German Historical Institute London

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London WC1A 2NJ
United Kingdom

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Contemporary historians and the re-use of social science-generated data sets

An international dialogue on the challenges presented by ‘social data’


28–29 October 2021

Organized by the DFG-Projekt ‘Sozialdaten als Quellen der Zeitgeschichte. Erstellung eines Rahmenkonzeptes für eine Forschungsdateninfrastruktur
in der zeithistorischen Forschung’
Conveners: Lutz Raphael (University of Trier), Sabine Reh (Research Library for the History of Education, BBF-DIPF Berlin), Pascal Siegers (GESIS Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences), Kerstin Brückweh (University of Erfurt) and Christina von Hodenberg (GHI London)
Venue: German Historical Institute London


Historians working on the second half of the 20th century are increasingly confronted with new types of sources: so-called social data. They are the
remains of state-sponsored data collection or social science and humanities research projects – such as tax data, polls, interviews or
recorded participant observations. In the course of the ‘scientization’ of the social that took place in the twentieth century, these sources have become
ever more numerous and complex, but they often present in obsolete formats such as punch cards, old statistical software or magnetic tapes.
They can also include tables, texts, card indexes, transcriptions, video interviews, questionnaires, photographs, etc. These sources may be found
in retired scientists’ or pollsters’ attics rather than in state archives, and their re-use may present unresolved questions of ownership and data

If scholars of the contemporary social, gender and economic history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are to do justice to their
task of providing a critical appraisal of the recent past, they cannot bypass social data as a source. They have to tackle the ethical, legal,
methodological, and conceptual challenges tied to these heterogenous, complex, research-generated sources. To date, the re-use of social data by
contemporary historians is still rare, but this is bound to change over the coming decade. At present, historians often have to put considerable effort
and expense into making social data accessible, and classifying and processing them for re-evaluation.

Legal questions arise: who do the data belong to? Do the ethical standards and data protection regulations in force when the data were collected permit their use by historians? Which methods do we choose to anonymise and re-classify sources, and to what extent should we pursue individual cases across different datasets? To what extent does the use of social data render historians’ accounts more ‘representative’? In addition, the context in which the sources were created is often only incompletely documented, and most historians lack training in the statistical skills and software required for the re-use of many such social data sets.

This workshop at the GHI London aims at an international dialogue between curators of data, contemporary historians, digital humanities experts, and practitioners in related social science disciplines. It takes stock of existing projects in the field of social and cultural history (broadly defined) and aims to compare approaches, methods and archival holdings across national boundaries.

In order to keep attendees safe, attendence has been limited to invited guests.

Conference programme (PDF file)

Conference report (PDF file)