Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Study

Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) follows the lives of all individuals within (initially, in 2009) 40,000 households over time; it is a vital resource for understanding the causes and consequences of deep-rooted social problems – enabling cutting edge science and better informed policies.

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 linked lives and the inter-relationships between family members. Its annual data collection means that changes in people’s lives more captured accurately 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 in Britain 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 includes data on key domains of people’s lives – their family, health, wellbeing, employment, education, income, expenditure, wealth, time use, behaviours, housing, transport and neighbourhoods, attitudes and beliefs – which enables researchers to investigate the inter-relations between different aspects of people’s lives.

By 2016, six waves of Understanding Society data were available, with 25 years of data available for a significant sub-group who were part of BHPS.

Informing current policies on social justice, and inequalities, data from the Study and evidence from researchers is extensively used by government departments, devolved administrations, agencies, charities, and think tanks.

Sample design

The overall Study has multiple sample components. In the main survey there is:

  • 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
  • the Immigrant and Ethnic Minority Boost Sample (IEMBS)

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

In addition, there is a separate survey, the Innovation Panel (IP), which is fielded annually and provides opportunities to test measurement issues and conduct experiments. 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

UKHLS also 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. There are also extra questions asked each year of particular relevance to ethnic groups.

Immigrant and Ethnic Minority Boost Sample

This sample includes people who were born outside the United Kingdom (“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 data-sets are currently available can be seen here.

Management and funding

UKHLS is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and 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 at the University of Essex. 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 EGA. Researchers wishing to combine genetics and survey data need to apply to METADAC. Access arrangements comply with ESRC Research Data Policy.

Cohort Profile

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


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