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Where do we find evidence of everyday lives from the past? Using social surveys in historical research

Greenhalgh Figure 2

Survey research is now a vital part of policymaking, news reporting, and general knowledge. Yet researchers did not always know what we might call the basic facts about people’s lives. Historical social surveys aimed to fill this gap. Survey directors published the most influential accounts of the populations they studied, but social survey data were produced by everyday people and entire teams of researchers who worked alongside more famous figures. This means that their archives can be read to uncover a wide range of experiences and accounts of daily life in the past.

Social surveys date to the final decades of the nineteenth century, when researchers invited everyday people to participate in research projects about their neighbourhoods and communities for the first time. By going directly to their subjects for information (which was produced through observation, interviews, and questionnaires), social survey researchers endorsed and highlighted the experiences and opinions of everyday people.

Researchers such as Charles Booth (1840-1916) and W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) pioneered methods of door-to-door research that made personal interactions part of the research process and helped to spread new ideas about social science. In their published forms, social surveys embedded statistical findings in detailed descriptions of the history, geography, society, and culture of the populations they studied. By the 1970s, however, strengthening commitment to evidence-based policy coexisted with criticisms of positivist social science that would eventually weaken its authority. At the same time, new patterns of work made house-to-house surveys difficult and moved survey research into the print, telephone, and online forms that you might encounter today.

Historic social surveys compel the attention of historians because they contain rare and revealing archival discoveries about the lives and attitudes of everyday people in the past.

Their mixture of information about researchers and subjects equips historians to interpret social survey archives in different ways. For example, social historians read questionnaires, budgets, and statistics to understand the lives of the people who participated in research projects, including working people, older people, and migrant communities. Historians of science take a different approach in order to examine how and why survey directors selected particular topics and methods. Such decisions have shaped public perceptions of issues such as poverty until today.

I read the archival records of the University of Melbourne Social Survey (1941–1943) in order to showcase the contributions of everyday people and low-paid, contract workers to social science and the historical record.

The University of Melbourne Social Survey was a massive—and not entirely successful—undertaking. The project cost close to £3,000. It employed dozens of interviewers and coders over a period of 20 months. The survey was designed to record information about one in 30 homes across Melbourne. To this end, interviewers visited just over 7,600 households.

The survey’s overall findings, however, were never published. Three short articles appeared in the journal of the Economic Society of Australia.  The only monograph described data collected from several hundred families living in the industrial suburbs of Footscray and Williamstown.

Instead, the vision of comprehensive, objective social knowledge about Melbourne was best realised in the survey forms that were collected door-to-door from thousands of participants (and are archived at the University of Melbourne). These were the work of 35 low-paid, contract workers, who were almost entirely women.

The University of Melbourne contract interviewers earned 2 shillings and 6 pence for each completed questionnaire, on a piecework basis and with no job security. The major challenges of their work included travelling long distances across the city only to encounter empty houses and uncooperative inhabitants.

Interviewers had to convince people that survey research was worthwhile and that researchers were trustworthy. A suspicious woman living in Mordialloc, for example, peered through a crack in her door to demand ‘who are you anyway? Who sent you?’ Unfortunately for the interviewer, she slammed the door shut without waiting for a reply.

Agnes Young rode the train 30 kilometres from the centre of Melbourne to seaside Chelsea in September 1941. She switched to a bicycle to cover the long distances between houses that she was required to visit on the outskirts. Young joked that she would have been better off riding a horse. One foggy morning she was lost in the bush until two children helped her to find her way. Over two days, Young reached 23 houses but completed only 15 survey forms. If she wanted to earn more, she would have to repeat the long journey another time.

Pat Counihan single-handedly completed over 2,000 questionnaires. She worked hard to finish an average of eight surveys per day and pocket £5 each week. This income was an improvement on what she had earned as a teacher. The money supported her husband, the artist Noel Counihan. Survey work also provided Counihan with opportunities to document exploitation of tenants and workers.

The organisers of the University of Melbourne survey left a number of the survey’s most difficult or sensitive inquiries about the state of people’s homes and the reliability of their answers to the back of the survey sheet, and to the discretion of interviewers. In response, Counihan described the poor conditions of houses across Melbourne. She detailed their broken windows, leaking ceilings, and verandas used as children’s bedrooms. Counihan was alert to the diverse causes of human suffering and she noted troubles ranging from mental breakdowns to neglected gardens, with medical problems sounding a constant note of pain and expense.

Across dozens of the most shocking records, Counihan repeated the phrase ‘the landlord will do nothing’. With this understated observation, Counihan made her survey forms testify to the common hardships she encountered across the city, the terrible treatment of tenants during a housing crisis, and the unfairness of people’s lives.

The Melbourne survey’s rich archive underlines the significance of popular participation in survey research and the intellectual contributions of its interviewers. Examining the research process of a survey like this one connects the intellectual history of social science to wider transformations in education, employment, and the role of expert knowledge in everyday life. When people participated in social surveys, they witnessed some of these changes first-hand. Fortunately for those of us who seek to understand the history of everyday life, many people them took the opportunity to speak back to experts and shape the historical record.

Charlotte Greenhalgh is Lecturer in History at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. This is an extract from her chapter in Reading Primary Sources. The Interpretation of Texts in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History (London: Routledge, 2020). The book can be ordered with a 20% discount by entering the discount code FLR40 at the checkout.

Image: One of over 7,000 completed survey forms. Survey 44, 23 July 1942, box 13, 1973.002, Wilfred Prest collection, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne (UMA).

Tags : Australiamethodologysocial history

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