Explore the data: Understanding Society the UK Household Longitudinal Study

Understanding Society: the UK Household Longitudinal Study follows individuals and families over time, and as a result is a vital resource for research and policy to understand the changes to UK society past, present and future.  Professor Michaela Benzeval (University of Essex) introduces the survey. 

Understanding Society began in 2009 and builds on and incorporates the long-running British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), which began in 1991.  Covering all nations of the UK, it has an initial sample of nearly 40,000 households at Wave 1. We have recently released the 11th wave of Understanding Society providing 28 waves of data for BHPS members. 

Understanding Society is designed to maintain representativeness over time by incorporating natural changes in households. New people join the study as they move or are born into homes with original study members. We follow people as they leave their original homes and move into new ones.  Given the length of the Study children from original households have grown up, moved out and have families of their own. In 2022 there are approximately 3,500 families in the study spanning three generations.

Who is in the Study?

Understanding Society has multiple sample components. The main survey includes:

  • the General Population Sample (GPS) a stratified random sample of England, Scotland and Wales and a simple random sample in Northern Ireland drawn for wave 1(2009);
  • the Ethnic Minority Boost Sample (EMBS) begun at wave 1 with a target of 1000 adults from the main ethnic minority groups in the UK, this sample was drawn based on screening interviews carried out in areas that covered the majority of target ethnic minority populations in the UK;
  • the BHPS Sample – 8000 households joined the Study at wave 2;
  • At wave 6 (2014/15), we added the Immigrant and Ethnic Minority Boost Sample (IEMBS) to increase the size of ethnic minority groups in the study, this sample was selected in a similar way to the EMBS;·         
  • In 2022/23, at wave 14, we have just begun a new general population boost with the target of adding 10,000 households to the Study.
How do we collect data?
  • for children under 10, parents are asked questions about the child’s development,
  • children aged 10-15 are asked to complete a short paper survey,
  • adults age 16+ have an individual questionnaire
  • if someone is unavailable in the household a proxy questionnaire is administered for them
  • and one adult is asked to complete a questionnaire about the whole household.

In the first six waves, data was collected by interviewers in people’s homes, except for a very small number of people who did not want to do this and were interviewed by telephone. However, from wave 7 onwards we began to increasingly offer participants the option of providing data via a web survey. This mixed mode design proved invaluable when the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, as we were able to halt face-to-face interviews but continue the survey seamlessly by web and telephone. Overall this has led to only a very small drop in response rates.

What data does the Study cover?

The Study covers a wide range of topics that are important to people’s everyday lives and to society more generally; core questions are asked annually, and others rotate every couple of waves, as set out in the long term content plan. Topics include:

In wave 2/3 of the Study biomarker data, such as height, weight, blood pressure, lung function and grip strength, were collected from over 20,000 people and genetics, epigenetics and proteomics data are available on subsets to combine with rich social and economic information. These data have been used to better understand the wide-ranging links between society the economy and health.  We are currently developing plans to repeat biomarker data collection at Wave 16.

In 2020, we launched a COVID-19 Survey to provide rapid information on the changes in people’s lives during the pandemic. Overall, we carried out nine waves of data collection between April 2020 and September 2021. These data have been widely used in research and policy.

Understanding Society can be linked to external data in a range of ways. First, we provide variety of geocodes at various levels of geography and administrative boundaries are available, allowing linkage to a wide range of different contextual information. Secondly, we ask consent from panel members to link their data with administrative datasets; we have such linked records available in relation to health, education, and vehicles.

International family
BHPS and Understanding Society are part of an international family of panel studies that collect data on similar topics including The Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID),  the longest running longitudinal household panel survey in the world, the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA), KLIPS (Korean Labor & Income Panel Study), The Swiss Household Panel, The National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS),  the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), the Russia Longitudinal Monitoring Survey (RLMS-HSE), the China Family Panel Studies (CFPS) and the Japanese Keio Household Panel Survey (KHPS). Two projects have harmonised data across many of these studies to make it easier for researchers to undertake comparative research: the Cross National Equivalent File (CNEF) and the  Comparative Panel File.
Innovation and enhancements
Understanding Society also has Innovation Panel, which is a sample of 1,500 households, which provides a platform for the Study team to test different aspect of study designs to maximise our response rate and data quality. It can also be used by researchers, and there is an annual competition for experiments proposals. A wide range of experiments and lessons for future survey design have been produced.
 The Study is extensively used by academics, government departments, devolved administrations, agencies, charities, and think tanks. We have a range of case studies on the website showing how the Study has been used. For example, the Study was used to inform the CMO’s COVID-19 vaccine policy for children; DWP have used it in their evaluation of policies on workless families and ONS have used it in their data on monitoring bullying in schools.  
We produce an annual Insights Report on policy related research with a podcast series. Our Policy and Partnership Unit directly support government departments and devolved administrations to use the Understanding Society data for policy purposes and work with other organisations (e.g., charities and think tanks) to promote policy learning across a wide range of topics.
Accessing the data and support
All Understanding Society survey data can be accessed through the UK Data Service. Some datasets with more sensitive or potentially disclosive data are only available via Special Licence, or via the UK Data Service Secure Lab. Epigenetic and genetics data are available from the European Genome-phenome Archive. Researchers wishing to combine epigenetics or genetics data with survey data need to complete an application form, which is available on the website.
Whatever datasets you use, we ask that you please cite the data, so that we can provide evidence to funders of the value of the data they support.
The Study team provide a wide range of training courses, as well as webinars and videos material. We have a user support forum and are increasingly providing code to create variables and datasets so researchers can adapt it for themselves. We have just launched a Data Gateway to enable users to create their own code from shopping baskets and to produce tables and graphs from the Study without downloading the data.



 Understanding Society is an initiative funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and various Government Departments, with scientific leadership by the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, and survey delivery for the mainstage and Innovation Panel by NatCen Social Research and Kantar Public; IPSOS Mori undertook the COVID-19 web survey. The research data are distributed by the UK Data Service.

Author Bio: Michaela has been Professor of Longitudinal Research and the Director and Principal Investigator of Understanding Society: the UK Household Longitudinal Study since 2015. Prior to this, Michaela was Research Project Director of the West of Scotland Twenty-07 Study, at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, Glasgow. Michaela’s research focuses on inequalities in health over the lifecourse.