First of all I have to declare a bias. I believe that the study of history is a good thing. It brings the past to us and helps us to recognise what has changed and what has not. You will not be surprised, therefore, that I agree with every word of Rory Sutherland’s preface which locates the role of history in our personal and business lives.
‘How We’ve Changed: Social Trends from Post-War to Present Day and Beyond’ is a collection of essays derived from the contents of the Archive of Market and Social Research which shines a fascinating light on the history of the UK since the Second World War. It is available both as a digital download or a printed volume from the AMSR publications web page. In case you don’t know, the Archive of Market and Social Research is a collection of books, papers, reports, speeches, articles, data etc on the broad topic of research. It is a charity that relies on donations of documents, time and money and is free for anyone to use. It is available online and constantly growing.
Think of this publication as a taster menu. Each of the essays dips into one area from the Archive and gives you a flavour of what is available on that particular topic; if it leaves you feeling hungry for more it has done its job.
Historical understanding gives context to today’s events
The book gathers up many things that we have either forgotten or are too young to have known.
It’s not just that there wasn’t the Internet; before the 1970s most people didn’t travel abroad for their holidays. So what? If you look at the demographics of the Brexit vote you will see that the older you were the more likely you were to vote ‘leave’; this is less surprising when you consider that many people grew up without experiencing foreign travel or indeed meeting people who had come from overseas. Historical understanding gives a context for things that are happening today.
Food emerges as a wonderful window on social change. Not just what we eat; imagine life before pizza! But think about travel again, we came home from foreign holidays with tastes for all manner of ‘new’ food experiences. Food also shines a light of the role of women in food preparation and this links to the percentage of women working full or part time. Our attitudes to convenience in food preparation changed – and then we see them swing back as cookery becomes a serious pastime. We began to shop less often in fewer, bigger stores and this too has begun to swing back as we tend to shop more locally and in more specialist shops again. Inside the home the kitchen was the centre of food preparation and utility; it transformed into the centre of the home for the whole family and a marker of style aspirations. In the post-war rebuilding of houses the changing importance of the kitchen within the home has been influential on architectural design.
So here we are with a wealth of resources to look at what has changed in society, what hasn’t changed and what has begun to change back. And that’s just starting with food! It shows that ‘market’ research has as much to teach us about society as ‘social’ research.
Statistics create the narrative of change
Of course there are plenty of statistics within the Archive but it is the narrative that they create which gives the full value. In 1969 49% of us smoked cigarettes and by 2018 this was down to 14%. Between those two numbers are many lessons about social change and how this can be driven. One of the keys to unlocking the future of the NHS will be to push back the obesity ‘epidemic’ and to release precious resources for new and expensive treatments. It may feel like a daunting task but cast your eyes back to the numbers of cigarette smokers; positive change is possible.
Another indicator of change is in the use of language – and the questions here are almost as revealing as the answers. On the one hand this throws up a methodological question about how much the language we use has to change to make sure that our longitudinal studies are actually measuring the same thing over time as language in society evolves.
Do we tread more carefully today?
On the other hand, and of more interest to the general reader, is the light shone on social change by the words we use. It certainly feels that we were more ‘robust’ in times gone by and that we now live in the age of the perpetually offended. One report described the overweight as ‘fatties’ – imagine the outcry today! And here we are one step away from ‘culture wars’. As much as we look around and think there is more to be done on the way we talk about gender or ethnicity or skin colour or body shape or age or whatever, we also need to recognise how much progress has been made. Again the Archive, by preserving and sharing the past, can give us hope for how the future can be better.
As a marginal note it felt to me that one or two of the contributors were actually offering a personal point of view. From the research industry, which has always put itself forward as fanatically objective, this does rather feel like progress!
It is also evident from the contributions that the Archive is very conscious of its role in the present as well as the past. Material collected now about Covid 19, diversity, Brexit etc. will be vital evidence for historians yet to come. It really is a sign of the times how often the ‘Covid’ pandemic pops up and let’s hope that in a few years readers will find that frequency to be a historical eccentricity and a useful marker of our society now.
All this and so much more. These essays hardly scratch the surface of what is available within the Archive. Yet they are delicious; mouth sized morsels of what is on offer if you take the trouble to explore. Here is a resource for the sociological history of the UK within living memory and it is to be hoped that historians and all interested readers will see the value of what is collected under the auspices of market and social research.
The book ‘How We’ve Changed: Social Trends from Post-War to Present Day and Beyond’ is kindly sponsored by Opinium. It is available to buy in hard copy (with the opportunity to include a small donation of your choice), or as a free digital download. Visit our publications page to purchase or register for your copy.
Contributed by Paul Edwards, Non-Executive Director
Date posted: 4th January 2022