ESRC Festival of Social Sciences: ‘British social attitudes in European comparative context’

by Louise McCudden

Social sciences have never been unimportant, but with a global recession, and an unfortunate growing loss of faith in economists, the timing of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Sciences could not be more pertinent. 

The festival helped shake up some common misconceptions about social sciences, and the European Social Survey (ESS) event – ‘British social attitudes in European comparative context’ – was one of the clearest demonstrations of just how much the work of social scientists can offer us all.

Take the research presented by Felicia A. Huppert (from the Wellbeing Institute and the University of Cambridge) on the importance of wellbeing in our society. Perhaps we can be proud that our Prime Minister has been quick to recognise the value of social sciences, by declaring economic growth 'a means to an end' and hiring sociologists to measure and improve the nation’s happiness. But it’s not just David Cameron: as Professor Huppert points out, all sorts of powerful figures around the world, from Nicolas Sarkozy to the King of Bhutan, have put happiness and wellbeing on the political agenda, with the King of Bhutan actually getting the United Nations to adopt a resolution making happiness into an official ‘development indicator.’ Sociological scientific research is no longer reserved for after-dinner conversations over port and brie; it is helping to shape a new political agenda around the globe. 

David Cameron says he has made our happiness a priority

Professor Felicia A. Huppert explained to a riveted audience, including the BBC’s Mark Easton, who chaired the event and followed it keenly, how studying the ‘flourishing’ end of the mental health spectrum in the way that psychologists and sociologists have previously studied languishing and poor mental health has allowed social scientists to not only in effect ‘diagnose’ happiness, but pinpoint the specific factors in achieving and maintaining it. With the European Social Survey’s exciting research, we learn from Huppert that around 20% of the UK population meet the criteria for ‘flourishing’ mental health. That might not sound too bad (and it certainly isn’t terrible; about half the countries in Europe are worse) but when you consider that in Denmark, 40% of people meet the criteria, it's obvious that British people could be much happier and healthier than we currently are. 

Why? And how? Professor Huppert is quick to stress that her work at the Wellbeing Institute isn’t about making everybody happy, all the time. The ‘diagnosis’ of happiness includes the existence of negative emotions, and acknowledges that these are, of course, an inevitable part of life. The point of overall ‘flourishing’ mental health, Huppert says, is that it facilitates a proper processing of these negative emotions, as and when they do occur. 

‘British social attitudes in European comparative context’ turned up lots of other delicious factual nuggets, too. Did you know, for instance, the French have the lowest self-esteem in Europe? While the Spanish have extremely high self-esteem, but low levels of 'vitality'? This isn’t just a chance to confirm or deny national stereotypes about our European partners (although that is also a lot of fun); this kind of detailed research into exactly which contributing factors to happiness our different nations excel at and lack respectively, means that our leaders – be they political, religious, or academic – can actively make sure that each country's population is working as hard, producing and creating as much, integrating as strongly, and abiding by the law as well as is possible. 

Huppert’s report ‘Measuring Wellbeing Across Europe’ is a brilliant example of how social sciences have medical and economic benefits, as well as what we would consider exclusively ‘social’ ones. People with ‘flourishing’ mental health, says Ms Huppert, tend to work harder, for example, as well as producing and creating more. With our desperate need for economic growth, higher and more secure employment, and stronger social cohesion, it's difficult to see why anyone would want to risk ignoring such important work. 

Cue Dr Jon Jackson & Professor Mike Hough from the Institute for Criminal Policy Studies with their research on Trust and Justice Systems. Just as Professor Huppert studied the things that contribute to exceptionally positive mental health instead of the things that contribute to debilitating mental illness, so Dr Jon Jackson and Professor Mike Hough analysed what motivates most people to actually obey the law, not what motivates criminals to break it. 

Tough justice, quote Jackson and Hough, can “lose battles but win wars.” Overwhelmingly, according to their research, people obey the law when they trust its legitimacy. Legitimacy is lost, they say, when the public feels the government and/or police do not have public consent to hold power, when the law does not appear to have a moral purpose, and when those who enforce the law are seen to be above abiding by it themselves. 

Using a study based on comparing two different models of justice, Jackson and Hough conclude that here in the UK, legitimacy has a two-to-one success rate over risk of punishment in terms of preventing breaches of the law. 

These are only a few of the useful and fascinating findings and ideas discussed at the European Social Survey (ESS) event – ‘British social attitudes in European comparative context.’ And this event is only a tiny snapshot of a glimpse into the ways that social scientists can help us all be more prosperous, more law-abiding, and happier. 

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) have helped to raise awareness for quality social scientific research in evidence based policy. It’s in all our interests to make sure we help it stay there.