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Social science and participation
Social science and participation

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Participation in the UK

The Understanding Society project seeks to generate large-scale, representative descriptions of how the different activities that people engage in relate to their well-being, status and position. These can be simple relationships. For example, the researchers might look at whether the activity of families eating meals together is related to higher levels of health and happiness among teenagers. There might also be much broader descriptions of patterns of participation in different parts of the UK, and between different groups of people depending on factors such as age, religion or income.

The findings of the Understanding Society project’s first survey of participation in the UK were published in 2011. Extract 1 provides a summary of some of those findings.

You will notice that each of the findings links a form of participation or consumption (e.g. neighbourhood participation) to a particular group or category of people who responded to the survey questions (e.g. pensioners or Welsh people).

Extract 1 Who participates most in UK society?

  • People with degree-level education are more likely to score highly on the measures of trust, social expenditure and political interest and they are also more ready to invest in energy-saving measures in support of the environment.
  • Social consumption is highest among pensioners.
  • Neighbourhood participation is more closely related to age, increasing noticeably among people aged 50 and above.
  • Differences in participation relating to ethnicity are small.
  • English respondents tend to have the lowest neighbouring scores.
  • Welsh respondents average the highest neighbouring scores.
  • Respondents from Northern Ireland have the highest scores on trust and the least interest in politics.
  • The presence of school-aged children increases the incentive for people to be more involved in their own neighbourhood.
(Source: Understanding Society, 2011, p. 8)

You can see that the Understanding Society project produces broad descriptions of different patterns of participation. These findings might prompt all sorts of questions. Why, for example, should people be more inclined to participate in their own neighbourhood if they have school-aged children? Why is social consumption highest among pensioners? Answers to these questions would require further elaboration of the simple ‘facts’ presented in the findings.

Nonetheless, some of these findings do suggest problems that require attention and action. You may have a sense, for example, that the low level of neighbouring in England should be addressed to improve the level of this sort of activity, or that efforts should be made to enhance the capacity of people who do not have degree-level education so that they will participate more in energy-saving measures in support of the environment.

In making differences in participation visible, social science projects such as Understanding Society reveal certain sorts of problems that can become issues of public debate and, in some cases, objects of concerted policy action.