Led by a team at City University London, the European Social Survey collects data from 34 countries to produce findings which inform social policy debate and analysis throughout Europe and beyond.

Published (Updated )

The European Social Survey's (ESS) seven centres collaboratively provide the design and technical backup for the 34-nation project. Data from 1,800 respondents in each participating country are collected and analysed on a bi-annual basis to produce the survey. ESS' unique standards of transparency and documentation make it a valuable resource for teaching and analysis. Students, academics, think tanks, policy focus groups and governments are among the 39,000 registered users of the ESS, 3,000 of whom are in the UK.

The ESS charts and monitors changes in the policy environment as seen through citizens' eyes. Pivotal social issues such as migration, crime, wellbeing, institutional trust and political engagement are all placed under the microscope.

Professor Roger Jowell, Research Professor at City University London and Director of the Centre for Comparative Social Surveys, said:

"When considering new policies, governments in the past were often ignorant of their citizens' preferences and needs. Now European governments have a source for counteracting that ignorance."

In an era of falling political participation and low electoral turnout, the ESS is becoming an ever more important aid to good government at both national and European level. Supplementing other reliable sources of official data which chart changes in people's social and economic circumstances or behaviour, the ESS also provides rigorous cross-national data about shifts in people's long-term perceptions, preferences, preoccupations and concerns. In 2005, the ESS became the first social science project to win the Descartes Prize for 'excellence in scientific collaborative research'.

Janez Potocnik, EU Commissioner for Science and Research, said:

"The European Social Survey has developed a unique scientific methodology for mapping changes in social attitudes providing an authoritative source of EU data for academics and policymakers."

Five biennial ESS surveys have been undertaken since the project's inception in 2001, embracing well over 150,000 individual interviews. Professor Jowell continued:

"The data it produces has a worldwide demand. Academically driven, the ESS aims to inform social policy at national and European levels via a series of rigorous surveys of change in European attitudes, values and behavioural patterns both across nations and over time."

This major research project receives €2 million per annum from 36 separate funders, including the European Commission and the European Science Foundation. Each participating nation funds its own support staff. The importance of the ESS to Britain is such that the UK Economic and Social Research Council contributes the equivalent of €700,000 per annum towards the project. In fact, the survey will have been funded continually from 2001 to 2013. Subsequently, it is set to become a European Research Infrastructure and will receive funding permanently. The ESS headquarters will remain at City, where the team will continue to oversee and contribute to a world class programme of ESS methodological research.

In addition to overall coordination of the programme, the City team leads research projects in specific areas of expertise including investigations into effects of mixed mode data collection (web, telephone, face to face), questionnaire design and pre-testing, event reporting and the development of attitudinal indicators on societal wellbeing.

Researchers at City work with pan-European research teams to develop questions for inclusion in the ESS, for example, on democracy, ageism and immigration.

Members of the team have published in the substantive areas of attitudes towards ageing and the timing of life-course events, including 'A Chorus of Disapproval? European Attitudes to Non-traditional Family Patterns' (Harrison, E. and Fitzgerald, R., 2010. British Social Attitudes, the 26th report. National Centre for Social Research); 'Age Identity and Conflict: Myths and Realities' (Fitzgerald, R., Harrison, E. and Steinmaier, F., 2011. British Social Attitudes, the 27th report. National Centre for Social Research); 'Measurement Equivalence in Comparative Surveys: The European Social Survey (ESS)-From Design to Implementation and Beyond' (Fitzgerald, R. and Jowell, R., 2010. In: Harkness, J. et al., eds. Cross-cultural Methods. John Wiley & Sons); and Survey Non-response in Europe: Lessons from the European Social Survey (Stoop, I., Billiet, J., Koch, A. and Fitzgerald, R., 2010. Wiley).

In 2010, Professor Jowell's book The International Social Survey Programme, 1984-2009: Charting the Globe, co-edited with Max Haller and Tom W. Smith (2009. Routledge), won the Best Publication Award by an International Scholar from the American Sociological Association. A world leader in comparative research and methodology, the ESS is the subject of more than 25 books to date, over 500 journal articles and countless conference papers. The ESS data has enabled a variety of major pan-European studies.

The European social model

ESS helps to answer the question: Does Europe's model of welfare provision reduce individual acts of social support?

One of Europe's most lasting contributions has been its model of welfare provision in which everyone's taxes contribute to the health and financial security of all. But from time to time the system has come under fire from those who argue that societies actually function better when citizens spontaneously interact with and care for one another. Such activity supposedly withers in welfare states where formal government provision 'crowds out' individual acts of social support because people step aside and leave things to the state. The more this happens, they suggest, the less frequent will be even the most basic acts of solidarity such as doing a sick neighbour's shopping. In their study titled 'Does the State Affect the Informal Connections Between its Citizens? New Institutionalist Explanations of Social Participation in Everyday Life' (Van der Meer, T. et al., 2008. In: Meulemann, H., ed. Social Capital in Europe: Similarity of Countries and Diversity of People? Multi-level Analyses of the European Social Survey 2002. Brill) Tom van der Meer and colleagues from Radboud University in the Netherlands have investigated these claims by drawing on data from the first round of the ESS. They analysed data on individual help given to fellow citizens and linked this to aggregate national data on social security expenditure and average income.

Their key finding is that higher social security spending does not in fact diminish individual acts of social support. They also concluded that there is no evidence for the notion that the welfare state 'crowds out' social solidarity.

Furthermore, the higher the average income in a given country, the more inclined are its citizens to provide for one another. Finally, the research concluded that economic security strengthens rather than weakens social ties, perhaps because individuals more readily turn their attention to others only once their own basic needs are met.

These conclusions were made possible by the scale of the ESS's large cross-national dataset which enabled common patterns to be identified. The unusually detailed background data in the ESS enabled the effects of certain national differences - such as the likelihood of living in a large family - to be taken into account in the analysis, making it possible to identify the 'independent' impact of increases in social security spending and differences in average income between countries.

Public responses to migration

Rises in concern over immigration are greater in times of economic gloom, and among citizens who do not have the skills or qualifications to adapt.

Several European governments periodically increase inward migration as a means of filling gaps in their national labour force, often in the face of strong public opposition. In other countries, immigration has increased spontaneously, also accompanied on occasions by public disquiet. So it is no surprise that the salience of immigration as a political issue rises and falls. Just prior to the French Presidency of the EU (2008), the French Prime Minister warned that

"Europe is being subjected to increasingly large waves of immigration and the general public in some countries is extremely worried about it."

What determines the extent and the timing of these episodic upturns in public concern?

Since 2001, ESS data provide in-depth updates on the issue across Europe. Two analyses in particular, from Harvard and Catholic University of Leuven, use data from the ESS to tackle this question.

The Leuven analysis titled 'Changing Attitudes Toward Immigration in Europe, 2002-2007: A Dynamic Conflict Theory Approach' (Meuleman, B., et al., 2008. Social Sciences Research, 38) concludes that surges in opposition to immigration between 2002 and 2006 were closely associated with economic fluctuations. Good economic conditions make people more accepting of immigration, and vice versa. More worryingly, a widespread economic downturn is likely to be accompanied by a sharp rise in opposition to immigrants.

But the Harvard study - Educated Preferences: Explaining Attitudes Towards Immigration in Europe (Hainmueller, J. and Hiscox, M., 2007. International Organization, 61) - discovers another factor at work at the individual level. Public attitudes to immigration are closely linked to educational background; people with less formal education are more likely to oppose all immigration, even of higher level workers who do not seem to pose any direct threat to their own jobs.

Conversely, more highly educated people show greater acceptance of all forms of immigration, even of workers who might well provide competition for their own jobs. The link between education and greater tolerance of immigration arises from the impact of education on people's overall values. Thus more educated people tend to express less xenophobia, feel more sympathy for cultural diversity and are more likely to discern the economic benefits of immigration. They are also less likely to believe that immigrants 'make crime worse' and more likely to believe that they 'enrich cultural life'.

More research outcomes from City University London.

Related schools, departments and centres