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Social Research

Features

I’ve worked in Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute (SRI) for six years, after a brief spell in operations. I felt that working on the research side better suited my skill set, such as it is, and I’ve been here ever since.

The first thing that struck me back when I joined the division was its size; SRI grew massively over the course of the last Labour government and now employs around 150 staff, with offices in London, Manchester, Belfast and Edinburgh. The public still tends to know us from our political polling (a “MORI poll”) but in fact that constitutes a very small proportion of our revenue. The work that we do here is quite diverse – for example from small qualitative stakeholder studies for housing associations to large pre-selected face-to-face interviews surveys for government departments.

Our work is divided into different business areas largely mirroring the various Whitehall departments (for example, crime, central government, and environment) and there is the opportunity for new starters to get experience across them, though some areas have seen some decreases in workload in recent years. Alternatively, some people prefer to focus on a methodology rather than one particular business area – in my case, qualitative research (though I do know my way around a set of tables if called upon). Researchers at all levels are involved, in different ways, though, like any organisation, you will tend to focus more on the commercial side of the business as you progress in your career and are more likely to gravitate towards a particular policy area.

"People who join remark on how much of a young company we are, with the majority of employees in their 20s or 30s. It’s also worth pointing out that staff across the business are given a range of interesting opportunities if they choose to pursue them. For example you don’t have to be above a certain age or above a certain grade to appear on the BBC News Channel – if you want to do it – and demonstrate an aptitude – then you can! Since I’ve been here, I’ve presented to Harriet Harman in her office, run workshops on the west coast of Scotland, interviewed Evan Davis and Polly Toynbee, and abseiled down the Shard.*"
* One of these may be untrue.
 Jerry Latter, Ipsos MORI



Most of the work we do is ad-hoc, which means that a client, commonly working in central or local government, will send out a tender outlining what their research needs are, and inviting agencies to tender. We’ll put together a proposal outlining how we would approach the work, along with how much it would cost and, bluntly, why they should pick us over other agencies. If the project is a one-off commission then, when the project is over, we might not hear from the client again, so it is particularly important for us to continue to “tree-shake” in quiet periods, and remind previous clients that we are still around if they need us. I get the impression this differs from private sector research, where there are large-scale tracking surveys over longer timescales with researchers looking after key client accounts.

It’s difficult to say what skills are useful for a career in social research – like many jobs, organisational skills are important, and much of the work we do here can be quite process-driven. But if there’s one key ingredient it’s perhaps curiosity – an interest in society and how things are run, as well as a keenness to learn more about why people feel and behave in the way they do and what drives those opinions and behaviours. What we are in essence is a public opinion research company, and those opinions are what keeps our wheels turning, so the more we are able to better explain where they are coming from, the more we are able to add context to what people tell us. Interpersonal skills are important too, and fundamental if you are interested in doing qualitative research.

In my mind, these sorts of personality traits are more important that what degree an applicant pursued. There are people who find their way here from a wide range of academic backgrounds – and there are as many from arts as there are from science backgrounds, as well as a significant chunk of people with social science and social research methods qualifications.

One thing that was discussed at the MRS conference session on the retention of talent was the number of people (myself included) who find themselves in the research profession through default rather than decision. Delegates were unsure about why this was, but there was agreement that the industry needs to better establish itself on the milk round, in order to attract a good range of applicants. I suspect this may be less true with social research, where new starters talk of a genuine zeal to work here and immerse themselves in the policy issues of the day, though I also think that many might be put off from applying by the relative lack of glamour in the profession.

However, I think we should encourage more diversity where we can- it’s important for us to be able to appeal to applicants from beyond the boundaries of those who might identify with the work that we do, and the huge diversity of the work we do here really necessitates as diverse an employee base as possible. As an industry, we should be thinking perhaps beyond a tokenistic approach to equal opportunities whilst ensuring that we recruit and retain both a high level of talent and a committed workforce.

Article provided by Jerry Latter, Ipsos MORI

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