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56 up: Because real people’s lives are interesting and important

May 30, 2012
Some real people

NOTE: This article was first published on the Huffington Post website, so can also be found here.

I can’t get enough of the 7 up series, a TV documentary following a group of people across the course of their lives.  The first instalment was in 1964, when a group of 14 seven-year-olds from different backgrounds were selected to participate with the original premise “give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” and “the union leader and the business executive of the year 2000 are now 7 years old.”  The participants were filmed again at 14, and 21, and continue to be filmed every seven years.  Most of them have participated in most of the instalments and this year the participants are 56.  Sure it’s not perfect – the group composition reflects 1964 values with only four women and one non-white participant.  But I do love it, and I think the longer it goes on the more its value grows.

This isn’t exactly the kind of traditional market research that I do for my job, but to me it encapsulates everything that I love about research.

People are individually interesting: Choose a random group of people and ask them to talk about their lives, and it is fascinating to hear how about what they do with their days, what their hopes and dreams are, and how they make decisions and deal with circumstances and generally live their lives.  You grow to feel you know them, and care about them, because they are real.

People are collectively interesting: When you apply a consistent methodology to a group of people you can look at them together as a snapshot of society.  How they are the same or different from each other and from yourself.  What the patterns within the group are, and what that says about contemporary society and social mobility and feminism and the economy and all sorts of other issues.

With real people, you never know what will happen: Back in the day when 7 up first started it was assumed that those who started off in the boarding schools would go on to be more successful than those who came from less well-off backgrounds.  This has happened to a degree, but then the world is a different place these days and the variety at age 56 is probably not quite as the original production team expected.  There have been multiple marriages and divorces and many many children.  Some went to Oxbridge, some dropped out of school.  Two moved abroad.  One became homeless.  Some of this could have been predicted, but some not.

Time adds an interesting dimension: With a longitudinal study such as this you get to look at a snapshot of people in time, and you get to look at how time changes people.  The further on in this process we get, the more information we have to look back upon.  The 7 up participants age in front of your eyes.  They get married, and divorced, and remarried.  Their kids grow up, their parents die.  Their haircuts and their clothes change with the styles.  They smoke or don’t smoke. They look tired, or happy, or stressed, or confident.  Their accents vary depending on where they live.  The way they talk about politics and the economy and their aspirations is reflective of a changing society.  And we build up a picture of how one things leads to another thing leads to another thing, and how they got from a child of 7 to an adult of 56.

And that’s what research is about for me.  Recognising that real people have relevant, complicated, interesting and important lives.  That everyone deserves to have their voice heard, and that there are plenty of people out there that are keen to listen.

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