Archiving and Reusing Qualitative Data: Theory, Method and Ethics across Disciplines



This website is a record of the workshops and the conference that were run as part of the series, ‘Archiving and Reusing Qualitative Data: Theory, Method and Ethics Across Disciplines’. The series was funded as a Network for Methodological Innovation, by the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM). Five events were run between April 2008 and March 2009. The series brought together sociologists, anthropologists, historians, archivists and a range of others interested in the issues raised by the archiving and reuse of qualitative data. This site contains papers, powerpoints and abstracts of presentations at these events, as well as links to subsequent and related publications. It will be useful to anyone interested in this emerging field.

ESRC National Centre for Research Methods – Network for Methodological Innovation 2008

Through a series of four seminars and a conference, the Network for Methodological Innovation aimed to develop approaches to archiving and reusing data that both significantly developed recent debates in the social sciences and also contributed to a recent rethinking of the archive in history, oral history, and cultural studies. While conversations about archiving and reuse are relatively recent in some social sciences, archival research is more routine in disciplines such as history. Nonetheless each research domain carries specific interests, concerns, questions and conceptions of the research process, which inflect understandings of archiving and reuse.

Through tracing these specificities in interdisciplinary conversations, and drawing on expertise from a range of disciplines with diverse engagements in archiving, particularly sociology, history, oral history, anthropology, literary studies and archival studies, we reflected on key conceptual, ethical and methodological issues raised by the archiving and reuse of qualitative data.

Seminar Series and Conference

The Network aimed to develop existing discussion on archiving in the social sciences through cross-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary exchange. The invited speakers and participants work across a range of disciplines: history/sociology, anthropology/history, literature/history/sociology, sociology/oral history, for example. Their work is variously inflected by developments in feminist theory and cultural studies, which also enhanced discussions. Additionally the speakers and participants have experience of a range of archives: from national public archives; to academic archives, such as ESDS Qualidata; to the experimental, though now established, Mass Observation Archive; as well as more ephemeral archives.

The Archiving and Reusing Qualitative Data: Theory, Method and Ethics across Disciplines seminar series addressed the shortfall in the social science research methodology on archiving and reuse through a series of focused conversations addressing key questions such as ‘what is the archive’, methods in archival research, ethics and archives, and an examination of the production of the archive and how this impacts upon how we understand and reuse the documents and artefacts found there. The final two-day conference addressed the uses of the archive, both academic and ‘non-academic’. Day One focused on academic users, showcasing original research using archives being carried out by network members throughout 2008, and also involving some participants who have had their research reused. Day Two focused on non-academic uses of archives, and on the question of whether we are witnessing a ‘democratisation’ of the archive.

Background to the project

There is a burgeoning interest across the social sciences in the UK in the archiving and reuse of qualitative data. This can be traced to two particular events. The first is the establishment of the Qualitative Data Archival Resource Centre (QUALIDATA, and, since 2003, ESDS Qualidata) at the University of Essex in 1994. The second is the publication of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Datasets Policy (1996) which asks that those in receipt of ESRC grants to offer copies of their data for deposit to QUALIDATA. These two events have given rise to a growing literature around the reuse of qualitative data, and, increasingly, a shift in the site of these debates, which is opening up conversations beyond specialist locations. Initial work included:

Further, the publication of the first monograph on the topic in 2004, Reworking Qualitative Data (Heaton 2004); discussion about archiving and reuse in the journal Sociology (Mauthner et al 1998, Parry and Mauthner 2004, Parry and Mauthner 2005, Bishop 2005a); and a themed section on reuse in Sociological Research Online (May 2007) suggested that the topic was moving into the mainstream of sociological concerns. Yet, as well as escalating interest and enthusiasm, there was also some uncertainty and confusion about what the reuse of qualitative entails, what epistemological issues are raised, and how ethical questions can be addressed.

The moment was thus an opportune one in which to further such discussions through a seminar series and conference.

Interest in archiving and reuse is set to continue and increase. ESDS Qualidata has, for instance, spent much energy on ‘rescuing’ classic sociological studies before their originators pass on and the data is lost in this process. Increasingly there will be attention to archiving more recent studies, which may be of greater interest to contemporary sociologists. A number of qualitative longitudinal projects are generating data explicitly with the intention of making the resulting data available for reuse (eg the Timescapes Project at the University of Leeds). The ESRC-funded demonstrator projects, under the rubric of the Qualitative Data Archiving and Sharing Scheme (QUADS), have set out to develop best practice in the storing and sharing of qualitative data for reuse. Furthermore, there are a number of interesting, and challenging, opportunities for thinking through the reuse of quantitative and qualitative data together. One of the key national cohort surveys, The National Child Development Survey (NCDS), planned a qualitative dimension to the 2008 round of the survey. So, as well as a quantitative survey, there was also in-depth qualitative interviews with a sample of the participants and this data will be available to researchers. The UK Household Longitudinal Study, Understanding Society, set up in 2008, may also have a qualitative component (see here for updates). In addition, there is growing interest in genealogical research, which confounds any easy qualitative/quantitative distinction, when dates of births, deaths and marriages are used to challenge received family histories or to fashion new family stories and new versions of self and relationships.

Yet there are not only institutional resources available for researchers. The impact of the ‘digital revolution’ has been widely felt. Not only by quantitative researchers who are able to disseminate statistical data and maps, but also by qualitative researchers who likewise have had whole vistas of ‘data’ opened up. Here we have in mind the increasing ability to share audio and visual material, as well as textual materials. Oral History collections such as the National Life Stories Collection at the British Library, and the Millennium Memory Bank (a collection of oral histories of over 6000 people from all walks of life in the UK talking about aspects of life in the 20th century), are little known or used by social scientists. The possibilities of comparative research are further opened up by projects such as Mediterranean Voices, a collaborative project between London Metropolitan University and thirteen Mediterranean cities that uses oral histories to look at cultural practices in these cities. But in addition to these more formal sources, there are also those ‘data’ which are not formally archived, but are more ephemeral and are to be found in discussion lists, bulletin boards and personal blogs. Here the volume of data is unprecedented. And academics are not the only ones interested in archived data. The Mass Observation Archive, having recently celebrated its 70th birthday, has enjoyed considerable interest in the press and media as a source on socio-cultural change in the UK. Books such as those by Simon Garfield, Victoria Wood’s 2006 television drama Housewife 49 and documentaries such as Little Kinsey have opened a provocative and engaging window on ordinary life in the UK, which speaks of the use of this data beyond academic research.

Yet because of the very recent nature of this debate in the social sciences, and despite the enthusiasm for reuse, at the time the series was run there were relatively few resources for social scientists wishing to archive their own data, or embark on projects re-using archived data. Prior to the series, CRESC had already begun to make significant interventions into these debates, seeking further ways of developing and extending existing discussions, and addressing some of the existing concerns about reuse. For instance, critics of reuse have pointed to the apparent incommensurability of quantitative and qualitative data to suggest the limitations of reusing qualitative data (eg Boddy Report). We have suggested that quantitative data are not the only point of reference in these discussions, and have emphasised the necessity of interdisciplinary conversations in developing theories and practices around reuse (Moore 2006; 2007). Hence this seminar series sought to enable the participation of those from fields with more extended involvements in reuse and archives. History, oral history, anthropology, literary and archival studies offer alternative, and perhaps more productive, locations from which to rethink archiving and reusing data in the social sciences.

At the same time as social scientists in the UK have been engaging with reuse, there was also a rethinking of the archive in those domains more conventionally associated with the archive, such as history, museum studies, cultural studies. This has been informed to a significant extent by the work of Foucault and Derrida. International participants were thus sought in order to open out the UK debate, to understand how questions of reuse and archiving are being posed by social scientists in other parts of Europe and in the US, and to gain from the work of those historians, cultural theorists and those engaged in archival studies internationally.


BERGMAN, M. and T. S. Eberle (2005, May) "Special Issue: Qualitative Inquiry: Research, Archiving, Reuse." Forum Qualitative Socialforschung / Qualitative Research Forum [On-line Journal] 6(2).

BISHOP, L. (2005) ‘Protecting Respondents and Enabling Data Sharing: Reply to Parry and Mauthner’, Sociology, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 333 - 336.

BODDY, M. (2001) Data Policy and Data Archiving: Report on Consultation for the ESRC Research Resources Board, Bristol: University of Bristol.

CORTI, L., J. Foster and P. Thompson. (1995). "Archiving qualitative research data." Social Research Update Issue 10.

CORTI, L. and P. Thompson (1998). "Are You Sitting on Your Qualitative Data? Qualidata's mission." International Journal of Social Research Methodology 1(1): 85-89.

CORTI, L., S. Kluge, K. Mruck and D. Opitz (2000, December) "Special Issue: Text, Archive Re-analysis." Forum Qualitative Socialforschung / Qualitative Research Forum [On-line Journal] 1(3).

HEATON, J. (1998) ‘Secondary Analysis of Qualitative Data’, Social Research Update Issue 22.

HEATON, J. (2004) Reworking Qualitative Data, London: Sage.

MAUTHNER, N. S., O. PARRY, and K.BACKETT-MILBURN (1998) ‘The Data are Out There, or are They? Implications for Archiving and Revisiting Qualitative Data’, Sociology, Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 733 - 745.

MOORE, N. (2007) '(Re)Using Qualitative Data?', Sociological Research Online 12(3)1.

PARRY, O. and N. S. MAUTHNER (2004) ‘Whose Data Are They Anyway? Practical, Legal and Ethical Issues in Archiving Qualitative Research Data’, Sociology, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 139 - 152.

PARRY, O. and N. MAUTHNER (2005) ‘Back to Basics: Who Re-uses Qualitative Data and Why?’, Sociology, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 337 - 342.

THOMPSON, P. (2004) ‘Pioneering the Life Story Method’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 81 - 84.


Members of the Network

For queries please contact Niamh Moore

(Affiliations at time of seminar series)

Dr Libby Bishop

Manager, ESDS Qualidata, University of Essex

Louise Corti

Head, ESDS Qualidata,University of Essex

Prof Mike Savage

Director, Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), University of Manchester

Dr Till Geiger

Department of History, University of Manchester

Dr Margaretta Jolly

Co-Director, Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research, University of Sussex

Dr Claire Langhamer

Co-Director, Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research, University of Sussex

Dr Niamh Moore

Qualitative Research Laboratory, Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), University of Manchester

Jane Stevenson

Archives Hub, MIMAS, University of Manchester

Dr Joy Palmer

Archives Hub, MIMAS, University of Manchester