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The International Social Survey Program

Research project ISSP is an international social attitudes database covering about forty countries. Sweden has been a member of the ISSP since 1992.

The International Social Survey Program (ISSP) is a comparative project focusing on the construction and implementation of international comparative attitude studies. The database is unique: (a) data covering different topics has been collected annually since 1985, (b) more than forty countries on six continents are members of the ISSP, (c) data is freely available for the research community. Since the start in 1985, ISSP has collected data covering topics such as: the role of government, social inequality, work orientations, social networks, gender and family, religion, environment, national identity, citizenship, and sports and leisure.

Head of project

Project overview

Project period:

1992-01-01 2018-12-31


Riksbankens Jubileumsfond

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences

Research area


Project description

The International Social Survey Program (ISSP) is a comparative project with the objective to construct and perform internationally comparable surveys of adult citizens’ attitudes and values.

The comparative database is in many ways truly unique:

(a) data covering a substantial number of attitudinal areas has been collected annually since the start back in 1985,
(b) at present, more than 40 countries are members in the ISSP,
(c) for the science community, the ISSP data is available for free,
(d) each survey has a clear theoretical framework of a general character.

Due to the long-term and stable development of the ISSP, the database is now an essential part of the research community’s infrastructure. The value of preserving and updating such a long-term comparative database is of outstanding importance.

Since the ISSP is a data-collection cooperation project that presently is without parallel within the area of attitude research concerning the scope of social issues covered, the extent of countries involved, and the long-term availability of collected high-quality data, interest in the continuation of the ISSP project should be in the interest of the Swedish social research community. The data altruistic strategy (data freely available for the research community) of the ISSP has resulted in a steady growth of the use of ISSP data. In Sweden, a number of departments within the social sciences use ISSP data at present. A large number of works using ISSP data have been published, among those a number of doctoral dissertations.

The ISSP bibliography is growing rapidly, most certainly a consequence of the fact that an increasing number of researchers discover the unique research possibilities offered by the data. The latest ISSP bibliography (April, 2007) comprises 2,880 articles, reports, book chapters, and books, among which many have been published in leading journals and renowned publishers. Also when compared to other comparable databases, the ISSP stands firm. A full text search in Sociological Abstracts for the years 2004-2006 shows 44 hits for the World Values Surveys (WVS and EVS), 27 hits for the European Social Survey (ESS) and 61 hits for the ISSP. A similar search on Google Scholar for the years 2004-2006 results in 68 hits for the WVS/EVS, 146 hits for the ESS, and 301 hits for the ISSP. Although these are conservative measures of data usage, they do, however, provide a hint about the importance of ISSP vis-à-vis other comparable databases.

Another reason, both for Swedish and international social research, to maintain the Swedish membership in the ISSP, is Sweden as a theoretically interesting study-object. Due to a number of specific features – such as a large public sector, a high level of taxes and social spending, public systems of social insurance, a gender-segregated labour market in combination with a high level of female labour force participation – Sweden is comparatively different from most other OECD countries.

It has also been increasingly common to use ISSP data in undergraduate education. An international mapping done by ISSP-Canada indicates that ISSP data is used in a number of courses, such as methods and statistics, comparative social policy, and ‘cultural studies’. In addition, ISSP data is also used in student papers.

ISSP: background, member countries, and topics of the surveys

The ISSP started in the early 1980’s as cooperative project between the national surveys of four countries: Germany (West), USA, Great Britain, and Australia. Back then, researchers had started to build up comparative databanks on income distributions, social policy indicators, and social mobility, just to mention a few. However, within the field of attitude research, comparative data was largely unavailable. This in combination with a growing theoretical interest for comparative country studies, were the main reasons underlying the initiative to create the ISSP.

As shown in Table 1, the program has grown rapidly and involves at present more than 40 countries distributed on six continents. Nearly all of the large Western countries are members of the ISSP. A number of countries from Eastern Europe are also involved, as well as a number of countries in Asia and South America. From Africa there is currently only one member country: South Africa.

Because of the number and diversity of countries involved in the ISSP, a multitude of interesting dimensions are available for comparative research: e.g., between Sweden and other EU countries, between Western Europe and the countries of the New World (Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada), between Western and Eastern Europe, or between industrialized and developing countries. The ISSP thus provides great opportunities for research to compare countries that share a similar social history and structure, or compare countries that are significantly different from each other.

Table 1. ISSP member countries

Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden
*Europe (except Nordic countries)
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel
Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Canada, Mexico, Uruguay, USA, Venezuela
Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan
South Africa

Table 2. Implemented and planned ISSP surveys

1985 The Role of Government I
1986 Social Networks I
1987 Social Inequality I
1988 Family and Changing Gender Roles I
1989 Work Orientations I
1990 The Role of Government II
1991 Religion I
1992 Social Inequality II
1993 Environment I
1994 Family and Changing Gender Roles II
1995 National Identity I
1996 The Role of Government III
1997 Work Orientations II
1998 Religion II
1999 Social Inequality III
2000 Environment II
2001 Social Networks II
2002 Family and Changing Gender Roles III
2003 National Identity II
2004 Social Citizenship I
2005 Work Orientations III
2006 Role of Government IV
2007 Leisure and Sports I
2008 Religion III
2009 Social Inequality IV
2010 Environment III

As shown in Table 2, attitudes towards a variety of topics have been surveyed since 1985. Since 1990, replications of specific topic-surveys (i.e., modules) have been performed, which means that comparisons between countries, as well as over time are possible. An interesting data series concerns the Role of Government module, which contains data spanning over two decades (1985, 1990, 1996, and 2006). Since the working procedures of the ISSP suggest that modules are planned about three years in advance, it is at present not possible to determine which modules that will be surveyed 2011-2012. However, a qualified guess is that Family and Changing Gender Roles (IV) and National Identity (III) will be replicated.

Sweden joined the ISSP in 1992. During the first years the project was carried out within the framework of ‘normal’ three-year research projects. During the five-year period 1999-2003, the Swedish ISSP project was supported by a grant from the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, RJ) and the Research Council for the Social Sciences and Humanities (Humanistisk-samhällsvetenskapliga forskningsrådet, HSFR). This grant had a more long-term and infrastructural character as it mainly supported data collection and data administration.

Thanks to this change towards a more long-term project, Sweden was able to host the ISSP annual meeting, and, perhaps more important, to take substantial responsibility for the development of the ISSP. For example, Sweden acted as convenor for the drafting group (a small group of countries that have the responsibility for designing a survey) on two occasions (ISSP 2002 and 2006). Sweden is also member of the ‘Demographics Committee’ (a workgroup that continuously monitor and revise the list of compulsory background variables), and involved in a cooperative project between the data archive (ZA, University of Cologne, Germany) and a group of member countries, that aims to improve the quality of data by designing and implementing new procedures of coding and standardization. For this objective, the ISSP has developed a new computer program (the ISSP Wizard). Additionally, all member countries are obliged to document thoroughly how all background variables are constructed and coded in detail.

It should also be acknowledged that each ISSP module is grounded in a clear theoretical framework with relevance for a number of disciplines within the social sciences. Let us exemplify with an area which integrates sociology, political science, and economics – a tradition that may be denoted ‘Comparative Political Economy’. The data collected by the ISSP offers great opportunities to answer substantive research questions that have been formulated by various fractions within this field:

* The ‘Historic Institutionalism’ school, where the analytical focus is on the relationship between political institutions and patterns of political preferences and conflict lines in the electorate (Steinmo et. al. 1992; Pierson 1994; Rothstein 1998).

* The theories on Power Resources, Welfare State Regimes, Production Regimes, and Varieties of Capitalism. All of these schools have a common focus on the ways different types of welfare regimes, labour market regulations, the distribution of power between different interest groups and organizations, influence public opinion and social lines of conflict. Other relevant areas of research within this field such as labour market structures, job characteristics, and work-family conflict have also guided the design of the ISSP modules (Kitschelt et. al. 1999; O’Connor & Olsen 1998; Pierson 2001 Huber & Stephens 2001; Hollingsworth & Boyer 1997; Hall & Soskice 2001).

* Theories on Social Capital and Social Trust and their emphasis on the causes and the consequences of social networks, corruption, and social trust (Putnam 1993, 2000; Rothstein 2003).

Since the topics covered by the ISSP modules are quite diverse, the above theoretical framework serves only as one example of highlighting how substantive research questions can be empirically tested using ISSP data. For a closer view on the actual content of each survey, please see: www.issp.org/data.shtml.

ISSP: working methods and methodological difficulties

Comparative research on attitudes involves specific methodological problems. International comparisons are seldom easy; even such seemingly straight-forward concepts such as income distribution or GDP can be very difficult to compare across countries. The difficulties are of course no less significant when it comes to attitudes and values. The general aim in comparative attitude research is to maximize the probability that observed country differences reflect real differences between countries and minimize the risk that observed differences are caused by methodological artefacts. In order to produce high quality comparative data, the ISSP has implemented certain rules and standards when designing the survey. The master-questionnaire is prepared by a drafting group, which consists of six countries. In the election of these countries, a broad cultural composition of the drafting group is favoured. During the annual meeting, the drafting group’s proposition concerning the design of the module is thoroughly discussed and revised. In this process, all member countries are involved. In addition, it may be mentioned that communication between the drafting group and other member countries are encouraged during the whole process of constructing the questionnaire, not only at the annual meeting. Thus, issues about translation and the meaning/understanding of words and concepts in different contexts are openly discussed and can be dealt with at an early stage.

The construction of a questionnaire (a module) builds on previous knowledge. Whenever already collected data is available (e.g., a replication of a module, or a country-specific data-set), extensive analyzes concerned with validity and reliability are performed in order to secure that the fit between theoretical concepts and empirical indicators is satisfying. In those cases where new questions are constructed it is customary that these questions are pre-tested and analyzed before they are allowed to be part of the module.

The official language of the ISSP master-questionnaire is British English and translations to other languages are done by each national ISSP team. Apart from the attitude questions, each module contains a specific and standardized set of background variables, such as sex, age, ethnicity, occupation, labour market status, education, income, family relations, region, size of community, voting behaviour, religion, et cetera. To make the work-process transparent is a goal of the ISSP. Both in terms of translation and standardization of background variables, the ISSP is continuously improving since experiences from previous modules offer guidelines to corrective behaviour. ISSP works actively to focus on the specific problems that occur in comparative attitude research. This has resulted in a number of publications (for recent contributions, see Harkness et. al. 2003; Hoffmeyer-Zlotnik & Wolf 2003).

From a pure technical/measurement point of view, the quite extensive set of background variables are of a high quality. That means that ISSP data can be used in studies in which the attitudinal module variables are not of main interest, such as studies of social mobility, labour market characteristics, and voting behaviour, just to mention a few. In summary, compared to many other comparative attitude studies, the ISSP is truly a genuine democratic and cooperative project, from the first draft of a questionnaire, to the final deposit of the data-set.

The ISSP survey is executed as drop-offs to larger national surveys, as postal surveys, or as face-to-face interviews. The Swedish survey is a postal survey. The format has proved satisfying in terms of costs vis-à-vis quality. Previous fieldwork has been conducted by SCB and SIFO. Our experiences of working with these two institutes are very good. In order to raise the response rate in the ISSP survey, a cooperative project between SIFO and the responsible researchers was initiated in 2004. A number of implemented changes in the routines during the fieldwork process led to an increased response rate. At present, the response rate is in parity with ESS-Sweden (European Social Survey).

The data collection is done with the informed consent of the respondents. The respondents are also given the opportunity to receive information of the results of the survey. The data-set is delivered in a totally de-identified form; it is not possible to identify specific individuals in the data-set. The data is only used for research. The ethical standards that apply for this type of research are thus satisfied.

The data is deposited at the Central Archive, University of Cologne, Germany (GESIS: ZA), and is integrated in the international data-set by the ZA. A Swedish version of the data-set is deposited at the Swedish Social Science Data Service (SSD). Data is thereafter freely available for the research community and can be downloaded on-line (see zacat.gesis.org/webview/index.jsp). The rules for data deposit are severe: a country failing to deliver data within the prescribed time-limit two years in a row loses its voting rights until an adequate data-set has been delivered. The administration of the ISSP is handled by the secretariat, which is presently located at the Norwegian Social Science Data Services (NSD), at the University of Bergen, Norway. The costs for administration are paid by the NSD. Similarly, the costs for integrating the national data-sets into one international file are paid by the ZA. There is no common ISSP-budget/funding; costs associated with data collections and travelling are paid by each national team.

ISSP: a common resource for the Swedish Social Sciences

The Department of Sociology has a growing and productive research environment concentrating on values and attitudes in comparative perspective. Recent research where ISSP-data is the principal empirical source embraces the following areas:

* welfare policy and tax systems,
* class-structures and class identity,
* political preferences and trust,
* work, job characteristics, organizations, and unemployment,
* national identity, integration and migration,
* family and gender regimes.

The research environment has also benefited greatly from a research programme involving the Department of Sociology, Umeå University and the Department of Political Science, Göteborg University: The Political Sociology of the Welfare State: Institutions, Social Cleavages, and Orientations (financed by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation (RJ) and the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research (FAS)).

The general question that the Umeå-based researchers attempt to answer with the use of ISSP-data is how national institutions and traditions contribute to structure public opinions. A main focus within the comparative tradition of sociology and political science is to explore how different institutional arrangements influence group-based interests and attitudes (Kitschelt et. al. 1999; O’Connor & Olsen 1998; Pierson 2001; Rothstein 1998; Steinmo et. al. 1992). The various social attitudes that individuals or groups develop are not automatically determined by their socio-structural positions. These attitudes are also products of the traditions and institutions that have been established within the society where they live. Answers to normative questions such as how things should be or not be, or the appropriate solution to a given social problem, are influenced by national institutions.

A fruitful avenue for empirical investigation of such issues is comparative research. With a comparative perspective it is possible to determine whether an attitudinal pattern is unique for a certain country, or whether the observed attitude pattern is a general one that can be found in other countries as well. Explanations of cross-national differences may fruitfully be linked to the institutional configurations that have emerged in different countries. By comparing countries, the scientific knowledge of one’s own country is also increased. The characteristics of the Swedish society can only be determined by comparative analysis involving other countries that may be different or similar to Sweden in different respects. A central ambition of comparative research is to search for and establish which mechanisms that are fundamental in the attitude formation process. How do different social and political cleavages affect attitudinal patterns? In what ways do institutions influence and structure attitudes? Because of the large number of countries involved, the variety of social issues that are covered, and the replication over time of modules, the data provided by the ISSP offers great opportunities for research to come up with qualified answers to both of the above questions.


Finally, let us highlight the central arguments for a continuing cooperation within the ISSP:

* ISSP-data has been used to illuminate research questions derived from several theoretically informed research traditions.

* ISSP has surveyed a number of modules covering a broad spectrum of attitudes. Each module concentrates on a theoretically derived specific topic and contains a quite large number of items. The ISSP approach is to be both broad and deep.

* Because the ISSP embraces countries outside Europe and the Western socio-economic sphere, it is possible to compare countries which are similar to each other, and countries that are substantially different from each other.

* ISSP has an extensive list of compulsory background variables in each module. Analyses of ISSP data can therefore contribute to the knowledge about central social stratification patterns in contemporary industrial societies across different attitudinal domains.

* Data is free of charge for the research community and can be downloaded on-line. The open strategy of the ISSP has led to a rapid increase of users and publications using ISSP data. Severe rules for data deposit suggest that newly collected data is released within a relatively short period of time. The open strategy is also good from an ethical point of view; other researchers can easily re-analyze the data and check results. Morevover, the cost/benefit ratio is likely to be more favourable in data altruistic projects such as the ISSP compared to projects where the data is primarily used by the researchers that initially collected the data.

* A final advantage of the ISSP is the increasing opportunities to make cross-country comparisons over time. At present, certain attitudes can be followed over two decades.

Compared to other international projects, the ISSP appears to be the most comprehensive regarding the combination of participating countries, attitudinal modules, and available over time data. It is therefore of outstanding importance for the Swedish social sciences that the Swedish membership in the ISSP can be maintained.


Hall, Peter A. & David Soskice (2001) ‘An Introduction to the Varieties of Capitalism’ in Hall, Peter A. & David Soskice (eds.) Varieties of Capitalism. The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage. Oxford/New York; Oxford University Press.

Harkness, J. A., van de Vijver, F. J. R., Mohler, P. Ph. (2003) (eds.), Cross-Cultural Survey Methods. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Hoffmeyer-Zlotnik, J. and Wolf, C. (2003) (eds.), Advances in Cross-National Comparison: A European Working Book for Demographic and Socio-Economic Variables. New York: Kluwer & Plenum.

Hollingsworth J R & R Boyer (1997) Contemporary Capitalism. The Embeddedness of Institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Huber E & J D Stephens (2001) Development and Crisis of the Welfare State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kitschelt, H; P Lange; G Marks & J D Stephens (red) (1999) Continuity and Change in Contemporary Capitalism. Cambridge University Press.

O’Connor, J S & Olsen, G M (eds.) (1998) Power Resources Theory and the Welfare State. Toronto: Toronto University Press.

Pierson P (1994) Dismantling the Welfare State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pierson, P (ed.) (2001) The New Politics of the Welfare State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Putnam, R. D. (1993) Making Democracy Work. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Rothstein, B (1998) Just Institutions Matter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rothstein, Bo & Sven Steinmo (Red) (2002) Restructuring Politics. Institutional Analysis and Challenges of the Welfare State. New York: Palgrave.

Rothstein, B. (2003) Sociala fällor och tillitens problem. Stockholm: SNS.

Smith, T (2007) The 2007 ISSP Bibliography: A Report. NORC: University of Chicago.

Steinmo, S; K Thelen & F Longstreth (eds.) (1992) Structuring Politics. Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Latest update: 2018-11-15