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Development of Indicators

One of the original aims of the European Social Survey – and restated in the Scientific and Technical Description of the ESS ERIC in 2013 – was ‘to introduce soundly-based indicators of national progress, based on citizens' perceptions and judgements of key aspects of their societies’ (Scientific Case and Technical Description, p. 1). This has been supported by two research projects funded through the European Union’s Sixth and Seventh Framework Programmes.

Phase 1

Between 2006 and 2011 Professor Roger Jowell led a work package on ‘Developing Attitudinal Indicators of Well-being’. The primary aim of this five year research project was - in consultation with others - to contribute substantially to the development and ‘proving’ of social indicators reflecting the changing quality of life in different European countries. The measurement of well-being and quality of life links the work of sociologists, psychologists and political scientists to that of economists, epidemiologists, demographers and others.

Following an extensive literature review and a period of data analysis, the project team circulated a draft 'longlist' of indicators to the emerging international network of interested parties. The proposal contained four categories:

  • 'First choice' items - tapping six domains of interest - that have been fielded on the European Social Survey once or more since 2002, and which could be said to be 'tried and tested' in terms of their validity and reliability in different countries.
  • A selection of items relating to the same domains as at a) but which either cover different aspects of a domain or have different measurement properties. These could be regarded as potential alternatives or supplements to items within a). Many had been fielded on different cross-national survey vehicles where the level of reliability was less definitively established.
  • Items tapping additional domains that have been identified by experts as missing from the initial indicator-set. Specific examples include personal economic situation and environmental concerns.
  • More speculative suggestions for additional items on the basis of theoretical reflection or empirical evidence. This may be either existing items - such as perceptions of societal inequality or optimism/pessimism about future situation - or fresh proposals designed to address theoretical or policy-led concerns where there was no current coverage.

This working document - and the resulting feedback and refinement from those in the network of interested parties - was designed to be the next step in the development of suitably robust measures that can form a basis for further experimentation and subsequent adoption on a range of survey instruments across Europe. A final shortlist of indicators of societal well-being was published in the journal Ask: Research and Methods:

Phase 2

In 2011 the Scientific Advisory Board considered a proposal to add seven new items to the ESS core questionnaire which, in addition to an existing nine, could form an overall index of ‘perceived societal wellbeing’. The SAB recommended that such an action be deferred pending further refinement and empirical testing of the concept and items.

Between 2012 and 2014 ESS used its ‘innovation sample’ to field a larger set of items relating to the broad field of what was now termed ‘perceived quality of society’ (PQOS). Eric Harrison and Ana Villar drew upon the previous work to construct a ‘prototype’ module comprising 40 items culled from a variety of cross-national surveys. The module was fielded on quota sample omnibus surveys in Great Britain (2012), Poland (2013) and on a larger probability sample in Lithuania (2013). Technical reports and other documentation from the project can be found HERE.

Phase 3

In 2015 the nine items in the ESS core on ‘perceived quality of society’ were analysed as part of a wider project on multiple dimensions of wellbeing funded through the ESRC Secondary Data Analysis Initiative. The chapter on PQOS – by Eric Harrison, Rima Saini and Nadine Zwiener – is part of a report published in 2016.

Phase 4

The ESS continues to support and promote the development of indicators of societal wellbeing in cross-national research. Further testing of items was possible using the experimental CROss-National Online Survey (CRONOS) – a follow-on web panel recruited from the probability sample used for Round 8 of ESS fieldwork.

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Data on this topic

ESS ERIC reserves the right to make the relevant data sets available upon request.

Publications on this topic


Harrison, E., Quick, A., and Abdallah, S. (eds.) (2016).
Looking through the Wellbeing Kaleidoscope. London: New economics Foundation

Harrison, E. (2013).
Final Report on Indicators of Societal Wellbeing (ESS-DACE Deliverable 6.11)

Harrison, E. (2013).
Indicators of Societal Wellbeing: A Resource Package for Users (ESS-DACE Deliverable 6.7)


Harrison, E., Jowell, R., & Sibley, E. (2011).
Developing Attitudinal Indicators of Societal Progress. Ask: Research & Methods, 20 (1), 59-80