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Storied Identities: Gendered Lives in Qualitative and Quantitative Research. BEDFORD GROUP FOR LIFECOURSE AND STATISTICAL STUDIES INSTITUTE OF EDUCATION UNIVERSITY OF LONDON Jane Elliott 12 December 2005. Main themes of presentation.

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Storied Identities: Gendered Lives in Qualitative and Quantitative Research

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Storied Identities: Gendered Lives in Qualitative and Quantitative Research




Jane Elliott12 December 2005

Main themes of presentation

  • Interest in exploring the differences between qualitative and quantitative research

  • Utility of the notion of narrative identity (Ezzy, Ricoeur)

  • Interest in gender as socially constructed and therefore amenable to change.

  • Desire to go beyond gender differences and begin to think about doing gender differently.

Narrative identity

  • Narrative provides a practical means by which the individual can understand themselves as living through time, a human subject with a past, present, and future made whole by a narrative plot with a beginning, middle and end.

  • Allows conceptualisation of individual as having a continuous presence through time without becoming fixed or essentialized

  • Identity as idem or ipse (identical or selfsame ‘soi-meme’) – permanence through time without sameness through time (Ricoeur).

The individual in quantitative & qualitative research

  • Quantitative research has been argued to

    • Neglect the individual as a unique and complex case

    • Obscure the biographical trajectories of individuals

    • Neglect the individual as an active agent

    • Neglect the conceptual schema/meanings made by individuals

    • Neglect the reflexive work carried out by the individual in establishing, maintaining and revising his or her own identity

The individual in quantitative & qualitative research

  • Does all quantitative research obscure the individual in the same way?

  • Does qualitative research (and in particular narrative research) necessarily remedy all these shortcomings?

The individual in quantitative & qualitative research

  • Quantitative research has been argued to

    • Neglect the individual as a unique and complex case

    • Obscure the biographical trajectories of individuals

    • Neglect the individual as an active agent

    • Neglect the conceptual schema/meanings made by individuals

    • Neglect the reflexive work carried out by the individual in establishing, maintaining and revising his or her own identity

British Birth Cohort Studies

  • Existing UK/GB National Studies:

    1946: MRC National Survey of Health & Development

    1958: National Child Development Study

    1970: 1970 British Birth Cohort Study

    MCS: Millennium Cohort Study the first national birth cohort study for 30 years (2000-1)

British Birth Cohort Studies

NCDS Follow-ups

Exam results

Parents’ social class

Voting behaviour

Training and skills

Parental divorce


Gets married



1st Child 1984

2nd Child


Age 11


Age 7

Mother smoking

Job 1

Job 2

Job 3

Parental interest in school work

Psychological well being

Domestic division of labour

Working hours preferences

Free school meals

Maths and reading tests

Union membership

Teachers’ assessment of child’s behaviour

Hypothetical life history

Age 16





Age 23

Age 42

Age 46

Age 33

Example case from NCDS

The individual in longitudinal quantitative research

  • Longitudinal research, such as the British Birth cohorts clearly goes a long way towards addressing some of the criticisms of quantitative research.

  • Quantitative research does not necessarily collect less detailed information than qualitative research

  • Longitudinal research allows for a focus on individuals’ trajectories

  • However, the reflexive individual is still obscured in this type of quantitative longitudinal research

The potential of qualitative research for understanding the reflexive individual

  • Qualitative approaches, such as in depth interviews clearly have potential for developing a better understanding of the reflexive individual

  • In particular qualitative research with a focus on narrative and biography should enable an analysis of the identity work performed by individuals

  • However, qualitative research does not necessarily have that focus

  • Two approaches to narrative research

    • The individual as a hero/heroine approach

    • The individual as narrator

  • Case study of research by Wajcman and Martin (2002)

Case Study: gender and narrative identity

  • Wajcman and Martin (2002): Narratives of identity in Modern Management: the corrosion of gender difference?’ Sociology, 36:985-1002

  • Study on the careers of managers

  • Self-completion questionnaire (sample of 470 managers in six large Australian companies)

  • In-depth interviews with 136 managers

Case Study: gender and narrative identity

  • Both structured questionnaire and narrative interviews focus on managers’ careers

  • Quantitative survey data revealed very few differences between the careers of male and female managers

    • No impact on tenure; working overseas; number of companies; centrality of work to identity

    • Women earned less & perceived fewer chances for promotion

Wajcman and Martin: Qualitative interviews

  • In-depth interviews concentrated on ‘the identities managers give themselves in their narratives of career and private life’ (2002, 991)

  • Wajcman and Martin state that their approach ‘neither accepts nor rejects the unity of identity’ so that they focus on ‘the different narrative identities managers adopt; whether they mesh successfully and whether these patterns differ between men and women’.

Wajcman and Martin: Qualitative interviews

  • Lengthy quotations from the interviews are used in the text to support their arguments and analysis

  • ‘Interviews were taped and transcribed and analysis was assisted by the use of NUD.IST 4’ (p989)

Wajcman and Martin: Qualitative interviews

  • Wajcman and Martin identify the ‘market narrative’ within managers accounts of their careers and contrast it with a more traditional ‘bureaucratic narrative’

  • Managers represent themselves as ‘ largely autonomous agents, unconstrained by authoritative norms and life patterns’

  • ‘Market narratives’ are described as having no overt gender content & as used equally by men and women

  • However, marked gender differences are reported in the way that interviewees integrate a career narrative with their ‘private’ or ‘family’ narrative

Wajcman and Martin: Approaches to gender

  • In depth interviews and narrative understanding of identity provides an opportunity for a different understanding of gender

  • Quantitative research suggests that gender differences are not marked

  • However, by comparing the narratives of male and female managers, even in the qualitative analysis, gender is treated as a fixed attribute and operates as an axis for comparison in both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the research

Interviews With Graduate Women: the Sample

  • 6 graduate women

  • Contacted via the Alumni office of Manchester University

  • All born in 1958

  • Interviews carried out in 1998, when the women were 40 years old

  • No claims for a ‘representative’ sample

Using interviews to collect life histories

  • Aim to collect women’s own accounts

  • Relatively unstructured

  • Interviews lasted approximately one-and-a –half hours

  • Started interview by using a life history grid, then asked women to tell me the story of their life

  • Interviews taped and transcribed in full

  • Pseudonyms given to the women, their husbands and children to preserve anonymity

Characteristics of the women interviewed

  • All forty years’ old at the time of interview

  • All were in marital/cohabiting relationship

  • All had children

  • All had ‘successful careers’ – not just graduate jobs but had also been upwardly mobile

Two types of analysis of the narratives

  • Firstly focused on women’s own perceptions of structural constraints on the way they combined motherhood and employment (hero/heroine approach)

  • Secondly focused on the way the women narrated their lives – i.e. examined the form rather than just the content of the narratives (narrator approach)

Structural constraints identified by women

  • Lack of opportunity to remain in the same occupation but to reduce hours and work part-time

  • Low pay of part-time work in relation to childcare

  • N.B. Division of labour in the household was not identified as a structural constraint

Graduate women as narrators: gender as a resource for making narratives intelligible

Women’s narratives were structured around the assumptions that :

  • her partner’s career would take priority over her own,

  • her employment, rather than her partner’s employment, would be structured around the needs of any children

  • she would take primary responsibility for the day to day care of their children and for organising any external child care.

Partner’s career used as the explanation for geographic stability/mobility

So obviously, you know, we sort of stayed in this area because that's where his job was, really. (Annie)

He um did a PhD at Manchester. He did a BSc in biochemistry, then a PhD, and that's why we came down here on a three-year post-doc post. (Bridget)

He became qualified, and then we worked abroad, but he - well, in fact we both worked abroad, but we went because of his job abroad. (Debbie)

 I was still at Manchester but then I stayed for my um solicitors' exams because Mike, he had a fourth year of his degree to do in Manchester, and I was able to do my solicitors exams at Manchester Poly. (Frances)

Women’s careers contingent on the needs of their children

Um, What I'd said was, I'd like to do more[work] after she (younger daughter) started school. But the girl who was doing the job in 1992 um... decided to go to New Zealand, I think, um so the job was being advertised as full-time. Again it was full-time or nothing. And so I decided to apply for it then, my thinking at that stage being um, if I don't apply now, um, there won't be another chance for maybe four or five years. (Bridget)

Women’s careers contingent on the needs of their children

He'd (son) be round perhaps about nine, nine-ish or something, eight, nine, ten, by the time I was starting to work in the evenings like that as well as my daytime work. But because he was that bit older, it wasn't too bad, and he had a babysitter that he loved, so that again, I didn't feel too much guilt about it. (Debbie)

Women responsible for child care?

I’m sure that this is a bit of skewed thinking on my behalf, but bear with me. I see myself as being the main care-giver. And so I see my salary as having to cover nursery fees at least. [right] You know? Um, and really it’s silly because, you know, there’s two parents involved here, and two salaries, and my husband’s salary is much, much bigger than mine. But even so, my salary does help us, and I think we’d struggle without my salary, even though it is quite a lot less than my husband’s. And so that was kind of a big factor. Would it - would my salary cover the nursery fees, if nothing else? (Debbie)

Moving away from the assumption of the gendered division of labour

You can't be Miss Top of the ladder career woman when you've got to take the day off at a moment's notice because a child's spent the night being sick. You know? Um, and that's very much the case. One of you's got to sort of at least be available to do that. And I mean my husband's job is the sort of job where, you know, he's got to go every day. It's not the kind of thing where he can work at home some of the time or, you know, fit round with other things (Annie)

Moving away from the assumption of the gendered division of labour

Although Pete's a teacher - I think one partnership must be a teacher, it's a prerequisite with children, they get the holidays. So he's at home now in the Easter holidays with them. So that's not a problem. (Bridget)

I know that in some ways I've chosen not to be the career one in the house, because - or the successful one, in terms of career, in the house. Um... because I really believe that one parent has to not be as career minded, if you've got children. (Debbie)

In these interviews with graduate women….

  • Gender is used as a resource to structure aspects of narratives about combining employment and family life

  • Gender is rarely explicitly discussed – rather it is used as taken for granted set of shared assumptions between the interviewee and interviewer

  • There is at least some evidence of changing views about gender and parenting

  • Important to recognise the specific historical context of these women’s lives i.e. when they speak they do not speak for all women.


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Changes in the availability of part time work…

And I just always made it clear that I didn't want full-time there, I'd made my mind up. I went through the process of making my mind up. But I knew on the day I left him (baby son) to go back to work that I didn't want to work full-time, and I'd always said that - it also shows how attitudes have changed. Because she (manager) was adamant it wasn't - that it wasn't possible to do part-time, whereas the majority of people in my department now, with families anyway, are part-time, because that's what they want. (Interview with Bridget)

Changes in availability of part time work…

So I went back there three days a week (i.e. after the birth of her second child). There were lots of changes going on at the MRI at the time, and we ended up being - despite lots of changes, we ended up being better staffed than we had been for years and years and years…And so there was a little bit more leeway to negotiate for cutting down my hours. (Interview with Elaine)

Low pay of part-time work in relation to child-care costs

I got terribly depressed when I was at home full-time with John, and I just knew I was really unhappy. So I did think about working. Um, but every time I thought about it, when you sort of - when I weighed up kind of what I would get as a secretary, as I would have to pay childminding fees etcetera, it - it always seemed to kind of be too much trouble to go to, to have very little money, if any, at the end of it. (Interview with Debbie).

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