Understanding Society – The UK Household Longitudinal Study

Understanding Society logo Understanding Society is a major household panel study which will provide valuable new evidence to inform research on issues of importance to a wide scientific community of interest, and will be the largest study of its type in the world.

It will assist with understanding the long term effects of social and economic change, as well as the impact of policy interventions on the general well-being of the UK population. It 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.

About Understanding Society

Understanding Society is 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. Survey work will be delivered by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

The target sample size of 40,000 households across the UK is significantly larger than the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) which ISER have been running since 1991. The BHPS sample will be incorporated into the Understanding Society sample.

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.

The initial budget of £15.5 million represents the largest single investment in academic social research resources ever launched in this country.

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. 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.

Examples include analysis at regional and sub-regional levels, allowing examination of the effects of geographical variation in policy (notably differences between the countries of the UK). A large sample size also allows high-resolution analysis of events in time, for example, focusing on single-year age cohorts.

Household focus

Through annual data collection, the study 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. The inclusion of direct physical measurements depends on raising further resources.

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.

How to access this resource

Data will be available via the Economic and Social Data Service.

Details of this study are available on the Understanding Society website.

Download the Understanding Society information in PDF format (209Kb)

Further information

  • Understanding Society
    Institute for Social & Economic Research, University of Essex, Colchester, Essex, CO4 3SQ
    Email: info@understandingsociety.org.uk
    Telephone: +44 (0)1206 872957
    Fax: +44 (0)1206 873151
  • Alison Weir, ESRC
    Email: alison.weir@esrc.ac.uk
    Telephone: 01793 413153