The public perceptions of threat in Britain: Security in an age of austerity

Professor Daniel Stevens

This project aimed to investigate how members of the British public perceive and respond to multiple, simultaneous security threats as outlined in the 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS).

The study explored the extent to which government representations of threats are understood and shared by the public, considered perceptions of security threats among the British public as a whole, and explored variation by age, life stage, sex, class, region and faith.

The project used both qualitative and quantitative methods, including mini-focus groups and an online survey that encompassed 2004 respondents including a booster sample of 250 British Muslims.

Ethical process

The proposed research - including moderator’s guide, survey, the process of obtaining informed consent and how data would be stored - was approved by the host research organisations’ Ethics Review Board. Two very experienced research organisations were involved with conducting the research and in developing the focus group and survey materials: a social research field agency (TNS-BMRB) for the qualitative component and ICM Unlimited for the survey.

Thus, discussion of how to tackle what were sometimes potentially sensitive topics was an ongoing process in the development of the materials in the first stage of the project. The field agency recommended that the composition of the focus groups be exclusively young people and homogeneous rather than mixed groups in some cases, as they expected participants to be more forthcoming and less likely to feel stress or discomfort discussing personal issues, for example for Muslim or Sikh groups.

We followed the guidelines on the UK Data Service’s website regarding informed consent because we wanted to guarantee we were able to deposit data to enable it to be shared by other users. The consent we obtained from focus group participants, for example, was (necessarily) more detailed than the informed consent field agencies would usually require from respondents.

An information sheet, explaining the project and its aims in everyday language, was made available to all participants together with a consent form. In the event of any participants showing signs of distress we planned to terminate discussions. All participants were informed that they could withdraw at any time and reassured that any information they gave would be fully anonymised in order to protect their identity throughout the duration of the research and beyond.

All participants were invited to ask questions about the project and many of them did, which led to in-depth and productive deliberations about the use of mini-group discussion in the NSS review, highlighting the possibility for future consultation with citizens at a local level. Evidence based on our research was submitted to the NSS Joint Committee. Our research has also informed debates about the future of UK security policy among civil society groups.

Ultimately, no ethical issues arose in the actual conduct of the research. However, to make the focus group transcripts publicly available further anonymisation was required to remove any references to individuals’ names or to specific places. Serial numbers were used and in published work we adopted pseudonyms when quoting directly from the data. Third parties were made aware of and complied with our ethics policies. The survey data were anonymised from the outset and presented no issues.

Lessons

Ethics considerations require continuous attention - they do not end with approval from your Ethics Review Board, as illustrated by the need to go through the focus group transcripts prior to deposit.

The main lesson from our research concerns the need to recognise that, when working in partnership you should not rely on standard informed consent protocols used for example by field agencies. Depending on the nature of the research these may need to be adjusted, particularly in facilitating depositing of data with the UK Data Service (UKDS). The UKDS website is a very useful guide.