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Pearl Jephcott was a radical youth worker who was made redundant in the 1940s and became a sociologist and researcher who studied everyday topics like women’s work, young people’s leisure, Notting Hill and what it is like living in the new high rise flats in Glasgow. She used what we may term innovative or creative research methods like diaries, children’s drawings, participatory action research, ethnography, mixed methods and so on. She died in 1980 at the age of 80 with sociologist as her occupation on her death certificate. However, she was an accidental sociologist and did it only because of her redundancy, says Tony Jeffs who was one of the many speakers and Jephcott fans speaking at a symposium about her life and work at the University of Leicester on 9th July.

You can  read all the Tweets from the event in this Storify (I just dumped all the Tweets there rather than create a proper story as one should do) or look at this new blog created by Jephcott fans and organisers of the event, John Goodwin and Henrietta O’Connor. Also you can read their article in the journal Sociology ‘The Legacy of a Forgotten Sociological Research Pioneer’ that outlines her work and her approach.

Here I wanted to focus on a new concept that was coined at the event to describe an approach to research that seemed to strikes a chord with many and I find inspirational when trying to figure out where I belong in the research community: ‘Jephcottian’ . I must say one thing first,  I have not yet actually read any of Pearl Jephcott’s work…but I would consider myself leaning towards the Jephcottian philosophy. What on earth does Jephcottian mean and how can you be Jephcottian if you have never even read her work? Well, don’t get irate, let me explain.

Jephcottian refers to the following, according to Goodwin and O’Connor and you can read an elaborated definition on their new blog

As the symposium went on, I think three other aspects of what constitutes Jephcottian can be made more explicit. The first is her philosophy of collaboration. She would work with huge teams of undergraduate and postgraduate students, with the people who she was studying, and other research assistants. She would often be leading the project, but the male Principal Investigator would inevitably get most of the credit. She however did not do this and she acknowledged the contributions of all who helped on the project.

Secondly, her work may be thought of as action research and participatory research in today’s terms. I think the following three projects listed below were dissertation student projects and it is interesting to learn that Pearl herself helped to redesign the bins on one high rise housing estate, much to the joy of the bin men and residents. If you live in a flat you will know that the bins are a common site for feud and passive aggressive note leaving (do not even get me started on my neighbour’s inappropriate use of the recycling bins (nappies), gross!).

A third aspect of her approach to work is that she used illustrations, paintings and graphics in her books. My sister is a graphic designer and we have often talked about how we would collaborate and do something sociological together. it could be something like designing an academic poster that is not incredibly dull and wordy, some exciting promotional materials to sum up my PhD topic when its finished that I can send to people as a form of ‘dissemination’ but also self-promotion when I am seeking work, etc. Starting simply though, I think we could all add a bit of graphics to our crosstabulations. Look at this one!

I think my multinomial regression would look extra swish with some graphics, although I think I best not attempt to draw a representation of a working-class and middle-class mature student….it could end up insulting to all concerned! Oh go on, here is my first attempt. Pretty good eh?

What do you mean what is it? – Those are power station chimneys in the background by the way if that helps your interpretation.

As was often mentioned in the symposium, a lot of today’s methods that are considered innovative, different and ground-breaking, Pearl was doing this a long time ago, and not because she was trying to be different, but because they all just seemed to be something worth trying out. To mix art and text is hardly something that radical is it really, we just seem to make it so.

However, the event was not a total love-in of all things Pearl, many comments were also brought up that there are certain things about her work that we could not get away with today. For example, her theoretical framework may be a bit lacking, she didn’t fully describe how she analysed her data, there may have been a moralising tone in some of her writing, she didn’t always let the participants speak for themselves in her write ups, she may sometimes over interpret what they said and so on. But, as was pointed out, you can’t really judge projects of the past by today’s standards. Also, Pearl was originally a youth worker.  Everything she did therefore, was from the place of wanting to help communities and young people in particular. The tone and approach is a product of the time, but, this should not detract from the main message of her work and approach, which was to value, research, and help to improve the everyday lives of people. One of the last things that John Goodwin said at the event was that the work of Pearl Jephcott reminds him of why he likes research and sociology in the first place a reminder that he needs in times when there is a big pile of student disciplinary files he needs to get through.

There is something I feel about her spirit too, she seems free, a renegade and independent – not caring what others may think of her. I don’t even know if this is the case, but for some reason Pearl makes me feel happy and excited about research and I haven’t ever read a word of it and I think that is a pretty cool impact for someone to have!

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