I want to try something a little different in the next few posts. I want to experiment with using this blog as a space for doing some ‘raw’ data analysis.

Why do this online? Well, to be honest, it’s primarily for my own benefit. Having to produce something for publication, even if it’s self-publication in the ephemeral world of the blogosphere, will (I hope) provide me with the structure and discipline that I badly need when it comes to my own research. But I’m also hoping that, as this blog slowly acquires a readership, others with similar interests will comment on my work in progress – thus helping me to refine my thinking, but also starting to create an online conversation about the issues raised.

The focus for this series of blog posts will be my analysis of a set of letters written by my great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb, to his son, Arthur Ernest Robb (my grandfather), when the latter was a soldier during the First World War. I mentioned these letters in a recent post, in the context of a discussion of Michael Roper’s book The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War.

I’ve had a longstanding interest in the broad topic of men, masculinities and the care of children. About ten years ago I carried out a small-scale study of men working in childcare settings (Robb, 2001), followed by some work on men’s discursive production of their identities as fathers (Robb, 2004a ; Robb, 2004b). Recently, I wrote a chapter for the Reader for the new OU module Critical practice with children and young people (K802), questioning the ‘male role model’ discourse that informs current campaigns to recruit more men to work with children (Robb, 2010), and Sandy Ruxton and I are working on a funding proposal for new empirical research that would develop this theme.  I’m also in the process of writing up some secondary analysis that I carried out on data from the Inventing Adulthoods study, focusing on young men’s relationships with their mothers.

What interested me about my great grandfather’s letters to his son, when I first came across them, was the vivid way in which they showed a man ‘doing’ fatherhood in unusual and testing circumstances. Getting men to talk about fathering, or about personal relationships of any kind, is notoriously difficult: a common problem for researchers in this field that was one of the emergent themes from our recent ‘Questioning masculinities’ seminar at the Open University. Finding textual data that presented a father actually articulating his feelings towards his son, and at the same time ‘practising’ his role as a father, seemed to present a rich opportunity for analysis.

Another factor that attracted me to the idea of analysing these family letters was their open expression of religious belief, and the way in which my great grandfather’s identity as a father was interwoven with his deep Christian faith. For some time, I’ve wanted to undertake some research on religion and identity. Last year, with my colleague Sara MacKian, I submitted an unsuccessful bid for funding to do some work on young people and religious identity. I also have a PhD student (whose studies are currently suspended) who is exploring the production of Christian identities in a church youth group. (Sara has continued to pursue her own research on ‘everyday spirituality’, interestingly via a blog: a method that I’d like to explore at some point in the future.)

My great grandfather’s letters, which combine tender (and sometimes not-so-tender) paternal feelings with a profound Methodist faith, seemed to provide an opportunity to explore the ways in which both fatherhood and faith are ‘performed’. Moreover, they appeared to offer a fascinating demonstration of the diversity of ‘fatherhoods’. As with masculinities, there’s a need to speak of fathering identities as plural and as interwoven with a diversity of determining factors and contexts.

In the next post, I’ll say more about the letters themselves, and about the issues thrown up by using them as the focus for research.


Robb, M. (2001) ‘Men working in childcare’, in Foley, P., Roche, J. and Tucker, S. (eds.) Children in society: contemporary theory, policy and practice, Basingstoke, Palgrave/The Open University

Robb, M. (2004a) ‘Men talking about fatherhood: discourse and identities’, in Robb, M., Barrett, S., Komarmy, C. and Rogers, A. (eds.) Communication, relationships and care: a reader, London, Routledge/The Open University

Robb, M. (2004b) ‘Exploring fatherhood: masculinity and intersubjectivity in the research process’, Journal of Social Work Practice, Vol. 18, No. 3, November (Special Issue: Psychosocial Approaches to Health and Welfare Research)

Robb, M. (2010) ‘Men wanted? Gender and the children’s workforce’, in Robb, M. and Thomson, R. (eds.) Critical practice with children and young people, Policy Press/The Open University