Book chapter on time in mixed-method longitudinal research due out, 30th June.


Our book chapter ‘Time in mixed-method longitudinal research: working across narratives from the Mass Observation Project and large scale panel data’ (Lindsey, Metcalfe, Edwards) for Researching the Lifecourse, a book edited by Nancy Worth and Irene Hardill is due to be published on 30th June, 2015, by Policy Press.


Interactive day event with the Mass Observation Archive

We were thrilled with the response to our interactive day event at the Mass Observation Archive ( which was hosted by the archive at The Keep ( in Brighton on Monday 27th October, with 18 people signing up to attend the event.

Discussing writing from different time points.

Discussing writing from different time points.

Participants came from a variety of disciplines and research backgrounds. Some were just starting out in the field of research (it was fantastic  to have 2 undergraduates amongst our attendees); some were working on phds; some were doing personal research; and others were established academic researchers.

Kirsty Pattrick and Jessica Scantlebury, who both work for the Mass Observation Archive (MOA) began the day by providing everyone with some background information on the archive and its writers, and gave a tour of the archive and the conservation lab.

Sarah Bulloch, Rose Lindsey, Liz Metcalfe and John Mohan provided some top tips on using Mass Observation Project (1981-2014) writing in research, generating discussion on:

  • The challenges of using Mass Observation writing in research
  • Using Mass Observation writing longitudinally
  • How to choose what directives to use
  • Methods of sampling and how this applies to sampling individual writers
  • Qualitative methodological approaches to  analysing Mass Observation writing
  • The ethical challenges in using the archive
  • How Mass Observation writing could be used as part of a mixed-method study
  • Some of the challenges involved in undertaking secondary analysis

In the afternoon participants were able to handle and read original scripts from the 1940s on race, and from 1990, 1996 and 2012 on volunteering.  We also provided copies of digitised and transcribed scripts so that those attending could experience the potential different ways of working with the archive.  This hands-on experience – reading through and discussing writing from different time points – allowed people to consider how they might use Mass Observation writing longitudinally.

Reading responses to the Unpaid Work directive

Reading responses to the Unpaid Work directive

We also provided some graphs and tables from a mixed-method study of volunteering, which provided some socio-economic context related to volunteering at particular time points. Although most of the participants identified as qualitative researchers, it was great to see people engaging with and thinking about this material.

We had a brilliant day – it was so good to meet such a variety of people who were all doing really interesting things.  Most people filled out feedback forms to let us know what they thought of the day. Feedback was really good. Although participants came from a range of different backgrounds and had different levels of research experience, everyone went away having learnt something.

Interactive day event: Introducing the Mass Observation Project 1981-2014 as a data source for researchers

We’re really excited by the interest we’ve had in this event.  We only have 6 spaces left for this event – so book now if you are interested!

Go to the University of Southampton online store to book:



Ethnicity and volunteering

Just had a really interesting meeting with Susie Rabin from The Commission on The Voluntary Sector and Ageing They have been working on ageing and the future of the voluntary sector. We were able to discuss potential connection points with our quantitative work, and contemporary and retrospective accounts of voluntarism by Mass Observation writers. We were particularly interested in work that the Commission might be undertaking on demographic change in BME communities. 

On our Longitudinal Volunteering Project we have been frustrated that our data hasn’t provided much information on the relationship between voluntarism and ethnic identity. There have been poor response rates to key questions in the BHPS, so we have been unable to identify any longitudinal correlation between voluntarism and ethnicity in our quantitative data. When sampling our Mass Observation writers, we had no access to information on writers’ ethnic identity identities. We were only able to get at this information from reading individual responses to the 2006 Core British Values, and the 2010 Belonging, directives. We have found that most of our sampled writers identify as white British. Therefore we don’t have a lot of longitudinal information on individuals who identify as being part of black or minority ethnic communities.  So we don’t have data on this issue.

Nevertheless, one of our interests has been in the growth of BME communities in the UK, and how this demographic change might affect the voluntary sector, not just in terms of service provision, but in terms of BME communities’ engagement with the sector as volunteers in the future. Existing literature tells us that BME communities tend to do their volunteering within their communities. Will we see more community based activism and voluntarism within this particular demographic group? Are BME communities the Big Society of the future?

Some of the work of The Commission on The Voluntary Sector and Ageing will focus on ageing in BME communities over the next 20 years. It looks like fascinating stuff. We pointed Susie in the direction of the TSRC website which has some good working papers on BME communities; see for example working paper 103, and 58.

Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN) presentation

Rose and I presented at the Voluntary Sector Studies Network Research conference on Thursday 11th September in Sheffield. The conference was truly excellent, a friendly atmosphere, informative and diverse research presentations, good food and drink. Everything you could possibly want from a conference. In case you were not able to attend I have put our abstract and presentation slides below for you to browse. Please feel free to comment or ask questions.


30 years of volunteering: a longitudinal study of British volunteering behaviour and attitudes to voluntarism between 1981 and 2012
Rose Lindsey and Elizabeth Metcalfe (Third Sector Research Centre, University of Southampton)





“Loosening the shackles?” Policy towards voluntary action in the first Thatcher administration

John Mohan, University of Birmingham
We are interested in how people’s attitudes to voluntary action have evolved over some 35 years from 1981, when Mass Observation was established in its modern form, through to the present day. As context for that discussion, we are also analysing key changes in policy towards the voluntary sector and volunteering since the 1979 election. There are significant elements of continuity but also elements of discontinuity in policy during that time period. Here, we look back at some key policy statements and public speeches from the early years of Mrs Thatcher’s government.

Ministerial statements

In 1979, as in 2010, the government came into office having promised policies which would involve substantial reductions in public expenditure. In seeking a new direction, they sought to revive voluntary action, asserting that state intervention had crowded out private initiative. An early speech at the Conservative Political Centre in July 1979 by Mrs Thatcher, on the “renewal” of Britain, shows this very well.[1] She charged the “collectivist ethos” with breaking down “the sense of responsibility to family, neighbourhood and community”. This emphasis was consistent with the Thatcherite stress on the need not just to reverse economic decline, but to recover and re-invigorate other positive traits of Britishness. It therefore contributed to what Maria Brenton subsequently described as a “crescendo of political rhetoric” in favour of voluntary action.[2]

Voluntarism was seen as an expression of initiative by individuals, not large-scale action by voluntary organisations. Thatcher’s speech to the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS) in 1981 argued that the only way to reach all those who need help was “through the voluntary service of millions of individuals”. She described the “volunteer movement” (italics added) – note, not a movement of voluntary organisations – as being at the heart of social welfare provision. A corollary is that there is no sense, in her speeches, of the voluntary sector as a sector, and other commentators have observed that the notion of a “voluntary sector” was “invented by committee” in the late 1970s – in other words, by researchers and policy analysts.[3] Commentators have also argued that the radical Right prioritised informal social action by individuals because it classed large-scale voluntary organisations together with the collective social action represented by the social services.[4] In that regard, the Thatcher and Major governments did not seek to bring “the sector” on board. This is in very sharp contrast to the Labour governments (1997 – 2010), which established and funded various mechanisms for consultation, involvement in policy formation, support for the sector’s infrastructure, and building the capacity of voluntary organisations. Since 2010, such support has been scaled back substantially, if not removed altogether. Organisations have no guaranteed place in discussion of policy, and the opportunity has regularly been taken by Conservative MPs to criticise charitable organisations on the grounds of their allegedly politicised campaigning activities, and because of the high salaries of their senior staff.

What’s also notable in Thatcher’s speeches (and those of Ministers such as Patrick Jenkin, Thatcher’s first Secretary of State for Social Services) is the emphasis on a “refinement of focus down to the primary supports of family and locality”,[5] not entirely unlike the localist emphasis of the Big Society. For Jenkin the “first and most natural source of care is the family, friends, neighbours and communities taking action to help the vulnerable”. This went hand-in-hand with a vision of the state acting as a secondary catalyst where voluntary effort was lacking.

Mrs Thatcher’s enthusiasm support for voluntary action did not, however, translate into a systematic policy initiative. Some prominent individuals and organisations met with her to discuss specific proposals. Famously, and of course controversially in light of subsequent events, one was Jimmy Savile, who lobbied Thatcher vigorously for tax relief on charitable gifts, and persuaded the government to contribute £500,000 towards his £10 million fundraising appeal for Stoke Mandeville Hospital.[6] Thatcher also met Alec Dickson, the founder of Community Service Volunteers, to consider the potential role of voluntary organisations in combating youth unemployment.[7] Presented with a proposal not unlike the subsequent Citizens Service advanced by the Coalition, Thatcher rejected anything that would involve compulsion.

Policy discussions

We might have expected to find reference to voluntary action in two other key sources. These were the review of long-term options for public expenditure conducted by the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS), and the Family Policy Group.

The CPRS was charged with thinking the unthinkable, but even the radical options for the welfare state considered in a famous CPRS paper in 1982 show no evidence of discussion of the potential contribution of the voluntary sector.[8] In contrast with later Labour emphases, for instance, there isn’t a strategic sense that high levels of voluntary involvement could contribute to the improvement of public sector productivity. In the Cabinet papers prepared by the CPRS, there is no reference to voluntary action by individuals and the only discussion of shifting the balance between the individual and the state was in relation to health insurance.

The Family Policy Group, led by Ferdinand Mount, has more of a focus on the potential for voluntary organisations and for alternatives to state provision. With its focus on “renewing the values of society”, this group was concerned that the decline of the family had led to social breakdown, so they sought to identify ways of supporting traditional families.[9] By November 1982, one of its emerging themes was “meeting social needs through voluntary action”. This included consideration of tax reliefs on charitable giving, and encouraging the involvement of the private sector in the well-being of local communities. Some specific proposals discussed included the possibility of something like the “free schools” model, and greater support for a precursor of the “sure start” model of early years service provision (a recommendation for “multipurpose family centres”). The latter was consistent with emerging evidence on child development, but in the funding climate of the time, the insistence on local fundraising after some statutory pump-priming seemed to betray a naïve faith in the distribution of charitable resources.

These discussions also talked of “loosening some shackles” – Geoffrey Howe, Chancellor of the Exchequer, suggested that the government should ensure that communities “which value and are prepared to support local schools and hospitals have the ability and the right to do so” (emphasis in original). A practical expression of this had been the removal of prohibitions on fundraising by health authorities which had been in place since 1948. But there wasn’t a concerted move to transfer public services to charities or the voluntary sector. There were occasional local initiatives, such as transfers of community hospitals to voluntary ownership, or the establishment of elements of health service provision as freestanding charitable trusts. However, with the exception of the transfer to charitable control of the Tadworth Court Hospital (a branch of the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital) in 1983, few of these took place in the early years of the Thatcher administration. Compared to the Coalition presumption in favour of alternative modes of delivery, expressed through the “right to challenge” public sector providers of services, these were small-scale. And the Thatcher government at no point introduced a marketisation of public services on the scale of the current NHS reforms.

Evidence-based policy?

What evidence was available concerning the likely impact of increased voluntary initiative? Neither the CPRS, nor the FPG, made use of the substantial body of evidence assembled by the Wolfenden Committee.[10] Nor did Ministers. Patrick Jenkin vigorously affirmed his belief that his proposed reductions of 7% in the budgets of local authorities could be absorbed by voluntary effort, because, he said, “there is a substantial possibility, indeed a probability, of support from the community”. Pressed by the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts to justify that statement, Jenkin was unable to identify any research evidence to back it up. Volunteering rates never became a political talisman in the way they did post-2010, however, nor were specific policies implemented to increase volunteering or charitable giving.

There were some discussions about the possible contribution that volunteering might make to alleviating the impact of unemployment, and some specific programmes were developed (e.g. Opportunities for Volunteering, which had a strong health emphasis, though its projects did not require large funding, and were often linked to an established infrastructure such as Hospital Leagues of Friends).

Given Thatcher’s emphasis on reversal of Britain’s decline and the need to revive a tradition of voluntary action, the absence of many positive policy steps is surprising. We could argue that the lack of an evidence base – what works, in terms of getting individuals involved – played a part, though Jenkin, for one, seemed to disregard it. We could also argue that the government’s attention in its early years was absorbed by the need to reverse economic decline, tackle inflation, defeat the “enemy within” in key industries such as coal mining, and the Falklands war. The austere public funding climate militated against substantial initiative.

On the other hand, the relatively small-scale and ad hoc initiatives that took place might be read as the government playing a long game. Controversy about whether the NHS was safe in Thatcher’s hands didn’t prevent the gradual development of programmes to support voluntary action and fundraising, and it didn’t stop health authorities transferring some activities out of direct NHS control.[11] Over the years, these initiatives made the expansion of voluntary initiative look like a natural, and non-controversial, process. The “loosening shackles” described in the Family Policy Group and the absence of a blueprint or top-down plan are therefore surely not so far removed from the subsequent “big society” philosophy of David Cameron. In contrast to the post-2010 period, however, advocates of voluntarism did not face the wholesale commercialisation of the environment in which they were to operate.


[1] M. Thatcher, ‘The renewal of Britain’, speech to the Conservative Political Centre, 6th July 1979; available at

[2] Brenton, M. (1985) The voluntary sector in British social services (Longman)

[3] 6, Perri & Leat, D. (1997), ‘ Inventing the voluntary sector by committee: from Wolfenden to Deakin ‘, Non-Profit studies, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 33-46.

[4] Brenton, M (1985); Lawrence, R (1983) “Voluntary action: a stalking horse for the Right?” Critical Social Policy, 2 (3), 14-30

[5] Brenton, 1985, 143

[6] TNA PREM 19 / 878, “Communications with Jimmy Savile concerning tax deductions for charitable donations following his fund raising for Stoke Mandeville hospital”.

[7] TNA PREM 19 / 369, “Prime Minister’s meeting with representatives of the Community Service Volunteers to discuss youth unemployment

[8] Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS), ‘Long-term public expenditure options’, TNA CAB 184/556, CAB 184/628.

[9] TNA CAB 184 / 563, Family Policy Group.

[10] Wolfenden Committee (1978) The future of voluntary organisations (London: Croom Helm)

[11] Mohan, J (1995) A national health service? (Macmillan), chapter 8.

Analytical tools we have used for analysis of Mass Observation Project writers’ texts


One of the key tools that we have used for our qualitative analysis is Maxqda ( ), a software package that has much in common with NVivo ( We chose Maxqda because of its potential flexibility and versatility, particularly when working longitudinally, and working with mixed methods.

Using Maxqda

In order to undertake analysis using Maxqda, all text needs to be in an electronic format. Therefore the MOP scripts that we had sampled needed to be copied into a digital pdf format then transcribed into Word. When undertaking the task of transcription we asked our transcribers to be as faithful as possible to the idiosyncrasies of each piece of writing, particularly where a script had been handwritten. We asked transcribers to keep spelling and grammatical errors, crossings out, abbreviations and notes in the margins; and keep to the same line and page length. When analysing the texts we have also looked at the digital copies of the original scripts, using these alongside the transcribed documents that have been imported into the software. Our view is that the texts themselves are artefacts, and may have their own stories to tell.

Each individual script that we have imported has been given a unique reference, which identifies the MO writer, the directive they are responding to, the year that they are writing in, and their age when they were writing that particular script. This referencing will allow us to follow writers across the years that they have written for Mass Observation, and to track changes to individual life-courses, volunteering attitudes and behaviours, and views on voluntarism and the state.


The software allows us to identify how each script answers our various research questions, and to identify emerging themes.

As we read through each script, we highlight pieces of text and place them into individually labelled ‘folders’, for example, if a writer says “I disagree with the concept of volunteering, and therefore I don’t volunteer”, we might highlight this and place into three different ‘folders’:

  • One labelled ‘Says doesn’t volunteer’
  • Another labelled ‘Negative attitude to volunteering’

This is known as Coding.

 Some codes were set up prior to analysis (deductive coding) and other codes have emerged (inductive coding) as we have begun to analyse the scripts.

Analysis of our coding will allow us to:

  • Explore how views and behaviours change or continue over time. For example, we can look at how a 50 year old woman writing in 1983 envisaged what her life might be like when she retires in ten to fifteen years’ time. Does she anticipate volunteering in her retirement? By following her writing throughout her life-course we can map what she has written about preparing for her retirement, the process of retiring, how she feels about retirement since she gave up work, and how and why she has volunteered during retirement. We can compare this to her earlier thoughts on what retirement might be like. (This process of following a writer through time is a diachronic, or longitudinal perspective)
  • Compare views from people of a similar age range, for example we can capture and compare all coded references to retirement written by women in our sample who have written about retirement at the age of 50. (An aggregate perspective)
  • Compare how all of our MOP writers write about retirement at a particular time point, for example, during the economic crisis in 2008. (This is a synchronic or cross-sectional perspective)

There are many other variations in ways in which we can analyse coded scripts.

Demographic information

Maxqda software also allows us to collate demographic information about the MOP writers. Underpinning the software is a spreadsheet containing information on each document. Here we can gradually record information relating to each document and its author, such as: the author’s unique MOP number (e.g. S496), age when s/he wrote the document, gender, where the author was living at the time of writing, if s/he is in a long-term relationship, occupation at the time of writing. This spreadsheet will enable us to compare some of the key characteristics of the MOP writers with those of the individuals who have taken part in the surveys that we are using for the quantitative side of this mixed method project.


The language that writers employ can be interesting, informative, surprising and thought-provoking. Sometimes very close analysis of the language used in portions of scripts, or in whole scripts, can be as rich as looking at several scripts more superficially.

We have identified individual scripts, and portions of individual scripts, which we have scrutinised closely, analysing the language and discourses used. This type of analysis has provided fresh insights, particularly in relation to our understanding of individual attitudes towards volunteering


MAXQDA is helping us to follow individuals through time, and to organise and structure themes that are emerging out of MOP writing. However we are keen not to lose sight of the individual writers who make up our writers’ sample. We have, therefore, built up portraits of individual writers’ lives across the time in which they have been writing.

Portraits pull together, and chart the information that writers have provided in their writing on contemporary and recalled key life events. These vary according to each writer, but encompass attending school, gaining or not gaining qualifications, work histories, engagement in volunteering, births of children, and sadly, deaths of partners. One of our aims, in putting these biographical portraits together, has been to examine the difference between what we as researchers think of as an important life event, or useful piece of information, compared to the emphases that an individual writer places on these events.

We are aware that in 2008 MOP writers were asked to write for a directive entitled ‘Your Lifeline’, in which they were invited to discuss their key life events. We have wondered whether we should have chosen to sample, transcribe and analyse responses to this directive, rather than to collate this information through reading scripts written over 30 years. However, one of the advantages of longitudinal analysis is that things that are important to a writer at one point in time can hold less importance at other points in time. Building biographical portraits across time has allowed us to build up a cumulative picture of key life events, whilst also enabling us to focus on the substantive research aims of this project.


Two interesting findings have emerged from our various analyses. Firstly, we were unsure whether writers would write in the same way throughout their life-course. We found that some individuals vary the style, tone and voices that they employ in their writing. We are in the process of enquiring why this this variation has occurred. Does it relate to the passing of time, the subject matter, or other influences?

Secondly, throughout the process of analysing MOP writing, we have been aware of our position as researchers. The process of analysis can create a situation of looking at, gazing at, or ‘judging’ the writers – a hierarchical situation. We wondered what would happen if we simply allowed our responders’ writing to speak for them, if we as researchers were to abandon our hierarchical position, and to effectively ‘walk alongside’[i] our writers (Neale, 2012)?

We have experimented with I-Voice analysis (a technique that Ros Edwards, who is part of the team, has written about with Susie Weller[ii]). This involved looking at an individual writer’s use of personal pronouns (and sometimes personal adjectives) and the verbs that accompany these, in isolation from the rest of the text. The aim was to take a position of ‘walking alongside’ the writer, to let the text speak for itself rather than to contextualise it. The results were interesting and our view is that I-Voice analysis can provide additional insight into, and new ways of looking at, an individual writer’s identity and personality.


This is a very complex project. It explores time, the life-course, voluntarism and volunteering, using longitudinal and mixed data sources. In order to get to grips with these sources, concepts and substantive subject areas, we have had to draw on a variety of different methodological techniques, and be reflective and responsive when identifying the best methodological fit for the project.

[i] Neale, B, Henwood K, and Holland J (2012) ‘An introduction to the Timescapes approach: researching lives through time.’ in Qualitative Research 12: 4-15.

[ii] Edwards S and Weller S, 2012, ‘Shifting analytic ontology: using I-poems in qualitative longitudinal research’ in Qualitative Research 12 (2) pp.202-217