The Power and Perils of Narrative
Making the Best Use of the British Birth Cohort Studies
Britain is unique in the world in having a portfolio of national birth cohort studies that follow individuals from birth through childhood and into adult life. These studies, the first of which was established in 1946, have already been instrumental in providing evidence relevant to a wide range of policy issues particularly in the areas of health, child development, education, and employment.
In this lecture Jane Elliott uses a vivid narrative case study to illustrate the detailed information that the British
Birth Cohort studies collect about individuals and their circumstances. She draws on an eclectic range of
literature both to give an insight into the types of research that can be conducted using Britain’s unparalleled
portfolio of birth cohort studies, and also to explore the narrative properties of the studies. She argues for the
importance of examining individual life stories in order to complement the detailed quantitative information
collected by the studies, and demonstrates how individual narratives can provide an appealing and compelling way to communicate the findings from quantitative analyses.
She also highlights some of the dangers of focusing only on the individual, and makes a broader case for using narrative methods to understand the social world and the intersubjective structures within which individuals try to make sense of their own lives and experiences.