Learning what Europeans really think
What do Europeans think of big issues affecting their lives, from schools to policing and healthcare? While elections and opinion polls offer a snapshot of thought on particular topics, they do not delve into the deeper feelings, hopes and fears of Europeans on key questions. The ESS charts changing attitudes and behaviour patterns of the diverse European populations on key policy issues, shedding light on the complex relationships between citizens and institutions.
The survey reveals the personal, political and moral values at specific points in time. Held every two years, these reviews of public opinion and behaviour also show how values are evolving over time.
The ESS was set up in 2001 to overcome the challenge of national datasets collected using different surveying methods. The result was a Europe-wide survey with common methods for sampling, translating and interviewing.
The Centre for Comparative Social Surveys (CCSS) at London's City University coordinates the ESS. ESS director Rory Fitzgerald says the surveys try to understand not only what people think but also why. “The ESS is a reflection of public attitudes and society in democratic Europe,” Fitzgerald says. “It is what you can’t gauge in short opinion polls. The surveys do this through high quality samples – we go to great lengths in each country to be representative, based on scientific calculations to select individuals using random probability methods,” explains Fitzgerald.
The ESS questionnaire includes two main sections, each consisting of approximately 120 items. The first is the core module which remains relatively constant from round to round, and covers topics like trust in institutions, political engagement, socio-political values, identity, income and education. The second is the rotating module on specific themes, like immigration; gender and work; citizenship; healthcare; ageism; and trust in criminal justice.
The survey uses rigorous methodologies. An effective sample size of 1,500 is aimed for in every country, with each interview lasting around an hour. Some 250,000 interviews have taken place so far.
All ESS data and documentation can be freely browsed and downloaded from its website www.europeansocialsurvey.org/. Around 50,000 people have registered on the website, with two thirds downloading data. Some 2,500 publications have quoted ESS material over the past decade.
The European Commission has supported the ESS initiative with an overall financial contribution of about €18 million so far. In 2005 the ESS was the winner of the Descartes Prize. The ESS is due to become a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), located in London, in 2013, which should make it easier to operate a research infrastructure of European interest. Fitzgerald says the data helps users view trends and compare with other European countries. “An integrated Europe depends on consistently high standards of social measurement within and between its member nations,” he says.
And while the surveys themselves do not evaluate particular policies, they can provide warning signals on changing attitudes. “In a democracy it is very important that our governments, policy makers, civil society and the population at large know what the rest of the country thinks and what their neighbours think too,” Fitzgerald concludes.