system – he says it’s very influential – those that are born with a silver spoon get extra chances, he also says (in previous episodes) that he’s better than most other people on the show, but never had a leg up!

As to  ‘show me the child and I’ll show you the man’ he says they got it right with him, and his section closes with an image of him running in the woods, in the same style as when he was running around in 7 Up, albeit with him being a bit fatter!

Andrew

Andrew was at boarding school in the original 7 Up, and in that very first episode states that he’s going to go Cambridge and study law.

He did precisely that and became a solicitor, and ended up moving to America by his 30s to work for a big American Transnational.

By 28 he married Jane, who I think was from a bit of a lower social class background, and by 35 had two children.

There are signs of his obvious wealth – previous episodes show the family on ski holidays and one of his sons studies computer science at Birmingham University.

They have a house in London and a second home in the country (a derelict barn bought at auction)

Their interview in 63 Up is set mostly in their amazing house, and Andrew is still working as a lawyer, retiring at 63.

He says he wishes he’d spent more time with his family rather than work, and he deliberately didn’t send their children to Boarding School because of this experience.  

He thinks elements of a child’s character are shaped at 7, but there are so many options not entirely, especially for Andrew, he thinks his wife as mellowed him a lot, which is maybe a fair comment!

He thinks the class system is more based on fame rather than class.

Sue

Unfortunately many of the early interviews with women focus on questions about marriage, which is a shame because it limits the content compared to the boys/ men!

At aged 7 we see Sue talking about what boys like them and her life history focuses almost entirely on here relationships.

She was married at 24, divorced kids by 35, and in a relationship with someone else by 42 – they’ve been engaged 20 years now she’s 63 ‘longest engagement ever’??

She’s an administrator for the Postgraduate programme at UCL – still there now.

She says that here dog is like part of their family, so there’s a link to the Personal Life Perspective.

On class she says she has always been working class and that you have to be born upper class. She thinks the bottom end has got worse – homelessness is now a thing, it wasn’t when she was younger.

She also points out that she got onto the property ladder because she got a council house, which changed here life.

She thinks you can see the adult now in her 7 year old self.

As to the importance of the documentary she says

‘ People pick up on what effects them – the things we’re going through are what everyone is going through’

She’s quite a young 63 year old!

Nick

Nick was brought up on a farm in Yorkshire, so difficult to place his class background.

He’s a very intelligent individual, clearly thoughtful as even a 7 year old, and went to Oxford to study physics, researching nuclear fusion.

His research went nowhere, and he eventually ended up teaching it physics, at degree level, which he seems to be still enjoying.  

He was married then divorced by his 40s and remarried by his 50s and currently (I think) lives in America.

He suggests the programme is difficult and that it’s made him think deeply about what the purpose of his life his.

Observes that he was at Oxford at the same time as Theresa May and that it’s unfortunate that such people have the front and the route to power, as they’re not the most capable to be running the country.

He still sees himself in that 7 year old child!

He had severe throat cancer at the time of the interview.

Bruce

Bruce was in boarding school at seven, and his parents divorced while he was still boarding

At 21 he was studying maths at Oxford and then spent period working in a state school as a teacher

At 35 he took a sabbatical teaching in Bangladesh – he was on a bit of a mission to ‘give something back’ pointing out that education is the key to unlocking opportunities.  

However, by 49 he was teaching maths at St Alban’s independent school. His friends give him a hard time apparently, about where his ideals have gone to.

He married later, in his 40s and he has two sons.

He doesn’t seem to have inherited wealth (maybe that was the divorce?) – he was living in a council house when he was in his 20s and he’s still having to work now, although only to fund his children through university.

His Kids don’t know what they want to do for carers!

He says he was beaten in public school – for no reason. This Killed expression of feelings. Restricted his emotional state.

Interestingly he said that when he was single he had ideals about combatting poverty, but having a family made him focus on more making money for his family, hence the move to the independent school at that time I guess.

Jackie

Married Mick by the age of 21 and moved to the outskirts of London, decided they didn’t want children. She was divorced by 35.

A second brief relationship led to one kid, then another one led to another two, and then another relationship.

At some point she moved to Scotland and she’s still living there, living on disability benefits for years, although I think she worked in the past.

She’s been on her own for years, and has become very close to her sister recently.

She says she’s loved being in the programme and than she can still see the core of herself in that seven year old child.

One of her ex-partners died in a road traffic accident, as a pedestrian. Although separate, he was still part of their children’s lives. 

She’s had a hard life!

She’s had a go at Michael, the director and interviewer, for treating the girls/  women on the series differently – asking them about children, not about society.

Not even by 21. They were still asking her mundane domestic questions.

Pete

Peter went to a comprehensive in Liverpool and got a history degree at London University. Peter decided to pull out at 28 up.

The Tabloids decided to portray him as the angry young red in Thatcher’s Britain.

Now he’s back: to promote the music and the band he’s in.

He’s had a hard time on social media, as an outspoken lefty

Lynne – working class east end of London

At 21 Lynne was working in a mobile Library in East London – delivering children’s books.

She’s spent her life working in children’s services and fighting for them but has been a victim of funding cuts – the mobile library was cut eventually.

She was working in Bethnal Green Library by age 42, and still at 49, but by the 56 up – review, she’d lost her job there due to cuts.  

She married at 19 – stayed married, had 2 daughters, both did well at school neither went to university.

She died unexpectedly a few years ago, due to a freak accident combined with an underlying medical condition – her section ends with interviews with her husband of 35 years and daughters.

It’s all quite sad really!

Paul and Symon

Both went to the same children’s home in London, and they visit each other to this day!

Paul’s family moved to Australia when he was a teenager.  He went into the Building Trade then Warehouse

Married by 28. He’d had two children by then. One went to University the other a car mechanic. Lots of grandchildren – and their kids seem to be doing well! 

Symon

Was working at Walls Freezer Factory at 21 – at 28 didn’t want to the hassle of being a manager.

By 28 he was married and had 5 kids. Divorced by 35. By 42, he got remarried.

By 49, trained to be Foster Parents and he’s looked after over 100 kids.

Says it took him years to reconcile his kids to his first divorce – can’t rush it!

He has 10 grandchildren, his friend Paul has a few too.

What’s remarkable about these two is just how similar their life paths have been, in so many ways, their partners apparently get on really well too. I guess it demonstrates the significance of friendships in enhancing the quality of life.

My intuition also tells me that these two seem to be the ‘least troubled’ of all the original respondents – and neither of them have been particularly ambitious in their lives!

John

He went to Westminster and studied law at Christ church Cambridge

He was a barrister by 35 and still is, on the cusp of retiring.

He comes across as screamingly posh, but he’s far from a ‘typical upper class Tory’ – he’s half Bulgarian, he’s married a Bulgarian and because his parents divorced when he was very young he ended up being quite poor and went to Oxford on a scholarship.

He may have been chosen to represent a certain class, but he was a bad selection if he was supposed to be ‘typical’.  

Voted Remain – too simple to be a yes or no issue.

There were inequalities when he was 7, but he doesn’t see them anymore.

Neil

Neil’s life course is probably the most interesting – Michael says that ‘everyone loved him at 7 and 14’ but from there is life seemed to go into free fall.

At 21 he was working on a building site and living in a squat.

At 28 he was homeless and touring the west coast of Scotland and at 35 living on a council estate on the Shetland Islands

However, by 42 he had moved to London and was working as a Lid Dem counsellor, and by 49 he was doing the same but in Cumbria.

He got married in his 50s – but they do not see each other very much anymore. He suggests it is because of his mental health issues – he needs to be left alone when he has a low mood episode.

Looking back, you can see this – at 35 he’s talking about ‘knowing he’s going mad’.  This is quite interesting – back then, we weren’t used to talking about ‘mental health’, now it’s well-in!

Because he’s used to living off a low income, his counsellor wages are enough for him to live off, and he’s also bought a house in France – His wife found it. He got the money from his mother’s death.

He says that Brexit was a vote against deteriorating society and politics

Can you see the adult in the 7-year-old?

‘You and the audience are in a better position to judge’

Final thoughts – how useful is the Up Series?

I love it, but that’s probably because I’m in my late 40s and can relate to the people in it – for today’s students, this kind of in-depth look at social changes might not be that interesting.

Having said that, a lot of A-level content is about social changes over the last 40 years, and these people have lived through those changes.

Also, some of the older clips are quite a lot of fun!

The utility of the series maybe comes more in teaching kids about ‘life lessons’ – one of my my take aways is how all of these people seem to have lead pretty ordinary lives for the most part – all of them have had children except for Neil, and they’ve just ‘got on with it’ – weathered lives storms, and come out the other end.

What this series shows us more than anything else is maybe that life is nothing special, and surviving it is a success in itself.

Whether today’s teenagers will be able to relate to it, I don’t know, I get the feeling life today is maybe too hyperreal for the lives of these boomers to have any real meaning?

It’s history!

Find out More

This Article from The Conversation offers an upbeat, but critical overview of the series!

Laboratory Experiments in sociology

This post focuses on the practical, theoretical and ethical and strengths and limitations of laboratory experiment, applied mainly to sociology…

What are laboratory Experiments?

Laboratory experiments take place in controlled environments and are the main method used in the natural sciences such as Physics, Chemistry and Biology. There are numerous experiments which have been designed to test numerous scientific theories about the temperatures at which various substances freeze or melt, or how different chemicals react when they are combined under certain conditions.

The logic of the experimental method is that it is a controlled environment which enables the scientist to measure precisely the effects of independent variables on dependent variables, thus establishing cause and effect relationships. This in turn enables them to make predictions about how the dependent variable will act in the future.

For a general introduction to the key features of experiments and the experimental method (including key terms such as hypothesis and dependent and independent variables) and some of their advantages please see this post: experiments in sociology: an introduction.

The laboratory experiment and is commonly used in psychology, where experiments are  used to measure the effects of sleep loss and alcohol on concentration and reaction time, as well as some more ethically dubious experiments designed to measure the effects of media violence on children and the responses of people to authority figures.

However, they are less common in sociology. Having said that, they are still a requirement within the research methods component of A-level sociology and the AQA exam board does seem to like setting exam questions on experiments!

Laboratory Experiments: Theoretical Factors

Theoretical Advantages of Laboratory Experiments

Accuracy and Precision– Laboratory experiments allow the precise effects of independent variables on dependent variables to be measured. This in turn makes it possible to establish cause and effect relationships between variables.

Isolation of Variables – The controlled conditions of laboratory experiments allows researchers to isolate variables more effectively than with any other research method. This further allows researchers to precisely measure the exact effect which one or more independent variables have on the dependent variable. With the ‘tomato experiment’ for example, laboratory conditions would allow the researcher to control precisely variations in temperature, moisture and light, this would not be possible in a field (no pun intended).

Controlled conditions also allow the researchers to eliminate the effects of ‘extraneous variables’. Extraneous variables are undesirable variables which are not of interest to the researcher but might interfere with the results of the experiment. If you were trying to measure the effects of alcohol on reaction time for example, keeping respondents in a lab means you could make sure they all at and drank similar things, and did similar things, in between drinking the alcohol (or placebo) and doing the reaction time test.

Laboratory experiments have excellent reliability for two major reasons:

Firstly, the controlled environment means it easy to replicate the exact environmental conditions of the original experiment and this also means it is relatively easy for the researcher to clearly outline the exact stages of the experiment, again making exact replication easier. This is not necessarily the case in a field experiment, where extraneous variables may interfere with the research process in different ways with repeat-experiments.

Secondly, there is a high level of detachment between the researcher and the respondent. In an experiment, the researcher typically takes on the role of ‘expert’ and simply manipulates variables, trying to have as little interaction with the respondents as the experiment will allow for. This means there is little room for the researcher’s own values to influence the way the respondent reacts to an experiment.

Theoretical Limitations of Laboratory Experiments

Laboratory experiments lack external validity – sociologists hardly ever use lab experiments because the artificial environment of the laboratory is so far removed from real-life that most Sociologists agree that the results gained from such experiments tell us very little about how respondents would actually act in real life. Take the Milgram experiment for example – how likely is it that you will ever be asked by scientist to give electric shocks to someone you’ve never met and who you can’t see when they give the wrong answer to a question you’ve just read out? Moreover, when was they last time you were asked to do anything to anyone by a scientist? In the real world context, many of the Milgram respondents may have responded to real-world authority figure’s demands differently.

Laboratory Experiments: Practical Factors

The practical advantages of lab experiments

In terms of practical advantages experiments (assuming they are ethical) are attractive to funding bodies because of their scientific, quantitative nature, and because science carries with it a certain prestige.

Once the experiment is set up, if it takes place in a lab, researchers can conduct research like any other day-job – there is no travelling to visit respondents for example, everyone comes to the researcher.

The practical problems of lab experiments

Practical problems include the fact that you cannot get many sociological subjects into the small scale setting of a laboratory setting. You can’t get a large group of people, or a subculture, or a community into a lab in order to observe how the interact with ‘independent variables’.

Also, the controlled nature of the experiment means you are likely to be researching one person at a time, rather than several people completing a questionnaire at once, so it may take a long time to get a large-sample.

Laboratory Experiments: Ethical Factors

The ethical limitations of laboratory experiments

Deception and lack of informed consent are an ethical problem- The Hawthorne effect gives rise to the firs ethical disadvantages often found in experiments – it is often necessary to deceive subjects as to the true nature of the experiment so that they do not act differently, meaning that they are not in a position to give full, informed consent. This was the case in the Milgram experiment, where the research subjects thought the (invisible) person receiving the shocks was the actual subject rather than themselves.

A second ethical problem concerns harm to respondents. In the case of the original Milgram experiment, ‘many research participants were observed to sweat, stutter, tremble, bit their lips and dig their nails into their flesh, full-blown, uncontrollable seizures were observed for three subjects’.

The ethical strenghts of laboratory experiments

While some laboratory experiments are notorious for their ethical problems, it is at least usually obvious that research is taking place (even if the exact purpose of the research may be hidden from respondents). Also, the benefits to society might well outweigh the costs to respondents.

Related Posts

Intro to Experiments in Sociology

Field Experiments in Sociology

Sources/ References

Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority, which cites Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row. An excellent presentation of Milgram�s work is also found in Brown, R. (1986). Social Forces in Obedience and Rebellion. Social Psychology: The Second Edition. New York: The Free Press.

The state of the nation

Is life in the UK getting better or worse? In this post I evaluate this question by looking at a few official statistics.

Is life in the UK getting better or worse?

This post looks at a few economic and social indicators to see what they suggest about trends in desirable social goods such as economic growth, employment and happiness and less desirable social problems such as crime, mental ill-health and suicide.

The point of this posts is to showcase some of the official statistics we might use to judge the state of the nation. These are the kind of stats we can use to evaluate the Functionalist view that ‘everything in society is generally OK’, compared to other more critical perspectives such as Marxism, Feminism or even Postmodernism.

You should always be critical of the validity of statistics, especially since most of the stats below are official statistics – they are collected by government agencies…

A social or economic indicator might suggest life in the UK is generally getting better or worse, but this might not actually be the case when you scratch beneath the surface.

For example, an increase in recorded crime may not be because of an underlying increase, but rather because people are more aware of certain types of crime and more likely to report those crimes.

Similarly, a decrease in unemployment may just be because more people are fearful of claiming benefits, even though they need them, because of the increased hassle and stigma of claiming them.

Any statistics that use averages may also give us a misleading picture of the ‘health of the nation’. For example, average income can trend upwards, but this doesn’t tell us how that income is distributed – it may mean the top 1/10th getting a lot richer and the bottom 1/10th getting a lot poorer.

Averages can also hide wide variations in how social goods and harms are distributed by gender and ethnicity and age. The male suicide rate is around three times higher than the female suicide rate.

Employment is increasing, unemployment is declining

The employment rate is at a record high of 76.3%, while the unemployment rate has been declining for 6 years, and stands at a very low 3.8%

Source: Labour Market Overview, January 2020.

Suicide Rates have shown a recent increase

In 2018, a total of 6,507 suicides were registered in the UK, equivalent to 11.2 deaths per 100 000 of the population.

Suicide rates have been steadily decreasing for the last 40 years, but there was a statistically significant increase from 2017 to 2018.

It’s also worth noting that the male suicide rate is three times higher than the female suicide rate.

Sources: Suicides in the UK: 2018 Registrations.

Fewer households in absolute poverty, the same amount in relative poverty

If we look at households in ‘absolute low income’ (the bottom two graphs below) then we see a decline. Focusing on the ‘after housing costs’ statistics:

  • In 2002/03 24% of households were in absolute low income, compared to only 19% in 2017/18.
  • If we look at relative low income, there is no change over time, 22% of households are still classified as low income households.

Source: Households Below Average Income.

Crime rates are remaining stable

However, some types of crime have increased recently

Robbery and knife crime have increased recently, although there are very few cases of these types of crime compared to theft and fraud, and while the later has increased, the impact of fraud on victims is probably less harmful than for most other types of crime.

Source: Crime in England and Wales

People are happier

The mean happiness score (/10) for the UK population has increased to all time high of 7.56. ‘Life satisfaction’ and ‘worthwhileness’ scores are also increasing

Anxiety levels are stable

The mean anxiety score (/10) has remained stable at just below 3/10 for half a decade, while the percentage of people reporting high levels of anxiety remains at just under 20%.

Source for the above two sets of stats: Personal and Economic well-being indicators.

The UK’s Population is Increasing

In 2018, the UK’s population reached 66.4 million people, with a growth rate of 0.6% and immigration being the main reason for population growth.

The population is increasing at roughly 350 000 people per year, just over 100 000 of these are due to ‘natural change’ (more births than deaths) while just over 200 000 are due to net migration (more people immigrating than emigrating.

Source: Overview of the UK population.

Conclusion: Is life in the UK getting better or worse?

On balance I’d say that the official statistics above suggest that, on average, life in the UK is getting better:

  • Employment and poverty are both down.
  • Crime is generally down
  • Happiness is increasing and anxiety is stable

However, there has been a recent spike in the suicide rate and some types of violent crime are up.

It’s very difficult to say whether or not the increasing population is a positive or a negative: clearly the fact that this is driven mainly by immigration concerns a lot of people, but possibly we need migration to offset the increasing dependency ration associated with the aging population, so this might actually be a good sign!

Question: what other stats do you think should be included in the above?