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Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Study

Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Study follows the lives of thousands of individuals within households over time.  It is an internationally recognised study and provides vital evidence for scientists and policymakers on the causes and consequences of deep-rooted social problems.

The study commenced in 2009, building on and incorporating the long-running British Household Panel Survey (BHPS). Covering all the regions and nations of the UK, it has an initial sample of 39,802 households at Wave 1. Sample members are followed when they leave a household, and new people join the Study as they become part of existing sample member households.

Understanding Society has a number of unique design features. It covers the whole population, with boost samples to ensure it is representative of immigrant and ethnic minority groups, and its large sample enables sub-population groups to be examined. Researchers can use the household context to explore how lives link, and the relationships between family members. Its annual data collection means that changes in people’s lives are more accurately captured over time.

Information is collected directly from everyone aged over 10 years, with parents providing information on younger children. As a bio-social survey some 20,000 participants aged over 16 also received nurse visits in 2010-2011 (Waves 2 and 3), which provides a range of objective health measures, genetic and epigenetic data.

Understanding Society asks people about things like their home and family, work and school, health and wellbeing, financial situation and their social and political attitudes. The information people share helps us to understand what people think, feel and do. It also helps us see how society is changing over time. The Study covers everyone in a household, from children to adults, so researchers can understand the experiences of the whole family over time.

In 2022 11 waves of Understanding Society data are available, with 29 years of data available for a significant sub-group who were part of  BHPS.

Information from the Study is used by researchers to investigate how changes in economic, social and health events affect individuals, households and communities. Evidence from the Study is extensively used by government departments, devolved administrations, agencies, charities, and think tanks.

Sample design

The overall Study has multiple sample components. The main survey includes:

  • the General Population Sample (GPS) a stratified random sample of England, Scotland and Wales and a simple random sample in Northern Ireland;
  • the Ethnic Minority Boost Sample (EMBS);
  • the BHPS Sample; and
  • the Immigrant and Ethnic Minority Boost Sample (IEMBS).

The Main Survey User Guide provides details on sample selection for the various components.

In addition, there is a separate survey, the Innovation Panel (IP), which is a sample of 1,500 households. This is used by researchers as a test bed for innovative ways of collecting data and for developing new areas of research. There is an annual competition for researchers to propose experiments. Researchers can also apply to conduct associated studies on subsamples of the Study.

Sample boosts

Ethnic Minority Boost Sample

Understanding Society has an Ethnic Minority Boost Sample, introduced at Wave 1, to ensure the study had at least 1,000 adults from the five main ethnicity groups in the UK: Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Caribbean, and African. Each year the study asks extra questions to this sample of particular relevance to ethnic groups.

Immigrant and Ethnic Minority Boost Sample

This sample includes people who were born outside the UK (“immigrants”) and members of five ethnic minority groups. It provides coverage of people who have entered the UK since Wave 1 (2009). Introduced at Wave 6, interviews were conducted with 4,656 adults who are now part of the ongoing sample.

Linked data

A variety of geocodes at various levels of geography and administrative boundaries are available, allowing linkage to a wide range of different contextual information.

The Study regularly requests consents from panel members to link their data with administrative datasets. These consents cover data held by a broad range of government departments and devolved administrations, enabling linkage, for instance, to data on educational performance, health, tax and benefits, vehicle registrations and energy consumption.

Consents that have been requested during different waves and what linked administrative datasets are currently available can be found on the Understanding Society website.

Management and funding

Understanding Society is primarily funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, with support from a number of government departments. Scientific leadership is provided by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex.

Accessing the data

Understanding Society survey data can be accessed by bona fide researchers through the UK Data Service. Anyone wishing to access the data will need to register with the UK Data Service before downloading. Some datasets are only available via Special Licence, or via the UK Data Service Secure Lab. Epigenetic and genetics data are available from the European Genome-phenome Archive (EGA). Researchers wishing to combine genetics and survey data need to apply to Understanding Society. Access arrangements comply with ESRC Research Data Policy.

CLOSER Discovery

Variables from Understanding Society are available to explore in CLOSER Discovery – our innovative research tool that enables researchers to search, explore and assess data from multiple UK longitudinal population studies.

Users can search through rich metadata, and filter by study, topic and life stage in order to find the relevant data for their investigations.

Start exploring Understanding Society variable metadata in CLOSER Discovery

Cohort Profile

BUCK, Nick; MCFALL, Stephanie. Understanding Society: design overviewLongitudinal and Life Course Studies, [S.l.], v. 3, n. 1, p. 5 – 17, nov. 2011. ISSN 1757-9597.

Introducing Understanding Society

Other resources and multimedia

Related content

Visit the study website