The Research Centre for Micro-Social Change (MiSoC)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Essex
Department Name: Inst for Social and Economic Research

Abstract

Changes to our society are being driven by both long-term social and economic trends, and the impacts of recession and austerity. Five social trends drive the new research programme of the Research Centre on Micro-Social Change (MiSoC): i) new features of the job market that are changing the fortunes of different groups of people; ii) changing family set-up and relationships; iii) reform of and cut-backs in the provision of housing, education, health, and benefits; iv) breaking down of social and political beliefs, and increasing ethnic and religious diversity; v) changes in our values to be more accepting of personal freedom and more tolerant of inequality. Of course, modern societies are always changing, but the next decade poses new challenges. Recession, austerity and the patchy nature of the recovery mean things looks bleak for many. Ties between family, friends and neighbours, weakening as the UK grew richer and as individuals became more mobile, have been put under further stress by hard times.

Our new research programme continues to point to ways in which society can continue to integrate people with diverse backgrounds, preferences and abilities. The research will be led by a team of experts at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex, with collaborators across the UK and in other countries, directed jointly by Mike Brewer.

Our work covers three main areas: The first area examines how individuals and families are affected by and react to changes in their life circumstances, including shocks to their health, disability, income and living arrangements. Our researchers will pay special attention to the way that new welfare systems, such as changes to benefits, protect households. We will be making a major contribution to important debates on poverty by advancing new ways of measuring poverty, and with new evidence on the dynamics of poverty.

The second investigates how new members of society - children, young people and new migrants -develop and are integrated into it. We will analyse how parents, school, peers and society interact to influence the development of children's mental, social and physical skills, and the long-term consequences of childhood disadvantage. We will also look at how some people get more out of gaining a university degree than others. We will provide new evidence on the integration of ethnic minorities, and how this varies across individuals. We will look at the experience of new migrants, and how characteristics and behaviours are passed between generations in migrant families.

The third area of research investigates how values, attitudes, expectations, tastes or preferences and identity are formed, and how they are linked to our education, employment and family set-up. A better understanding of this will help policy-makers come up with the best policies to help more people live successful, happy lives.

How we research the important issues facing society today is just as important as the research itself, so our integrated programme of methodological work will help researchers to better examine the impact of specific policies, and to advise on new ways to handle the sometimes incomplete information which comes from survey data they are using in their research.

This research will benefit a wide range of organisations involved in policy debates, policy design and practice, in a range of domains, located in the UK and other countries, and provide evidence informing key policy choices, such as the balance between intervening late or early in children's lives, the role of family and wider society in an individual's development, the choice between universal or targeted support or safety nets for the vulnerable, and the relative roles of values, expectations and preferences versus structure in determining how we act.

Planned Impact

The aim of MiSoC's research programme is to examine how society as a collective enterprise can be maintained under new pressures and social changes. Our research is critical to understanding the social distribution of life chances, through the analysis of inter-generational transmission from parents to children within the family, the evolution of human and social capital over the life course, and the processes that generate and maintain social inequalities. It also has considerable implications for governments, through the design of the institutions of the welfare state, considered broadly, and the ongoing development of the Industrial Strategy. It is directly relevant to the ESRC's research priorities of productivity (heavily influenced by the accumulation of skills amongst young adults); mental health; housing; and health and social care.

We know that our research is of interest and will benefit many different types of users: organisations in local, central and the devolved UK governments; other public sector bodies; politicians and officials in the Houses of Parliament and their equivalents in the devolved nations; foreign governments and international organisations; research foundations; organisations participating in public policy debates; commercial organisations and third-sector service providers; the education sector; the media; and the public. (The Pathways to Impact statement discusses how we interact with these different audiences and lists some specific organisations we will work with.)

Specifically:
Strand I will benefit users involved in making or analysing policy on economic inequalities, health inequalities, housing policy, the design of the welfare state, employment and welfare-to-work policy, poverty dynamics, saving for retirement, labour supply and economic performance, and support for disabled people, and private sector and not-for-profit organisations involved in welfare-to-work programmes, training, the provision of social care, and private sector insurance companies.

Strand II will provide evidence on the relative role in the development of children played by parents, siblings and peers, and state institutions, useful to policy-makers and practitioners in the area of education, parenting, children and youth services and the transmission of social advantage. It will consider the role of mental health (of mothers, and adolescents) as a shift factor that may hamper skill acquisition; the role of social networks in the development of skills; and both short and long-term impacts of investments made by parents, children, and institutions. It will inform policy on the development of young people's skills (critical to the long-term success of the Industrial Strategy). It will generate concrete policy recommendations on how to promote children's acquisition of skills. It will be of interest to educators in schools, colleges and universities, and policy-makers in these areas.

Analysis of integration amongst minorities will inform policy-makers interested in equalities and social cohesion. Evidence on the longitudinal experience of new migrants, and the way behaviours are passed between generations, will benefit those setting policy relating to migration, those debating the causes and consequences of migration, and practitioners working with migrant families.

Strand III, understanding how values, attitudes, tastes, expectations and identity are formed and their role in motivating decisions, will be of use to those devising policy or designing interventions in any of the substantive areas that we examine.
Our cross-cutting work on methods will be of direct benefit to researchers outside academia, and of indirect benefit to those using evidence in policy-making, or eventually affected by better-informed policy design..

Publications

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