Dr Nikhil Sengupta is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Psychology and Public Policy Research Unit (PSYPOL) in the School of Psychology. He is known for his use of large-scale longitudinal surveys in several countries to investigate people’s attitudes towards the society in which they live, how these attitudes develop and change over time, and how they motivate social and political behaviour. His latest project, funded by a €2.47 million European Research Council Starting Grant, is exploring UK public opinion at a time of major societal change in the UK.
How is your research informing societal and political debate in the UK?
The UK is currently going through a period of social change, which brings a lot of uncertainty. This is not just because of Brexit, but also shifts in demographics, political alliances, and the changing needs of citizens. At a time like this, it is crucial to understand how the views of the population on key social issues are changing, what people want from their leaders and social institutions, and how those desires can be translated into policy. This cannot be done without asking people about their attitudes and opinions on a large scale, as well as understanding the priorities and concerns of the next generation of voters.
This is what I aim to achieve through my current project. My 5-year survey of UK social and political attitudes and behaviours is the largest and most ambitious of its kind, with a representative sample size of around 50,000 people. The findings will provide a wealth of information for both policymakers and the general public, by revealing what people across the UK think about the most pressing issues in society today – things like immigration, inequality and our relationships with other countries.
How does your current survey stand out from others before it?
ERC Starting Grants are only awarded to the most ground-breaking and ambitious research projects. What makes this survey different from one-shot opinion polls is that it aims to track the same people annually over many years. It also covers a much broader scope of people’s experiences and opinions than typical polls. There are very few such longitudinal studies worldwide, which are especially useful during times of major societal change.
What is it that first inspired you to pursue this area of research?
During my PhD at the University of Auckland, I worked on the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS), a unique large-scale survey of around 30,000 New Zealanders. It has tracked changes in people’s attitudes, beliefs and well-being and other indicators over a 14-year period. The NZAVS has been made an enormous contribution to New Zealand society. For instance, it has helped us understand how people cope with major natural disasters like the Chirstchurch earthquakes, how the whole population coped psychologically during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The NZAVS shows the huge benefit of a psychology-focused longitudinal survey and how informative it can be for a country. It sparked my interest in how society affects individuals -in terms of things like inequality, diversity, deprivation- and how individuals in turn affect society through who they vote for, what kinds of policies they support, and the issues that they protest about.
What does the data from longitudinal studies like these tell us about societal inequalities?
In large-scale surveys, you see that people state a preference for living in more equal societies. Despite this consensus, many measures designed to tackle inequality still remain politically unpopular and don’t gain the traction needed to be implemented.
This means that it is important to understand the psychological reasons why people’s support for the principle of equality does not always translate into positive social change. I have used advanced statistical techniques to analyse data from nationally representative longitudinal surveys in several countries, including New Zealand, India, the UK and the USA, to help us understand how inequality is produced, maintained and challenged. In one line of work, I have examined the consequences of inequality for people’s wellbeing and the types of socio-political ideologies people use to make sense of inequality. In another line of work, I investigated how contact between and within social groups affect attitudes towards inequality.
Dr Nikhil Sengupta has published his research in several high-profile psychology and interdisciplinary journals, including the American Psychologist. He is the recipient of a number of awards and scholarships, including the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship which he took up at the University of Oxford. Nikhil has been invited to give talks at numerous events hosted by organisations such as the British Psychological Society and the International Society for Political Psychology. He is the Equality representative in the School of Psychology and has been Athena SWAN committee member at the University of Oxford. Nikhil is open to being featured in print, on TV and the radio.