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Qualitative and quantitative narratives about individuals' lives: the British Cohort Studies as a resource for mixed methods research


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Title: Qualitative and quantitative narratives about individuals' lives: the British Cohort Studies as a resource for mixed methods research

Qualitative and quantitative narratives about
individuals' lives theBritish Cohort Studies as
a resource for mixed methods research
Sub-brand to go here
  • Jane Elliott
  • Centre for Longitudinal Studies

CLS is an ESRC Resource Centre based at the
Institute of Education
Aims of the presentation
  • Introduce the British Cohort Studies as a
    resource for the analysis of real lives
  • Design
  • Content (closed and open questions)
  • Opportunities for analysis
  • Raise/discuss broader methodological issues
  • Criticisms of quantitative research
  • Narrative features of cohort data
  • Possibilities and challenges when combining
    qualitative and quantitative methods
  • Focus on gender in qualitative and quantitative
  • Practical emphasis with examples from two
  • Preliminary analysis of essays written at age 11
  • Overview of new project on social participation

British Birth Cohort Studies
  • Fully representative samples of the British
  • Based on one weeks births - approximately 17,000
  • Followed up from birth into adulthood
  • Four British Birth Cohort Studies
  • 1946 National Survey of Health and Development
    (MRC funded)
  • 1958 National Child Development Study
  • 1970 British Cohort Study 1970
  • 2000/1 Millennium Cohort Study

1958 Birth Cohort Study
  • Representative sample of over 17,000 infants born
    in March 1958 (Perinatal Mortality Study)
  • Sample followed at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46
    (prospective study)
  • Multipurpose study family life education
    employment skills housing health finances
  • Focused bio-medical study at age 44 (MRC funded)
  • Approximately 12,000 individuals are still
  • Now core funded by ESRC with data collected every
    four years

NCDS follow-ups and sources of information
Hypothetical life history
Age 16
Age 42
Age 46
Age 23
Age 33
Narrative elements of cohort studies
  • Allow us to trace lives through time understand
    how childhood circumstances may impact on adult
  • Potentially allow for the construction of
    individual case studies based on detailed
    information collected over the years (while
    preserving confidentiality)
  • Allow for a focus on the historical context which
    has helped shape individual experiences
  • Comparisons between cohorts can enable the
    development of a narrative about social change

Resources for mixed methods research
  • Structured, numeric data collected longitudinally
  • Analysis of questionnaires and other materials as
    historical documents in their own right e.g.
    focus on wording of questions
  • Textual material
  • 1958 cohort Age 11 essays
  • 1958 cohort Age 50 open ended question
  • 1970 cohort answers to open questions at age 16
  • Interview transcripts

Approaches to mixing methods
  • Text -gt quantitative codes -gt quantitative
  • Comparisons between groups ext
  • Text -gt quantitative coding -gt analysis of the
  • Large sample -gt characteristics-gt selection of
    sub-sample for qualitative work
  • Quantitative longitudinal data -gt case study of
    an individual (Burton Singer approach)

NCDS 11-year old Essays
  • At age 11, in 1969 NCDS Cohort members completed
    a short questionnaire (at school) about leisure
    interests, preferred school subjects and
    expectations on leaving school
  • They were also asked to write an essay on the
    following topic
  • Imagine you are now 25 years old. Write about
    the life you are leading, your interests, your
    home life and your work at the age of 25. (You
    have 30 minutes to do this).
  • 13669 essays completed, mean length 204 words
  • Copies of the original essays (in childrens
    handwriting) are available on microfiche at CLS
    and are currently being digitised.

Existing research on the essays
  • A small sample of 521 essays have been coded for
    word count
  • Boys 180 words
  • Girls 228 words
  • All essays have been coded for employment
    aspirations, over 90 give a classifiable
  • No other systematic coding and analysis of the
    essays has been carried out to date

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Research project (March 2006- 2007) funded by the
Nuffield foundation (Elliott and Morrow)
  • Pilot study
  • Aimed to type up and code a sub-sample of 560
    essays conduct preliminary descriptive analyses
  • Sample stratified to reflect gender ability
    social class family structure
  • Essays were coded for themes such as
  • family life leisure employment housing
    expectations contact with parents pets
    transport and travel aspirations vs expectations
  • Both qualitative and quantitative analysis
    carried out using NVIVO.7 and SPSS to help
    organize, code, and analyze the data

Historical context being eleven in 1969
  • Films and TV cultural reference for children,
    discourses around gender and social class
  • Popular toys, games and activities
  • Family life living conditions, housing, role of
    mother and father
  • School life type of school, class sizes, gender
    of teacher head teacher.

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Popular toys of the 1960s
  • The Toy of the year Awards began in 1965
  • 1965 James Bond Aston Martin Die cast Model car
  • 1966 Action Man
  • 1967 Spirograph
  • 1968 Sindy
  • 1969 Hot Wheels Cars

1969 1970 Action man dolls
1969 1970 Sindy dolls
August Isle of Wight Festival
August UK troops in Belfast
January Beatles last ever live performance
March Concorde maiden flight
March Krays get life
July 21 Man on the Moon
Home experiences
  • 46 of the eleven-year-olds were living in
    owner-occupied accommodation while 42 were in
    council housing
  • 44 of children had their own bedroom
  • 19 of girls and 16 of boys shared a bed with
    another member of the family
  • 61 of mothers reported being in work at some
    time since the child was seven (only 3.2 were
    in professional or managerial occupations,
    compared with 20 of fathers)
  • 66 of mothers reported that the father took an
    equal role in managing the child and a further
    24 described the father as having a significant

School experiences (1969)
  • The majority of children were in primary schools
    when they wrote the essays
  • Only 4 of children were at independent schools
  • At age 11 the median class size was 36 pupils
    (mean 34.3), while at age 7 the median class size
    had been 37 with a mean of 35.25
  • 82 of children were in a school with a male
  • 45 of children had a female class teacher

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Results themes in boys and girls essays
Gender within quantitative and qualitative
approaches to research
  • Gender (sex) within quantitative analysis is
    relatively unproblematic,it is one of the easiest
    variables to code, use and understand
  • There is an assumption that gender is constant
    over time (for individuals)
  • Cross-cohort comparisons can be used to start
    exploring whether the meaning of gender is
    changing within British society
  • However it is only by adopting a qualitative
    approach that we can problematise gender and
    explore the individuals role in establishing
    their own gendered identity
  • Qualitative analysis needs to acknowledge that
    individuals can only act within the constraints
    of a gendered society and have access to specific
    resources with which to construct a gendered
  • Also need to be aware that social class and
    ethnicity are key components of identity and
    interact with gender

Narrative identity
  • Narrative can be understood as a resource for
    organising long sequences of events and
    experiences into a coherent whole
  • Narrative provides a practical means by which the
    individual can understand themselves as living
    through time, a human subject with a past,
    present, and future made whole by a narrative
    plot with a beginning, middle and end.
  • Allows conceptualisation of individual as having
    a continuous presence through time without
    becoming fixed or essentialized
  • Identity as idem or ipse (identical or selfsame
    soi-meme) permanence through time without
    sameness through time (Ricoeur).

The essay task creating a narrative identity?
  • Striking that children all took the task of
    writing an essay so seriously
  • Children understood that they were part of a
    special longitudinal study
  • They had already taken part at age seven
    (medical, parental interview, reading and maths
  • Only one or two children at each school would
    have been part of the study
  • Essays were written at school and children had
    already completed ability tests
  • Essay task demands an ability to imagine the
  • Future society but also an individual future
  • Children are also being expected to imagine an
    adult identity but to maintain a continuous sense
    of their own selfhood (Ricoeur Ipse and Idem)
  • The main resources that children use successfully
    to complete the task are the binary oppositions
    of adult/child and male/female

510168 I run a farm but it is not an ordinary
farm, it is a pet farm and I have many animals.
If someones pet has got hurt or burned I can
help it for I am a vet and many people come to
me. At home we are very happy with dogs, cats,
rabbits, baby lambs, chicks, ducklings and goats
around everywhere. My husband is a vet as well
and every weekend we go to the village to buy
food for us and the animals. I go on my horse
and my husband goes by the van. My sister often
visits us with her pet dog and cat. I exercise
the dogs by going for a 2 mile run every morning
and evening. Near our home is a wood and many
squirells and Deer come and visit us in the
morning and I cant resit giving them some thing
to eat. Farmer Browning who is our often
brings us some of his vegetables and fruit. as a
present of his cows or sheep get ill and we can
use it. The farm is in the country and it is very
peaceful in the day. In the night you can hear
an owl or two and sometimes in the old hay barn
you can hear a barn-owl and see some bats. I
love it in our farm and we wouldent swop the farm
for a million pounds nor the animals for I love
animals and birds very much. To much ever to sell
all of them.
Stellas essay at age 11
Stella got a degree and married in September
1979. Her husband was two years older than her
and they met when she was 19 years old. The
marriage ended in 1983 when she was 25. In the
following year she started cohabiting with a new
partner. At age 23 she reports working 35 hours
per week but its not clear what her job
is. Brief summary of life at 46 Stella is now
50, when she was last interviewed, in 2004, she
was living with her cohabiting partner age 47 and
her two children aged 11 and 6. She is working as
a classroom assistant and describes their
financial situation as just about getting
by. She describes her health as excellent and
exercises regularly two or three times per week,
although she also reports drinking alcohol most
days. In terms of overall life-satisfaction she
reports a score of 7 out of 10.
Social participation project Qualitative Sub-
study of NCDS 2008
  • Social Participation and Identity combining
    quantitative longitudinal data with a qualitative
    investigation of a sub-sample of the 1958 Cohort
  • Joint project with CRESC at Manchester
  • Jane Elliott
  • Andy Miles
  • Sam Parsons
  • Mike Savage
  • Funded by the ESRC Research Resources Board

Qualitative component of 2008 sweep
  • There is no history of including a qualitative
    component with the main sweeps of data collection
    for the cohort studies
  • Some sub-studies have adopted a qualitative
    approach e.g. work on step-families (Paul
  • A small sub-sample of 180 of those interviewed as
    part of the 2008 survey for NCDS will be asked to
    take part in a second qualitative interview
  • Age 50 is an obvious time for reflection on

  • Provide a resource of qualitative biographical
    data that can be used alongside the quantitative
  • Substantive focus on social participation across
    the life course and what factors are the key
    predictors of participation in mid-life
  • Understand more about cohort members experiences
    of being in the study
  • Understand more about individual lives from the
    perspective of the individuals themselves what
    the quantitative interviews may be missing

Collecting qualitative data?
  • Benefits of collecting qualitative data
  • Excellent sampling frame from which to design the
  • Detailed information about work histories
    previous answers to questions
  • Information about responders and non-responders
  • Ability to combine qualitative and quantitative
    data and analysis
  • Methodological insights improving ways of
    asking questions identifying important aspects
    of individuals lives that we may not be covering
  • Gaining a better understanding of perceptions of
    cohort members
  • Data in a form that might be more accessible for
    dissemination to cohort members (improving long
    term response)

Collecting qualitative data?
  • Potential risks of collecting qualitative data
  • Respondent burden asking too much of cohort
  • Cohort members not used to qualitative open ended
    style of interviewing
  • Need to be careful about preserving
  • Need to be clear about archiving and secondary
    use of data

Structure of sample for qualitative interviews
  • Sampling will be theoretically led rather than a
    simple random sample
  • 60 cohort members in three geographic regions
  • Stratified in terms of social mobility measured
    in terms of social class during childhood and
    highest qualifications
  • Initial quantitative analysis is needed to define
    sample more precisely

Structure of the qualitative interview
  • Aim for an average of ninety minutes
  • Interviews tape recorded and transcribed verbatim
  • Interview in three main parts
  • Individuals current social participation and
    leisure activities
  • Retrospective account of biography focusing on
    key turning points and influences
  • Brief discussion of experiences of being in the
    cohort study

Conclusions/issues for discussion?
  • To what extent does the 1958 cohort study answer
    criticisms often made of quantitative research?
  • To what extent can cohort data be described as
    having narrative qualities?
  • Can we resolve the tension between using
    qualitative material to create a quantitative
    indicator and performing a more wholehearted
    qualitative analysis of the essays?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of
    having a very large sample of textual material?
  • Is gender real?...does it have the same meaning
    within both qualitative and quantitative
    approaches to analysis?

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