The Institute for Advanced Study of Social Change (IASSC) was set up within the University of Milano-Bicocca’s Department of Sociology and Social Research on 16 January 2019. The institute is financed thanks to Department of Excellence funding, in accordance with Law 232 of 2016 (Budget Law 2017).
The key objective of the IASSC is to create an Observatory on Social Change. More specifically, the institute intends to:
Contemporary society is witnessing profound social, economic, cultural, political and environmental changes, caused predominantly by processes of globalisation and changes to the previous geopolitical order, shifts that have triggered transformations on local levels. The pace of change requires us to use increasingly complex, integrated analytical tools.
As such, it is important for social sciences to use new methods – including longitudinal quantitative and qualitative surveys – to monitor the strategies people yet to adapt to the emergence of a range of issues.
Within the context of these objectives, the IASSC has great potential when it comes to the implementation of knowledge that aims to improve wellbeing within Italian society, acting as a key player in monitoring changes on both micro and macro levels. By drawing on the Department of Sociology and Social Research’s current network of relations with the media, public bodies, the tertiary sector and civil society, the IASSC will be able to serve as an important hub and play a key role in devising and assessing public policies designed to tackle the main problems deriving from social changes. In terms of benchmarking, the IASSC provides Italy with an important and – at present – unique opportunity for comparison with other international experiences in the same fields.
In order to achieve these goals, the IASSC aims to launch a series of activities, as listed below:
1. ITA.LI – Italian Lives longitudinal quantitative and qualitative survey
The ITA.LI – Italian Lives longitudinal quantitative and qualitative survey aims to examine the lives of a sample of individuals by interviewing them repeatedly, at regular intervals (panel samples). There are two main advantages of panel surveys. First of all, tracking the same individuals over a period of time allows us to describe the dynamics of social changes not just on a macro, aggregate level, which is common practice when comparing the results of surveys conducted in different years and on different individuals, but also on a micro, individual level, enabling us to take full advantage of this type of approach. Secondly, panel surveys are the only kind of observational survey which, in certain circumstances, allow us to establish the correct chronological order of events and thus enable us to look at events of interest and how these influence and cause each other. This double advantage not only equates to a better scientific understanding of social change, but also makes it possible to plan more effective social policies. More specifically, longitudinal qualitative surveys allow us to link three different timescales: biographical, generational and social. By reflecting on the three sides of the experience (micro-, meso- and macro-sociological), we have the opportunity to analyse and study the relationships between the individual and collective dimensions of processes of social change, highlighting the analytical inseparability of individuals and society.
The particularly innovative part of the project is the fact that the quantitative and qualitative approaches are closely integrated. Ensuring dialogue between these two approaches can make a significant contribution to our understanding of the complex dynamics of social change. Integration begins at the data collection phase, given that the qualitative sample will be defined and constructed from within the larger quantitative sample. Subsequently, during the analysis phase, the availability of the qualitative data referred to above will enable us to deliver a comprehensive study of the dynamics of social change by delving deeper into some of the significant transformations – in terms of culture and experience – which accompany the dynamics of change in modern life. The body of data obtained through this integrated approach will enable primary and secondary analyses capable of giving visibility to the Department of Sociology and Social Research (DSRS) and make it an example of excellence on the national and international levels – not just immediately, but in the medium-to-long term. One aspect of particular importance is the possibility to provide local context to dynamics that emerge, including through the use of oversampling. The local dimension will sit across the various subjects of the project, with a particular focus on analysis of social changes on various different scales.
1.1. Longitudinal quantitative survey
The first part of the process is a panel survey based on some of the best international experience in the field, such as Understanding Society (UK), German Socio-Economic Panel, Swiss Household Panel, Panel Study of Income Dynamics (USA), Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia; Survey of Family, Income, and Employment (New Zealand). The project includes the completion of a multi-stage prospective sample survey, with the first stage consisting of a retrospective survey. With funding in place for five years, the research project will feature three surveys carried out on an annual basis.
The first survey will be retrospective and is thus designed to gather comprehensive basic information on the interviewees and their current behaviour and attitudes, as well as gauging their life stories (from birth to the time of the interview) across four main areas: residence, education, work and family. In the subsequent surveys, the life stories will be updated to reflect any changes that have happened in the two preceding years. New information will also be collected on specific areas of interest indicated by Department members.
As part of the project, the information collected through the sample survey will be used in two ways that continue to be unusual in Italy. On the one hand, the residential stories of the interviewees will be geo-referenced, in order to position entire individual and family life stories within social and geographical contexts with a high level of detail. On the other hand, the project will explore the possibility of linking the sample data with information contained in administrative databases (such as the archives of the INPS, INAIL, Bank of Italy, National Health Service, etc) in order to pool information that is generally only available separately. The IASSC’s collaboration with ISTAT will be of particular importance.
More specifically, the longitudinal quantitative survey requires extensive work in terms of gathering data on a national scale. The first survey requires the team to contact families, gauge their availability and interview them personally using CAPI technology (sample size of 5,000 families, equating to around 11,000 individuals). For the subsequent surveys, the project will use mixed survey techniques with a focus on web-based interviews (CAWI), together with telephone interviews (CATI) and personal interviews (CAPI). The project will also provide an opportunity to test new survey techniques on certain population samples, using smartphones equipped with specific software.
1.2. Longitudinal qualitative survey
The second, qualitative survey is based on the most interesting international longitudinal research projects, such as Timescape, coordinated by Bren Neale (University of Leeds, 2007-2012), Inventing adulthoods (1996-2005), coordinated by Rachel Thomson and Janet Holland (University of Sussex and LSBU), Making sense of Motherhood (2005) and Making Sense of Fatherhood (2010), both coordinated by Tina Miller (Oxford University).
The aim of this part of the research is to collate stories capable of shining a light on processes of transformation within lives, with a particular focus on changes to stages of lives and the transitions that accompany them (transition to adulthood, transition to old age, etc), together with biographical projects designed to document these. Another specific focus area of the research project – in accordance with national and international traditions – will be the changes currently affecting family dynamics, with a particular onus on the transition to parenthood and inter-generational care (children and the elderly). The research will look at the ways in which men and women tackle this important existential and social stage, the similarities and differences between how different genders to this and an in-depth look at the identity constructs that accompany these. The Interuniversity Research Centre on Gender Cultures will play an active role in the project. Part of the longitudinal qualitative survey may focus on changes to the meaning given to work and the direction of actions connected with these meanings. Over the course of the five-year funding period, the research project will feature three surveys running in parallel to the quantitative survey.
More specifically, the collation of data will include narrative interviews, focus groups and – running parallel to this – visual techniques (where narrations are accompanied by video recordings), showcasing methodological innovation in the field of longitudinal surveys. The number of testimonies gathered in the first wave will be between a minimum of 90 and a maximum of 100. The data gathered will be analysed using qualitative data analysis software (Atlas.ti or NVivo). The definition of a protocol for data archiving will ensure continuity in the storage and provision of data gathered by future research projects.
2. Integrated database
The completion of longitudinal quantitative and qualitative research is designed to create the nucleus of a dynamic database on social change. The data added to the archive will be integrated with existing resources within the Department, such as the UniData Centre, which gathers aggregated and individual socio-economic statistical data but does not currently hold longitudinal data. UniData is also a well-integrated part of international networks such as the Consortium of European Social Sciences Data Archive (CESSDA) and will be able to effectively promote the internationalisation of the project. More specifically, this will allow the Department to become a leading archive of longitudinal quantitative and qualitative data in Italy. Following the example of the University of Essex’s UK Data Archive, the Department will be able to develop the expertise necessary to archive longitudinal qualitative data and ensure that this can be reused for secondary analyses.