The European Social Survey based at City University is shedding light on the significant difference in attitudes, beliefs and behaviour of people across Europe.

Published (Updated )

The ESS is a biennial survey in which 36 countries in and beyond the European Union have participated so far. It is designed to chart and explain the interaction between Europe's changing institutions and characterise the feelings of its diverse populations.

This important, freely available, academic resource already contains around 300,000 interviews with members of the public from across Europe. It has also been used by more than 68,000 people worldwide and quoted in many thousands of academic and policy oriented publications. Users include academics, students, 'think tanks' and government bodies.

The ESS also aims to achieve high methodological standards, striving for optimal comparability in the data collected across all countries. Many state-of-the-art features of ESS procedures have impacted the methodological standards employed by other survey organisations across Europe and subsequently fed into their statistical outputs.

Housed in the Centre for Comparative Social Surveys (CCSS) within the School of Arts and Social Sciences the ESS was established in 2001 by its founder Director Professor Sir Roger Jowell and led by him until his death in December 2011. The survey is now led by Director Rory Fitzgerald and CCSS Acting Director Eric Harrison who, together with their team of researchers, lead each round of the survey working closely with hundreds of researchers from across Europe.

"Significant differences in attitudes on moral and social issues such as trust in the police and homosexuality persist across Europe."

Revealing attitudes

The survey sheds light on a wide range of topics tapping into key issues facing contemporary Europe including immigration, welfare provision, well-being, health and job security. A summary of selected findings from the first five rounds of the survey, published in 2013, revealed that significant differences in attitudes on moral and social issues such as trust in the police and homosexuality persist across Europe.

For instance it was found that Nordic countries are the most trusting of their police and courts and believe that their institutions are legitimate holders of power and authority; while eastern, and sometimes southern, European countries are notably less trusting.

The Survey also shows that attitudes to homosexuality have become more permissive across many European countries. However, in much of eastern Europe there is far less agreement that gay people should be 'free to live their own lives as they wish'.

The persistence of traditional gender roles also varies across Europe. It is still the norm for women in all European countries to do most of the housework, even if they work full time. However, the ESS finds that the division of household labour is most unequal in southern Europe.

"The survey enables 'governments, policy analysts and scholars to keep up with societal trends that affect how democracy is working and how European citizens perceive their lives, their nation and the world."

Influencing policy

The ESS has had a direct influence on the policy process in the UK and across Europe. The UK Universities Minister, David Willetts, writing to Ministries in ESS countries, stated that the survey enables 'governments, policy analysts and scholars to keep up with societal trends that affect how democracy is working and how European citizens perceive their lives, their nation and the world'. The ESS questionnaire is developed by the ESS Director and his City-based team in collaboration with other international experts prior to each round of fieldwork.

The team carefully design the source questionnaire in English so that it can serve as the basis for translation into multiple languages and they conduct cross-national pilots in selected countries to test the instrument carefully. The ESS has also set new and improved methodological and coordination standards in cross-national survey research.

These standards have been adopted by other national and international survey programmes and have ultimately led to higher standards of measurement in policy-oriented surveys and commercial survey practice. For instance, a collaborative project led by Rory Fitzgerald to develop a new methodology for cross-national pre-testing led to much of its approach being adopted by a key collaborator in the USA, the National Center for Health Statistics. This is America's largest health protection agency which conducts both national and international surveys.

The ESS methodology has also been adopted in specific countries participating in the ESS by government departments, commercial fieldwork agencies and the private sector. A survey among ESS National Coordinators in 2012 revealed, for example, that the Estonian Ministry of Social Affairs and Education had benefited from ESS methodology - seminars about the ESS were held in 2009 and learning from the ESS applied to Ministry-funded initiatives, whilst Polish ESS National Coordinators have provided ESS-based training for the National Bank of Poland.

In 2005 the ESS was awarded Europe's top annual science award, the Descartes prize for radical innovations in cross-national surveys.

A successful European Collaboration

Within each participating country, the national scientific funding body is responsible for covering the costs of ESS fieldwork and coordination with the ESRC playing this role in the UK. Until recently the EC has funded the central coordination but that all changed at the end of 2013 with the Commission granting the ESS European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC) status, following an application to set up a new independent legal entity to take the ESS forward from 15 countries in Europe.

ERIC status has brought funding stability to the European Social Survey and is an acknowledgement that it is a leading European research infrastructure in the social sciences. The ERIC headquarters is housed at City.

The future

The ESS has become a major European research facility. Its cutting edge methodology and knowledge transfer has helped place Europe at the forefront of quantitative social measurement. As the wealth of expertise and data available from the survey continues to grow the ESS is expected to play a pivotal role in informing European governance and academic debate, providing reliable and durable measures that are central to our understanding of modern Europe and of change within it.