AMSR book 3 cover square

This is the third book of essays drawing on the wealth of data in the Archive of Market and Social Research.  As the title suggests this booklet focusses rather more on the ‘social’ than the ‘market’ content of the archive.  Once again the AMSR has assembled a first class set of contributors to guide us through a selection of the archive and to demonstrate not only the value of gathering quality research but also the value of preserving it for future generations.

‘Researching the public: post-war policy, politics and polling’ is available to purchase in hard copy, and also as a PDF download, from our publications page.

What struck me when reading through these essays is that research actually matters.  Peter Bartram describes how research was used to understand winter mortality statistics which led directly to the winter fuel allowance.  Colin Strong shows how the difficulties of self reporting were overcome to understand seat belt usage which led to new legislation and advertising which dramatically reduced deaths in road traffic accidents.  Erens and Wellings relate how reliable data on changing sexual behaviours and changing public opinion eased the way for changes in legislation.  Graham Mytton tells us how the BBC world service used audience data to build an increased budget for audience research which in turn justified greater investment from the foreign office.

I could go on.  We are confronted by example after example of research being instrumental in government policy.  And because it really matters it is important that research is of high quality and sound execution.  Representative samples, well thought out and unbiased questions, sensitive and thorough analysis followed by clear and honest communication.  The basics of our trade are still important and no matter how much data collection techniques change we should not be allowed to forget them.  Bad research will lead to bad legislation.  Democracy depends on being able to listen to the public and rely on what we hear.

Politics is an eternal balance of leading and following public opinion.  It is vital that politicians listen to what people actually think, believe and do; not what politicians think or would like to believe what people think, believe and do.  Only then should they decide whether to lead or follow.

John Curtice demonstrates how data collected around referendums help to understand not only how people will vote but also what influences their decisions.

Peter Kellner takes us on a fascinating tour of political party policy making and its interaction with research data.  Here again he demonstrates how careful use of opinion polling guides parties towards and away from key issues at election time.  Political parties underestimate public opinion at their peril (that’s probably true for more than just political parties).

Nick Moon directly addresses the fraught issue of how well the polls actually reflect the real world.  Spoiler alert – we do quite well.  But Nick makes the point that in our voracious media world good news is no news.  Don’t believe all you read.

But do read Phyllis Macfarlane’s essay on ‘The great inflation’.  Then read it again.  The content here is interesting but this is a master class in how to tell a story from your data.  It’s full of numbers, full of facts and even has direct quotes; none of these get in the way of the story.  They move the narrative on, giving it substance and credibility.  And it has a point of view which is justified and demonstrated by the content.  Lots to learn from here.

‘Researching the public’ is only 70 pages long.  No essay goes on for too long.  In fact you are usually left wanting even more – which is no problem because each essay comes with a set of references into the archive.  These books are all about showcasing the content of the archive and making people want to dive in and find out more.

For the individual this book is a fascinating read; several times I found myself thinking ‘I never knew that’.  On a wider level the AMSR is emerging as a vital resource for the study of history, sociology and politics.  This is important for education but has a much wider value too; even if we don’t believe that history can tell us the future these essays demonstrate that we would be very foolish to ignore it.  As Bobby Duffy says in his preface: “it’s clear that the insights from these studies shaped their times, and can still inform us today.”

The role of the AMSR in all of this is to protect the past (and the present) for the future.  These papers demonstrate how we can access the archive and use it to illustrate the UK’s recent past.

This is important stuff.  Here is a good reminder of the role that research plays in our society as a whole.  But it must be used effectively if it is to be of any value.  I am reminded of the words of Bill Bernbach, one of the founders of modern advertising.  He said “We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it. We are so busy listening to statistics we forget we can create them.”  And these essays show just what can be done with research.

Contributed by Paul Edwards
Date posted: 19th June 2023

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