Policymakers are charged with solving complex social challenges on a daily basis, necessitating them to engage with societies in order to get a thorough understanding of issues of the day.
As such, investing in social research projects is an advantageous opportunity to unlock illuminating insights that could serve as guideposts to solving social issues. Today, many policy circles across the globe deem social research units as critical partners in crafting solutions that are responsive, relevant, and results-oriented.
Social research reveals the interplay of needs, attitudes, motivations, and behaviors of societies on a variety of issues, which are later used to formulate actionable strategies and solutions. For example, many strategies aim to nudge specific positive behaviors that would prove optimal for target audiences, such as adopting healthy lifestyles or enrolling in workplace pension systems.
At the same time, it is important for policymakers to identify common obstacles or motivations that get in the way of such practices in order to create schemes that support their adoption.
Furthermore, delving into the root causes triggering social challenges is an opportunity for policymakers to rectify and prevent issues from burgeoning into serious problems.
Common policy areas that require preventative measures include identifying the main triggers behind high divorce rates, voluntary unemployment, or factors influencing selection of university degree programs.
Government agencies can also utilize social research to evaluate the impact of their policies and programs on their target audiences, allowing them to identify successful interventions used within different contexts. Above all else, social surveys capture the voices of diverse social segments, of which the insights will be used to generate better interventions and appealing communication strategies.
Many governments have started to become interested in leveraging social research to improve policy outcomes. An extensive variety of topics have been explored during social surveys that were later leveraged to formulate positive policy outcomes.
Examples include detecting the common lifestyle habits that lead to chronic illnesses amongst different social segments, understanding the reasons behind voluntary unemployment, and identifying critical factors behind juvenile delinquency.
Social research is also merging with nudge theory to tackle the most pressing social issues facing the world today. Examples include designing family-friendly policies to boost employment levels amongst women, elevate fertility rates, and improve work-life balance for families.
On the other hand, many governments utilized social research during the lengthy Covid-19 pandemic to design effective epidemiological policies with regards to increasing vaccine uptake, promoting personal hygiene practices to reduce infection rates, and understanding common social practices that trigger hotspot outbreaks.
Interestingly, the Covid-19 pandemic has spurred a significant interest within social research circles to understand the multifaceted ways in which societies have been remodeled and economies disrupted.
Stories of individuals and communities
Sifting through the plethora of social research will unveil the stories of individuals and communities at the centre of these changes, showcasing their attitudes towards employment, hybrid or remote work, emphasising their renewed appreciation for social connections, or highlighting their increasing dependence on digital technologies to access education, e-commerce, or health services.
It’s worth noting that these shifting trends necessitate agile government actions in order to reflect the newfound priorities of societies and economies.
Many countries have already benefited immensely from conducting social research and hence, have access to practical insights that support the design and delivery of government solutions. The UK government’s work on social research provides great examples of this approach.
Currently, over 2,400 social researchers are employed across various public agencies with the aim of collecting useful social data that could then be leveraged to touch the lives of populations. One of its recent surveys looked at how separated parents were able to agree on child maintenance arrangements, what challenges prevented them from doing so, and how government interventions could ensure children receive essential services if parents were in high conflict relationships or faced financial constraints.
The US-based Pew Research Center is a leading organisation in this field, conducting public opinion polling, demographic research, and evidence-based social science research that sheds light on a variety of key issues affecting societies.
The center’s roster of research areas includes demographic trends, economic conditions, employment, life satisfaction, education, health policy, digital divide, and family and relationships. Some of the recent fascinating publications explored how global threats are affecting local economies, measuring gender wage gaps between various metropolitan areas, and tracking the shifting personal protective measures against the Covid-19 virus.
A recent analysis delved into the top sources of personal life satisfaction amongst 19,000 adults across 17 economies. Results reveal family, occupation and career, material wellbeing, friends and community, and health as the most cited factors for a meaningful life.
Drawing on such up-to-date insights could guide policymakers on possible policy roadmaps to address each lever and identify common obstacles faced by individuals in achieving high life satisfaction levels.
In another example, Statistics Canada conducts the Canadian Social Survey on diverse social topics every quarter in order to have access to insights in a rapid manner. Such an approach can empower policymakers to craft proactive and personalized policy solutions that cater to various social segments.
Its current research project is split across six planned surveys every three months and will look into the social and economic repercussions of Covid-19 on Canadians, life satisfaction in relation to various aspects, leisure activities and time pressures, paid and unpaid work and caregiving, family time, changes to people’s households, and intentions to have children.
Consequently, survey results will guide policymakers in formulating responsive policies and programmes spanning a number of policy levers, such as family-friendly employment policies, care services, community cohesion programs, and social benefits systems.
There is a unique window of opportunity to leverage the insights derived from social research to design impactful and inclusive policies. Doing so will ensure societies are put at the heart of policymaking.
Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and literature