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City University London pays tribute to Professor Sir Roger Jowell

City University London staff and students are mourning the loss of Professor Sir Roger Jowell, who sadly passed away on Christmas Day 2011.

by Hollie Jenkins


The founder Director of the Centre for Comparative Social Surveys at City University London from 2003, Roger Jowell was a leader in his field. He made an exceptional contribution to social sciences in the UK and across the world. His firm belief in the need for methodological rigour has helped ensure there is a field within public opinion research that is scientifically driven. 

Apart from being a leading social statistician and expert on electoral behaviour, Roger will be remembered at City for being a down to earth, witty, fun-loving colleague and a great friend. He is also remembered for being an exceptional mentor and inspiration to aspiring social researchers. 

Roger Mark Jowell was born in Cape Town on March 26, 1942. After studying politics at the University of Cape Town, Roger moved to London, commenced his career in a market research company and served as a Labour member of Camden Council. 

In 1969 Roger co-founded Social & Community Planning Research (SCPR) with Gerald Hoinville, now known as the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and Britain's largest independent research institute. Roger led NatCen from 1969 until 2001, when its work revolutionised social research in Britain. 

In 1983 Roger founded NatCen's annual British Social Attitudes Surveys time series, the first study regularly to measure British attitudes and values. Continually striving to improve the research methodology, he edited the first 19 reports of findings.

Roger was famous for developing social research that provided new insights into political attitudes and beliefs across Britain, whilst ensuring his research remained ethical and independent. Following the publication of the seventh British Social Attitudes survey in 1990, he memorably commented that research showed that "the nation has resisted Thatcherism". 

In the 1990s the Government famously refused to fund a proposed National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which was to inform HIV/AIDs policy. The controversy put both NatCen and Roger in the public spotlight and it was subsequently funded by the Wellcome Institute. 

In 1994 Roger coordinated the first "deliberative polling" in Britain, using qualitative research to provide unique insights into quantitative data. It was one of the earliest ever uses of focus groups in the UK. 

Retiring as Director of NatCen in 2001, Roger turned to comparative research and co-founded and directed the European Social Survey (ESS) which he led until his death. In 2003 he moved with ESS to City University London, where he became Research Professor and Founder Director of the Centre for Comparative Social Surveys.

A 34-nation comparative study of social values in Europe, the ESS survey was the first of its kind and was awarded the Descartes Prize in 2005 for 'excellence in collaborative scientific research'. More recently, it became one of the first major European social science projects to be eligible to become a long term funded Research Infrastructure.

As a pioneer in the field of cross-cultural survey research, Roger was particularly concerned to maintain standards of methodological rigour usually associated with the best national surveys. The keystone of the ESS is the 'principle of equivalence', most elegantly outlined in his classic paper 'How Comparative is Comparative Research?' which appeared in American Behavioural Scientist in 1998. The paper set out the 10 golden rules for comparative research, many of which are central to the methodology used by the ESS and other cross-national surveys. 

Roger Jowell was appointed CBE in 2001 and knighted in 2008 for 'services to social science'.

He is survived by his wife, Sharon Witherspoon, and by two sons Marco and Adam from a previous marriage.

At City Roger will be remembered for his dedication to rigorous research methodologies, as well as his irreverence, his lack of pomposity and his kindness - all qualities admired by his colleagues who also saw him as a distinguished researcher and leader. He will be greatly missed by his colleagues and students alike. 

A memorial for Roger Jowell will be held in the spring.

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