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How can social research help us solve the Big Society puzzle?

Posted on 30 May 2011 .
Tags: Big Society, Citizenship Survey

This week, the Prime Minister reinforced his commitment to building a bigger, stronger society, with stronger relationships, communities and families at its core. The speech comes on the back of a flurry of recent reports and publications grappling with the essence of Big Society and how to realise it. In his introduction to the recent report of AVECO’s Commission for the Big Society, Lord Rennard pointed to the cynicism that often surrounds discussion of the Big Society. What is it? How can it help? Where can I find it?

Lord Rennard answers these questions by arguing that we focus less on the definition (after all, it’s clear that the main thrust is for social actors to carry out functions currently performed by the state), and more on how to make it happen. How can individuals and communities be empowered to help the Big Society evolve? There are clues in the Prime Minister’s speech: he points for example to the launch of Start-Up Britain and elements of the Localism Bill that he hopes will act as the foundations of his vision.

Breathing life into the Big Society idea remains a key challenge for policy, and social research has an important contribution to make. At the National Centre for Social Research , we’re currently involved in a number of studies that look at what makes different people engage in ‘pro-social’ action in their communities. Here are just a couple of examples:

  • The evaluation of v – the National Young Volunteers Service – has been conducted in partnership with the Institute for Volunteering Research, the Third Sector Research Centre and Public Zone. The project assembled a wealth of evidence on the motivations of young volunteers and what organisations across sectors can do to attract more young people to volunteer - a report on this will be published in the summer. Its relevant to the debate because data from the Citizenship Survey (now sadly discontinued) tells us that volunteering amongst young people has been slowly falling since 2005.
  • We’ve also just begun a qualitative study looking at what encourages and deters adults to get involved in volunteering with young people, relevant if strengthening intergenerational relationships is part of the Big Society. This study will be completed in the Autumn and will explore some of the issues addressed by the Red Tape Task Force, and also some of the criticisms that have been raised against the recent white paper on ‘giving’.


I’ll be drawing on some of the findings from these and other studies to contribute to an SRA conference on the Big Society in July. They illustrate what a rich vein of social research knowledge is out there for anyone looking to crack the Big Society puzzle. We’d be delighted to hear from people across the research community about how we can make sure that opportunity isn’t lost.

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