How things stand in 2019

Dr Jon Burton

While so much about the world today is uncertain, the phrase ‘understanding society’ seems a rather welcome idea. Nobody can know what’s going to happen, but by looking at the lives of people across the UK, we can get real insight into how the ‘big’ issues in society are felt, and how they affect our day-to-day lives.

So, what can we expect from Understanding Society this year? We released Wave 8 of Understanding Society in December 2018, so we know that researchers now have eight years of data from the study to look at, along with eighteen years of Understanding Society harmonised British Household Panel Survey data.

Depending on the question they want to ask, then, researchers can look back as far as 1991 and make comparisons with life in the UK today.

What’s new in Wave 8?

Each year we ask about subjects such as moving house, having children, cohabiting, getting married or divorced, finding or leaving work, health, and education and training. Those are the subjects we think are most likely to change year on year.

Other subjects rotate every two, three, or four years – things we feel are less prone to change – which allows us to cover a broader range of topics.

Wave 8 was the second time we asked about wealth, assets and debts as part of Understanding Society. We ask that every four years, so it was also asked in Wave 4, which means the data that were released at the end of last year gives researchers the first chance they’ve had to do longitudinal analysis on wealth, assets and debts of households using Understanding Society. The questions had also been asked on the British Household Panel Survey, so for some households researchers can see how circumstances have changed since 1995.

And every two years, we ask a couple of questions about the feelings that people have about low income. So, given the financial uncertainty of the last decade, we might expect researchers to look into that using Understanding Society, and to start seeing papers which examine the long-term fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, and the effects it’s had on life at the household level.

Also coming up – the Innovation Panel

The Innovation Panel is a sample of 1,500 households used as a test-bed for innovative ways of collecting data and developing new areas of research. This year, we’ll be looking at how we can find out more about people’s health.

It’s been extremely useful in previous years. We’ve done a couple of spending studies, for example: one where we invited the participants to download an app onto their smartphone or iPad and take pictures of receipts, and another, which has just finished, where we asked them to complete a spending diary, either using an app, or online. Both of those have been helping us find new ways – using new technology – to improve how we measure household finances.

And a few years ago, we tested mixing the way that people take part in the survey. We invited some people to take part online, and then sent an interviewer if they didn’t complete it within a few weeks. Testing that helped us to get to the stage where, on the main Understanding Society sample, we invited 40% of the sample to take part online at Wave 8. We’re gradually increasing that, although we have ring-fenced 20% of the sample for face-to-face interviews so we can continue to monitor how this mix affects the quality of the information we collect. Because the people on the Innovation Panel were randomly selected, it allows us to test ‘mode effects’: whether response rates drop, and so on, before we roll out the design to the main-stage.

What else does the future hold?

We’re always looking at ways to make sure people want to keep taking part in the study. One of the great values of Understanding Society is in the ability to look at the same representative set of households over time. If you measure unemployment in a sample of people one year and in another set of people the next year, you might see a small amount of overall change. However, if you ask the same people every year, you see a churn, people going into and out of employment, and the only way you can get that dynamic view of society is by talking to the same people each year.

This is a strength of our study, and one of the things that makes it unique in the UK. This might be more difficult to convey to many people, compared to something like a Crime or Health survey which has a very obvious main topic; but the powerful ‘selling point’ for Understanding Society is this measurement of individual-level change over time. 

So that will always be something we focus on – we’ll always look at the questions we ask, the data we want to gather, but also at the long-term project and how we make sure it keeps going, and keeps giving us high quality data.


Dr Jon Burton

Jonathan Burton is the Understanding Society Associate Director, Surveys and is responsible for the management of the survey.