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European social survey round 3

Final Report Summary - ESS3 (European social survey round 3)

The three aims of the European Social Survey (ESS) were:

- to chart and explain changes in Europe's social, political and moral climate;
- to achieve and spread standards of rigour in cross-national attitude measurement never accomplished before; and
- to achieve recognition for social and attitudinal indicators on a par with those currently awarded to economic indicators.

The ESS started in 2001 with support from the Commission under Call 2 (Round 1 of the survey) of the Fifth Framework Programme, and then continued under Call 3 (Round 2 of the survey). This project, funded under Priority 7 of the Sixth Framework Programme, is the third round of the survey. The third round of the ESS seeks to build on the collection of organisations, individuals and data gathering facilities amassed for the previous rounds. It therefore shares the key objectives shown above with earlier rounds. In particular the focus was on:

- producing rigorous trend data, at both a national and a European level, about continuity and change in peoples underlying values – climate shifts in attitudes rather than fluctuations in the weather.
- tackling head-on the longstanding and notorious difficulties of collecting rigorous cross-national attitudinal data. Perversely, the very factors that make political and cultural differences interesting and important also make them difficult to measure in a comparative perspective. Europe's unique combination of diversity and integration makes it a natural laboratory for tackling these problems.

More importantly, its governance requires them to be solved. Evidence-informed policy at a European level needs high-quality data that help to understand and explain the interactions between Europe's institutional structures on the one hand and both the behaviour patterns and attitudes of its citizens on the other. Therefore, a key objective of the ESS is to raise methods of cross-national attitude research to a level of rigour comparable with the best research at a national level.

These objectives are reflected directly by the work packages within the project. In general, the work packages are concerned with ensuring high methodological standards within particular areas of the survey (thus contributing to the first objective). The experience of adhering to these standards, the resulting example set, the transparent documentation of the procedures and the capacity for assessment of the procedures, feed equally well into the second objective.

The ESS is widely considered to be state of the art. Its scale and high methodological standards are rarely implemented on a cross-national basis. This achievement was recently recognised by the European Science Foundation (ESF)'s initiated review report which has also been made available to the Commission. The report stated: the panel unanimously finds that the importance of ESS, its demonstrated success in initial launch, and its clear signals of impact justify fully continuous funding at levels necessary to achieve its vision and maintain its quality.

As noted, one of the primary longer-run policy benefits of the ESS is to provide regular high quality information (on the same basis throughout Europe) about the ebbs and flows of socio-political attitudes and human values. But an equally important role of the ESS is to help improve Europe-wide methods of social measurement. In the context of an expanding and more closely integrated European Union, it is increasingly important for the techniques of cross-national measurement to approach the quality and precision of such measurements at a national level.

Eurostat has of course made considerable strides to ensure this on a range of subjects, but not on the important topic of social attitude change across nations and over time. Nor - for the reasons described earlier in this section – is a body such as Eurostat likely to be able to rectify this omission. Yet the quest for better methods of cross-national attitude measurement at a European level is increasingly urgent. Not only is poor research and intelligence sometimes worse than no intelligence at all, but accurate, verifiable data sources are now an indispensable tool of modern governance. More importantly, we now know that good cross-national research capacity does not flow automatically from good national research capacities. Indeed, the flow may often be in precisely the opposite direction. Either way, Europe is in pole position to lead the world in establishing best practice in multicultural social research.

The role of the ESS in this respect should be pivotal. Although great strides have previously been made by other distinguished time series such as the Eurobarometers, the European Values Surveys and the International Social Surveys Programme, the ESS marks a new departure in comparability and rigour in a cross-national attitude survey. This was one of the ESFs principal aims when it promoted and funded the ESS expert group in the first place, and has since been inextricably interwoven into the fabric of the project. A key objective of the ESS is to lift the standards of social attitude measurement throughout Europe and beyond, so that reliable trends in social values may in future be accorded equivalent weight to similar data on behaviour and population movements.

Arising out of the report to the Commission by Sir Anthony Atkinson and colleagues, eighteen standard social indicators have now been adopted by the Commission for regular publication and analysis. They are to stand alongside the exclusively economic indicators (e.g. GDP, RPI, unemployment figures, growth rates) which have hitherto served as a proxy for monitoring overall national progress. Although these 18 new measures will surely fill what has been a debilitating long-term gap in the means by which we are routinely supposed to judge societal progress, they are just a starting-point. For one thing, the list of new indicators is heavily biased towards socio-economic rather than socio-political phenomena. Thus there is a preponderance of measures to do with aspects of poverty, income and exclusion and only scant or no attention given to broader aspects of quality of life – such as health, life satisfaction and the absence of the fear of crime. Notably, only one of the eighteen new indicators (on health) is to be based on people's own assessments of how they view their world and themselves. The remainder are to be generated from administrative statistics of one sort or another, untouched by public input into either their choice or compilation.

The ESS should thus provide an ideal opportunity to broaden the present narrow range of criteria by which we routinely evaluate national success and quality of life. Based as it is on high quality data collected in a standardised form from the bulk of EU countries, the ESS already provides an obvious source of data for the new subjective health indicator 50 proposed by Atkinson and his colleagues. But it should in time offer the chance to monitor many other important aspects of national success or social progress.

It is widely accepted, for instance, that fear of crime can wreak havoc with people's quality of life. Fear of crime is a far more important determinant of people's actual behaviour than is the crime rate itself (whether based on reported crime or victimisation events). Indeed, people change their patterns of behaviour and decide, for instance, not to go out after dark not on the basis of statistical analysis of trends in crimes of violence on the streets, but because of their own increasing sense of vulnerability – whether justified or imagined.