What is social science?


Quantitative research

Quantitative research can measure and describe whole societies, or institutions, organisations or groups of individuals that are part of them. The strength of quantitative methods is that they can provide vital information about a society or community, through surveys, examinations, records or censuses, that no individual could obtain by observation.

Quantitative methodologies

Some of the most common quantitative research methodologies are described here. These methodologies are widely used in research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Cross-sectional studies

Cross-sectional studies are surveys undertaken at one point in time, rather like a photo taken by a camera. If the same or similar survey is repeated, we can get good measures of how society is changing.

Longitudinal studies

Longitudinal studies follow the same respondents over an extended period of time. They can employ both qualitative and quantitative research methods, and they follow the same group of people over time. For example, the Millennium Cohort Study has been keeping track of more than 11,000 children born between 2000 and 2002. Some of its many findings have shown how childhood factors such as poverty and birth weight can affect health and success at school as children get older.

Opinion polls

An opinion poll is a form of survey designed to measure the opinions of a target population about an issue, such as support for political parties and views about crime and justice, the economy or the environment.


Questionnaires collect data in a standardised way, so that useful summaries can be made about large groups of respondents, such as the proportion of all young people of a given age who are bullied. Usually most questions are ‘closed response’, where respondents are given a range of options to choose from. Researchers have to be careful that the questions are not ‘leading’, that the options are comprehensive (they cover every possible answer) and are mutually exclusive, so that only one answer is correct for any respondent.

Social attitude surveys

Social attitude surveys ask more general questions about beliefs and behaviour, for example, how often people go to church, how much trust they have in the police force,  whether they think children need a strict upbringing, how content they are with their life, how often they see other family members, and whether they are in employment.

Surveys and censuses

A census is a survey of everyone in the population. Because of the vast number of respondents, they are very expensive to organise. Governments now depend much more on sample surveys and administrative records, for example those created by a stay in hospital or tax returns. Surveys use a questionnaire to investigate respondents in a sample. Samples are chosen in such a way that they can represent a much larger population. A precise calculation can be made of how accurate the information from any sample is likely to be.

Further information

See our social science for schools resource page on the UK Government Web Archive for more information on social science methodologies.

Last updated: 31 March 2022

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