OPINION25 July 2011

Is the social survey an endangered species?


As response rates fall, other ways of collecting data appear, and money dries up, are the days of the social survey numbered?

In the last twelve months some of the UK’s biggest social surveys have fallen victim to public spending cuts. The Place Survey and the Citizenship Survey have been cancelled, and others including the British Social Attitudes Survey have had their funding reduced.

With the cuts coming on top of declining response rates and growing interest in alternative online data collection methods, are the days of the social survey numbered?

This was the question debated at a NatCen event last week by the organisation’s CEO Penny Young and Ray Poynter of The Future Place.

“Nobody wants surveys. They want the information to be able to make the right decisions”

Ray Poynter

Poynter highlighted numerous problems with conventional social surveys. It’s hard, he said, for researchers to argue that surveys should be saved when frontline services are being cut, and he urged people to consider the alternatives, including social media monitoring and mass observation and ethnography using mobile technology. Even tracking online search trends, which might seem like a crude research method, has been used to help predict the spread of flu outbreaks.

“Researchers… for too long have simply said, ‘What survey do we need to solve this problem?’” Poynter said. “Nobody wants surveys. They want the information to be able to make the right decisions and choices, and to be informed at the right time.”

But Young argued that social surveys still have unique benefits and that practitioners are at risk of “an unnecessary collective loss of confidence” in the face of perceived threats. Social researchers, she said, need to have confidence in the value of what they do: creating an evidence base and giving a voice to people who otherwise wouldn’t have one.

If surveys do find themselves under threat, said Young, it will be “because of a failure to consider the public, who, after all, should be consistently at the very heart of what we do”.

“Too often those of us involved in social surveys don’t take full account of the human beings on the receiving end”

Penny Young

“Too often those of us involved in commissioning and in the production of social surveys don’t actually take full account of the human beings on the receiving end,” she said, “and that’s currently limiting the tool.”

Young called for more consultation with the public on the aims of surveys, closer involvement by researchers and clients in data collection, and better feedback for participants on what happens to the findings of research. “It’s amazing, in a sense, that we don’t do more of that more rigorously,” she said.

Getting respondents more engaged with research might help to protect it from cuts by preventing politicians from treating data with disdain. The public’s mistrust of targets and statistics, and suspicion of public sector wastefulness, makes it too easy for politicians to dismiss statistics if they are not convenient.

In an interview with the BBC in the run-up to last year’s general election, Conservative MP Chris Grayling reeled off a series of lurid anecdotes about violent crime getting worse, while brushing aside the fact that the British Crime Survey figures showed violent crime had gone down.

How could he say Britain had become more violent if the statistics didn’t say so, Grayling was asked. His reply was a prime example of how easily politicians can disregard surveys when they choose to: “I don’t think it’s just about figures, it’s about what people see in their communities.” If that’s true, then social researchers might as well all give up and go home.

The time that it takes to gather and understand information also makes it tough for politicians with short-term priorities to resist pursuing populist policies that defy the data. As The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee wrote at the time of the launch of a huge new cohort study in 2008, “no amount of rock-solid research can shift the politicians’ determination to do the wrong thing regardless”.

Whatever form data collection takes in future, it will serve us all better if the general public have a stronger understanding of how it’s done and why it matters.