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Extinction or evolution: where next for the social survey?

Posted on 04 August 2011 by Lisa Given, Research Director at ScotCen .
Tags: ELSA, European Survey Research Association, Health Survey for England, Scottish Centre for Social Research, Scottish Health Survey, Understanding Society, health, health and lifestyle

I recently attended the European Survey Research Association (ESRA) biannual conference in Lausanne. ESRA was set up to promote communication between survey researchers across Europe with a vision to improve the quality of substantive research and survey methodology in the social sciences. Whilst I was there, NatCen was hosting its annual summer event, which this year featured a debate on the future of the social survey. I was pleased and somewhat relieved to learn that there was overwhelming support for Penny Young’s (NatCen’s Chief Executive) argument that the social survey is not an endangered species. That resonates with the message I came away from the ESRA conference; that the social survey continues to evolve in an ever changing environment.

Attendance at the conference has increased significantly over the years and this year 600 papers were presented We’re all acutely aware that the commissioning of social surveys is not following this trajectory. If the social survey is a dying breed then one might have expected this year’s event to have the air of a funeral service about it - friends gathering together for a final farewell to a loved one. Or alternatively it could have been an opportunity to get together and refute or even deny that the environment is changing. That neither held true isn’t that surprising given that one of the objectives of ESRA is to facilitate the study of both old and new survey procedures. I came away sensing that the notion of the social survey operating in a changing environment isn’t news to survey researchers. Colleagues who have been to previous events have told me that ESRA has been incredibly proactive and can often be found at the forefront for change.

As a researcher on the Scottish Health Survey I was particularly keen to hear about the developments in the collection of physical measurements and biomarker data in surveys. This is the first time the conference has had standalone sessions on biosocial data collection so there is clearly an increasing appetite in how such data can aid and improve our understanding of human behaviour.

We’ve been collecting biosocial data across many of our surveys for some time at NatCen and below are just a few examples of some of the biomarkers we are experienced in collecting and analysing.

Scientific advances mean that the methodology is continually improving and the range of biological measures possible to collect in the social survey setting is expanding. It was exciting to hear about the innovations in this sphere and to see that NatCen continues to break new ground.

One of the most interesting presentations I heard at ESRA was from a colleague, Anne Connolly, on the preliminary findings from a pilot conducted on Understanding Society. One of its aims was to assess the feasibility of using field interviewers to collect physical measurements and biological samples. It included dried blood spot collection, a highly innovative and minimally invasive technique for collecting blood samples. The Scottish Health Survey is now building on this work and is likely to become the first of the major UK household surveys to carry out interviewer administered dried blood spot collection and blood pressure measurements.

I came away from the biomarkers sessions feeling that the future for the social survey is bright. But in all the excitement we must keep sight of our responsibility to the public. There needs to be a clear and legitimate rationale for collecting biosocial data. We should be open to, and indeed welcome, ethical scrutiny of what we do. We mustn’t neglect or duty to minimise burden and risk to those people who give up their time to help us better understand the lives of people living in Britain today.

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