- The Life Project. The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives by Helen Pearson
Few works written for a wide readership not only present the results of a research project but also narrate its history. In The Life Project, British science journalist Helen Pearson presents a type of survey that has long been practiced in Great Britain: follow-up of birth cohorts. In 1946, British social science and epidemiology researchers began tracking five samples of individuals born at approximately the same time, collecting socio-demographic and health information on them from the time of their birth (often even before) and as they grew older. This is considered a pathbreaking series of longitudinal studies, one of unprecedented scope.
Helen Pearson consulted archives from the different studies, including researchers' personal documents; interviewed a variety of actors – some of the researchers involved and persons who know or knew them, cohort members – and of course read all the reports and publications the studies gave rise to. This unique, diverse body of material fuels her account of the research work, an account that covers research findings, attempts to raise funds in favourable and less favourable political contexts, the missing knowledge that gave rise to the studies in the first place, debates generated by the findings, the theories implicated in the research, researchers' profiles, the methods used to recruit respondents and ensure their continued participation, how the data were collected, stocked and diffused, strategies for analysing them, etc.
The book's three parts are mainly organized chronologically and cover 70 years of research activity. One recurrent issue is the persistence of cohort-based research, how existing longitudinal surveys generated new ones; also how certain projects were scrapped at different stages of advancement, the conducting of new survey waves with existing cohorts, and the substantial use of the database many decades later to find answers to questions that did not figure in the initial research programme. Access to the data is now provided by a London laboratory specialized in cohort studies, the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at http://www.cls.ioe.ac.uk.
In addition to presenting the particular history of the British cohorts, Pearson summarizes other studies from different times that help readers understand how scientific questions and methods are constructed. She highlights the knowledge contributed by British studies on health, medicine and education (the use of epidural anaesthesia during labour, the long-term effects of air pollution, parents' activities with their children, etc.), knowledge that has worked to shape individual behaviours and public policy for combating social inequalities.
One major strength of the book is its presentation of the panoply of actions and actors required to produce this kind of knowledge, as well as the stumbling blocks, failures and solutions involved. It is full of anecdotes and amusing, instructive narratives. The wide range of subjects discussed precludes treating them in detail, and the way the book is organized precludes reading on a thematic [End Page 716] basis, though the index is of great help here. Generally speaking, the book is pleasant and easy to read, provides a good overview of what is involved in doing social science and epidemiological research, and through its presentation of cohort trajectories, offers lay readers a solid introduction to longitudinal surveys. [End Page 717]