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Tracking our lives and times

LIVES and loves, friends and family, parents and partners, getting together and breaking up - the whole sweep of human relationships from the cradle to the grave will be explored in a major new study led by the University of Leeds.

For five years, the Timescapes study will track 400 ordinary people, building up a valuable database about their lives and their relationships. It will look at their key experiences such as growing up, forming relationships, bearing and rearing children, living in families and getting old.

The research, funded by a £4.5 million grant from the Economic and Social Research Council, is led by Dr Bren Neale of the University's School of Sociology and Social Policy. She said: "We will be exploring the important relationships by which people define themselves - how they live, for example, as sons or brothers, wives or grandmothers.

"We want to know how these relationships affect people's life chances and the major decisions they make. We will be tracking people to explore how these relationships are 'worked out' over time and how things change through the process of growing up and growing old.

"It will be like walking alongside people as their lives unfold."

Timescapes, which also involves researchers from London South Bank, Cardiff, Edinburgh and The Open University, is based on seven projects that span the life course: two on young lives, three on mid-life experiences, and two on older lives.

It will study a diverse mix of people: "Our participants will be from all walks of life, rich and poor, and from different ethnic and religious groups. They will live in varied communities across the UK and will be drawn from across the generations, including different generations within the same families," Neale explained.

"And because this is about ordinary, everyday lives, it has an appeal and a relevance to everyone. The ups and downs of life, the challenges that people face, the choices they make, will be immediately understandable."

The study will create a wealth of data - in-depth interviews, observations, photos, video and audio diaries - which will document changes as they occur and turn our 'snapshot' visions into a movie narrative of modern social life. The data will be drawn together to form the Timescapes Archive at the University of Leeds.

And Timescapes will be organic, growing long after the five-year study is complete, as more information is added to the database. "It will act as a magnet for further research, which will enrich the archive as it grows," said Neale.

As well as answering some of the key questions about modern life - how people craft their relationships, how they react to world events, how their decisions mirror wider social change - the data collected will also inform policy-making, particularly in the areas of health and social care.

And the Timescapes Archive will have a lasting value, as Neale explained: "This unique, specialist resource on the dynamic nature of personal lives and relationships will be of enduring value for future generations of researchers and social historians."

Jennifer Hicks | alfa
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