Understanding Society – Phase One

The first results from the ongoing Understanding Society survey have been released and there are some interesting stats as regards parenting and raising children.

Understanding Society is a longitudinal study tracking 100,000 individuals in 40,000 British households. The survey examines various factors attempting to understand the nature of modern day family units in the UK.

It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and run by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER). The study allows for deeper analysis of a wide range of sections of the population as they respond to regional, national and international change. Understanding Society will greatly enhance our insight into the pathways that influence peoples longer term occupational trajectories; their health and well-being, their financial circumstances and personal relationships.

Understanding Society also breaks new ground with its interdisciplinary focus. The study will capture biomedical data on 20,000 participants and place this alongside rich social histories, helping us weigh the extent to which people’s environment influences their health.

The first wave findings have highlighted again a fact that previous research has identified, that children raised in a family with their biological parents tend to perform better then those who are raised in the absence of at least one biological parent. In section three of the preliminary findings, children’s happiness was analysed. Researchers found that one of the most signficant and powerful indicators of a child’s self-perceived life satisfaction was whether they lived with their biological parents. There was no difference in this effect regardless of the child’s family’s wealth or poverty.

One of the major benefits of the Understanding Society survey is that the entire dataset is being made publicly available for download and analysis. This means that anybody with the right academic criteria can do their own study of the data and contribute to the welath of information that is going to be produced with the data.

What do these preliminary findings tell us? Well, as I’ve said above, they confirm that children on average feel happier when they grow up with the biological parents. The summary findings don’t make a distinction between unmarried and married couples so it would require a look at the raw data in order to establish if their were any significant differences between these two groups. The headline figures also don’t tell us anything about gay parenting since any such couples would be part of the wider “non-biological parents) group. Once again, a look at the raw data would answer the question, though I suspect that there are too few children in the sample (just over 2000) for the number of those children with gay parents to be large enough for any results to be statistical significant.

What the survey also tells us is that material wealth or poverty, in and of itself, does not affect childhood happiness. Whilst individual factors which might be dependent upon the wealth of a family (e.g. going on holiday) affect happiness, the underlying poverty or otherwise of a family is not the key factor affecting happiness. Simply put, poorer children whose parents cannot afford to go on holday are on average less happy then wealthier children who do, but they are no less happy then wealthier children who, for whatever reason, also do not go on holiday.

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4 Comments on “Understanding Society – Phase One

  1. Great idea! I don't mind analysing the data :) Probably I will do so anyhow for my job! Will keep you posted…

  2. Of course, children with gay parents may be raised with one or both biological parents (I do know of mixed-gender marriages where one or both parents identify as gay; I don't ask questions about the technical details of conception!). Or a homosexual couple with a child might include at least one biological parent, and it's possible for the other parent to still be quite present in the child's life (eg if two lesbians want to have a child and get a close friend, who will be involved in helping to raise the child anyway, to act as a sperm donor).

    More broadly: the study measures what happens, but says nothing about why, or about what else could happen. If children who aren't brought up by their biological parents are less happy and successful, is that because they may have had to be taken away from their biological parents due to abuse or neglect? At that point how much is their unhappiness due to separation from their biological parents and how much due to such a difficult start? It may be that the study does contain enough data to draw some conclusions about that but you can be sure it won't be quoted by people who want to strengthen the idea that two biological parents are the only people who ought to be raising a child.

    And the study can't measure things which don't yet exist. I don't think homosexual couples, with or without children, can live without either considerable social stigma, and that does take a toll. We still live in a society where some people are afraid to tell their friends, their employers or their own parents they are queer. Of course that kind of difficulty is going to have an effect on how people raise their children, biological or otherwise. We won't have data on raising children without that effect until we get rid of the social stigma.

    I get weary of the circular argument that posits that homosexuality is wrong because of adverse effects which only exist because of societal prejudice.

    • If children who aren’t brought up by their biological parents are less happy and successful, is that because they may have had to be taken away from their biological parents due to abuse or neglect? At that point how much is their unhappiness due to separation from their biological parents and how much due to such a difficult start? It may be that the study does contain enough data to draw some conclusions about that but you can be sure it won’t be quoted by people who want to strengthen the idea that two biological parents are the only people who ought to be raising a child.

      And the study can’t measure things which don’t yet exist. I don’t think homosexual couples, with or without children, can live without either considerable social stigma, and that does take a toll. We still live in a society where some people are afraid to tell their friends, their employers or their own parents they are queer. Of course that kind of difficulty is going to have an effect on how people raise their children, biological or otherwise. We won’t have data on raising children without that effect until we get rid of the social stigma.

      Yes, but a lot of this is pure conjecture. You can't say either way until the empirical evidence is in the bag. Also, the issue of social stigma is one that needs to be clearly and objectively identified, categorised and analysed before you can claim with any confidence beyond a few anecdotes that this social stigma is a factor.

      Of course, one of the hopes with this ongoing survey is that, given the huge sample size, enough same-sex parents families can be indentified to do this vital research and get some definitive answers.

      I get weary of the circular argument that posits that homosexuality is wrong because of adverse effects which only exist because of societal prejudice.

      Agreed, but it also wearisome when claims are made both ways which are not supported by any empirical research.

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