The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Do we want social science, or social science-fiction?

By Paul Temple

Because a lot of its research work involves schools and school-age children, research training at the Institute of Education tends to emphasise issues around confidentiality and anonymity in presenting research findings. Anonymity usually happens anyway in large-scale studies with hundreds or thousands of respondents – the National Student Survey, for example – because the point is to get a picture of what a category of people think, rather than the views of particular individuals. Those of us working on higher education research, however, are often in the position of asking relatively small numbers of informants about their professional views – that is, about the knowledge for which their employer is paying them, unrelated to their private lives. A university finance director could of course decline to be interviewed, but it’s hard to see why there should be a confidentiality problem about their explanation of the university’s resource allocation methodology.

When one of my PhD students was planning a study of the closure of the Ripon campus of York St John University, she assumed everything would have to be anonymised. But why?, I asked her. Yes, the closure was controversial, but that’s now history. Your study, I said, will have far more value if you contextualise it in the real-life settings of York and Ripon; just be sure that your respondents know that what they say will be on the record. But will they talk to me on that basis, she wondered: your problem, I said (correctly, as it turned out), will be getting them to shut up when you want to end the interview. Her thesis was fine, and the then YSJ VC seemed pleased that the institution was considered to be an interesting research subject.

The book by John Brennan et al, The University in its Place (2018), which provides four case studies of anonymised UK universities, took me back to these discussions. Brennan and his co-authors actually provide enough context to make it easy to work out the institutional identities: how many Scottish east coast cities have two universities, one of which (“Aspirational U”) obtained university status in 1994 and has about 5000 students? – no Googling, please. But it is the conceptual reason for anonymization that the authors put forward, aside from wanting “to respect the confidentiality of those to whom we talked” about the “sensitive” matter of university-regional relationships (p48), that I find fascinating. Anonymity was apparently necessary because “it is simply not possible to capture all the day-to-day complexity and uncertainty associated with higher education in practice and in place … [the study] necessarily involves selection, both intended and unintended … [so we cannot] present a complete and fully articulated representation either of particular institutions or places” (p48).

But making a selection is the basis not merely for all social science but for all research, of any kind. Show me a piece of research that isn’t the result of making a selection from the infinite variety of natural and social phenomena that initially confronted the researcher. Having then made a selection, no social scientific study will “capture all the day-to-day complexity” of an organisation, or of anything else. This is simply a logical impossibility, as there will always be more facts to be collected, more detail to be recorded, more details of details to be examined – as surely every PhD supervisor knows: “You’ve done enough, just write the thing up!”. What a researcher must do is focus on the chosen detail and (with an explanation) ignore the rest: you want the finance director to tell you about the resource allocation model, not about “the day-to-day complexity” of managing cash flow. In the cases of Brennan et al, no reasonable person would expect a study of university-regional relationships to include “a complete … representation” of, say, the catering arrangements in a particular institution, any more than an account of university catering would be expected to consider the university’s relations with regional public bodies.

I think that removing through anonymisation the context in which the research subject is embedded reduces the quality of understanding: it makes it harder for the reader to create their own view about what the research is saying – they have to go along with what the researchers say. Actually, anonymisation may mislead the reader if they guess wrong about the identity of the subject: “Funny, this doesn’t sound like Aberdeen!”.

It seems to me that Americans take a much more robust view about these matters than we do in Britain: maybe it’s a result of the First Amendment. George Keller’s ground-breaking book on university planning, Academic Strategy (1983), carried weight because he was describing successes and failures by named individuals in named universities. In the same tradition, Mark Kretovics (2020) doesn’t pull his punches, describing named leadership successes and failures (the failures are the best bits), down to the juicy details of expenses scandals. These accounts make you almost feel as if you’re in the room, not wondering if you’ve even got the right city.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.


Brennan, J., Cochrane, A., Lebeau, Y. and Williams, R. (2018). The University in its Place: Social and cultural perspectives on the regional role of universiites. Dordrecht: Springer.

Keller, G. (1983). Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Kretovics, M. (2020). Understanding Power and Leadership in Higher Education: Tools for Institutional Change. New York: Routledge.