Research Case Study

Charting the changing face of UK life

The biggest study of its kind - Understanding Society is following the lives of 40,000 households.

  • Tagged under

    Economy, business, politics and society
    Global perspectives and challenges

  • Lead Academic

    Professor Michaela Benzeval

Imagine you could listen into the lives of thousands of households every year. You had the chance to learn how they are reacting to everything life throws at them.

Understanding Society does just that.

Based at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex, Understanding Society is the biggest longitudinal study of its kind. This means that since 2009, Understanding Society has been going back and speaking to the same 100,000 individuals from 40,000 households.

This wealth of data can deliver powerful insights into everything from attitudes to family, education and employment to health and wellbeing.

Professor Michaela Benzeval, Director of Understanding Society, said: “By interviewing the same people year after year we can really see how the big political issues of the day are having an impact on lives and behaviours of individuals, and what matters to them. This evidence is crucial to effective policy making, for business and industry, and for the organisations, charities, councils and governments supporting, delivering and improving our services today.”

Getting to the roots of social problems

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and a consortium of government departments and devolved nations, Understanding Society provides important evidence for policy makers and resources for researchers. It also helps the public understand the impact of shifting social and economic trends.

Professor Benzeval said: “Understanding Society is a unique resource for science and policy. By following the lives of all individuals within households over time, data from Understanding Society are a vital resource for understanding the causes and consequences of fundamental deep-rooted social problems - such as poverty dynamics, family breakdown, moving in and out of employment, poor educational achievement, behavioural change and poor health - and developing policies to tackle them.”

Professor Benzeval points out that the longitudinal data allows a better understanding of the impact of events in people’s lives such as marriage, unemployment or education, so the causes and consequences can be explored. It also allows researchers to examine associations before and after policy changes.

Greater insights into UK life

Understanding Society is unique in many ways and elements of its design make it especially powerful. The Ethnic Minority Boost means Understanding Society has sufficient sample sizes of different ethnic minority groups to allow their specific experiences to be investigated. Extra questions are also included to provide additional insights.

The Innovation Panel includes a sample of 1,500 households allows researchers to undertake methodological experiments each year.

The Understanding Society team also links (with consent) to administrative records from other sources which allows further analysis of trends and patterns.

Perhaps most significantly the work of Understanding Society has been extended to biomarkers and genetics data with nurses measuring the health of 20,000 individuals, for example, their height, weight, blood pressure, and lung function. Blood samples were also taken which provide information on the risk of different diseases such as diabetes, as well as genetic data. These kinds of data will help researchers to understand the two-way relationship between social and economic circumstances and health, in ways that will improve policy development.

Research team
  • Professor Michaela Benzeval, Understanding Society Director, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex

Full team details