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Understanding (the Big) Society

Posted on 08 July 2011 .
Tags: BHPS, Big Society, British Household Panel Survey, Understanding Society, volunteering

The Big Society seems rarely out of the news. Central to the Conservatives’ vision for government, it’s intended to mark a step change in the delivery of public services and the relationship between government and citizens: "The basic premise is that if everyone gives a little of themselves, the benefits for the whole of society can be enormous." David Cameron, 23/05/11

Whatever you think of its merits, the Big Society will occupy policy makers, civil servants, local authorities, social researchers and many others for at least the rest of this parliament. For some in the research community though the Big Society is already proving controversial. Just last week, forty-three academics from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) threatened to resign as peer reviewers over the inclusion of the Big Society as a priority in AHRC’s strategic plan for future research.

But what can data already available tell us about the prospects for the Big Society?

The work I do in NatCen’s Society and Social Change team – helping to deliver the Understanding Society study for the Institute for Social and Economic Research – offers some clues. Last week I attended a conference showcasing early findings from Understanding Society and its predecessor, the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), a large-scale longitudinal dataset that holds a wealth of information spanning 18 years. A number of insightful and relevant papers were presented. Here I focus on just a couple of them.

Is there a pool of untapped volunteering capacity in the UK waiting to contribute to the Big Society? Daiga Kamerāde drew on BHPS data to answer this question. When analysed cross-sectionally, volunteering rates show a remarkable stability over the last two decades: around 50% of Britons participate annually. However, longitudinal data demonstrates that the picture is actually much more complex; the vast majority of adults volunteered at least once between 1991 and 2007. Kamerāde showed how these periods of volunteering were episodic in nature and that the organisation they volunteered for changed frequently. When taking a longer view, then, the pool of untapped volunteers appears a lot smaller.

So the question for the Big Society is not just how more people can be encouraged to volunteer, but also how those people can be encouraged to volunteer more consistently, both over time and between organisations.

Emanuele Ferragina, along with his co-authors, plans to use the greatly expanded Understanding Society dataset to understand what motivates people to participate. Preliminary analysis suggests that ‘social participation’ such as neighbouring, general trust, interest in politics, social, material and environmental consumption are closely related to levels of income and education. So how does the government go about encouraging those with lower income and levels of education to participate in the short term? The National Citizens’ Service (NCS) aims to encourage social capital to overcome levels of deprivation. My colleague Gareth Morrell has already blogged on our evaluation of NCS and the difficulty measuring the Big Society presents for social researchers. Only time will tell whether Ferragina detects a shift in the relationship between deprivation and participation.

A recent blog from Paul Bradshaw at ScotCen leaves us in no doubt about the enduring value of longitudinal data. The first Understanding Society conference has shown that it can provide real insight into today’s challenges. Whatever further research is commissioned, as it goes on, Understanding Society will help researchers, policy commentators, journalists and others to provide answers to society’s big questions with an unprecedented level of high-quality data. It’s a project that NatCen is proud to be part of.

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