ESS studies people’s fundamental values

Photo: Torbjörn Berglund

(Published 2013-08-29)
The European Social Survey (ESS) has high aspirations in terms of both data quality and questionnaire content. The data documentation is the most comprehensive in comparative studies in social science, and a key objective for the study is to develop robust social indicators. What is, for example, the best way to measure well-being, happiness and welfare? And how can we compare educational levels in different countries?

Mikael Hjerm, Professor of Sociology at Umeå University, is responsible for the Swedish part of the ESS study. He explains that the aim of ESS is to produce the best comparative data in the world. This is not possible to provide for most countries outside Europe, since a basic requirement for participation in the study is reliable census data.

Another objective for the ESS is to measure changes over time. The study started in 2002, so this goal is now becoming possible to reach.

– We are not trying to measure temporary public opinions but long-term changes in people's fundamental values. We do not measure the weather, but the climate, says Michael Hjerm.

Since the time perspective is important, many of the items will remain relatively constant from round to round. But there is also room for some new themes in each round. These themes are suggested by scientists from different European countries who join forces and send applications to the ESS.

– The application process is similar to those found at the national research councils. We usually get between ten and fifteen applications. From these, the best two are selected, says Mikael Hjerm.

The recurring items in the survey include political interest and participation, trust, media use, political ideology, well-being, health, ethics and morality, religiosity etc. Among the themes included now and then are, for example, migration, aging, welfare, work and family.

An important principle of the ESS is that data will be available to all as soon as they are finished. There is no precedence or exclusivity for the researchers who are working with the surveys. To facilitate the use of the data, ESS has also invested significantly in education. On the ESS website there are complete teaching packages that can be freely used by colleges and universities.

– Accessibility and transparency is crucial for us. Although the content is research driven, we want it to be used by anyone interested. Journalists, politicians, students and the public, says Michael Hjerm.

Despite the high accessibility, there still remains many research questions to address using ESS material. Mikael Hjerm cites his own research field, religion, as an example. There is a lot of research on religion and human religiosity as a phenomenon. But there is almost no comparative research on what impact religion has and has had on other social phenomena, such as politics.

– There is a lot of such research in the United States, but very little in Europe. Here, our ESS data can contribute with additional knowledge.

A longitudinal comparative survey study

Since 2002, ESS has studied fundamental values ​​and attitudes among citizens in over 30 European countries. The study is biennial and based on interviews with a simple random sample. The latest round from 2012/2013 (number six) will be published in October and will be available via the ESS website to anyone who wants to analyze the data.

In 2013, ESS has also been appointed a so-called ERIC (European Research Infrastructure Consortium). In practice, this means that the funding of the study is secured for an extended period. With the decision, the participating European countries have committed to fund the ESS activities for a period of five years instead of the previous two years at a time. According to Mikael Hjerm, this means increased security for the coordinating organization that ESS has built up during the years.

ESS is also part of DASISH, a three-year EU project led by SND. The project aims to increase cooperation between different research infrastructures in terms of data quality, access and archiving.