Frequently asked questions

What does the survey cover?
Understanding Society is the largest household panel study of its kind in the world. It covers all aspects of an individual’s life such as health, relationships, finances, employment status and well-being.

You can find the full questionnaire for Wave 11 of Understanding Society here. 

How long has it been going?
The study was officially launched by the ESRC on 13th October 2008.

How many people are involved in the study?
At Wave 1 (2009), the sample included almost 40,000 households across the UK – over 100,000 people.

What’s the difference between Understanding Society and the BHPS?
The British Household Panel Survey, Understanding Society’s predecessor, ran from 1991 – 2009 and was also led by the University of Essex. It followed 8,150 households across Britain and is well respected within the research community, so its sample was incorporated into Understanding Society at Wave 2. Participants knew that survey as Living in Britain, Living in Scotland, Living in Wales or the Northern Ireland Household Panel Survey.

Who runs Understanding Society?
It is run by a team at the University of Essex. Meet key members of our team and read more about what they do.

Who funds Understanding Society?
Understanding Society is an initiative of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), with scientific leadership from the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex.

The ESRC is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and civil society.

Who does the interviewing?
The fieldwork for the study is contracted to Kantar Public, who have sub-contracted a portion of the interviewing to NatCen Social Research.

Do you speak to children, or just adults?
Anyone in the selected households aged 16+ can take part in the full survey. We give young people (aged 10-15) a short questionnaire to complete. Young people must get their parents’ consent to complete the questionnaire, but they are under no pressure to fill it in.

Where can I find out how the study is being used?
The study is being used in new ways almost daily and you can track this on our News page or through media tracking service, Scoopit. In addition you will now be familiar with the mailings that pop through your letterbox; these are our way of keeping you up to date with how Understanding Society is being used and explain why your individual contribution is so valuable.

Do you pay your participants to take part?
Adults and young people (10-15) receive a Love2Shop High Street voucher gift-card as a token of appreciation for taking part.

How did you choose your participants?
In 2009 we took a random sample of postcode sectors in the UK, and within those postcode sectors we took a random sample of addresses. This is done to ensure that the people selected for the survey are a representative sample of the UK as a whole.

What is a longitudinal study?
A longitudinal study is special because it interviews the same people over time. This is the only way researchers can look at individual-level changes over time, rather than just aggregate or population-level changes. For example, a survey which interviews different people each year can tell us how the overall level of poverty is changing, but only by talking to the same people each year can we see the proportion of people who enter poverty and the proportion who leave poverty.

What’s the point of the study?
The study will help us understand the short and long-term effects of social and economic change, as well as policy interventions designed to impact upon the general well-being of the UK population. The data are used by academic researchers, charities, think tanks and policy-makers, feeding into policy debates and influencing the outcome of those debates.

What kinds of things can you measure in a longitudinal survey?
By providing full and detailed information about your circumstances every year, you help researchers to obtain a wealth of data to answer important questions such as:

  • How does well-being change over time?
  • What are the effects of poor health on employment opportunities?
  • Does our education system provide the springboard for young people to develop their careers?
  • Are retired people managing on their pensions?
  • Are disabled people getting the care they need?
  • What effect does the economic down-turn have on different aspects of life?
  • How is family life changing – and what do you think about these changes?

Does what you are doing have ethical approval?
The Understanding Society study has been approved by the University of Essex Ethics Committee. The request to link to health records has been approved by NHS medical research ethics committees; Oxfordshire A REC/ Ref: 08/H0604/124 and Southampton REC/Ref: 11/SC/0274. These ethics committees examine the whole survey process to see where the request to link to administrative records fits into the rest of the study. They also need to approve the wording of the questions, the content of the information leaflet and the consent form, as well as how the data are dealt with once they have been collected.

Do you link my information to other data sources?
Yes, but only with your permission. Linking other data sources to your survey answers will make the information you have given us even more useful. The information held in administrative records – such as health, education and benefits -is more detailed than we can go into during the Understanding Society interview. This extra level of detail can be used by researchers looking at how our health, education or receipt of social security benefits affects – and is affected by – other parts of our lives.

Where can I find the data linkage leaflets?
As part of your interview we ask for your consent to link to various administrative data. There are four leaflets available which explain this in detail. The first document Information on Adding Economic Records looks at state benefits. The second one: Information on Adding Economic Records – Employment looks at HMRC records. The third guide, Information on Adding Education Records focuses on education documentation and the fourth guide, Information on Adding Administrative Health Records focuses on NHS documentation.

Who will get access to the information once it is linked?
Researchers first have to apply for a Special Licence. This gives extra protection to who can use the data, and for what purpose. It also obliges the researcher to store the data securely and to delete it once it has been used for the stated purpose. The data that they receive does not include any of your personal details, such as name, address, postcode or date of birth.

Are my data confidential?
Yes, please read our article on confidentiality.

I’ve moved house but my vouchers haven’t turned up. What should I do?
Please get in touch with our helpdesk by either completing our Change of Address form or calling freephone 0800 252 853.

My voucher won't work
When the interviewer issues you with a voucher card, it cannot be used straight away. It takes up to five working days to be activated and that’s from when the interviewer dials in their work. If it’s still not valid after that time you need to ring the free phone number – 0800 015 5128.

Where can I redeem my vouchers?
You can find a full list of outlets at the Love2Shop website.

How do I use the card?
The gift card we send you through the mail is pre-activated, whilst the card that the interviewer may give you after the interview will need to be activated. This activation may take up to five working days and will be done by the office. The membership fee of £1.50 does not apply to survey members. If the transaction is greater than the value of the card the difference will need to be paid by another method before the card is swiped. If you don’t spend the full amount on the card please keep a note of the remaining balance as stores do not have access to this information. You can use a free app called QR Scanner to check your card balance. It scans the QR code on the card and then displays the balance on your smart phone. Up to three cards only can be used in one transaction.

Why do you have to interview me every year?
Understanding Society is a study about you and your family as individuals and we want to find out how different aspect of your lives interact and influence each other over time. You cannot be replaced by someone else: it is only by talking to the same people each year that we can properly measure change and stability in our society.

How long does the interview take?
This depends on the size of the household and your changing circumstances (e.g. if you have changed your job, had more children, or other changes to income). However, the average length of the Adult questionnaire is between 40 minutes and one hour. Children aged 10-15 fill out a shortened version of the questionnaire which takes around 10-15 minutes.

English is not my first language. Will you provide a translator?
We can provide an interpreter for 9 different languages:

  • Bengali
  • Gujarati
  • Polish
  • Portuguese
  • Punjabi (Gurmukhi script)
  • Punjabi (Urdu script)
  • Turkish
  • Urdu
  • Welsh

If you need a translator in a language not listed above, we request that either a family member or friend translates for you.

How can I prepare for my interview?
To get an accurate picture of household finances and how these change over time, we do ask for some information about earnings and some expenses, such as rent, mortgage or utility bills. To make sure that the information we collect is of a high quality for researchers to use, you may want to have some of this information ready for your interview, such as salary slips, utility bills and so on. However, this is entirely up to you.

I need to rearrange my interview – who should I tell?
If you are unable to make your interview, or need to change the time or date, then please get in touch as soon as possible. In some cases, the interviewer who made the appointment with you will have left an appointment card which includes a phone number to make it easy for you to contact them. If you do not have this, then you can let us know by filling out our Contact Form or calling freephone 0800 252 853 and we will pass the message on.

I can’t get everyone together at the same time. What should I do?
We do not need everyone together at the same time but it is very important to speak to as many people who live with you as possible. We recognise that people have busy lives and it is not always possible to interview everyone at once. In these cases, we will arrange to come back at a convenient time when the missing person is at home.

Do you want to interview household members who live outside the household?
We would like to continue speaking to any household members who are ‘absent’ from the household but still have it as their main address – for example, people who are in hospital. If a household member moves out of the house and remains in the UK, we would like to carry on interviewing them in their new address. If you have any questions about whether you are still eligible for the survey, please contact us and we will be happy to help.

Can I add new family members to the survey?
Yes: we would like to speak to everyone aged 16+ who is living with you. This could include step siblings and new partners, regardless of whether or not they have been interviewed previously.

My friend would like to join the survey. Is this possible?
As a longitudinal study, it is important that we interview the same people over a long period of time. So while we cannot add new people to the sample, we can add new joiners to the households that have been in the survey since the beginning. Also see ‘Can I add new family members to the survey?

Is my information secure if I do the survey online?
Yes, the information you provide online is secure. You are issued with unique survey log-in details and the information you provide is then downloaded onto secure servers.

I have received a letter inviting me to complete the survey online but I do not want to/ can’t complete it on-line. Can I still be interviewed by an interviewer as usual and what do I need to do?
Yes, if you do not want to or can’t participate on-line, an interviewer will be in touch to arrange a convenient time for your interview. You do not need to do anything.

I do not want to do the interview with an interviewer any more but am happy to complete online. Who do I let know?
If you do not want to be interviewed by an interviewer, please call the Participant Helpline and we will send you details of how to log in to the online survey. Alternatively, you can wait until an interviewer calls upon you and ask them to provide you with the log-in details. Please note that interviewers have been instructed to call back on you in a couple of weeks, if you haven’t completed your survey on-line. This is to make sure that you haven’t encountered any technical difficulties and to check that you are still intending to complete the survey online. If you change your mind, the interviewer will be happy to interview you face-to-face.

Can my 15-year-old son complete the survey online?
Unfortunately under 16s cannot complete the survey online. 10-15-year olds are invited to complete a paper self-completion questionnaire which they are asked to return to an interviewer or to the office.

Can I stop the interview online and complete it at another time?
Yes, you can stop the interview at any point and complete it at a later date. You will need to log back in using your username and password and you will be taken to the point in the questionnaire where you stopped your interview.

Why is it important to make the survey available online?
Understanding Society is a longitudinal study whose success relies on interviewing the same respondents every year. We know that some of our respondents prefer to complete the interview online at a time which is more convenient for them and so we provide them with this opportunity.

I’ve been asked to take part online, is this a real Understanding Society invite?
Yes, we have recently introduced the opportunity to complete the annual interview online. The invitation letters that we send to our respondents include unique username, password and the link to the online survey:

I have technical issues with the online survey. Who do I call?
Please call the survey helpline on 0800 015 2908.

I have lost my log-in details, who do I contact?
Please speak to your interviewer or call the survey helpline on 0800 015 2908.

How do I access the online survey?
You will need to manually type into your web address bar. You cannot Google this address because it is a secure link. The survey cannot be accessed by using a search engine. If you are still having technical difficulties please call the survey helpline on 0800 015 2908.

I’ve moved house. Can I still take part?
Yes, definitely. Please let us know of your new address by filling the Change of Address form on our website.

We’re moving outside the UK. Can we still take part?
No, we’re afraid not – those away or likely to be away for 6 months or more are not counted as residents at the address (except for those who are ‘absent’ – see below). However, if you return to the UK please let us know.

We’re about to move. How do I let you know?
You can inform us about a change of address in two ways. The first is by filling in the Change of Address card found in your advance mailing. Even quicker (and easier) is to complete our online Change of Address form. Either way, you will receive a £5 voucher for letting us know.

Where can I provide feedback on your survey?
Please email us with your ideas.

Where can I access the most recent survey findings?
Keep an eye on your inbox for our regular newsletters and mailings – you can also sign up to our quarterly research newsletter.

What is the GDPR?

The GDPR is the General Data Protection Regulation. It was approved by the European Parliament on 14th April 2016 and came into enforcement on 25th May 2018. The Data Protection Bill (2018) brought the GDPR into British law, and is part of the Data Protection Act 2018.

How does Understanding Society currently keep data safe?

We are already governed by the current Data Protection Act and all of our procedures have data protection at the centre. In addition to the Data Protection Act, the Institute for Social and Economic Research, which hosts Understanding Society, has ISO-27001 certification. This is the international standard that describes best practice for an Information Security Management System. This requires the study to have a wide set of rules and regulations about how we manage data.

As well as having our information security management procedures documented, we are also independently audited annually and have to undergo re-certification every three years to make sure that we are following the requirements of the standard. Our fieldwork partners – Kantar Public and NatCen Social Research – have also achieved ISO-27001 certification. These procedures ensure that all efforts are taken to maintain the security of your data.

How will the GDPR affect Understanding Society?

The GDPR is slightly different – it is focused more on the rules under which we process and use your personal details. It sets out the duties and responsibilities we have to you, and your rights regarding the data that we hold and process.

The Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex is the data controller for the study. The fieldwork for the study is contracted to Kantar Public and NatCen Social Research, who act as the data processors.

Since the Understanding Society study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and both the ESRC and the University of Essex are Public Bodies, we use Public Task as the lawful basis for processing this data. Data are not transferred outside the European Economic Area (EEA), to ensure that they are protected by the strong EEA data protection laws. Our compliance with all the relevant legislation, and our externally certified accreditation to the international ISO27001 standard, provide you with assurance that your data is secured and protected in the strongest possible manner.

What happens to my personal data?

Your personal details (name, address, telephone numbers, email addresses) are only used so that we can contact you during the year to send you information on how the survey is being used by researchers, and so that we can send an interviewer to you each year. These details are never made available to researchers or to any other companies who might use them for marketing purposes.

The answers you give us to the survey are securely transferred from Kantar Public to ISER, using an encrypted online portal. To preserve your anonymity, personal details (your name, date of birth, address) are removed from the survey data and held securely in an encrypted database to which only a small number of people have access. Your survey answers are put together with the answers from thousands of other participants and, in an anonymised format, are deposited with the UK Data Service. There is no information on the data which can identify you.

Any analysis is done on the whole sample, and results are often quoted in terms of specific percentages of people, and are not reported as individual answers. The collected survey responses are made available, through the UK Data Service, to academic researchers who must register with the Data Service.

Why do you need to know about “Stable contacts”?

We do also ask you to give us the contact details of someone outside the household so that if you move house during the year and we’re not able to contact you, we can try to contact that person and ask them to contact you to let you know we would like to interview you. We only hold the contact details of this other person for that purpose – this is the only reason we would contact them. We will need to gain these contacts consent in order to hold their contact details, so you should let them know that you have given their details to us.

How do I withdraw from the survey?

You are under no statutory or contractual obligation to provide us with your personal data. You have the right at any time to withdraw from the survey. If you do this, you will no longer be contacted by us. Any survey responses you have given us in the past, and which have already been made available from the UK Data Service will remain, but no additional information about you will be deposited. Your contact details will no longer be used, but will be kept archived to ensure that we do not contact you again on the occasion that there is an additional sample added to the study, or we start a new study.

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the security of your personal details, you may contact our Information Technology and Security Manager – Ray Ware – by email