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35. Cathie Marsh and the craft of quantitative sociology

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Cathie Marsh made a case for using well-designed and thoughtfully-analysed surveys to understand society.

Cathie Marsh was a leading light in the field of quantitative sociology, particularly in the use of surveys. Sociological surveys were falling from favour in the 80s, and often dismissed as crude tools lacking in subtlety. Cathie disagreed. Her 1982 book The Survey Method argued that the problem wasn’t the tool but how it was being used, and that surveys could in fact be designed which produced sophisticated and useful data. This book was followed by Exploring Data in 1988 (2nd edition 2008), which took a similarly thoughtful approach to explaining how to analyse quantitative data.

When Cathie joined the Sociology department at the University of Manchester in the late 80s she played a leading role in the ESRC Census Working Group which was tasked with testing the feasibility of making the huge UK census dataset available to researchers. Her methodological work on the production of anonymised records influenced the release of Samples of Anonymised Records (SARS) from the 1991 Census. Cathie then founded the Census Microdata Unit at the University of Manchester.

Sadly, Cathie died aged 41 in 1993, which meant that she did not see the success of the Census Microdata Unit, or the activities that have grown out of it. The Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research (CCSR) was set up in 1995 by Angela Dale and colleagues, who shared Cathie’s passion for developing and sharing advanced statistical techniques to better understand society.

This work continues, now under the umbrella of the new Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research (CMIst) which has over 50 staff. Cathie’s name lives on in the new Institute, and so, we hope, does her passion for using quantitative methods to tackle social problems, and training others to do the same.


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