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About Understanding Society

Understanding Society is a unique and valuable academic study that captures important information every year about the social and economic circumstances and attitudes of people living in 40,000 UK households.

It also collects additional health information from around 20,000 of the people who take part.

Information from the longitudinal survey is primarily used by academics, researchers and policy makers in their work, but the findings are of interest to a much wider group of people including those working in the third sector, health practitioners, business, the media and the general public.

Key facts

  • 40,000 households – 2,640 postcodes in England, Scotland and Wales – 2,400 addresses from Northern Ireland
  • £48.9 million funding (until 2015)
  • Approximately 3 billion data points of information
  • Innovation Panel of 1,500 respondents
  • Participants aged 10 and older
  • Building on 18 years of British Household Panel Survey
  • 35-60 minutes: the average time to complete each face to face interview

How does it work?

Interviews began in 2009 with all eligible members of the selected households.

  • Adults are interviewed every 12 months either face-to-face or over the phone using Computer Assisted Interviewing (CAI).
  • 10-15 year-olds fill in a paper self-completion questionnaire.

From 2010 some 20,000 participants aged over 16 also received nurse visits and provided a blood sample and some basic physical measurements (height, weight, blood pressure, grip strength).

Who runs and pays for it?

Funding comes primarily from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Significant additional funding has been provide by the government’s Large Facilities Capital Fund and a consortium of government departments.]

Understanding Society is designed, run and supported by a world-class team of experts.

The survey is designed and managed by a team of longitudinal survey experts at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER), at the University of Essex.

Interviews with participants are conducted on behalf of ISER by three agencies: NatCen Social Research, TNS BMRB, and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.

Participants and what we ask them.

The survey is representative of the UK, following people from all walks of life from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds.

Everyone aged ten and over in the carefully selected households has been asked to participate in the study. Each participant is interviewed every 12 months.

Survey design

Understanding Society is a longitudinal study, collecting information year on year from the thousands of individuals and households who have agreed to take part. The households, a representative sample of the UK population, were selected in 2008.

The sample is made up of everyone living at these addresses, even if they move home to another part of the UK. Information is also collected on all new household members.

The design of Understanding Society has a number of innovative and unique features, some of which have their own detailed guides.

Understanding Society has a number of innovative and unique key features, which separately and together make the survey an unparallelled resource.

Research design and research priorities for Understanding Society are established after extensive consultation within the academic and policy research community. The survey has a number of special or key features, each of which has their own detailed guide.

Read Understanding Society – a design overview and more about the methodology of the survey in the Understanding Society Working Paper Series

Who is it for?

Understanding Society is providing research findings that can be used to produce top quality research, which informs, influences and checks the success of social, economic and health policy and practice in the UK and abroad.

The survey shows us how households respond to regional, national and international change, providing a clearer understanding of issues like the impact of the recession and of longer term challenges like climate change and an aging society.

Because it is a longitudinal survey, talking to the same people every year rather than a one-off poll that gives a snapshot in time, Understanding Society can be used to look at changing circumstances and attitudes over time.

Ultimately everyone benefits from the survey, as it continues to paint a detailed and accurate portrait of life in the UK, the like of which has never been possible before.

Here is how some groups are already benefiting:

Researchers and analysts

Whether it’s looking at the impacts of recession or analysing the effect of a new policy, the sheer size and scope of the survey enables researchers to draw more accurate conclusions about the UK as a whole and different groups within it.

Policy makers and politicians

The data and subsequent research are used to better inform politicians and civil servants in national, regional and local government. Better informed policy makers will be able to make better decisions on behalf of us all.

Pressure groups and commentators

Pressure groups and independent policy analysts, journalists, voluntary, community and commercial organisations can use the data to lobby and report based on hard evidence.

The general public

More informed policy making based on innovative, on-going, high-quality research into the key social and economic issues that matter to us all will ultimately benefit us all.

Research and impact

Understanding Society provides unprecedented methodological and substantive research opportunities.

The survey’s size, scope and breadth mean it is painting a portrait
 of 21st century life in the UK that is more accurate and more detailed than has ever been possible before.

Methodological research

For those interested in methodological research the Innovation Panel, its Annual Competition and the Associated Studies programme will be of most interest.

The survey also has its own Methodological Working Paper Series

Secondary research

For researchers looking to undertake secondary analysis, there are also opportunities using the Innovation Panel or the Main survey data.

Data from Waves 1-4 of the Innovation Panel and Waves 1 and 2 from the Main survey are currently available and can be accessed from the Economic and Social Data Service.