Social Research Methods and Research Practices

As a publisher, we play a significant role in supporting the development of new research understanding and skills, and in reflecting on emerging agendas and dilemmas, including online data, evidence use, ethical practice, mixed methods, participatory approaches and cross-disciplinary learning.

Our titles on social research methods and research practices span disciplines and embrace new collaborations and ways of working as part of a focus on challenge-led research.  

Highlights in this area include the Social Research Association Shorts, which provide academics and research users with short, high-quality and focused guides to specific topics, and the Longitudinal and Life Course Studies journal.

Social Research Methods and Research Practices

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This paper presents the findings of longitudinal research conducted in Ethiopia exploring the effects of COVID-19 school closures on children’s holistic learning, including their socio-emotional and academic learning. It draws on data from over 2,000 pupils captured in 2019 and 2021 to compare primary school children’s dropout and learning before and after school closures. The study adapts self-reporting scales used in similar contexts to measure grade 4–6 pupils’ social skills and numeracy. Findings highlight the risk of widening inequality regarding educational access and outcomes, related to pupils’ gender, age, wealth and location. They also highlight a decline in social skills following school closures and identify a positive and significant relationship between pupils’ social skills and numeracy over time. In conclusion, we recommend a need for education systems to promote children’s holistic learning, which is even more vital in the aftermath of the pandemic.

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Employment re-entry opportunities decrease with age. For middle-aged welfare benefit recipients, employment obstacles connected to age exacerbate further disadvantages connected to welfare receipt. At the same time, there is considerable diversity in middle-aged welfare benefit recipients’ long-term employment trajectories, which has thus far received little attention. Policies aim to increase labour market participation at higher ages. To this end, it is important to understand specific difficulties and to be realistic when formulating goals for people with very diverse types of employment histories. Using large-scale register data, this paper’s focus is on a cohort aged 45–54 in August 2012 in Germany. Sequence analysis aids in identifying characteristics relevant to employment histories over the past 19 years, from January 1993 to July 2012. Subsequent employment outcomes over the time span September 2012 to December 2018 are investigated, differentiating between jobs of different quality, and effects of training programmes on these outcomes are analysed using entropy balancing methods. Findings are that middle-aged welfare recipients’ employment biographies are very diverse, ranging from very little employment experience, over long histories of intermittent employment, to long continuous employment histories. Employment history attributes significantly affect employment prospects. The analyses further show that it is not too late to invest in skills, independent of employment history type.

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This book presents and interprets the stories of nine actors involved in the design, construction, management and habitation of third age housing in the UK. The primary motivation behind this book is to offer a creative practice research perspective to the field of gerontology – through anthropology by means of design – and, specifically, an architectural ‘insider’ view on the designed environments of retirement housing. One distinct intention of this work is to amplify the voice of architects among associated researchers, but also, through sharing aspects of the underlying multi-sited ethnography, give voice to some overlooked actors within the research field that are equally well-placed to contribute to design discussions of retirement-living products. Readers are invited to consider the question of how designers – professional or otherwise – can facilitate the wellbeing of older people in their homes, by optimising design details of these micro environments, in support of collective ambitions to age in place for as long as possible. Related to this, it is anticipated that readers might seek authentication of retirement housing – as products marketed as ‘specialist’ housing options – asking the question whether all housing should be age-friendly. The book is especially relevant to scholars in the fields of ageing and environmental gerontology, as well as architecture and the built environment. It will also appeal to industry professionals and practitioners from the housing sector more broadly. The visual vignettes and variety of writing approaches – from storytelling to reflective accounts – make this an accessible, transdisciplinary book. It may also be read by people preparing for later life.

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Chapter 1 contextualises the actors storied within this volume, specifically baby boomer characters ‘Matthew’ and ‘Eileen’ storied within Chapter 3, and ‘Rose’ the ‘vulnerable friend’ storied within Chapter 4. Taking a popular perspective, these characters occupy a common phase of life – retirement – albeit separated by over two decades, with Matthew and Eileen being recent retirees, and Rose a generation ahead. They are also considered outwith the target market for the villa product presented within Chapter 5; Matthew and Eileen being ‘too young’ or ‘not ready’, and Rose being ‘too dependent’ or ‘too late’ for a retirement apartment. This chapter uses gerontological literature to locate these ‘known’ individuals within a theoretical population or spectrum of older persons. It explores key terms used to describe life course stages, such as ‘third age’ (Matthew/Eileen) and ‘fourth age’ (Rose), and associated degrees of independence and how these translate to housing needs. Thus this chapter offers readers a theoretical primer and backdrop for the cast of actors storied in this book.

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Chapter 10 contains a research story that captures the position of the architecture student responding to the dual challenges of designing housing and accommodating an aged population. The story is located within the academic design studio of a fictional architecture school and presents a composite student character, August, while reflecting upon empathic design approaches to designing retirement housing on a ‘live’ development site. It explores how architecture students think about designing for older people and, crucially, how they might extend their awareness of housing needs and occupant aspirations in later life. This reflective practitioner account posits that the academic design studio can provide a space to explore research methodologies, involving short-term ‘cultural immersion’ or ‘empathic modelling’ and other ‘fast ethnography’ techniques, resulting in meaningful stakeholder engagement and potential to generate knowledge for and from design. In these terms the design studio can create a safe place to challenge ethnocentrism and the practice of self-design, as well as to question mainstream architectural behaviours and identities perpetuated by ‘starchitects’. The chapter also offers a behind-the-scenes view of architectural education that serves to support greater mutual understanding between designers of the built environment and researchers in environmental gerontology.

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Chapter 3 contains the first research story, which reflects on the situated experiences, attitudes and opinions of a ‘baby boomer’ couple, the ‘Cees’, who are recent retirees or ‘third agers’ that split their time between Northern Ireland and England. This is a narrative account inviting readers to observe family members or close relations as emerging experts in preparing for and practising ageing in place. It draws upon a deep and part situated relationship with the informants while focusing on two research-framed events: a semi-structured interview conducted inside the informants’ English home, and a guided tour/walking interview inside a retirement housing development close to their home. The story recounts two recent property purchases and reflects on the motives for moving and respective meanings of home, as well as the couple’s preparedness for retirement living over the longer term. The Cees do not envisage moving for at least another ten years, and the idea of moving into retirement housing has not featured in their thinking, yet. In these terms the chapter explores a specific retirement lifestyle that temporarily disregards the idea of the ‘last’ home while attending to practical thoughts around future-proofing.

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Chapter 11 reports from the professional context of the architect working within a property development company specialising in retirement housing. Here poetic expression is used to capture the values of the company architect and cultural environment in which they perform their professional work. Five short poems represent key ‘encounters’ with in-house architectural staff met within the research field. They include observations of professional preparedness and expertise in designing for older people, as well as identifying limitations to professional agency. The chapter serves to isolate the practices of – and give voice to – the architect working within a property development company, as opposed to independent architectural practice. In doing so the author reviews the position of co-professionals operating within the ‘other’ workplace – business office rather than design studio. Readers will observe a difference in how retirement housing is considered by alternate architectural professionals; a difference typified by casting the design object as either ‘project’ or ‘product’ – the latter maximising the repeatability and scalability of housing. In this context company architects are found to be like design custodians; persons entrusted with guarding or maintaining a set of design patterns that are shaped or tweaked to fit specific development sites and settings.

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Chapter 13 contains a reflective account that acknowledges the author’s agency as researcher and creative practitioner. It is the meta narrative that relates to and connects the other research stories within the volume. It also offers a less censored designer perspective that speaks more directly to the experience of architectural practitioners and those engaged in practice-led research. In particular this chapter reflects on the theme of design research for change, and seeks to answer three questions: (i) who decided what to change, (ii) who activated the change and (iii) who has been affected by the change? Here ‘change’ is defined as revised or tweaked design patterns for an established housing product – the retirement villa. A case study is used to demonstrate how small changes can positively affect the experiences of residents and their visitors while occupying communal spaces within residential developments. It explores the process of ‘tweaking’ the design template for a shared lounge, to include an open-plan coffee bar that gives the space a distinct character and relatable programme. The chapter thus explores architectural agency through micro design changes that have the potential to impact a population of older people, particularly when replicated across an expanding portfolio of retirement villas.

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Chapter 6 asks readers to consider the position of a property developer within the UK volume housebuilding sector. It contains a tripartite story that portrays a company director based on documentary analysis and real events, including everyday interactions and observations from industry. Part A examines common perceptions of property developers within popular culture and the architectural profession especially. Part B presents ‘George’, a composite character based on members of a fictional board of directors at development company ‘Pink & Knight’. The story then shifts from a narration of George, as character, to George as narrator. Part C presents George’s thinking around a staff symposium called ‘Back-To-Basics’, which is used by the author to roll-call Pink & Knight directors, as well as unpack everyday operational challenges and business decisions, including investment in product review and exploring design ‘tweaks’. The story extends empathy towards an actor rarely captured by research and invites readers to look beyond popular stereotypes that cast developers as villains. Here the developer is presented as a built environment professional and visionary change-maker; one committed to developing a ‘needs oriented’ retirement-living product, while keeping a close eye on build cost, profit margins and sustaining livelihoods.

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