Longitudinal data series enables research on trends

This article was published in Finnish in the latest issue of the FSD Bulletin (1/2019).

In September 2018, FSD issued its Data Management Award 2018 to the research group who collected the data for the survey series Consumer Habits and Lifestyle in Finland. The data collection has been a collaborative project mainly between the departments of Sociology and Economic Sociology at the University of Turku, with a collection every five years between 1999 and 2014. The fifth collection round, taking place in 2019, will enable analysis of changes in Finnish consumer habits and attitudes over the last 20 years.

The first study in the series, Finland 1999: Consumer Habits and Lifestyle, focused on post-recession Finland and examined the interviewees’ subjective attitudes towards consumerism and lifestyle. Pekka Räsänen, currently professor of economic sociology at the University of Turku, used this dataset for his doctoral dissertation. His research group was honoured with FSD’s Data Management Award, and Räsänen accepted the award on behalf of the group in the Aila seminar held in Tampere in September.

After the first study, Räsänen has led the data collection for the Consumer Habits and Lifestyle in Finland data series. He comments that the idea for repeating the survey every five years came from a desire to study how trends and phenomena change over time.

Pekka Räsänen accepts FSD's Data Management Award
Professor Pekka Räsänen accepted FSD's Data Management Award on behalf of the Consumer Habits and Lifestyle in Finland research team.

“The 2000s started with a theoretical trend which claimed that consumerism has evolved into choices of the individual and that people build their identities and lifestyles with clothes and other material possessions. They didn’t believe that values or social structures would still affect consumer behaviour.”

“Well, these surveys point out that factors which depend on occupation, education and situation in life, among other things, continue to define people’s behaviour as well as consumer habits. Actually, no radical change has taken place regarding this despite claims to the contrary,” Räsänen comments.

Data series reveal lifestyle trends

“During this millennium, consumerism has evolved more into seeking different experiences. We can see, for instance, that the ageing population has adopted a renewed social activity which resembles the values and attitudes of the working age population. The younger generations have witnessed changes in the way that life’s transition phases are timed. It is possible to observe these phenomena with longitudinal data,” Räsänen describes the benefits of surveys conducted at regular intervals.

“In effect, the use of technology has skyrocketed in ten years, as well as disparity regarding technology. Internet technology has impacted not only our work but also every other aspect of our lives. It has changed our media behaviour and leisure time altogether.”

“Traditional classifications in surveys charting mass media use – regarding whether respondents read magazines, watch television and so forth – have become a little outdated and problematic. Television viewing has traditionally been the biggest leisure time category in Finland – and it continues to be. However, it is no longer simple to determine because so much of the viewing happens on the Internet.”

“Another big change can be seen in people’s social reference groups, such as family, friends and work. Alongside these traditional groups, we can now identify new groups on social media and elsewhere on the Internet.”

“A single cross-sectional survey does not allow for finding these types of changes that affect our everyday lives, but a longitudinal survey series offers comparative information for observing social phenomena,” Räsänen remarks.

“Of course, a long time series causes some problems as well, as phenomena evolve in the world. Problems with outdated terms or the need to modify classifications are inevitable in these types of surveys. The data still have to be comparable, so basic questions are not altered. On the other hand, we try to come up with new themes for each study to keep up with the times.”

Surveys still at the heart of social scientific research

The Consumer Habits and Lifestyle in Finland surveys are traditional general population surveys including persons aged 18–74. Data are collected based on a random sample picked from the population register. The upper age limit may be raised for the next survey, but there are no other changes planned regarding data collection.

Räsänen emphasises that general population surveys that are representative of the population can only be conducted with the help of population registers. The social sciences are not interested in individuals as such, but rather more generally in people’s values and attitudes and how population groups work in relation with one another. Scientific criteria require that the sample be representative of the general population to be able to give meaningful data.

“Even if we used massive amounts of follow-up data, big data and register data collected on large groups of people with all sorts of devices, quantity does not guarantee the representativeness of the results at the population level. It might be that in crucial situations people leave the devices at home or use another application – and not everyone is present in the digital world,” Räsänen remarks.

“Surveys are still the most important data collection method in the social sciences, but, in addition to the paper questionnaire, this study also utilises an electronic questionnaire that can be filled out online or on a mobile device.”

Consumer Habits and Lifestyle in Finland

  • The Consumer Habits and Lifestyle in Finland data series were collected as a collaborative project of the University of Turku and Turku School of Economics for the first two survey rounds. More recent datasets in the series have been collected in the department of Economic Sociology at the University of Turku in cooperation with departments of Sociology at the University of Turku and the University of Jyväskylä.
  • Research team: Pekka Räsänen, Jani Erola, Terhi-Anna Wilska, Timo Toivonen, Aki Koivula, Outi Sarpila.
  • Four data collection rounds in 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014.
  • Respondents were 2,500–6,000 individuals living in Finland, selected from the population register using random sampling.
  • The data were collected using a mail-in questionnaire which the respondents could also choose to fill out online in 2009 and 2014.
  • The response rate has varied between 46–61.8 percent.

Non-response a challenge for research

One common challenge for all survey studies in the 2000s has been the decreasing response rates, which shows in this series as well. Non-response distributes unevenly, but usually those under-represented include young persons, especially men under 45 years old, whereas 55–74-year-olds are often over-represented. For now, the representativeness of studies can be ensured by correcting distortions with different weighting coefficients.

“Culturally and socially this kind of decrease in the appreciation of academic research has been quite swift. The trend has been identifiable in the last ten to fifteen years, which is approximately the same time as the use of technology has increased. However, technology is not the challenge, but rather all that technology has brought with it. This perpetual data collection, filling out forms, responding to questionnaires, advertising all around us – it has increased enormously. Everyone has experienced it in their own email inbox and social media.”

Another challenge is that Räsänen’s study series charting consumer behaviour operates in the same consumer field as marketing surveys that have also increased significantly.

“Academic research should be able to separate itself more clearly from marketing research, but as to how, we do not know. We would have to be able to convince people that they actually benefit from the research. Then again, survey research is not research of the individual but research of the population, in which the individual does not matter much. It is quite a challenge,” Räsänen ponders.

“And we cannot start to reward people for responding. We cannot afford it, and it, too, skews results.”

New ways for presenting scientific information

Räsänen is of the opinion that promoting the appreciation of research could be a job for the university as well. In view of the future of scientific research, how the information gained from research is shared outside of the academic world is a relevant issue.

“Articles and books are starting to become an outdated publishing medium in today’s world, especially in regard to the younger generations. We need to have alternative channels for presenting research results. One way could be videos of suitable length presenting research results, and even social media could be utilised.”

“The point is not to make everyone interested in research results but as many as possible so that survey response rates would remain reliable.”

“FSD offers a reliable infrastructure for opening research data”

Archiving the Consumer Habits and Lifestyle in Finland data series at the Finnish Social Science Data Archive has benefited researchers in many ways, according to Räsänen.

“The basic principle is that we want to give these data for the use of the academic community because they have been collected with public funding. As a researcher, I have found the archiving process effortless. FSD’s practices for data reuse are well thought out: the depositor can choose how quickly the data become available for reuse, they offer a model for bibliographic citations, and publications that have used the deposited data are recorded, so that it is easy for researchers to get credit for their work.”

Aila Data Service contains bibliographic information of over one hundred scientific publications that have used the data of the study series. Pekka Räsänen eagerly awaits possible new foreign contacts because all datasets in FSD holdings are now also presented in CESSDA’s new international data catalogue.

“Such an extensive set of data may end up being under-utilised, which is why I hope that international reusers can also find the data through FSD. The group of researchers in our field is comparatively small in Finland, but internationally there are much more potential reusers. In addition, different types of international comparative research are conducted increasingly; in that sense, these data can also serve researchers outside of Finland’s borders,” Räsänen envisions.

Text and photo: Eija Savolainen

Data Management Award

FSD’s Data Management Award honours a person, research group or organisation that has exhibited exemplary data management during the whole lifecycle of the research data. The award was first issued in 2014 to honour FSD’s 15 years in operation.

2014postdoctoral researcher, D.A. Michail Galanakis
2015research director Janne Kivivuori
2016Adjunct Research Professor Pasi Moisio
Honourable mention: researcher Josefina Sipinen
2018Consumer Habits and Lifestyle in Finland research group