In 1966, WW Daniel, who has died aged 76, was a young research officer at a market research agency – Research Services Ltd – when he was casually tossed a brief originating from the home secretary, Roy Jenkins, for a nationwide study of racial discrimination. With practically no experience, he proceeded to design and carry out a study that was repeatedly cited in parliamentary debates and which directly led to the outlawing of racial discrimination in employment and housing through the Race Relations Act 1968.
The study approached the topic from three different angles: the experiences of a nationwide sample of people from ethnic minorities, as revealed by an innovative survey conducted in English or, where required, in one of five other languages; interviews with people in a position to discriminate, such as employers and landlords; and field experiments, in which actors belonging to different ethnic groups applied for jobs, housing and insurance under controlled conditions. The three studies combined to show that racial discrimination was widespread, with serious consequences for people from minority ethnic groups. The three-pronged research method allowed Daniel to make the distinction between actual experience of discrimination and the potential for discrimination that restricted people’s lives.
The experiments showed that when exposed to the possibility of discrimination, for example by directly applying for a job, Asians (from India and Pakistan) and West Indians were equally likely to experience it. However, Asians actually experienced less discrimination than West Indians because they tended to avoid situations in which they might be exposed to it: for example, they were more likely to seek a job through contacts within their own community, where West Indians were more outgoing in their style of life, and more likely to seek jobs by making direct applications.
Thus racial discrimination, built into the structure of British society, had an equally profound effect on the lives of different visible minorities, although West Indians experienced it more often, whereas Asians tended to adapt their lives so as to avoid it. In this, Daniel’s first published work, as in many of his later studies, a point of theory and a conceptual distinction were closely connected to a new method of doing research.
William Wentworth Daniel was born in Holsworthy, north Devon, the son of a small farmer, George, whose forebears had farmed the same land for generations, and his wife, Margaret (nee Hooper). When Bill passed the 11-plus, the local authority sent him as a boarder to Shebbear college, a minor public school in the same county. Tall, dark and strong, with an imposing presence, he excelled in sports (rugby, tennis, and golf later in life), in school work, and in popularity, becoming head boy.
From there he went to Manchester University to study psychology. Having become a Methodist lay preacher at the age of 15, he put those skills to use in student politics, always adopting a radical stance. In 1961 the College of Technology in Manchester (now Umist) took him on to do a two-year master’s degree in management and industrial relations. His master’s study of a large local bakery was the real start of his mature intellectual life.
After spending two years from 1963 teaching at Ashorne Hill Management College, Leamington Spa, Daniel decided to go into market research to find out how to find out things, since the technologies of social research, developed for commercial and government purposes, were still widely scorned by sociologists. In this environment, Daniel was able to learn very quickly when the racial discrimination brief was thrown to him. After completing the original report, he immediately expanded it into the bestselling Penguin Special, Racial Discrimination in England (1968).
As a senior research fellow at the University of Bath (1967-69), he then threw himself into intensive studies of particular workplaces. On one of these fieldwork trips, he dashed off a classic article that tore into the framework of assumptions underpinning the work on the affluent worker by John Goldthorpe and colleagues at Cambridge. Goldthorpe had argued that how workers felt and behaved in the workplace was mostly the result of expectations brought from outside. But Daniel showed that how people thought about a job when deciding whether to take it was one thing, whereas how they thought about it once installed in the plant was another.
Whereas the decision to take a job might be mainly influenced by pay, satisfaction and behaviour once in the job people were strongly influenced by how the work was organised and scope for individual initiative. Hence restructuring work could fundamentally change job satisfaction and industrial relations. It was, Daniel argued, only because Goldthorpe’s research had stopped at the factory gate that he had been able to conclude that “in short, they [workers] wanted high wages, management paid high wages, and everyone was happy”.
From Bath, Daniel joined Political and Economic Planning (PEP), the thinktank that had placed the racial discrimination study with Research Services Ltd. Turning down offers of plum jobs in conventional academia, he stayed there, through its transformation into the Policy Studies Institute, until 1993, serving as deputy director (1981-86), and as director (1986-93). He was a prolific researcher and writer, particularly for the 15 years from 1969, before management responsibilities began to take their toll. Among many other projects, he carried out extensive studies of unemployment, including the dynamics of movement into and out of work, and established a workplace industrial relations survey that was carried out annually between 1980 and 1990. He was appointed CBE in 1993.
In his final years, Daniel returned to live in Bude, close to his origins, but on the Cornish side of the border. Although suffering a decline from Parkinson’s disease, he was surrounded by family.
His second wife, Eileen (nee Proudfoot), whom he married in 1990, died in 1996. He is survived by William, Rebecca and Susannah, the children of his first marriage, to Lynda (nee Garrett), which ended in divorce, and by 10 grandchildren.
• William Wentworth Daniel, social scientist, born 19 November 1938; died 12 October 2015