White Light, White Heat: A Social Experiment

Like the BBC’s flagship new drama series White Heat, I’m thinking just now about being young again. No, I’m not consulting Goldie Hawn‘s face doctor, I’m just doing a little job for the AQR. Having noticed that my youth has slammed the door on me, the AQR is involving me in a little initiative to connect with a few of those still in the room.

The idea is to help the, shall we say, more mature souls who tend to be active in the AQR get a better feel for how the latest generation of qual researchers see the world. I’ve put together a discussion guide, with the esteemed Lesley Thompson (of Changes Research) for a pilot evening we’re doing with a few up and coming qual researchers at around SRE/RM level. It should also help the 20-somethings involved at this stage connect a bit with the AQR and feel valued; or at the very least, slightly tipsy.

I’ll be particularly interested to hear how our participants found out about and got into qualitative research. Like Old Trafford football ground, qual has been something to which people come from a dizzying array of different places. I wonder if that’s still the case now, in an age where young people think more seriously and soberly earlier about their careers. People of my age and older often talk of having “fallen into” qual (though they value it no less for that).

The first episode of White Heat was on last night: it’s about a group of house-sharing 20-somethings in the 1960s and how they develop into their older selves. It’s been described as a new Our Friends In The North. If it lives up to that series, it will be great, even if I was never convinced by Daniel Craig as a Geordie tramp. It was one of the few British series to attempt the kind of grand social narratives that we often eschew in this country, but which come thick and fast from American novellists and tv writers. I’m thinking of series like Mad Men and The Sopranos and novels like Philip Roth’s American Pastoral or Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom.

Looking forward to this bit. Please tell me his jailers are twisted and brutal.

I have to say I’m not sold on the MP’s son character; his flouncing public schoolboy mannerisms seemed anachronistically more early-1990s than mid-1960s. But Tamsin Greig was darkly brilliant as ever in her brief appearances; and some of the other characters were promising. You’ve always got to have a socially maladroit Northern scientist in there and let’s hope he grows out of the stereotype, there have been some flashes of depth from him. The first episode of these series are often the trickiest; once the characters and storylines are up and running, we get to really judge what it’s made of. I did think a lot of the initial set-up was pretty clunky though – particularly the sign-posting of the “social experiment”. We’ll see how it develops.

White Heat – 1st episode

I wonder if here in 2012, the carefree period people enjoy in their early 20s is much shorter – or there at all? But I suspect also that there are limits to how serious and conscientious any group of people in their early 20s can be – tough economy or no tough economy, it’s a time for exploring what it is to be your adult self. That is always going to involve the personal and the playful as much as working life.

My own route into qual was circuitous. There was a law degree (aged 21), qualifying as a solicitor (aged 26) then spending a day at a career change agency (aged 27) where I decided qual was right for me, then several months taking days off work to do interviews and my first job in qual (aged 28). An unusual route perhaps; but the idea of coming to qual a bit late was well accepted and, it felt, not that unusual then. I do also think it gives perspective to have worked in a completely different industry and professional culture, if only because it makes me appreciate life as a qual researcher quite acutely. I suspect it may be less common (and more difficult to do?) now. But I’ll be interested to hear the 20-somethings on the options they see or saw themselves as having.

A fork in the road

Will they see this period of their lives as characterised more by fluidity and openness? Or by the narrowing and hardening which tends to come as one’s 20s progress? The seven years between 21 and 28 can be as formative as the teen years: it’s full of big forks in the road and they tend to be decisive ones. It’s no mistake that in research groups, we tend to group 18-24s together and 25-34s as a separate stage. The transition can be difficult to get your head around: life can become very different in just a few disorientating years in your mid 20s.

Personally, at 21-24 I was still living a quasi-student life in multiple house-shares, doing proper “travelling”, drinking rather a lot of beer and enjoying not having very much responsibility. By 25, couples were starting to move in together, jobs started to matter more and social life calmed down from what one older colleague described, half in horror, as my “whirligig” lifestyle. Being comfortable and not too tired started to become important. I started to enjoy Friday night in. I wanted to eat in nice restaurants and do city breaks. And so to the dubious pleasures of being a “grown up”.

I wonder if, like the White Heat mob, the AQR cohort we gather will reassemble in 50-odd years, having married / cheated on / disembowelled / extradited each other from Belarus, in a maze of interweaving plotlines? Probably not, to be fair.

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About Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.
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