Researching Ourselves: Social Surveys in Twentieth-Century New Zealand (Australian Research Council)

By Greenhalgh, Charlotte | New Zealand Sociology, April 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Researching Ourselves: Social Surveys in Twentieth-Century New Zealand (Australian Research Council)


Greenhalgh, Charlotte, New Zealand Sociology


In 1940 one of New Zealand's earliest social surveys made calculations about its subjects' standards of living that were controversial enough to close down a governmental social research unit. After reading proofs of the study 'with its information on children working, farmers working 100 hours a week and houses in North Auckland with dirt floors', Deputy Prime Minister Peter Fraser arrived on the doorstep of his responsible Minister demanding, 'the printing is to stop' (Robb, 1987). An act of 'academic blackmail' secured publication, but the urban survey that would have been its sequel was abandoned. The Social Science Bureau disbanded. Yet by the 1970s social scientific facts and theories were common currency in the public life of the nation. Research projects routinely focused on the hidden problems that surveying and statistics could reveal. Between 1965 and 1980 local populations requested surveys of their hometowns of Hamilton, Porirua, Aranui, Tokoroa, Petone, Kawerau, and Kelbum (Chappie, 1976; Christchurch Public Health Department & Moody, 1973; Gray, 1978; Gray & McCreary, 1980; James Harding Robb, Carr, Cloud, & Victoria University of Wellington Department of Social Administration and Sociology, 1969; VandenBerg, McCreary, Chapman, & Victoria University of Wellington School of Social Science, 1965). The authors of this research-the residents, their local councils, and academics-agreed that social problems would be 'overcome' when their 'accurate data' were known (VandenBerg et ah, 1965: i).

Today the New Zealand government appoints a scientific advisor to foster evidenced-based policymaking. The revamped National Library's inaugural programme of exhibitions, seminars, and workshops celebrates our use of 'Big Data'. Yet the events of 1940 remind us that current attitudes to social scientific knowledge have a history of resistance, scandal, and negotiation. This project uses the archival records of twentieth-century social surveys to follow the story of social research beyond its published pages. It aims to discover how New Zealanders responded to social scientific research on the ground and what social scientific encounters taught them about their communities, their nation, and their own lives.

Twentieth-century social research opened a new way of looking at the world and its structures of power. At the beginning of the century, surveys of poverty in London and York quantified and mapped out a 'social problem' for the first time (Booth, 1902; Rowntree, 1901). In the decades that followed, British economists, political scientists, and sociologists built a social survey tradition that recorded and analysed everyday life and class relations. From the 1920s onwards, sociologists at the University of Chicago advocated theoretically grounded community studies that emphasised race and ethnic identity instead. These studies informed an international audience that social problems were quantifiable, that governments could intervene, that first-person evidence was valuable, and that everyday life was complex and worthy of academic study. Across the Western world, governments and the academy paid increasing attention to social scientific methods, data, and claims to intellectual authority (Igo, 2007). European governments were particularly eager to harness these techniques after 1939, when they worried about civilian morale during the first 'total war' in Europe. By the middle of the century, social scientific findings and practices were replicated in national institutions of education, health, childcare, and welfare as well as in newly established professions ranging from marriage counselling to occupational therapy (Thomson, 2006; Vernon, 2007; Wills, 2005). New Zealand was part of this international exchange of ideas, methods, and personnel, most often employing scholars from elsewhere in a 'distinctly British academic world' (Pietsch, 2010).

While Western understandings of class, governance, welfare, and citizenship were remade by twentieth-century social scientists, their precise influence is not well understood. …

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