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Success stories Published on 26-Feb-2004

Title Holding a mirror up to Europe

The European Social Survey (ESS), launched with support from the EU’s Framework Programme, is an innovative biennial survey of attitudes, values and patterns of behaviour in 22 countries. Designed to inform debates on key policy issues, the ESS will shed new light on the complex relationships between European citizens and European institutions. More broadly, it will help to explain what makes Europe tick – how we view ourselves and one another, how these views vary within and between countries, and how they change over time.

The ESS data set is freely available via a web-based interface that is fast, powerful and intuitive.
The ESS data set is freely available via a web-based interface that is fast, powerful and intuitive.
“Politicians need to understand their electorates. Businesses need to understand their markets. And we would all benefit from a clearer perception of how our own countries compare with the rest of Europe,” explains Professor Roger Jowell. “Up to now, relative national performance has been judged primarily in economic terms – inflation, GDP growth, employment rates, and so on. Recently, there have been efforts to incorporate data on education, crime and life expectancy as indicators of the quality of life. But even these statistics fail to capture subjective attitudes. Crime figures cannot tell you about the fear of crime.”

Multinational project funding
Jowell, Director of the Centre for Comparative Social Surveys at London’s City University, is the coordinator and principal investigator of the ESS. “The idea for the survey arose in 1995 as an initiative of the European Science Foundation,” he recalls. “Up to that point, European attitude surveys had been compromised by problems of comparability between national data sets, due to the variety of survey methods used.”

The ESF invited Jowell to join an expert panel to investigate the feasibility of a Europe-wide survey of changing social values, carried out to the standard of the best national studies. “We decided that it could be done, but would require a common, centrally coordinated approach.” Representatives from the national science foundations of over 20 countries formed an ESF steering committee, and Jowell led the methodological group which devised detailed methods for survey design, sampling, data collection and dissemination.

“At that point, the ESS was still an academic exercise,” he explains. “We had no idea how it might be funded. But, somewhat to our surprise, our first bid for funding from the Fifth Research Framework Programme was successful.” The proposal was complex. It sought Commission co-financing of €1.4 million to cover the costs of coordinating and managing the development of the first round of the ESS. Meanwhile, the ESF would continue to fund transnational liaison and academic guidance, and the participating national science foundations would fund their own national coordination and survey costs.

First fruits
The Commission was eager to support the project, which represented an ambitious early example of the large-scale multinational projects that the Commission planned to promote through the new funding mechanisms of the Sixth Research Framework Programme (FP6) – a critical component of its plans to create a European Research Area. “However, funding depended on the participation of at least nine countries, each of which had to fund their own national fieldwork and coordination according to our specifications,” says Jowell.

In the end, 22 countries signed up for the first round of the survey, which was completed in early 2003. The first data set was published on schedule in September 2003, and is now freely available on a specially developed website (see Contact). The first research findings drawing on the new data were presented at an international event in Brussels in November 2003, at which Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin praised ESSIE as a pioneering example of the European added value that can be achieved through multi-funded, multinational research co-operation.

Eagerly awaited results
“To produce a coherent data set of really high quality, the survey had to be conducted uniformly in all 22 countries,” Jowell explains. “This required each national team to observe strict guidelines. Our approach was consultative but prescriptive. Only now that we have thoroughly tested the resulting data can we be certain that the experiment is working.”

Just one month after the first ESS data set was published, the website had already attracted more than 700 data-users from around the world. “These results have been eagerly awaited by the international social science community,” says Jowell. “They provide a new and robust statistical basis for policy thinking, and their value will grow with each biennial round as time series emerge to reveal trends.”

What kinds of problem will the ESS data help to solve? Jowell offers the example of falling electoral turnouts. “The fact that in many countries fewer and fewer people bother to vote creates fears that public trust in the political process is being eroded. In a democracy, this is something that needs to be investigated, understood and tackled. The ESS will enable us to compare high-quality attitudinal data for countries where turnout has changed at different rates, to test the relationship between falling turnout and falling trust against a range of other possible causes.”

Better transnational research
The ESSIE project has also established a new model for the conduct of cross-national quantitative research. “The European Union needs to collect better data about itself in many fields,” Jowell believes. “The ESS offers an example of what needs to be done to measure complex multinational trends in a rigorous and authoritative way.”

Already, further FP5 funding has been secured for the coordination of ESS2 in 2004, and the negotiation of FP6 support for the third round in 2006 is in progress. There is no guarantee that all 22 first-round participants will join every round, but Jowell is optimistic. Additional Acceding countries, together with Russia, are expected to take part in the 2004 survey. For the first time, Europe will be able to look itself squarely in the face.

  • Title
    European Social Survey – development and first round (ESSIE)
  • Reference
  • Programme
    FP5: Human Potential
  • Contact
    Roger Jowell
    Centre for Comparative Social Surveys, City University London
    United Kingdom
    Fax: +44 20 7040 4900
    data set:
  • Partners
    Centre for Comparative Social Surveys, City University London, UK
    Zentrum für Umfragen Methoden und Analysen, Germany
    Social and Cultural Planning Office, Netherlands
    Katholieke Universiteit Leuven Research and Development, Belgium
    Universiteit van Amsterdam, Netherlands
    Norwegian Social Science Data Services, Norway