What Counts as Data? Investigating and Re-Visioning the Value of the United Kindgom’s National Survey of Health and Development for the Socio-Historical Study of Young Lives

Laura Fenton, University of Manchester
Penny Tinkler, University of Manchester
Resto Cruz, University of Manchester

Intended principally as a source of ‘big data’, cohort studies nevertheless offer rich insights into the lived experiences and meanings of young people’s life transitions. This paper critically examines the potential of the UK National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD) to enrich historical and social scientific understandings of young women’s pathways into adulthood in postwar Britain. While much has been written about youth and popular culture in this period, understandings of young women’s lives remain underdeveloped. Yet, this generation of women has immense historical and contemporary significance. As young women, they were in the vanguard of postwar social change and are now part of the largest group of over-60s in British history. They are redefining ageing and making new demands on, and contributions to, society. Their pioneering approach to later life is widely believed to be shaped partly by their experiences of growing up. This paper reflects on the challenges and opportunities of using questionnaires and related records produced for the NSHD as data for research into young women’s experiences of life transitions. NSHD data are inscribed in various degrees with the voices, interests, and perspectives of adults, institutions, and the state. Despite this, questionnaires and related records contain traces of postwar women’s own priorities and reflections – in other words, the ‘small stories’ that make up some of their youth experiences. These ‘small stories’ challenge what is recognised as data by the NSHD and the wider field of cohort research, as well as by those who have argued for the qualitative restudy of existing cohort studies. We argue that repurposing cohort studies for the qualitative analysis of young lives entails a more expansive conception of what constitute ‘data’ and a willingness to go beyond the original parameters of the studies.

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 Presented in Session 54. Questions of Silence and Children’s (In)visibility in the Archives