Students Staff

13 October 2008

Essex researchers lead the way in Understanding Society

Colchester Campus

The launch of the world’s largest and most ambitious household longitudinal survey takes place today (October 13 2008) with a team of Essex researchers at the helm. 

Understanding Society, a £15.5 million project being led by the university’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, ISER, will collect information annually from 100,000 individuals, across 40,000 households from across the UK. Its purpose is to assist with the understanding of the long term effects of social and economic change, and to provide tools to study the impact of policy interventions on the well being of the population.

The large sample size will give a unique opportunity to explore issues for which other longitudinal surveys are too small to support effective research. It will permit analysis of small subgroups, such as teenage parents or disabled people.

Initial funding for the highly innovative project comes from the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It represents the largest single investment in academic social research resources ever launched in the UK. Initial funding will carry the study though to 2012, however it is envisaged that the project will continue for decades to come.

Speaking ahead of the launch, Understanding Society Director, Professor Nick Buck, said: “We are very pleased to lead this exciting project which will provide high quality longitudinal data about the people of the UK, their lives, experiences, behaviours and beliefs, and will enable an unprecedented understanding of diversity within the population. It represents the latest stage in the UK’s uniquely successful tradition of longitudinal data and we aim to ensure it becomes a flagship resource for the research and user community in the UK – and beyond.”

For at least the last 50 years, social scientists have been capturing information to study these changes, in studies such as the British Household Panel Survey, and successive Governments have been using that information to inform policy decisions, such as the long term health implications of smoking and how poverty impacts on children.

Professor Ian Diamond, Chief Executive of the ESRC, said: “This is an exciting and important development that will increase our understanding of communities and society in general. The study will benefit policy researchers and policy makers in the UK, and researchers and research users in a wide range of academic and non-academic environments around the world.”


1. Understanding Society will be based at and led by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex, together with colleagues from the University of Warwick and the Institute of Education. The survey work will be undertaken by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

It will be, in global terms, a unique research resource in terms of size and ambition, and will be a major advance on the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS).

2.The study will collect data about each sample member and his or her household at annual intervals. Such panel surveys provide unique information on the persistence of such states as child poverty or disability, on factors that influence key life transitions, such as marriage and divorce, and on the effects of earlier life circumstances on later outcomes. They also support research relevant to the formation and evaluation of policy.

3. Key Features
Understanding Society has a number of key features that reflect its scientific rationale, and which can be exploited to generate major innovations in scientific research:
• Sample Size
The study has a target sample size of 40,000 households, bigger than any comparable longitudinal study and permitting a much more fine-grained analysis of UK society.
• Household focus
Through annual data collection, will track relatively short term or frequent changes in the lives of people, and the factors that are associated with them.
Data will be collected on all members of sample households and their interactions within the household. This has major advantages for important research areas such as consumption and income, where within-household sharing of resources is important, or demographic change, where the household itself is often the object of the study. Compared with individual-based birth cohorts, it will give better and more continuous information on the family and household environment within which child development takes place. Observing multiple generations and all siblings allows examination of long-term transmission processes and isolates the effects of commonly shared family background characteristics. The study will also provide opportunities to explore linkages outside the household.
• A full age range
The study will complement existing age-focused studies sampling elderly people (such as the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing) or young people (such as the 1958, 1970 and Millennium birth cohort studies), and provide a unique look at behaviours and transitions in mid-life. Moreover, the large sample size means that all cohorts can be analysed at a common point in time.
• Innovative data collection methods
The study will incorporate a range of other data from external sources, ranging from administrative data to data about the areas in which people live. It will also include qualitative supplements to gain greater understanding of respondents' perceptions and motivation.
Continuous development in data collection methods will benefit from the experience of other longitudinal surveys and the introduction of new technologies. This entails additional methods of interviewing, collection of qualitative and visual data, external record linkage and an ‘innovation panel’ of around 1,500 households, to allow experimentation and methodological development and the testing of mixed mode data collection strategies.
• Broad, interdisciplinary topic coverage
The study will address new and emerging research issues, such as the environmental impacts of household behaviour, health related behaviours or emerging diversity in UK society, in terms of a range of factors from class, ethnicity, religion to consumption and lifestyle.
While meeting the needs of ‘traditional’ quantitative social science disciplines such as economics, sociology and social policy, it will also serve other disciplines (both in the social sciences and biomedical sciences) and make possible a wider set of methodological approaches (for example, via linked qualitative studies).
• Ethnic Minority Boost
The study will contain a significant sample boost for key ethnic minority groups and specially designed questionnaire supplements, which will provide the base for the first ever significant longitudinal analysis of minority experiences in the UK. The incorporation of an ethnicity research agenda within the study recognises the increasing prominence of research into ethnic difference for our understanding of the make-up of British society and issues of diversity and commonality.
• Biomedical research
The study aims to collect biomedical measures and samples, subject to obtaining appropriate consents from respondents, to enable new research on the social determinants and impacts of health in a household context. This opens up exciting prospects for advances at the interface between social science and biomedical research. It will provide the opportunity to assess exposure and antecedent factors of health status, understanding disease mechanisms household and socio-economic effects and analysis of outcomes using direct assessments or data linkage. Direct physical measurements are currently planned to be included at wave 3 of the survey.
• Consultation
Extensive consultation on the study coverage and content continues to ensure that the study meets the current and future needs of the user community. Consultation with potential stakeholders include:
• academic researchers and analysts
• central and local government
• current BHPS users
• other UK survey resources and survey developers
• researchers at the interface between social science and biomedical research
• devolved administrations, regional development agencies and local authorities
• other public organisations and agencies
• research charities, foundations, and think tanks
• commercial users, including knowledge brokers
The key aims of the consultation are to establish priorities concerning the topics addressed, the content of the core questionnaire (the part repeated at each wave), and the content and sequencing of modules included on a rotating or occasional basis.
• Leadership and Governance
Primary scientific leadership of the study is provided by a team drawn from both ISER and colleague institutions.
Reflecting its multi-disciplinary research and broad-ranging client focus, Understanding Society will be guided by and responsive to different bodies responsible for its long term growth and development:
The Governing Board will be responsible for the study's long-term development of Understanding Society, and will also ensure that the financial resources required for the future of the study are in place at the appropriate time
The Scientific Advisory Committee will provide generic oversight and stewardship of Understanding Society content and data collection methods
Specialist advisory committees for both ethnicity and biomarkers strands will provide expert advice on content and data collection methods specific to their specialist domains.

For further information on the study, see:

4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research, data resources and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research which impacts on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2008/09 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at

5. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at

For further information please contact the University of Essex communications office on 01206 874377 or e-mail

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