Qualitative Data Preservation and Sharing in the Social Sciences: On Whose Philosophical Terms?

Article excerpt

Introduction

Although the move towards qualitative data preservation and sharing has been regarded as a 'new' tradition within the social sciences, social science archives have a history that goes back many decades. In Britain, the Mass Observation archive was set up in the 1930s to create 'an anthropology of ourselves' through the collection of observations and writings about the everyday lives of ordinary people (Mass Observation 2009). In the United States, the Human Resources Area Files is an archive that was initiated in the 1950s and comprises an anthropological collection of primary, published and unpublished, ethnographic sources on selected cultures from around the world (Lagace, 1978). There is, consequently, a tradition of social scientists drawing on these and other archival materials to explore historical, sociological and anthropological questions.

Given this established tradition of archival research within the social sciences, why has qualitative data preservation and sharing emerged as an issue for debate amongst academic researchers over recent years, and created controversy? The debate in the UK arose in the mid-1990s as a result of changes in the funding conditions of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. In 1996, the ESRC implemented a Datasets Policy (modified in 2000) which introduced two new requirements on potential and actual ESRC grant-holders. First, grant applicants were obliged to demonstrate that data similar to those they were proposing to generate did not already exist. Second, grant holders were contractually obliged to offer their research data and associated materials for archiving within three months of the end of their project (ESRC 2000). Prior to 1996, individual or teams of researchers may have considered whether to lodge their 'data' in an archive, and whether to use existing archived data in the conduct of a new study. The introduction of the ESRC policy, however, meant that qualitative researchers working within academic institutions, and certainly those seeking funds from the ESRC, had to consider, often for the first time, issues of data preservation and sharing because they were required to do so by the new policy. Since then, many more academic research funding agencies in the UK and elsewhere have introduced data preservation policies (see SHERPA 2009a).

The ESRC policy was greeted with mixed reactions by qualitative social scientists in the UK, and some publicly voiced their ambivalence by pointing to both its potential benefits and drawbacks (Alderson, 1998; Griffin, 1998; Hammersley, 1997; Mauthner et al., 1998; Parry and Mauthner, 2004, 2005). These researchers saw the value in preserving significant social scientific studies; in demystifying qualitative research by revealing its processes of knowledge construction; and in using archived studies for historical and methodological research, as well as for teaching purposes. However, they also expressed ethical, epistemological and political concerns regarding the disclosure of personal information relating to the researchers; the difficulties of providing ethical assurances to respondents about how their data might be reused in the future by third parties; the power differentials between potential data 'users' and the data 'suppliers' (respondents); and, the epistemological challenges of using 'data' taken out of their contexts of production. These researchers were seeking to initiate a debate not so much about whether qualitative researchers should engage in data preservation and sharing activities, but rather how they could do so without compromising the ethical and philosophical integrity of their research. They were explicitly inviting the community of qualitative researchers to reflect critically on the policy, to consider what it was asking qualitative researchers to do, and to discuss its potential implications for qualitative research practice. …